It’s rare that historians uncover something of true and unique value to the modern day persons they write about. But, recently, thanks to Mrs. Ellen (Hokanson) Ouellette, ex-wife and mother of lost fishermen, Hokey Hokanson and Billy Hokanson, I am able to share some of the details of a Department of Justice program, NAMUS, that has the potential to reunite families of mariners lost at sea with some of the more than 1,000 sets of maritime-related human remains that sit unclaimed in Medical Examiners’ offices nation-wide. The process is fairly simple and outlined in my good friend, Doug Fraser’s, Cape Cod Times’ article copied below.
By Doug Fraser
Posted Jan. 22, 2015 @ 2:00 am
In 1990, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued 4,407 people nationwide. On March 25, 1990, however, William Hokanson Sr. and his 19-year-old son William Hokanson Jr. went down off Martha’s Vineyard with the elder Hokanson’s commercial fishing vessel Sol E Mar and were never seen again.
“All the Coast Guard report I have says is ‘Presumed dead. Lost at sea,’ ” said Ellen Ouellette, the elder Hokanson’s ex-wife and Hokanson the younger’s mother. Decades passed and family members largely moved on with their lives. But a relatively new federal database, known as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, holds out promise for many families hoping to finally know the fate of loved ones gone missing, including the hundreds annually across the country who drown at sea and whose bodies may have been found, but never
NamUs began with a 2003 National Institute of Justice decision to fund the increased use of DNA technology in the criminal justice system. With over 40,000 unidentified bodies or body parts in medical examiner and coroners offices nationally, a task force recommended creating an interactive database that allows the public access to what had been the domain of law enforcement. The result: a program to cross reference the national missing persons and unidentified remains databases. NamUs also allows the public to upload personal data into missing persons reports, including typical identifiers like hair color, tattoos, dental records, medical history, and genetic samples, to be compared with data that police, medical examiners and coroners enter on unidentified bodies.
“They realized that manpower was a serious issue in law enforcement and decided to spread it out to the volunteer community,” said NamUs director of communications Todd Matthews.
Matthews was one of those volunteers, spending a decade painstakingly researching news clippings for clues to the identity of a woman’s body his father-in-law had discovered in 1968 while walking in the Kentucky woods. Matthews made good use of the Internet when he finally went online in 1998, scouring missing persons websites until he found a match. DNA testing of the exhumed body matched samples from her sister.
Matthews, who lives in Tennessee, knows the Cape’s most famous unidentified body: “The Lady in the Dunes,” found in Provincetown in 1974. He also understands the power of closing a door on tragedy.
“It confirms they are dead and helps people start the grieving process,” Matthews said.
Since NamUs first came online for public use in 2007, it has helped close 890 missing persons cases nationally, out of 18,942 open cases. The Hokanson family knew the Rhode Island medical examiner had human remains dredged up by a fisherman in 1996 in the area of the Sol E Mar sinking. They had submitted dental records from the two men long ago to see if there was a match, but that proved inconclusive.
“They were examined by a forensic anthropologist, but there was not enough information at the time to make an identification,” said Carol Capron, case manager at the Rhode Island medical examiner’s office.
Forensic investigators typically try to piece the puzzle together in ways one would expect: sex, height and body type, dental records, clothing, injuries and broken bones, scars and tattoos, a process that has been improved with genetic testing.
Last July, at the urging of the Rhode Island medical examiner’s office, Hokanson family members filed a missing persons report on the two men.
“We never considered them as missing persons,” Ouellette said. It may seem like an unnecessary afterthought, 24 years after the sinking, but it was the first step in accessing the NamUs system, creating a file with all the identifying data that can be compared with the unidentified human remains
Over 252 people were listed as missing at sea, their bodies never found, in the U.S. in 2013, according to Coast Guard statistics. There were 440 in 2012. Matthews recounted a case where two police officers died in a flood in Kentucky, swept to their death by a rampaging river. One officer’s body washed up many
miles away in Indiana, but the other body was never found.
“He was never entered as missing. Without that report, the family records, a genetic sample, he could forever be a ‘John Doe’ in wherever the river carried him,” Matthews said.
Ouellette said family members submitted genetic material, using a swab run along the inside of their mouths to compare DNA with samples provided by the Rhode Island medical examiner. Capron said her office recently uploaded information on 25 to 30 unidentified human remains in storage.
“We submitted it on August 16, Billy’s birthday,” Ouellette said of the DNA samples.
In many cases, the cross referencing does little more than rule out bodies or remains, but the data remains in the system, Matthews said. The family has been waiting for a half year now, but Ouellette doubts that the
prospect of actually having something of either man to mourn and bury will heal the wound. Too much time has passed.
“There will never be closure,” she said. “At the time (if they’d found the body), there would have been.”