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Bill requiring missing persons reporting to national database heading to the governor’s desk

PennLive.com logo PennLive.com 1/19/2022 Jan Murphy, pennlive.com

Norma Jean Fritz-Yatsko wakes every morning thinking about her oldest son. He has been missing for over six years.

Where is he? Is he alive? Is he hurt? Will she hear news today that will answer those questions?

Jesse Lee Farber, known as Rex, was 29 when he disappeared in Tamaqua, Schyulkill County. His mother said the last time anyone heard from him was on Aug. 11, 2015, in a phone call to his ex-girlfriend telling her he was being chased by a pack of coyotes in the Sharp Mountain area.

Every day since, his mother has spent searching for answers, chasing down leads, checking out rumors, talking to investigators, speaking to the news media, reaching out to Dr. Phil and victim rights advocate John Walsh, consulting with psychics, grasping at anything to help her find him.

While Fritz-Yatsko has been frustrated with law enforcement’s handling of her son’s disappearance, one thing she believes police did right from the start was enter Jesse’s DNA profile into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs.

Launched in 2008, NamUs is a federally funded national clearinghouse and resource center for information about missing, unidentified or unclaimed persons cases. It’s a tool that law enforcement and families of missing loved ones can use to share information and assist in their search for answers about their family member’s whereabouts.

Currently, police use of this tool in missing person cases is optional. Pennsylvania legislation that Fritz-Yatsko helped inspire would make it mandatory. The state Senate on Tuesday approved House Bill 930 by a 44-5 vote, sending it to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk for enactment. The governor will review the bill when he receives it, a spokeswoman said.

What’s in the bill

The legislation, co-sponsored by Reps. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-Northumberland County, and David Millard, R-Columbia County, would require law enforcement agencies to collect a DNA profile of missing persons within a week and submit it to the state police, which then forwards it to NamUs.

Currently, only 10 states have similar laws – Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia. Legislation in Texas to make it mandatory is pending while in Connecticut, there is a statewide protocol for police that requires its use.

According to NamUs, over 600,000 people are reported missing every year some 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered annually. Pennsylvania ranks 10th in terms of unsolved missing person cases, with 467.

What makes NamUs unique is it allows family members of missing persons and others to contribute information to the database to aid in investigations “making them active participants in the search as a way to help them keep alive the memory of their loved one,” Millard said.

“Public users may submit data that contains personally identifiable information, biometrics, and other case specific information required for criminal justice analysis,” said Sheila Jerusalem, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice. However, she added: “All public case entries are vetted with the appropriate investigating agency prior to being made publicly viewable in NamUs.”

Culver said there is a case of a missing woman named Barbara Miller in her House district that dates back to 1989. She said Miller’s parents have both since died having living their final years not knowing what happened to their daughter.

“There was never any closure for them,” Culver said. “It’s like a life of torture not knowing what happened, how it happened, where she is. There’s just no answers. All of it just remains a mystery.”

She credits Fritz-Yatsko for informing her about NamUs. She and Millard worked on drafting the legislation over a period of two years seeking input from the state police and victims’ advocacy groups.

Along the way, some protections were added to the bill to address situations such as domestic violence victims who purposely are trying to hide from their abuser. During the House debate on the bill, the only concern that was raised was about how long the DNA information remains in the database. Culver said once a case is solved, the person’s DNA data is destroyed.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, threw her support behind the bill seeing it as another tool for law enforcement and families to possibly get answers about someone who has gone missing.

Baker, too, has families in her district that have had loved ones disappear. Forty-four-year-old Shelva Rafte went missing in 2006 in Pittston. Phylicia Thomas went missing in Hunlock Township in 2004.

“The agony you hear from these families is just so difficult,” Baker said. “Every birthday. Every Christmas. For someone to vanish without a trace and you never know why, I can’t even imagine.”

In remarks offered on the Senate floor, Baker called it an added tool that would give hope to families of missing loved ones.

“Forensic science is an indispensable tool for solving crimes and bringing closure to families,” she said. “For the families, today we are offering them hope for the future and hope they can lead their family member home.”

Searching for answers

Fritz-Yatsko quit her job to devote herself full-time to the search for her son who fathered two children. She started a nonprofit called Wheres Jesse to keep his name and face in the public arena while also using it to advocate for other families with missing loved ones.

Along the way, she began to see the significant role NamUs could play in finding answers for families who find themselves in a state of limbo of not knowing what happened to their loved one. About a year after his disappearance, for example, she said she learned that a skull was found about 20 miles away from where Jesse placed his last phone call. Turns out, it wasn’t his or another man who went missing in the same general area.

“The more I learned about it I thought this is silly that it’s not even mandated. What if Jesse’s body was found and they didn’t report it to NamUs? How would it ever match up?” she said. “Proof just kept piling up how important this law is and how much it is needed.”

Jan Murphy may be reached at jmurphy@pennlive.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.

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