Meaghan’s ideal missing persons database

I thought I’d do a blog entry about my dream MP database, which doesn’t actually exist and never will. Some databases are better than others, and I can come up with examples of great ones, but none of them meet all the criteria I’m about to name.

In this list I’ll provide some examples of features in different MP databases, including the Charley Project, to demonstrate what I think should and should not be done. I’m not trying to either elevate or denigrate any particular database by doing this, I just want to point some things out, both good and bad.

I invite discussion/suggestions in the comments section about what other people imagine as their ideal database. This list is just my opinion.

Now, the rest of these things I’m going to list are in no particular order, but I want to emphasize one thing first and foremost, the most important thing to me: THE DATABASE MUST QUICKLY REMOVE MPs AFTER THEY’RE LOCATED. Without this, no matter how otherwise user-friendly and comprehensive a database is, it’s worse than useless.

Recently I was updating Charley with cases featured on the Virginia State Police MP page and came across one where the guy disappeared over a year ago — long enough for him to appear on Charley — but further research revealed he’d turned up alive and well ONE DAY after his disappearance was reported. Yet he was still listed as missing with the VSP, over a year later.

There are a few other state databases where I’ve caught long-ago-resolved cases still listed so many times, that I don’t trust those databases anymore. I’ll still use those databases as a source, but unless I have independent verification that the person is still missing, I just won’t post the case. I know that a result I’m probably missing out on posting some actual active cases. But I had to make a judgement call and I decided I don’t want blatant errors like that on Charley, and I CERTAINLY don’t want to cause problems for those no-longer-missing people who might lose out on job opportunities etc. from still being listed as missing.

I admit that I too am guilty of this; I myself have sometimes left cases up months or even years after it was resolved. I kind of have an excuse though: I’m one person dealing with a huge database, without the kind of resources law enforcement databases or even actual nonprofits have. I’m doing the best I can with what I have, but I don’t have as much as a state LE database does. Of course when I learn that a person isn’t missing anymore, I remove the case either immediately or sometimes next time I update.

So I think that’s the most important. But here’s some other criteria that would be met in my imaginary perfect MP database. Be prepared for some rambling:

  1. Add as many cases as you can, and keep adding them promptly as more people go missing. I can’t think of a single publicly available database that has ALL the MPs in any particular state, but it would be nice if they did. The California Department of Justice (CDOJ) database is, I think, the largest, with almost 3,000 cases in it as of this writing.
  2. Include a law enforcement contact phone number. If more than one LE agency is investigating the case, including contact info for both.
  3. Put in a subscription thing where interested parties can be emailed when a new case is added, when a case is resolved, and when an existing case is updated (and also what was updated). I like how NamUs has that feature where you could subscribe to individual cases to be notified when they’re updated or resolved. Unfortunately, they’ve since reduced the number of possible case subscriptions to 50.
  4. There should be some kind of public notice, even if it’s just temporary, if a case is resolved, to let viewers know even if they aren’t signed up for the mailing list.
  5. I like how NamUs cross-references their MPs and their UIDs and has a list of rule-outs, so you can find out quickly that it’s already been determined the MP “Elizabeth Jones” is not the UID “Podunk Jane Doe.” This saves a lot of time and effort for both LE and armchair sleuths. So, if the MP database is also a UID database, that’s a great feature.
  6. Speaking of databases of both MP and UID cases, I think they should be kept entirely separate. Like, the NCMEC search page has different categories you can search for, including various types of missing child as well as “unidentified.” You don’t have to search by category. But if you don’t — say, if you search just by gender — UID cases get listed along with the missing (sometimes over a dozen of them, depending on what your search criteria was) and it’s kind of annoying to have to keep skipping past those.
  7. Speaking of categories like the NCMEC has, if you do them at all — and I don’t think they’re strictly necessary, although they can be helpful — make sure they’re accurate. Be prepared to move a case to a different category if more info somes to light. The NCMEC’s “Lost, Injured, Missing” category (which is supposed to mean people who disappeared as a result of things like drowning or getting lost in the wilderness) on there has only one person, Sierra Lamar, and as you can see from her Charley Project page, she definitely didn’t disappear under those circumstances. Meanwhile, Christopher William Vigil, listed as “Endangered Missing” with the NCMEC, disappeared while hiking with his family (see his Charley Project casefile) and is a much better candidate for the Lost, Injured Missing category. Carlee Jade Morse is listed as “Endangered Runaway” on the NCMEC when she was in fact murdered by her ex-boyfriend. The NCMEC isn’t the only database that sometimes miscategorizes cases; the CDOJ database has Casey Joanna Brooks listed as a runaway when she was in fact witnessed jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge and left a suicide note as well. She didn’t even run away from home before she did this; the Golden Gate Bridge was near where she lived. Years ago I actually contacted the CDOJ to explain this fact and how the runaway categorization, in addition to being inaccurate, would probably be hurtful to her family if they knew about it. They didn’t do anything to fix it though.
  8. Include contact info (an email address, or a contact form, or a phone number, or some combination thereof) so people who find errors in the database can suggest corrections. And, if you get corrections from the public, investigate them, and if they’re legit, FIX THE PROBLEM. I admit that sometimes I don’t correct things as fast as I should. It’s not out of malice. Sometimes the email gets lost in the shuffle; I get so many. Sometimes I just forget. This is one of my many sins. As I said, the Charley Project is definitely NOT an ideal MP database. But I know from my own experience how frustrating it is to take the time to try to correct something in another database and just to just ignored.
  9. If your database accepts tips, include contact info for that too. If it does not accept tips (the Charley Project doesn’t, not that this seems to stop anyone from sending them in), put up a notice explaining this and directing viewers to places that can accept and act on any tips.
  10. Whenever possible, include photos of the missing person, as many as possible, and make them as current as you can. The databases for Washington and Florida have very few photos and that’s frustrating. There are an abundance of sources for photographs, particularly for people who disappeared in the Internet Age, so usually at least one photo can be found. In some cases, if I can find nothing else, I’ve gone so far as to use a person’s mug shot(s). With this case, for example, mug shots are all I have to work with.
  11. If the person frequently wore their hair in different styles and colors, try to provide photos of them reflecting that fact. (I tried to do that with Kara Kopetsky for example.)
  12. It would be a good idea also to include a variety of facial expressions in the photos provided — something that can be difficult, I think, because most people try to smile and look happy when they know they’ve been photographed. I had Brooke Wilberger listed on Charley (she was found murdered in 2009) and had, like, 12 pics of her, and could only find one of her where she wasn’t smiling.
  13. If it’s known, put in the date each photo was taken, or the age the person was in the photo.
  14. Sometimes photos simply aren’t available, and I’d rather a case be listed without a pic than not listed at all. But if there’s no photo, and you can swing it, possibly a sketch artist could meet with the MP’s loved ones to make a drawing of the person. I’ve seen a few examples of that, and it’s certainly better than nothing. Similarly, I think it’s a better idea to put up a poor quality picture or an old picture than none at all. But if it is a really old picture, that should be noted.
  15. If at all possible, at least one of the MP photos should show the person’s teeth. Teeth are so distinctive and so important when it comes to identifying a dead body. A simple photo of a person smiling could be a rule-out right there and then, and save a lot of time: “Can’t be this person; he has buck teeth, and the John Doe clearly doesn’t. Let’s move on.”
  16. If the exact date the missing person was last seen is not known, make a note of that in the casefile somewhere. Don’t just say they disappeared on January 1, Year-of-disappearance, and don’t list the date it was reported as the date they were missing, because sadly too many MPs aren’t reported missing for months or years.
  17. I like having dates of birth available, but I suppose that’s not essential, as long as the age when the person disappeared is accurate. Inaccurate info is worse than no info at all, if you ask me. If the exact age isn’t known, note that somewhere, and put in a range of possible ages.
  18. Adding the MP’s current age, if they’re still alive, would also be nice. It might seem obvious, but some people really don’t seem to realize that if a three-year-old has been missing for ten years, they’d be looking for a living teenager now, not a living toddler.
  19. Both height and weight should be given. If you have to estimate, do it, but again, make a note that it’s an estimate. Anything that has to be estimated, should be noted as such.
  20. Note in as much detail as possible all distinguishing characteristics such as tattoos and scars. Things like skin conditions, even acne, should be mentioned also. Details like the size and color(s), and the exact location — like, upper arm? Lower arm? — are very helpful. If it’s on the shoulder, it would be nice to whether it’s on the side of the shoulder (aka the upper arm), or the top part of the shoulder, or the back of the shoulder (aka upper back). And try to make the description as unambiguous as you can. I’ve seen things like “Tattoos: Harley Davidson on right calf.” Do they mean plain words reading “Harley Davidson”, or a Harley Davidson logo, or a Harley Davidson motorcycle? Inquiring minds wanna know.
  21. If there are a photos available of those tattoos or scars or whatever, by all means, put them in. Drawings of the tattoos, or at least of the logo or whatever the tattoo was inspired by, could be used if there are no photos. If a scar came from stitches or surgery, that’s helpful to know.
  22. If the MP had facial hair, it should be explicitly mentioned in the description, even if all the photos show them with it. If there are photos of the MP with facial hair but he was clean-shaven at the time of his disappearance, mention that in the description too.
  23. Same with piercings. I see a lot of pics of MPs with earrings, but unless the description I find explicitly mentions them, I don’t like to add “pierced ears” to the Charley Project’s “distinguishing characteristics” section of the casefile because, like, what if the piercings closed after the photo was taken, or what if it’s a clip-on earring and not a pierced one? It also might be worth mentioning if a female MP, especially a teenager or adult, has no piercings at all, since the overwhelming majority of American females have pierced ears.
  24. Note all prior bone fractures and also all foreign bits implanted in the body — rods and screws to repair broken bones, artificial heart valves, etc., Even bullets. (One MP on my site has a bullet in his brain!) X-rays would be a good idea, if available.
  25. Similarly, note all dental fillings, implants, etc., as well as any teeth that are missing. Whether or not the teeth have any dental work done, if there are X-rays, those should be added. If the MP was wearing braces when they disappeared, note that.
  26. The racial background is important also. When I first started Charley, and for years afterwards, I usually didn’t say the person’s race. When I decided to change that, I realized just how bad a mistake I’d made by omitting the race — sometimes a person’s race is obvious from the picture, but so many times I wasn’t sure just by looking at them and I had to go and look it up. If a person has a multiracial/multiethnic background, explain this. (Peter Kema, for example, is of Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino and Spanish descent.) I don’t think it’s not really necessary to say things like “of Chinese descent” as well as “Asian” or “of German, Swedish and Spanish descent” as well as “Caucasian”, although it’s something I do.
  27. Also important in the description, I think, is if the MP doesn’t speak English or doesn’t speak it well or speaks with a foreign accent. And, of course, their primary language should be mentioned if it’s not English.
  28. Unless the family objects, note in as much detail as possible an MP’s medical conditions, whether those conditions are visible or not, and what medicines they took and whether they had said medicines with them. This includes mental illnesses as well as physical ones. If they’re classified as disabled, say so. If they need a cane or other assistance to get around, say so. If the MP was involved in illegal drug use, note that, and note which drugs. There’s a difference between someone who just occasionally uses drugs at parties or whatever, and someone who’s an actual addict. If they’re addicted to any substances, including alcohol, that’s a medical condition and should be noted as in #8.
  29. The clothing description should be as detailed as possible — including undergarments, accessories and shoes as well as outer garments, and with brand names and sizes if possible. Beverly Potts‘s case is an example of a very detailed description. I realize that it’s usually not possible to get as detailed a description as Beverly’s, of course, but if it is, better too much information than too little.
  30. If possible, include a photo of the MP wearing those clothes (I have such a photo in Shantina Smiley‘s casefile), or at least a photo of the clothes. With Sky Metalwala‘s case, I have both three photos of him wearing the hoodie, and a photo of the same type of pants he was wearing. In the same vein, try to include some details about any stuff the person had with them when they disappeared, and pictures as possible. I have a photo of Benedetta Bentley‘s overnight bag, which is colorful and attention-grabbing. (You might want to make such pics bigger than the ones I use, though. Mine are usually only 100 pixels high.)
  31. As for the actual details of disappearance, I don’t think an ideal database should be as detailed as mine is in that regard. I’m trying to tell a story as much as I’m trying to impart details about an MP, and I understand that’s not the goal of most databases, and finding and writing up as many background details as I provide takes a lot of time that might be better used towards other aspects of the case listing. Like, you don’t really need pictures of suspects and other parties involved in the case to find an MP.
  32. BUT there are a lot of details that SHOULD be added. Details can show people not only WHERE to look but where NOT to look. If the person obviously got lost in the wilderness or drowned or something like that, that’s important. If a person is believed to have left on their own, that’s important, and if it’s thought they’ve to a particular place, that’s important. If a person has mental illness or dementia and could be somewhere suffering from amnesia, that’s important. If it’s a murder-without-a-body case, that’s VERY important. If there are strong indications of foul play, like a bloody crime scene, that’s important. Vehicle information — including license plate number and VIN number and a picture of the car if you have it — is also important.
  33. Speaking of MPs who left on their own, it would be nice if there was a way you could search for which MPs may be in a particular state or country. The NCMEC search page has this, though it doesn’t seem to be very comprehensive; I searched for Minnesota and then Ohio and turned up nobody, and for California I only found two cases, and in Arizona only three. I searched for the nation of India and found no one, though I know of several cases where the posters say the missing child may be in India.
  34. It would be very convenient if, when you click on individual results within a database search, those individual cases have a permanent link you can bookmark to. Most MP databases have that feature, but not all of them, alas.
  35. If two cases are thought to be connected, each result should have a link to another. I’m not necessarily talking about, say, Ted Bundy’s myriad of still-missing presumed victims (I count twelve of them on Charley), but if multiple MPs disappeared together, or are thought to be together, that should be noted in their file with a link to the other case(s). The NCMEC usually does this, but not always; I recently blogged about two MPs listed on the NCMEC who disappeared together, but there was neither a mention of that or a links to the other case on either of their posters.
  36. If the kidnapper is known, particularly if there’s a warrant out for the person’s arrest, include info about the warrant and photos and a physical description of the perpetrator.
  37. If the MP database, like mine, gathers info from a variety of sources, please, please, please, link to those sources at the bottom. It doesn’t have to be a Wikipedia-style “link each bit of info to the specific article/URL it came from” but just putting a link to the website or database or newspaper would be enough in my opinion. I’m willing to share, but I get very angry and hurt when people take info off Charley and put it on their own sites or articles without attributing it to me. I’m sure other people feel the same way when their hard work is copied without any credit.
  38. The database, if it covers the whole country, should have a listing by state and perhaps by region too, and if it just covers one state, it should have a listing for cases by county.
  39. The database should be browsable — browsing is pretty fun, I think — but more importantly, it should be searchable to the full extent possible. This is really important; the more searchable it is, the more useful it is. For example, it should be possible to get a range of dates — say, anyone missing between October 5, 1985 and January 6, 1992 — as well as a range of ages. Right now, the Charley Project is only searchable by keyword, although I do have lists by state, alphabetically and chronologically to compensate for that. NamUs’s search capabilities are very broad in scope, maybe the best I’ve seen anywhere, although I don’t see a basic keyword search there. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement database’s search page, on the other hand, is sadly lacking in its parameters: it doesn’t have fields for important things like height, weight, and hair and eye color, even if other fields are filled in, it won’t search at all unless you have at least the first two letters of the MP’s surname. Which means it’s really only good for looking up a specific MP. How can you use it to match UIDs then?
  40. The casefiles should have the correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. Now, I know that I myself make typos a lot. When I find out about them, I often wince in embarrassment. But I’ve seen entries in some other databases where the case description is basically semi-literate, to the point where it’s hard to figure out what the person is saying, and it just looks unprofessional. (If you find a typo on Charley, btw, don’t hesitate to email me and point it out. I’m not “bothered” by such emails; rather, I’m grateful for the opportunity to fix the mistake. I mean, like, if you had lettuce stuck in your teeth, wouldn’t you rather someone tell you, than walk around in public like that all day and only find out after you get home and a hundred or so people have already seen it?)

Yeah, that’s all I can think of at the moment. My dream database. If only…