Doe Network Searches for Missing Persons

ByABC News via via logo

April 9, 2004 -- When Dana Gonzalez lies down to sleep each night, she can't help but notice the restless ghosts all around her.

"I go to bed at night and I say 'Who are you and why isn't anyone looking for you?' I feel like these families deserve closure," said Gonzalez, a 35-year-old accounts receivable clerk from New Jersey.

Gonzalez is part of a 200-member Internet group known as The Doe Network: International Center for Unidentified and Missing Persons. The group operates a database that has grown to include more 1,000 unidentified people on its Web site,

The site, which boasts roughly 400,000 visitors since it was founded in 1999, is part of the group's effort to match the faces of missing loved ones with bodies of unidentified corpses.

Members of the network volunteer to dig into unexplained disappearances — better known as cold cases — which have received little public attention in recent years.

The Doe Network says there are more than 5,400 of these "official" unidentified disappearances, with some cases as much as 20 and 30 years old.

Generally, Doe Network members are regular people, with no history in law enforcement. They're happy to comb through records and don't mind wading through grisly details such as dental records while in pursuit of the truth. The members try to draw connections between missing persons cases and bodies that have been found, but remain unidentified.

"One case that really has us all — several of us that are almost obsessed with this case — is a case of a young girl who was probably 13,14,15 years old," said Gonzalez. "She had no ID characteristics, no tattoos or scars, but she had deep tan lines, very young," Gonzalez said. "That probably is the one case that has us all up at night."

Looking for Lost Relatives

Guests to the Web site post links to information about their lost relatives. Users can also search a database that has details on unidentified bodies and missing people. For the unidentified bodies, three forensic artists use post-mortem photos to create computer-aged photos or three-dimensional busts to help spark recognition.

Network members also pull additional information from police agency Web sites, old newspaper files, interviews with family members, detectives, medical examiners and missing person's reports to try to connect the dots.

The Doe Network has helped crack 18 cases and most recently, with the help of a Doe member, authorities solved a 1988 missing person's case in Las Vegas, where an unidentified John Doe was identified as John David Clough, a man reported missing from Torrance, Calif., 16 years ago.

"This particular group that we're talking about, they have been able to help us on this one case, and we're hoping they'll be able to help us on more," said Clark County coroner Mike Murphy in Las Vegas.

"This one took a few weeks," Gonzalez said. "It was a quick solve which we don't get too often, with ID by records and fingerprints — a perfect match."

Connecting the Dots

Bobby Lingoes, a police dispatcher for the Quincy, Mass., Police Department, serves as the law enforcement liaison for the network. Lingoes said that when the group comes to a consensus on a match between a missing person and a previously unidentified body, they will contact the local police with a tip.

"It happens when all the parameters fit," he said. "The date the body was found coupled with the date when the person went missing. Scars mark, tattoos, geographical things like how close the body was to where the person went missing."

‘Tent Girl’

Todd Matthews, a 31-year old quality control auditor, serves as the Doe Network's media director. Matthews spends most of his free time focusing on a case in his home state of Tennessee.

Matthews said his first interest in identifying John and Jane Does began in 1987, when his father-in-law told him about his discovery of a woman who had been only known as "Tent Girl." She was discovered in a Kentucky field on May 17, 1968.

Matthews' interest in the case never died, and when he came across the words "Lexington, 1967, missing" during an Internet search in 1998, it led him to the description of a young girl named Barbara, last seen in the Lexington, Ky., area decades earlier.

The dead girl's sister had posted the message Matthews discovered and DNA tests in April of 1998 confirmed that "Tent Girl" was her 10-year-old missing sister, Barbara Ann Hackman-Taylor.

Matthews says his main goal today is to get the word out about the John and Jane Does they're searching for.

"The way we go from here is we keep publicizing," Matthews said. "We submit to law enforcement, try to raise awareness. That cross-pollinates. Communications is more important in a cold case like this. The media is often more important than law enforcement."

While identifying Jane and John Does can be satisfying on many levels, members of the Doe Network say the experience can also be bittersweet

"You're excited and you're happy that you've gotten to solve that case and you got closure for people," Gonzalez said. "And you're sad for their families that, you know, how every little the hope that they've lived with for all those years, that that person was still alive is now gone."

Gonzalez said she and the other members spend hours obsessing over the missing person cases of strangers may be unusual to some, but they say it is for a good cause.

"Somewhere there is a family, or friends, or somebody who is looking for this person and would really like to know what's happened to them," Gonzalez said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events