By Sarah Rafique, Arezow Doost and Josh Hinkle

KENEDY, Texas (KXAN) — After driving down a country highway with open fields surrounding us, the buildings in the distance began getting closer to one another as we approached downtown Kenedy. The town is 60 miles southeast of San Antonio. Population: 3,300.

In Kenedy, people know each other and can quickly spot an outsider. That’s what happened to our team of KXAN investigators as we walked downtown, past alleyways and empty, abandoned buildings.

We were looking for a one-story house just a few blocks away. It’s where James “Jamie” Mayberry, who was 35 years old at the time, was last seen just before midnight on April 1, 1999. A state police report lists him as a “cross-dresser,” and his family said the town wasn’t used to this lifestyle, which could have put him in danger.

“They didn’t want no part of it in a small community like this,” said Mayberry’s younger brother, Terry Mayberry. “I think it was brushed under the table, and no one wanted to do anything about (him disappearing).”

Now, it’s Kenedy’s only unsolved missing persons case. The shortfalls led KXAN investigators to look closer into why Mayberry vanished and examine resources law enforcement could be utilizing to get better results. But, our five-part investigative docuseries, “Mayberry Texas,” isn’t just a story about one cold case.

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Over nine months, we uncovered that law enforcement isn’t always submitting information in every case to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a federal database that was created in 2007. And, it has already prompted one state lawmaker to reconsider changes in reporting requirements.

The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System was created to help law enforcement and families of missing persons. NamUS says more than 600,000 people go missing annually in the U.S. and while many are located quickly, there are 4,400 unidentified bodies found every year.

The NamUs database, which is housed at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, uses a combination of fingerprints, DNA profiles and dental records, to gather and verify material that can be matched with similar unsolved cases. Members of the public can also log onto the website and look up cases by name. Each missing person’s profile includes photos and information about when they were last seen, what they were wearing and other physical attributes or unique identifiers, such as tattoos or scars.

NamUs is consistently updated with new information and, with the help of forensic science and the public, 21,048 missing and unidentified persons cases in NamUs have been resolved, with 1,471 of them from Texas. But, we found in some cases, like Mayberry’s, it is up to families or advocates to send information to NamUs if law enforcement hasn’t.

NamUs didn’t exist when Mayberry went missing, but the San Antonio-based Heidi Search Center kept up with his case and eventually entered it into the federal system. The center closed in January 2018 due to too many cases and not enough funding. Its latest executive director, Dottie Laster, said it donated its building to another organization under the agreement that they keep all their case files.

Laster, an expert in human trafficking, invited KXAN investigators to spend hours digging through 27 years worth of files. One of the boxes contained dozens of pages of documents in Mayberry’s case, including original case notes, handwritten search rosters, maps of search locations and detailed logs of what searchers found during their excursions.

The notes indicate the Heidi Search Center entered Mayberry’s case into NamUs in 2010 and updated his profile to include information like how he is a “cross-dresser,” has pierced ears and wears a black wig.

“Every piece of information in a NamUs file can be searched so any family member or medical examiner, corner or law enforcement agency could come into the NamUs database and search for potential matches based on something as simple as the tattoo,” BJ Spamer, executive director of operations at NamUs, told KXAN during a visit to the organization’s headquarters in Fort Worth.

Family members can also submit DNA and dental and medical records to NamUs. Those records aren’t open to the public but are vital in helping close cases by linking the DNA of a missing person’s family member with a body that is unidentified.

Once families submit a sample, analysts can start matching the those DNA profiles to 12,687 unidentified bodies. One of the documents KXAN found in Mayberry’s file shows that in 2013, the center helped Mayberry’s sister, Linda Salas, submit DNA to NamUs. As a result, human remains for 17 different unidentified bodies have been compared to Mayberry’s records, although none of them were matches.

“It’s never too late if we have family who are willing to provide DNA samples or specific data about the missing person case to get that information in the system and the database,” Spamer said.

‘No central repository for DNA’

During his very first term in 2001, Texas House Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, helped push through a law that requires all Texas police to submit DNA that’s collected in high-risk missing persons cases to UNTHSC in Fort Worth. Officers can not only submit DNA taken from a missing person’s belongings, but also samples from family members in cases where the disappearance is suspicious or their location is unknown for more than 30 days.

Lance Idol and his family join then-Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, during a bill-signing ceremony in 2001. (Texas House of Representatives)

Llano resident Lance Idol testified in favor of the law nine months after his 15-year-old daughter went missing on June 14, 2000. His daughter was listed as an endangered runaway and was found a year later in New York, according to Round Rock Police.

At the time, Idol feared the worst. As he testified in favor of the DNA bill, he wanted to know what would happen if his daughter went missing in Round Rock, but her body was found hundreds of miles away in El Paso. He was troubled to learn there was no system in place to link the two.

“There’s no central repository for DNA. There was no place whereby the relatives of missing persons like ourselves can go and voluntarily submit a sample of their DNA,” Idol said as he testified in front of lawmakers in 2001.

Idol said UNTHSC was a good fit for housing the new database because the school was already using DNA to help the Texas Attorney General’s office determine paternity in child support cases. The bill became law in 2001, and six years later NamUs set up shop.

Now, 18 years later, KXAN reached out to Geren to ask why Texas law enforcement is not taking advantage of certain features in NamUs, such as uploading fingerprints or dental records.

“We’re a state that doesn’t require law enforcement to be – to participate in NamUs and the reason that we don’t is because they already do,” Geren told KXAN.

We found that’s not happening. New York, Tennessee, Illinois, Michigan, and more recently Oklahoma and New Mexico, have passed laws requiring police to report all missing persons cases to NamUs within a certain timeframe. But, in Texas, it’s not a requirement, despite NamUs being housed in Fort Worth.

KXAN wanted to know how many active missing persons cases aren’t in NamUs, but could benefit from having public profiles. The numbers we got back after multiple open records requests indicate thousands of active missing persons cases haven’t been uploaded to the NamUs system.

As of January, there are 5,628 active missing persons cases in Texas in which the person went missing sometime after 1998, according to information the Texas Department of Public Safety provided KXAN. But, NamUs only lists 1,264 Texas missing persons cases in its database, according to its website.

Since Geren was behind the 2001 DNA law and NamUs is in his district, KXAN asked him why thousands of missing persons cases aren’t entered into the federal resource. He told us since law enforcement submits DNA in high-risk missing persons cases, he assumes they also submit dental records and fingerprints. Now, after KXAN informed him that isn’t happening, Geren tells us he will explore the possibility of legislation requiring Texas police to report certain details to the system.

“If we need to be part of NamUs in order to get police to submit the stuff, then we’ll carry a bill and do that,” Geren said.

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DPS confirmed agencies aren’t required to enter cases to NamUs, but said the state utilizes it as a resource to search for information it doesn’t already have on file.

“It is a way for them to give additional exposure to unsolved missing and unidentified (person) cases,” DPS said in a statement to KXAN.

We found DPS has made even fewer active missing persons cases publicly available on its own online bulletin of missing persons. The bulletin includes a photo, name, age, race, date of birth and basic circumstances surrounding a person’s disappearance, but information is only posted if police or a family member fills out a form requesting the information be publicized.

KXAN analyzed all 720 profiles on the state’s website and discovered some errors in the information, such as incorrect races and ages. The two-page form that families and law enforcement must submit in order to add someone to the bulletin says they agree to hold the agency harmless “for any error of omission” due to “misinformation” supplied to the agency.

After our interview, Geren told us he would reach out to NamUs to see what can be done to make sure it “is being used effectively by DPS.”

“(NamUs has) offered to look through any DPS cases not currently in NamUs to see what can be done to help,” Geren’s office told KXAN in an email.

KXAN also hit roadblocks when looking into success rates of cases in Texas. Since 1998, there have been more than 1 million missing persons cases, according to DPS data we analyzed. More than 99 percent of them are no longer active, but DPS said it doesn’t track details about each closed case’s outcome.

“Unless we make contact with each law enforcement agency we do not know the true disposition of each case to know if they were found alive or deceased,” DPS told KXAN in an email.

Statewide, there are 2,698 law enforcement agencies, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. It could take months and the costs could add up if we sent open records requests to each agency, asking them to look up the status of every single missing persons case.

Tracking down initial investigators

More than 20 years after Mayberry’s disappearance, there’s still several unanswered questions. KXAN investigators started looking into the case by requesting his file with the Kenedy Police Department and the Texas Rangers. But, when we only received two pages of basic information from each agency, our team spent a week visiting key locations and knocking on doors to track down people who could provide insight into law enforcement’s investigation back in 1999.

We followed the initial steps leading up to Mayberry’s disappearance and subsequent search efforts. Mayberry’s brother and niece, Gina Littles, retraced the path they desperately scoured for his body.

They also showed us the family home where Littles, who was 18 years old at the time, was the last person to see him. She says she heard someone knock on the door and Mayberry left in a truck with a man with a “Mexican accent” who wanted to take him out to get a beer. Littles says he didn’t initially want to go, but eventually decided to. Mayberry never returned.

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Through our own investigation, we learned the Heidi Search Center spearheaded a five-day search for Mayberry. Laster said, even though the nonprofit is no longer open, it is important to maintain files in the event that one day the information needs to be used in court.

As we dug further into the case, we also faced challenges because the police chief who initially investigated it died in 2014. We ended up tracking down the Texas Ranger who assisted 20 years ago. She retired in 2008, but still remembers some details.

“We searched some places that you know, we heard rumors about looking at the river, a couple crossings at the river and different things like that, and nobody came up with any information,” former Texas Ranger Marrie Aldridge told KXAN. “In cases like that, what you can hope for is that somebody gets in trouble somewhere, in a bind, and says, ‘Well, you know, I have information on this, if you help me out,’ that kind of thing, and that never happened.”

Now, after KXAN reached out to Kenedy’s new police chief, Rick Ashe, he says his department is giving the file a fresh look. We interviewed Ashe and a current Kenedy detective who told us there’s a witness they want to speak with, but can’t find.

Diana Perez, 41, was listed as a suspect in the initial report, but police are now considering her a witness. KXAN investigators backgrounded her and learned after spending more than a decade in prison for aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping, Perez moved back to that area. Just hours after talking to the detective who couldn’t find Perez, KXAN investigators tracked her down.

“You can get off my property right now is what you can do,” Perez told us when we asked to speak with her about Mayberry’s case. She quickly added, “We have a right to bear arms and I’m not scared to use them, so get off my property right now.”

We shared a screenshot of the video of that encounter with the Kenedy Police Department, but haven’t heard back. We’ve reached out to the agency since then and still have not received a response.

Mayberry’s family all moved out of Kenedy after he went missing, but the case still remains on their minds today.

“In this small community, how can a person be missing like that and no one knows nothing and no one seems to care?” Terry Mayberry asked.

Catalyst is a specialty unit within the KXAN investigative team focused on “digital-first” storytelling that aims to make a positive change in society. The group takes a multi-platform, innovative approach to each project and rotates among various investigators. Josh Hinkle, Sarah Rafique, Arezow Doost and Andrew Choat are the investigative journalists behind “Mayberry Texas.”

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