SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Authorities are urging Southern California residents with missing family members to give DNA samples to try to find them among unidentified human remains.
In Orange County, the Sheriff's Department Coroner Division is hosting an event Saturday to try to identify the missing by speaking with their relatives and collecting photographs, dental records and DNA swabs.
Similar events have been held in Michigan and New York and are becoming more common across the country as investigators rely on ever-improving DNA technology to make connections between those reported missing and unidentified remains.
"We knew we had this problem — we have a terrific DNA lab capable of doing incredible DNA testing, getting profiles from decomposed bodies, etc. But that is only of so much use if you don't have families to compare it to," said Dr. Barbara Sampson, chief medical examiner of New York City, which drew 100 families to an event last year and has since solved five of these cases.
There are 10,000 unidentified bodies in a national database started in 2007 to try to help solve these cases, said Todd Matthews, director of case management and communications for the National Missing & Unidentified Persons System.
Part of the challenge is relatives don't always report loved ones as missing, at times because they are afraid to go to police. And someone may have disappeared in a different place than where family is located, or where they lived.
At the California event, relatives will be urged to provide cheek swabs so DNA samples can be used to create a profile that could be matched against unidentified remains, locally or elsewhere.
"It doesn't matter if your loved one went missing in Michigan, we could potentially be helping them here," Allison O'Neal, a supervising deputy coroner in Orange County, California, said of family members of the disappeared.
In Michigan, the State Police began hosting similar events in 2011, and since then the agency has identified 45 sets of remains, said Detective Sgt. Sarah Krebs, who is in charge of the missing persons coordination unit. Authorities recently solved the case of a teenage girl who went missing in 1988 after her mother attended a DNA samples event in 2014, she said.
Sheila Tubbs, 65, is hoping she might get answers by giving her own DNA sample this weekend in Orange County. Her brother Gary Patton disappeared two years ago on a trip from his home in Westminster, California, to photograph whales in Mexico.
The family has posted fliers, gone down to trace his journey and hired a private investigator. While Tubbs doesn't believe he's still alive, it's hard to know for sure, she said.
"Without a body, you always have to be hopeful. You always have to think in the back of your mind: Who knows?" she said. "To bring this up to the forefront again, you never know, there might be some connection. Somebody might know something, and that would be huge."