http://www.delawareonline.com/article/2011...-to-the-unknownSeeking answers to the unknown
Delaware families have a new chance at closure thanks to a national program that uses a database to solve cases that involve unidentified remains and missing persons
By ESTEBAN PARRA • The News Journal • January 16, 2011
Gerald William Carroll Sr. was not always around for his son.
Carroll and his wife separated when 26-year-old Gerald William Carroll Jr. was a year old, causing the child to be placed in foster care.
But the elder Carroll still tried to stay in touch. He called his son almost daily and sometimes took him fishing near New Castle or at the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.
"I had a great relationship with him," said the younger Carroll, who lives in the Newport area.
"We did a lot of fishing and hung out together. He was always very interested in what I learned in school. He was a basic proud father."
All that ended on Oct. 22, 2001, when the elder Carroll went missing after cashing a check at the Penn Mart Shopping Center near New Castle. He was wearing a red flannel jacket and riding a green mountain bike.
His son never stopped wondering about what happened.
During the first couple of years, he was encouraged when strangers called about fliers he had posted in places his father frequented. But he got little news -- or encouragement -- from police.
So Carroll came up with his own theories. In one, his father goes fishing, slips into the water and drowns. Another has his father, who was a paranoid schizophrenic, going off his medicines and ending up in a hospital. He also has darker possibilities that he will not explain -- other than to say they involve foul play.
"If I do think about it too much, I do become emotional," Carroll said, adding he tries not to drink because it makes the memories sharper. "I really don't touch it too much, but when I do ... I'm everywhere crying about it."
To help people like Carroll, Hal Brown, the deputy state medical examiner director, is leading Delaware into a national program designed to help law-enforcement agencies and medical examiners use a database to solve cases involving missing persons and unidentified remains.
The program is intended to speed up the identification process and comfort people like Carroll and relatives of Anne Marie Fahey, whose remains have been missing since she was killed by Tom Capano in 1996.
Brown thought he got a break in Carroll's case on Jan. 4, when a fisherman spotted a skull on the shore of the Delaware River near the Port of Wilmington. He thought it might belong to Carroll or Kathleen Mohn, who has been missing since Dec. 3, 1999, from Upper Merion Township, Pa.
Though the database ruled them out, Brown remains confident it will help solve more missing-persons cases.
As of Jan. 1, 2011, there were more than 7,550 unidentified persons in the U.S. Department of Justice's database -- known as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System or NamUs -- and more than 5,900 missing persons. In Delaware, 24 unidentified remains were entered into NamUs as well as 44 missing-persons cases.
Carroll was among those asked to take advantage of the system.
All he had to do was bring photos of his father and have DNA swabbed from inside his mouth so information could be entered into NamUs.
The online tool has been up since early 2009 to match unidentified people whose remains are buried in potter's fields or are stored in medical examiners' offices or police forensic labs across the nation. The database also helps locate people who disappeared, either by abduction or by choice.
"This presents a real ray of hope for the future," said Dr. Rich Scanlon, NamUs' regional forensic odontologist based in Lewistown, Pa. Because NamUs has all sorts of information on missing persons or unidentified remains available for police or medical examiners, cases once thought to have been impossible to solve have a chance. "We look at NamUs as a forensic safety-deposit box."
Efforts go beyond database
Brown is not limiting his efforts to using the national database. He is also looking for ways to solve the mysteries locally.
In one instance, Brown had intern Phillip Petty go through microfilm to search for information in a 1965 case in which a skull was found on Woodland Beach near Smyrna. Petty, on his own time, came across a 1964 photo in the Evening Journal -- a predecessor of The News Journal -- that caught his eye.
The photo showed rescue crews searching through Augustine Beach at Port Penn. The story described how three fishermen died in a boating accident. As he read on, Petty learned two of the bodies had been recovered. It is unknown what happened to the third body, that of 21-year-old Shirley James Cox.
Brown's office is now searching for Cox's family to see whether his body was recovered. If it was not, they would like to get DNA samples to try to match it to remains in other states.
"I don't want to put him in [NamUs] ... until I can confirm some of this information," Brown said. "There is certainly a passion among everyone in this office to solve these mysteries of the unidentified and be able to return these remains to their families."Brown's office also is preparing to exhume a body from a potter's field at the Delaware Health and Social Services' Herman M. Holloway Sr. campus. The body of an unidentified woman found in 2002 in an abandoned Wilmington house rests in Plot 563.
But on Friday, Brown was informed a tooth found on the woman provided DNA. Now, Brown will use NamUs to see if there is a link that will identify her.
"If we do identify her, we will exhume her," said Brown. He said the woman's skull was used to make a clay face mold.
Those extra efforts are meaningful to people like Carroll who have been agonizing over solutions.
"I want to know what happened," Carroll said. "I don't want to leave it unknown. I think it would be better. I think I would be able to deal with it a little better."
But even so, when driving through Wilmington, Carroll slows down to look at strangers who resemble his father.
"There's a lot of characters up there that fit his description. If I catch one walking down the road, I always take a closer look."
Unknown proves unsettling
Not everyone is sure about the database.
Shannon Thompson, whose husband Joel went missing during a fishing trip at the Indian River inlet on April 26, doubts it will provide families with any sense of closure.
"In all sincerity, that word is just a lie," she said. "There's nothing that's gonna help in any shape or form. I mean, the people that I know that have lost people out in those waters are still going through the cycle of grief."
Updating the data-collection method is more of a formality than anything useful for families of missing persons, she said.
Police, Coast Guard officials and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control investigated her husband's disappearance, she said, but never updated her on the status of their search. Thompson filed paperwork in September to hold a hearing to officially declare her husband dead so she could collect benefits and pay bills.
The court papers said Thompson died while engaging in extreme fishing, which likely involved tying himself by a safety line to a pole onshore and wearing special cleats to head far out on the wet, uneven rocks of the jetty. He was probably wearing a wetsuit to protect himself from the waves, while leaning out over the water to get his hook where striped bass lurk. All this was done in the dark because that is when the bass are feeding.
"I know darn well that if Joel was on this earth right now, he would not be doing this," Thompson said. She said she participated in having her mouth swabbed by the medical examiner out of a sense of obligation.
Dr. Carol A. Tavani, a board-certified neuropsychiatrist and executive director of Christiana Psychiatric Services, said people whose loved ones vanish often deal with the unknown -- even if all signs point to the person being dead.
"The unknown is always unsettling," Tavani said. "There is always the question of 'Is there any possibility that he is alive or maybe didn't want to come back?' "
Samples give family control
Murder cases in which the body is never recovered are especially hard on families, said Kathleen Fahey-Hosey, sister of Anne Marie Fahey.
Fahey's body was weighted with an anchor and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean off Stone Harbor, N.J., on June 28, 1996.
"It's very difficult to lose someone and never have that sense of peace because it is always hanging out there," Fahey-Hosey said.
In cases when the victim's DNA is not available, it is important to get samples from family members, Brown said. That is because of the recent discovery of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on from the female and enables forensic scientists to match remains to a living maternal-related family member, even if they are separated by generations.
"This now allows us to be able to connect biologically related family to our unidentified remains," Brown said. "And now, with the NamUs initiative, the ability for law-enforcement officers around the country to now be able to communicate, as well as share reports, radiographs, X-rays, photographs, instantly ... this is another tremendous, tremendous advantage."
Fahey-Hosey said she is unsure whether her sister's body will turn up but is willing to provide DNA samples to NamUS.
If something were to wash up, she said, family could bury the remains with their parents and brother, allowing the family to properly celebrate Fahey's life.
"It's giving the family a choice," Fahey-Hosey said. "It allows the family members to have some control over a horrible situation."