Texas is one step closer to requiring the use of a national database which uses fingerprints, DNA and dental records to solve missing and unidentified persons cases. Ten states have passed laws mandating police and medical examiners to enter case details to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System or NamUs – but not Texas, even though it’s based in Fort Worth. Now two Texas families and a newly elected lawmaker are determined to help others looking for loved ones.
HOUSTON (KXAN) — Standing on the side of a packed street in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, David Fritts held his son’s picture and talked to anyone who would listen.
The photo was a more recent one of Joseph smiling. Fritts would show it to shop owners along the border and people crossing from Texas.
He would tell them that he was 5’10”, with brown hair and brown eyes and was last in the Laredo area.
“It’s really hard to describe the feeling of looking for your son with a picture and showing it to people … at one moment you’re determined and the other you feel so vulnerable,” the father described. “A lot of people were so kind … really caring people saying, ‘Oh I’m so sad,’ and they would look at the picture and say, ‘Oh, that’s your son, isn’t it?'”
He would make the trip countless times, even going to Costa Rica because Joseph loved to surf.
“Weeks turned into months,” Fritts said. “As time passed, especially after his brother Jordan’s birthday … we were all realizing how dire it was.”
A Marine’s struggle
Joseph was Fritts’ middle child.
“He was so full of life and had so many great friends and always lit up the room. He was just such a character,” he said, smiling.
Fritts recalled how he excelled in college and then how proud he was when he joined the Marines.
“Joseph was the rough, tough little buffed-up guy, you know. Even in the Marines, he was number one in that whole class, as far as physical activity, you know. But it’s still tough, you know. It’s still mentally and physically tough, and Joseph didn’t always smile in pictures, but that one he was definitely smiling after boot camp. He was so happy to have graduated,” Fritts said, pointing to a picture of Joseph in uniform.
Joseph would only serve two years before he was honorably discharged. Fritts explained that he was injured and suffered a head injury from an incident involving an ammo box at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
“Actually, made him have a seizure. So, although he wanted to stay there was really no way he could, you know, be on the frontlines,” he explained.
Joseph came back home to Houston and worked in oil and gas before becoming a financial advisor.
Fritts said during that time he was dealing with some marital problems which lead to depression and then opioid addiction.
“One day he decided he needed to get away, which I just — I encouraged him, as well, just to have a trip, you know, try to clear his mind. He went to South Texas and that was the last I’d heard of him,” Fritts said.
It was October 26, 2017.
Joseph had let his dad know that he was going to Mexico near the Laredo border and even shared his location information.
Several days passed where no one could reach Joseph. Fritts said that’s when he started to worry.
“We always talked to each other. We were really close … so I knew something was wrong,” he recalled.
His family filed a missing persons report on Nov. 3 with the Houston Police Department. Fritts then drove to San Antonio to check with the Mexican Attorney General if Joseph had used his passport and crossed the border.
He had not.
Fritts then drove to Laredo and ended up finding Joseph’s car at a shopping center at the border, but there were no signs of his son.
His family then filed missing persons reports in Laredo and Mexico.
A statewide problem
“This is really a difficult situation for a parent to be in and really just consumes you in every way,” Fritts explained.
After almost two years of searching, on Sept. 20, 2019, Fritts finally got the call from Houston police telling him that Joseph’s body had been recovered in the Rio Grande River in Laredo.
Joseph was 31 years old.
“I had no idea he had passed away and they found him in the river — one time I remember just sitting on the river near where I found his car with tears in my eyes,” he recalled.
The family was told that his body was found two days after the first missing persons report was filed.
“The cause of death was actually called drowning. But my son is bi-racial. He’s half Hispanic and white and the coroner told me … they didn’t do any toxicology reports because they thought he was an illegal alien,” he said.
No one is talking to each other
Joseph’s DNA was required to be entered into a database maintained by the FBI known as the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, when he disappeared.
Texas law enforcement and medical examiners aren’t required to enter information in every case to another database, which actually started in the state. Even family members can check it.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System or NamUs, based in Fort Worth was created in 2007 to help law enforcement and families solve cases using fingerprints, DNA profiles and dental records.
It’s managed by the University of North Texas Health Science Center, UNTHSC, which also has a separate forensics lab.
NamUs is updated regularly by those using it, including family members who can search the website.
Fritts said if the medical examiner in Laredo entered details about Joseph’s remains in the database, he would have found him because he was checking regularly.
“If Joseph’s brown hair, brown eyes, his weight had been entered … I wouldn’t have been tortured for two years,” Fritts said.
He had put Joseph’s information into NamUs after learning about how it’s a resource available to families looking for missing loved ones.
The family later submitted its members’ own DNA to NamUs, which was cross-referenced with Joseph’s in CODIS, and there was a match.
“If everybody was required to enter information in NamUs, then everybody would use it,” Fritts said. “It would have meant I would have found Joseph sooner.”
The Houston Police Department confirmed that Joseph’s case wasn’t put into NamUs after his missing persons report was filed by his family.
A spokesperson with the department said since Joseph had a prior criminal history and didn’t appear to a court hearing at the time, he was considered a fugitive and his missing persons case was closed.
When asked if the department utilizes NamUs on missing persons cases now, the spokesperson said that NamUs is a great tool, and the department is trying to figure out the best way to use it.
“Regrettably when we were notified of Mr. Fritts’ disappearance in 2018 he was already deceased according to the time line of events. Our sincerest condolences to the parents and family of Joseph Bradley Fritts,” said Jose Baeza Jr., an investigator with the Laredo Police Department.
He did not provide additional details and explained that the department does not currently utilize NamUs.
KXAN also asked the Webb County Medical Examiner’s office in Laredo about Jospeh’s case but has not gotten a response back yet.
12 years of grieving
Across town in another Houston neighborhood, Joseph’s story and his father’s heartache sounded too familiar.
“I know what it feels like and it’s the worst feeling I’ve ever felt in my life,” Alice Almendarez said. “I don’t want anyone else to go through that. I want this to change. I want this to stop.”
It took her family 12 years to find her father, John Almendarez.
“When somebody is missing there’s never a funeral. There’s never healing. It’s always the wondering and lingering and the what-ifs. It’s 12 years of grieving — 12 years of not knowing — 12 years of torture,” she said.
The family had filed a missing persons report in June 2002 after he disappeared. The 42-year-old’s body was found the next month near his home in a bayou and held in the county morgue.
“Houston Police Department didn’t communicate their missing persons reports with the county morgue,” Almendarez said. “Our county morgue kept my father for 2 years and then buried him unidentified.”
NamUs wasn’t around yet, but years later when it was created, the medical examiner had put his unidentified remains information into the database.
“You had his unidentified body information, but we didn’t have him listed in there as a missing person. So, if by chance law enforcement were to go in there and try to make a match, they wouldn’t have been able to,” she said. “If they would have input his information and put that he had a scar … from having his appendix taken out or he was this height,-with this weight, and a mole here — there would have been a match.”
It would be NamUs that would finally make the connection more than a decade after his family submitted their DNA and it was uploaded to CODIS.
States that require NamUs reporting
In Texas, there are more than 3,500 open cases in NamUs including missing, unidentified and unclaimed persons.
Since 2007, the national database has helped resolve 600 cases, but many cases haven’t even been entered.
During their work on the “Mayberry Texas” series, KXAN investigators discovered shortfalls in the way these types of cases are handled in the state.
According to NamUs, 10 states have now passed laws requiring law enforcement and medical examiners to report case details to NamUs for all missing and unidentified persons cases: Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia.
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Even though NamUs is housed in Fort Worth, Texas doesn’t have that reporting requirement.
Texas House Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, told KXAN investigators that he would look into it two years ago since NamUs is in his district.
He also helped push a law in 2001 that requires all Texas police to submit DNA that’s collected in high-risk missing persons cases, but not dental records and fingerprints.
He said he would 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 in an interview in 2019.
But, KXAN learned that hasn’t happened.
After multiple attempts to get more information, Geren’s chief of staff responded in an email saying, “he is still thinking about this particular issue.”
Push for change in Texas
Newly-elected Texas House Rep. Lacey Hull, (R) Houston, was also thinking about it after meeting Fritts.
She heard about Joseph’s story after knocking on Fritts’ door last year. She was block walking in his neighborhood and wanted to hear what issues concerned families she would be representing.
“I heard Mr. Fritts’ heartbreaking story and I just thought, ‘How many other people are suffering?’ And, it’s bad enough to have your loved one missing and not knowing,” Rep. Hull said. “I just assumed it was something that already took place. I was completely shocked … and I told him that day, I said ‘When I win, I’m going to do that.’ Like, this is something that we need to help Texas families have closure.”
Rep. Hull was sworn into office in January and about two weeks later filed John and Joseph’s Law named after Fritts’ son and Almendarez’s father.
It will require law enforcement to enter information into NamUs, including dental records, fingerprints, other physical characteristics and a description of the clothing worn when last seen within thirty days of receiving a missing persons report.
It will also require law enforcement or medical examiners to enter information about unidentified bodies including fingerprints, dental records, any unusual physical characteristics and a description of the clothing found on the body to the database no later than the 60th day after the date the death is reported to the agency.
“There’s, yeah, zero fiscal impact to the state. This actually in the long run will end up saving time, money and resources for the agencies involved by matching up the missing persons cases to the unidentified bodies,” Rep. Hull explained.
The bill will not require previous cases to be entered into NamUs due to cost concerns. Rep. Hull’s office has been in contact with law enforcement and medical examiners to make sure the right agency will be responsible for entering the data.
“This way everyone’s on the same page and we don’t have people falling through the cracks,” she said. “If we can pass this and prevent that heartache … and let these families have closure. It was just something that I just felt was so important and something so simple to help Texans.”
An uncertain future
Rep. Hull has also heard recent concerns about the federal database moving out of Texas.
She said that even if it does, it’s still a resource that should be used by agencies across the state to help with cases.
Sources with NamUs have said recent federal funding cuts have impacted services including DNA testing.
NamUs is funded by the National Institute of Justice, or NIJ. A spokesperson with NIJ said the current agreement with UNTHSC will end in September, but that NamUs will continue to be available as a resource for those who rely on it.
NIJ is expected to award a new contract by April.
Families band together to help others
Even after learning that his son’s body was found, Fritts had yet another hurdle to overcome.
He was told that Joseph was buried as “John Doe” in a Laredo cemetery, but when he went there, they didn’t know where he was buried.
“The city cemetery had gone out there with a backhoe and had just dug out several graves till they found my son’s grave,” Fritts explained. “I was happy and horrified at the same time that they would be just so disrespectful.”
After several court hearings, Joseph’s body was exhumed. Last February, Fritts was finally able to bring his son home.
He was cremated, but due to the pandemic the family hasn’t been able to safely get together and celebrate his life yet.
“With your children, you always feel like there’s something you could have done better to, you know — to save them. You are here to protect them,” Fritts said. “I couldn’t save Joseph. So that’s just hard for me to get over.”
Almendarez understands the weight of those words.
Her dad was buried with a headstone that said “unidentified Hispanic male.” He’s still at the county cemetery, but now his grave reads John Joseph Almendarez.
She’s hoping to move him to a cemetery closer where other family members are buried and is working with NamUs to exhume his body.
Almendarez said it will be the final chapter to all the pain her family has gone through over the years. It’s why she’s pushing for John and Joseph’s Law to pass.
“I wanted so many holidays with him, and I wanted one more day with him, and I didn’t get that. But I have my son and I feel like I have a part of my dad back now,” Almendarez said.
Her son was born last year. She named him after her father, John.
Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Photographer Andrew Choat, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Editor Eric Lefenfeld, Senior Investigative Producer David Barer, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle contributed to this report. “Missing in Texas” is an update to our Catalyst unit’s 2019 digital-first investigation, Mayberry Texas. On April 1, 1999, Jamie Mayberry, 35, vanished from his Kenedy, Texas, home with a stranger. Two decades later, our investigation sparked a fresh look at his case, uncovering possible missteps by police in those early days. Explore the multi-platform project now.