For nearly a decade, the remains of a female homicide victim discovered in Wilkinsburg have been stored in the Allegheny County morgue, awaiting what she had in life but lost in death -- an identity.
The mummified remains of another unidentified woman were found in Homestead in 2000; the cause of her death was undetermined. The body of a third woman, the victim of a drug overdose, was discovered in the Allegheny River near the Fox Chapel Yacht Club in 2003.
Those three mysteries are among the 40,000 cases of unidentified human remains that are stored in the offices of the nation's medical examiners and coroners. Just as sobering: on any given day there are as many as 100,000 active missing person cases in the United States.
To deal with what it has termed a national "mass disaster over time," the National Institute of Justice has developed two new databases to more efficiently match information about unidentified remains to missing persons.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, known by the acronym "NamUs" -- available on the Internet at www.namus.gov -- is the first national repository for records about missing persons and unidentified dead people, including both the Unidentified Decedents Database and the Missing Persons Database.
Also unique to the system is the access it grants to the general public, which NIJ views as a valuable asset in helping to solve cases. By entering characteristics such as sex, race, distinct body features and dental information, anyone can search the Unidentified Decedents Database, where information is entered by medical examiners and coroners.
And the Missing Persons Database contains information that, once verified, can be entered by anyone. The site also provides links to state clearinghouses, medical examiners and coroners, victim assistance groups and pertinent legislation.
The unidentified remains database has been online since 2007; the missing persons site has been up since January. NIJ is now working on software that would automatically search each database for matches.
Nationally, there are now 1,354 missing person cases in the system. Pennsylvania has 25 open missing person cases in the system -- 12 men and 13 women.
Those numbers will grow exponentially as more cases are added by law enforcement agencies, clearinghouses and the public, said Richard Mac-Knight, NamUs regional system administrator responsible for Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
The oldest missing person case listed for Pennsylvania is that of Curtis Eutsey, of Mount Pleasant, who was 18 when he was last known to be alive on Jan. 1, 1992. Today, he would be 35. According to his case listing, "Curtis left his girlfriend's residence with two unknown individuals."
The only other Western Pennsylvania case currently listed is that of Lonnett Jackson, 46, who was last seen on April 11, 2006, "at approximately 11 a.m. at her residence in the vicinity of the 5100 block of Chaplain Way in Hazelwood." Also in the listing: Ms. Jackson has a medical condition and needs medication.
Ed Strimlan, chief forensic investigator for the Allegheny County medical examiner's office, said the county's three cases of unidentified remains have been included for years in other national databases. About six months ago, the office also entered those cases into NamUs.
The results surprised him.
"We got about 10 to 15 calls from multiple states about different possibilities. None of them panned out, but at least we were able to [exclude them]."
Some queries came from law enforcement agencies. Others came from citizens who volunteer their time to groups like the Doe Network, an Internet-based volunteer clearinghouse of missing persons and unidentified bodies. Because the public, including families of the missing and other advocates, has access to NamUs, he said, there is great potential for increased success in identification.
Joni Lapeyrouse, of Pensacola, Fla., couldn't agree more.
"Allowing average people to get on there is going to take a load off police officers who don't have time to go and search for every cold case," she said. "Lord knows I've done enough searching on the Internet."
For years she's been trying to find out what happened to her aunt, former Erie resident Nellie Florence Cornman Flickinger.
In March 1979, at age 30, Ms. Flickinger left for California with a man to get her troubled life together, promising she'd return for her five children, ages 6 to 12. She was never heard from again.
In July 2007, Ms. Lapeyrouse contacted the Doe Network, which the next day reported a possible match with unidentified female skeletal remains discovered in 1982 in a drainage ditch northwest of Sacramento. In addition to hair color, height and age, the biggest match between her aunt and the remains was a metal plate screwed into bones of the right leg.
The remains are now at the University of North Texas Center For Human Identification in Fort Worth, which is seeking to extract DNA from a femur and tooth in hopes of matching it to DNA provided by Ms. Flickinger's relatives.
On Thursday, after learning about NamUs and surfing the sites, Ms. Lapeyrouse asked Erie police to help her enter Ms. Flickinger's case into the missing person database.
In the meantime, she searched NamUs's unidentified remains database using her aunt's physical characteristics and found a potential match in Arizona. She contacted the law enforcement agency involved in the case but learned that woman's DNA didn't match anything in another national database, where that of her aunt's relatives also is stored.
Still, NamUs is a godsend because it provides the public with the opportunity to help search for answers to such painful mysteries and does so in an efficient way.
That is the goal, NamUs's Mr. MacKnight said.
"It's very important for the loved ones of missing persons. They can't start the grieving process until they know what happened," he said. "Even if it's years later and the body of their loved one is located, it lets them begin the grieving process."
Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1968.