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With No Unified Database, Many Murder Victims Remain Nameless

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With No Unified Database, Many Murder Victims Remain Nameless

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With No Unified Database, Many Murder Victims Remain Nameless

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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

A serial killer who committed suicide in an Alaska jail last year confessed to murdering at least 11 people across the country. But Israel Keyes didn't offer any names. And investigators, trying to figure out who he killed, are running into a major stumbling block. There is no unified, mandatory national database for missing persons.

From member station KSKA in Anchorage, Daysha Eaton reports.

DAYSHA EATON, BYLINE: One of the few known victims was Anchorage resident Samantha Koenig. She was selling coffee at an espresso stand outside a gym when Israel Keyes abducted and killed her. Her father, James, a burly man with icy blue eyes, holds back tears as he talks about the ordeal.

JAMES KOENIG: I miss her laugh and her smile and her eyes and hearing daddy come out of her mouth.

EATON: Even though the mystery of his own daughter's disappearance has been solved, Koenig has stayed involved with advocates for missing persons, trying to figure out who else Keyes killed. In a dimly lit back office at the Anchorage Police Department, investigators are piecing together Keyes' travels on a map. They say he may have killed other people in places he traveled to over the last decade, and he traveled a lot - Seattle, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago, among others. Anchorage police officer Jeff Bell says that it's difficult because of the kinds of victims he picked.

JEFF BELL: He claimed that he could look at someone and decide some people just look like they would be more missed than others.

EATON: Bell interrogated Keyes extensively. With only a few exceptions, Keyes took the names of his victims to the grave. And Bell says using multiple existing missing persons databases run by state, county and local officials as well as nonprofits is inconsistent, confusing and overwhelming.

BELL: I remember getting the list of missing people, and it was depressing because there was a printed stack of papers that was at least three inches thick.

EATON: Bell says although it sometimes seems futile, he still rakes through evidence and combs through the killer's home computer, hoping to identify other victims.

BELL: You always feel like you've missed something or that there's going to be an obvious clue that stands out that we missed.

EATON: Bell isn't working the Israel Keyes case alone. The FBI's lead agent is Jolene Goeden. She wishes there were a better option too. Using what they've learned from the Israel Keyes case, Bell and Goeden say it's critical that there is a single, national database for missing adults that everybody uses.

JOLENE GOEDEN: Unlike children, where you have the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there is no such thing for adults.

EATON: But the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is federally mandated and has long-term government funding. The closest thing to that for adults is the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System or NamUs, which is funded by the Justice Department, but it's not required by Congress and doesn't have long-term funding. Todd Matthews helps run the database out of the University of North Texas.

TODD MATTHEWS: A federal mandate would help to bring the compliance and force people to do what they need to do to get the cases into the system, you know, a one-stop shop.

EATON: A one-stop shop, a unified database that local, state and national law enforcement officials want. It's become something of a cause for the father of murder victim Samantha Koenig. He says knowing the fate of his daughter is still a struggle, though.

KOENIG: That's the hardest part of my days anymore, is waking up and reliving it every day in the hopes it's a nightmare, and she's going to come walking through the door any minute.

EATON: But he says knowing is better than not knowing. Estimates put the number of unidentified human remains in the U.S. at around 40,000. Somewhere among them could be Israel Keyes' other victims. For NPR News, I'm Daysha Eaton in Anchorage.


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