AUSTIN (KXAN) – Alice Almendarez anxiously thought about her words. It was a moment she had prepared for over the last several years.
“I’m a little bit nervous,” admitted Almendarez as she began to testify in front of Senators with the Criminal Justice Committee.
She drove in from Houston hours earlier just so she could share her father, John’s story.
“He was held in the county morgue for two years before being – sorry – before being buried unidentified as an unknown Hispanic male,” said Almendarez emotionally.
She recalled going to the morgue and asking if they had any bodies that matched his description.
“I was told they did not when he was in the same morgue that I was standing in the entire time. And I believe the reason for this was there was no database. There was no way for the clerk in the front desk to check if there was a body back there,” explained Almendarez.
Texas could be next
She told lawmakers that “John and Joseph’s Law” would have given her family closure much sooner.
Named after her father and another Houston resident, the law would require a law enforcement agency that receives a report of a missing child or person to enter case details into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs within 60 days.
A justice of the peace or a medical examiner would be required to enter details about unidentified bodies into NamUs also within the same timeframe.
Case details would include dental records, fingerprints, and clothing descriptions.
KXAN’s investigation “Missing in Texas” found that 10 states have passed laws with similar requirements.
NamUs has been based in North Texas, but it was recently announced that it will now be managed by RTI International (RTI), a nonprofit research institute, out of North Carolina later this year.
“NamUs has helped investigators, coroners, and medical examiners solve more than 2,700 missing persons cases and identify over 2,000 decedents from their remains,” said a news release. “RTI plans to collaborate with the country’s best forensic experts from several organizations, agencies, and institutes to serve the NamUs mission.”
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) funds the program.
Helping other families
If the law is passed in Texas, it would not require additional funding.
“This is a cost effective – efficient tool – and also fully funded by the federal government and already exists,” explained David Fritts who also testified.
It took Fritts, a father from Houston, nearly two years to find his son Joseph’s remains.
Both Fritts and Almendarez credit NamUs for helping solve their cases.
“It took 12 years for me to find the NamUs database,” said Almendarez. “When I found the NamUs database, and my father was entered into this database it took six months.”
She reiterated that it took NamUs six months to identify her father’s remains after a DNA match.
“We’re going to fix that,” said Committee Chair Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston. “We’re gonna prevent other families from having to go through your heartache.”
“John and Joseph’s Law” was presented and voted out of the Senate committee unanimously on the same day.
If it passes the Senate, then it heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk and could go into effect this September.