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November 3, 2012

DNA database gives hope to families of the missing

Families of missing persons can have a DNA swab taken, sent to an FBI lab, and the information will be entered into a national database that contains DNA of unidentified bodies found.

It was a hot summer afternoon when Denise Porch, resident manager of a southwest Charlotte apartment complex, left a note on her front door.

She’d gone to show an apartment to a prospective resident and would be back by 3 p.m.

That was 37 years ago. Porch hasn’t been seen since.

But Diane Hill still holds out hope that she will eventually learn what happened to her sister that day in July 1975.

And she became a bit more hopeful this week after learning that police have solved the case of Priscilla Blevins, another Charlotte woman who disappeared just three weeks before Porch did. Using a national database, authorities were able to match DNA from an unidentified body to that of Blevins’ sister.

“I have accepted that she’s not coming back,” Hill, now 63 and living in Davidson County, says of her sister. “But you’d like to have something, some type of closure. I hope some day, just like (the Blevins case), that will happen.”

Increasingly, the prospects are improving for families like hers as authorities fine-tune their use of DNA to help resolve missing persons cases that once seemed unsolvable.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department typically fields about 3,000 missing persons reports each year. About 70 percent involve juveniles 13-17 years old.

The overwhelming majority of the cases are solved quickly.

Among them: The confused senior citizen from west Charlotte who planned to drive to church some years ago, lost his way and was found a day and a half later – in a car that had run out of gas in New York City.

“He didn’t know where he was and he kept driving,” says Detective Lee Tuttle, of the department’s missing persons unit.

But a small number of missing people – typically about 20 to 30 annually – still aren’t found after a year, Tuttle says.

The department typically has about 300 open missing persons cases. There are as many as 100,000 people reported missing across the U.S. on any given day, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

About five years ago, Charlotte police began collecting DNA from the family members of missing people, including Porch and Blevins.

The process works like this:

Family members run a cotton swab along the inside of their cheeks. The DNA from those samples is sent to an FBI lab, and the information is entered into a national database.

Meanwhile, coroners and medical examiners around the country are collecting DNA from thousands of unidentified bodies and sending that information to the national database as well.

The FBI says it can’t estimate how many missing persons cases have been solved with the help of DNA data. But the agency says it has enhanced the kinship analysis process in recent years, which has improved the ability to identify bodies.

Last month, authorities found a match in North Carolina that answered a 37-year-old question. The DNA retrieved from a body found in Haywood County in 1985 matched that of Priscilla Blevins, who had been missing since July 1975.

It was the first case that Charlotte police helped solve using the federal database.

“That was a big stepping stone for us,” Tuttle said. “It validates a lot of what we’ve been doing in collecting family reference samples.”

‘It gives hope’

Not all police departments have been as quick to use the program, according to advocates who try to help families find missing relatives.

The DNA from some unidentified bodies still hasn’t been entered into the federal database.

And Monica Caison, founder of the CUE Center For Missing Persons, based in Wilmington, said she still runs across officers in small-town departments who don’t know how to use the federal program – and don’t realize it’s free.

She and her colleagues help to educate them.

“Every day you’re seeing more and more cases solved,” said Caison, whose program has more than 10,000 members.

Joan Scanlon-Petruski, founder of the Charlotte-based Kristen Foundation for Missing Adults, says that DNA is the key tool in solving the cases of people who have been missing for years.

“It gives hope to these families,” she said.

She believes in the technology so strongly, she has taken DNA swabs of her own children and keeps them in a safe deposit box.

Her foundation is named after Kristen Modafferi, a former neighbor and an 18-year-old Charlotte native who left her job at a San Francisco coffeeshop on June 23, 1997, and was never seen again.

‘Constant worry’

It’s not easy for relatives when they get confirmation that long-lost loved ones have died, advocates say.

But it’s better, they say, than not knowing.

“When families are left in that lingering unknown … it’s constant worry that they have to go through,” Caison said. “They can’t go to grief counselors because there’s no body to grieve.”

When bodies are identified, she said, “It stops the trauma because you’re no longer in that state of the unknown. Our hearts and minds cannot live without knowing.”

With the recent identification of Blevins’ body, Denise Porch’s case remains the oldest unsolved one in the Charlotte police department’s missing persons files.

Diane Hill recalls how, as a young girl, her little sister loved playing with dolls and exploring the woods near her family’s home in Denton, about 60 miles northeast of Charlotte.

“She was very happy, very caring about people, very down to earth,” Hill said.

Porch’s disappearance has left the family in pain and suspense. Hill remembers the man who long ago called the family, saying he had Porch and would turn her over in exchange for $10,000. Federal authorities found the con man, but never found Porch.

Hill says the need to know what happened to her sister will forever be with her.

“I don’t think you can ever let it go,” she said. “It will always be there.”

Staff researcher Marion Paynter contributed.

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