For the family and friends of missing woman Denita Hedden, life has become a waiting game.
Each time a body is found in the Southern Illinois and St. Louis area, they hold their breath, simultaneously hoping it's her and praying it's not. Police suspect foul play in Hedden's death but have yet to find her body.
Their situation isn't uncommon. All across the U.S., there are thousands of unidentified bodies lying in county morgues, and thousands more missing people.
But there's no national database that can easily be searched to match up a body with a missing person.
“It’s a huge national problem to get one central repository for all the case data to be compared,” said Illinois State Police Lt. Abby Keller. “The unfortunate reality is that a lot of missing-person cases are matched to unidentified human remains cases … and the likelihood of making a match to human-remains cases increases with the ability to gather DNA from the family members.”
To help see if some of the missing people and unidentified bodies match up, Illinois State Police and the Missouri State Highway Patrol are partnering with police departments across the St. Louis area to collect DNA and update profiles on missing people.
During an event May 19 in Fairview Heights, families of missing people will be able to give DNA samples, which will go into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Officers will be available to check on police reports of missing persons and make sure everything is up to date.
It’s not mandatory to utilize the NAMUS database, which is open to the public to view. The only thing required in Illinois is to enter the case into LEADS, a police system that will alert any officer in the country that a person is missing if they run the person's name through the system.
But LEADS isn’t easily searchable, Keller said. If a coroner finds skeletal remains, the coroner can’t go into the system and run a search to see if a missing person matches the demographics of the victim. In NAMUS, however, they can do that.
“It’s a huge national problem to get one central repository for all the case data to be compared,” Keller said. “The missing-person side of things is handled by law enforcement, and the skeletal side is handled by the coroners. There have to be mutual efforts between the two to make matches, and NAMUS helps do that.”
The missing-person event runs from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the St. Clair Square Mall in Fairview Heights and at the Jennings, Mo., State Office Building.
“Anyone who has a family member missing, we want them to come in … and make sure we have the most recent information,” Keller said.
She encourages families to bring in dental records, medical records or any photos that haven’t previously been provided to law enforcement. Some people may think they have a missing-person case filed, but there’s no record of it, said Fairview Heights Police Chief Nick Gailius. In that case, officers will help the family create a report and get it to the proper authorities.
The metro-east area has at least 36 missing people. Officials say it's hard to come up with a definitive number, because there's not one place where everyone is listed, and State Police can't pull the data from LEADS. There also are at least six unidentified juveniles missing, four from Madison County and two from East St. Louis.