LSU FACES lab compiling missing persons database
MONROE (AP) — Claxton Mark Mayo was involved in a traffic accident on Interstate 20 on March 30, 2011. Surveillance footage shows him entering a Ouachita Parish truck stop, but the cameras never filmed him leaving. He was reported missing to the Bienville Parish Sheriff’s Office more than two years ago and has never been found.
Now his case joins more than 200 others in the missing persons database operated by the FACES Lab at Louisiana State University.
Director Mary Manhein and her staff are working with local law enforcement agencies across Louisiana to compile a database of all the state’s missing and unidentified people.
“Nobody is going out and aggressively searching for these cases like we are,” Manhein said. “We’re the only state that has an effort on this kind of scale.”
FACES is an acronym for Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services. The lab has been compiling the database since 2004. It has 236 Louisianans in its missing person database and 120 unidentified bodies from Louisiana.
The lab also has 31 out-of-state people in its database and assists other states during disasters such as the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and hurricanes.
In 2006, the legislature established the lab as the Louisiana Repository for Unidentified and Missing Persons Information Program. The law also secured funding for the lab through LSU’s budget.
Unidentified bodies found in the stte are sent to the lab for analysis. Once there, researchers take DNA samples and note any identifiable features. The DNA samples are added to the FBI’s database to search for matches.
Using the skull, hair and other information from the bodies, lab workers reconstruct faces in clay as a realistic portrait of what the body looked like before decomposing, which can help with identification.
Lab workers can perform similar procedures based on photographs to age people who have been missing for decades.
Manhein said her lab might receive anywhere between 40 and 50 new cases a year. She has six full-time workers on staff and eight LSU graduate students working on the project.
“I’m driven by this. It’s so important to me to get these cases in a central database,” Manhein said. “I have a lot of compassion for family members that are grieving for loved ones who are missing.
“I’m very proud of our program. It’s successful because of the staff. For us, it’s not a job; it’s a lifetime commitment.”
A HELPING HAND
Manhein and her work recently made news in Shreveport by helping identify the charred remains of Ann Bond, a woman police believe was murdered by her husband. Bond failed to report to work on Nov. 14, and evidence at the house led police to believe she was missing.
Investigators found badly burned remains several days later near a Webster Parish bayou. Manhein worked with a forensic dentist to identify the remains as Bond’s.
Louisiana State Police Trooper Albert Paxton said most missing persons investigations are handled on locally. However, troopers will take over cases if the local agency requests help.
Parishes with larger populations generally have the manpower to handle such cases themselves, but smaller rural parishes might need assistance, Paxton said.
“It depends on the agency and how many resources they have,” Paxton said. “We will take over investigations if they ask us to, but we’ll still work closely with the local agencies.”
Missing persons cases can be complex, and there’s no clear-cut formula for solving them, Paxton said.
“Every situation is different, and one variable could change how it’s worked,” Paxton said.
If the state police do take a case, it belongs to the investigator for the rest of his or her career. Paxton said after an investigator has exhausted all leads, the case becomes cold, but that doesn’t mean it disappears.
“The case is always there and they know it’s there,” Paxton said. “It never gets shelved.”
Paxton said new technology like DNA and the FACES Lab have provided police with great tools for taking fresh looks at some of the cold cases.
The FACES Lab has closed 34 cases in its database. The oldest case FACES workers have help solve was 32 years old, but they’ve also had success with several 20 year or older cases.
Manhein and her team are visiting all the parishes and collecting cold cases to add to the database. Manhein said her lab’s work is becoming more well-known to law enforcement, but some of them still don’t know to call the lab for help.
She said the lab still has a lot of work to do in the New Orleans area and areas of southwestern Louisiana. Those areas were hit the hardest by devastating hurricanes, which scattered people and destroyed evidence.
Manhein said the lab has a good working relationship with local agencies because the first step to finding a missing person is a report to local agencies.
“A lot of these cases get solved through the tenacity of detectives,” Manhein said.
However, missing people can also check the FACES database or contact the lab to request help. The lab takes as much information about the person as they can to add to the profile in the database.
The lab also requests DNA samples from family members to cross-check with unidentified bodies. Manhein said it’s important families know their DNA will only be checked against missing or unidentified people and will not be used in criminal searches.
She said the most important thing for the lab now is to let the public know the lab’s services are available to try and reconnect them with their missing loved ones.
Crime Stoppers has actively been trying to solve missing persons cases and known victims of unsolved violent crimes. The organization has posted billboards in different parts of the state, but has also formed a unique system of asking inmates for their help in solving these crimes.
Baton Rouge Crime Stoppers Executive Director Sid Newman said Louisiana is the first state to put playing cards with the mug shots and case information of missing people and victims in state prisons. They are the only cards allowed in the prisons, thanks to the efforts of Department of Public Safety and Corrections Sec. James LeBlanc, according to Newman.
The cases from the decks come from the FACES Lab as well as different state and local law enforcement agencies.
Since the deck hit prisons two years ago, anonymous tips from inmates have helped close at least eight cases, Newman said.
“A lot of times, inmates will brag about what they did. You never know who might be listening,” he said.
Crime Stoppers is gathering new cases for a second deck, scheduled to be released early next year. Newman said the organization will once again look to the FACES lab for cases to put on the cards.
Another goal for the group is to get the new deck put into parish jails as well as state prisons.
“If you solve one case, look at the closure you’ve given to that family. At least they know their loved one has been found,” Newman said.