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Monday, October 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Local authorities look to community for help in locating missing persons

Tucked away a few screens from the front page of the Spokane Medical Examiner’s website is a list of 22 unidentified human remains. They are those of people ranging in age from a few months to somewhere around 60 to 70.

All but one was discovered between 1961 and 2001. But one body washed up on a bank of the Spokane River just east of the Washington Street Bridge nine years ago.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Sally Aiken said the man should have been identified by now and that she’s certain someone out there knows him.

Although his body had significant distinguishing characteristics – evidence of major surgery on his jaw and a scar near his left eye – he’s remained nameless in death since 2007.

Aiken hopes that will change.

“Some of our unidentified who we are eventually able to be identified came from community tips,” said the longtime forensic pathologist, who along with her colleague, Dr. John Howard, oversee all autopsies for Spokane and most of the surrounding counties. “These tips might register something that people haven’t seen for a while.”

On July 16, Aiken and her team of examiners – along with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and Spokane Police Department – are hoping someone might be able to help them shorten their list of 22 people.

“Perhaps there are people who are missing that we don’t even have the bodies yet,” Aiken said. “Having information in the database will be helpful so we can rapidly do an identification.”

They’re calling it the Missing Person Event. Teams of examiners, police and deputies will help family members of missing people file missing person’s reports, submit DNA, provide photographs and pass along dental and medical records.

Elizabeth Olson, a deputy investigator at the examiner’s office, said this is the first time the department has had an event like this.

“There are thousands of people out there,” she said. “It’s been needing to be done for a long time.”

While the list of unidentified remains is relatively short considering the volume of work the examiner’s office has (about 300 autopsies a year), the list of missing persons who have not been found in any capacity – dead or alive – is staggering.

The examiner’s office didn’t have exact numbers for Spokane County but, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, there were 84,961 missing persons nationwide in 2015.

In the past, concerned citizens would have to turn to milk cartons or “Unsolved Mysteries” to learn of missing persons or spread awareness. Today, a national registry called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System allows police and investigators to log DNA, markings on the body, and dental and other records for anyone to access.

The program was introduced after 9/11, when the need arose to identify people from across the United States and there was little identification to go on. Olson said the program has since spread and is now used by thousands of agencies across the United States, and it’s free to use, even for everyday citizens.

Even with these advances in technology, Olson still receives daily calls from concerned locals hoping their loved one has finally turned up, even if it does mean they’re deceased.

And she hopes community outreach like the Missing Person Event can help find them.

“Nobody is helping these families; nobody is doing anything for them,” she said. “They can’t afford private detectives to find them. A lot of these families are very lost.”

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