–By Laura Oles
Alice Almendarez has lived a nightmare few can fathom.
Imagine celebrating a holiday with a loved one, enjoying the simple pleasure of a family gathering, the demands of daily life slowing down for this brief moment.
Now imagine that your loved one disappears without a trace.
This is the pain Alice endured when her father disappeared after spending Father’s Day with her family in June of 2002. One moment he was with them, and then he was gone.
Alice went to the Houston police to file a missing persons report. She followed the instructions of what she was told to do, but adult missing persons cases can be challenging in many ways. Law enforcement officers explained that her father was an adult and that it wasn’t a crime to go missing. In her heart, she knew her father would never walk out on his family in such a way, but small doubts haunted her. What if he had left them? It is a horrible burden to carry as a child.
Alice searched for twelve long years before she would learn the fate of her father.
She later discovered that his body had been found a few weeks after his disappearance, floating in the Buffalo Bayou in Houston, just a few minutes from his childhood home. Early on, she had gone to the morgue asking if they had any bodies matching her dad’s description and was turned away, only to later find out he had been there during the time she was looking for him. The truth had been close and she had no idea.
The one consistent support Alice’s family received was from NamUs, whose mission is to “bring people, information, forensic science and technology together to resolve missing, unidentified and unclaimed persons cases throughout the United States.” Alice reached out to NamUs and was able to identify her father’s remains through their database. NamUs works with coroners, medical examiners, law enforcement and families to create comprehensive case files that can help identify remains previously unidentified. It can provide answers to families who have waited years without word of what happened to their loved ones.
One of the most surprising things to learn is that many law enforcement offices and counties don’t use NamUs. Many don’t even know it exists. NamUs was established in 2007 with the help of the Department of Justice and has grown into a comprehensive resource available at no charge for law enforcement agencies.
There is currently no national law, or law in Texas, that requires any type of law enforcement or coroners offices to report unidentified remains to any database.
This is a huge challenge for families of the missing because there are often important pieces of information that would lead to the discovery of a missing person if only they had been submitted to a central database. Many families have lived the same horrific process once a family member disappears. A missing persons report is filed with the police in the city that they live in but if the body of that person is found in another county, there is no guarantee that this information will be shared or communicated. So many connections are never made, leaving the remains of family members unidentified for years or decades.
If a person goes missing in Dallas and his body is found in San Antonio, the NamUs requirement would help make this connection. If one agency enters the unidentified body into the database but the missing persons report isn’t also entered, the chances of identifying them are greatly reduced. All sides must work together and be connected.
This past Saturday, Alice stood before a crowd at the Missing in North Texas Event at the NamUs headquarters at the University of North Texas and announced her intent to pursue legislation in Texas requiring all law enforcement to enter all missing persons cases into NamUs after 30 days if remains have not been identified. Similar legislation has already passed in Arkansas, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Tennessee and Oklahoma.
Using NamUs would not only benefit the families of unidentified missing–it would also benefit law enforcement on several levels. More cases could be closed and counties would no longer spend excess money on burials because remains went unidentified. A potter’s field is no place for someone’s father, someone’s child, someone’s sister–not when there are resources available to help them return those remains to loved ones. No one should have to wait decades for answers because a valuable resource like NamUs isn’t being used. This law would help change that.
Todd Matthews, Director Case Management & Communications at NamUs, told me, “I’ve seen Alice resurrect herself from total devastation into a powerful advocate for change. As a father myself – I am positive that her father would be more proud that she can even imagine. His passing and her resilience was a catalyst for change.”
Alice has been kind enough to share her story with me in the hopes of bringing awareness to the plight many families of missing people are experiencing as they go through each day without answers. She knows this pain personally and deeply and still carries it today.
“I know the guilt of feeling a moment of happiness, for celebrating a birthday, for celebrating anything when our loved one is no longer here,” Alice said. “My commitment now is to help families who have experienced what I have endured and hopefully pass a state law that will give more families answers.”