ALISON STEWART, host:
Back in February of 1994, the body of an unidentified teenage girl was found in the middle of a field off a Florida highway. With no way to tell who she was or where she was from, she was buried in an unmarked grave and all but forgotten. Last week, the 14-year-old cold case was finally solved. The body in the grave, 17-year-old Heather Ann Schmoll, a Minnesota girl who was last heard from New Year's Day '94.
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
The ID came with the help of a group of amateur detectives. They're called the Doe Network. It's a non-profit organization of volunteers that uses Internet databases and old fashioned sleuthing to unravel the identities of nameless corpses in public morgues or buried in anonymous graves.
According to federal law enforcement reports, there are more than 40,000 Jane, John, and Baby Does waiting to be identified. Joining us now to explain just what these so-called "advocates for the dead" do is Todd Matthews. He's a volunteer and the media director of the Doe Network, International Center for Unidentified and Missing Persons. Hi, Todd.
Mr. TODD MATTHEWS (Media Director, Doe Network, International Center for Unidentified and Missing Persons): Hi. Good morning, ladies.
MARTIN: Thanks for being here. So, you call the work that the Doe Network does "technicriminology." Walk us through how the network handles a case like that of Heather Ann Schmoll, someone who's been missing and unidentified for such a long time.
Mr. MATTHEWS: You know, it's almost - it seems difficult but it's really very, very simple. We basically get case files from law enforcement, from their website, through their direct submissions, just present them to the public, and often enough the public or law enforcement will benefit from having that information available, and will contact us with possible matches.
MARTIN: So, you're not actually solving crimes usually. You're just putting information out there that other people can make the connections?
Mr. MATTHEWS: Gathering the data, but often, enough some of our very own members actually make the connection in the process of gathering data.
MARTIN: Now, your website details several hundreds of unidentified victims and thousands of unexplained disappearances from all over, really, North America, Europe and Australia. How do you originally get that data? How is it culled?
Mr. MATTHEWS: A lot of this data is gathered through the news media, and then we have to validate it through local law enforcement and that's not very easy. That's the biggest challenge I think we have is gathering and validating the data. So, we're looking at data that has come out in the news media, but then we have to turn around and re-look at it and make sure it's still current, and still actually an open case.
MARTIN: So, you do the research from media reports, you publish all that information through the network, and you eventually try to make a match. What's your success rate, then?
Mr. MATTHEWS: We have over 40-plus solves, and that's direct and indirect, you know, either ourselves doing it or coming from the public or law enforcement using the site. But there are so many hours that go into that. I like to think it's a success, but you know, if you had to fund this, if this was a funded law enforcement organization, I don't think it would be possible to create that type of funding.
MARTIN: Because it's just too time consuming?
Mr. MATTHEWS: Oh, yeah. I mean, if you knew the thousands of hours, you know, people like me spending 40 to 60 hours a week after they come home from their day job doing this, you know, how would a government pay people to do this? There's no way, you know. You have to tap into the volunteer nature of people.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little bit about that. Who are these people, yourself included? I mean, that's a lot of time, 40 to 60 hours a week outside of a day job? Who are the volunteers of the Doe Network?
Mr. MATTHEWS: You can see the core team in the volunteers of the Doe Network, the area directors, they're the persons that represent directly the states involved. An area director will gather data, confirm it with law enforcement, and they personally become that person that communicates with law enforcement in that state, a familiar face, so you develop a relationship with law enforcement.
It's easier to get through so you're not submitting a tip blind. And, you know, we have over 500 fairly active members, but the core team is exactly what you see on the website. We'll get a lot of people that will want to volunteer but often you have to screen. There's so much of a screening process that you have to go through for something like this. You don't want to get the wrong person and put them out there as a potential representative of your organization.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little bit about that. What are you trying to avoid in a volunteer?
Mr. MATTHEWS: Well, what if it's the criminal, what if it's someone involved in a homicide? You know, we don't have resources to get out there and really screen somebody, so we have to do the best that we can. It takes time. We've got a lot of emails since the AP article - your membership's closed.
And it does say that it's closed on the website, but you can contact our membership coordinator and the directions are on the page, and it's just going to take time. We add people as we need people and, you know, you're looking for that diamond in the rough, you know? You're looking for that person that's the right person. And I think this work chooses you rather than you choosing it.
MARTIN: Now, did you get any pushback from law enforcement officials now? You talk about a collaborative spirit, but at the beginning, I imagine, the FBI or police would say, listen, people, you're not professionals.
Mr. MATTHEWS: Well, I think you might have read the term "Doe-Nuts" in some publications. I think it was, you know, an up-and-coming group, you know, what could we do? You know, that, you know, it happens a lot. You see a lot of little organizations that pop up and chat groups and things that can be annoying to law enforcement. I've been annoyed by massive emails that come in from people that think they have these theories, and you know, we were no more than that ourselves at the time.
But, you know, in time...
MARTIN: Now, Todd, you were involved - your first foray into this whole thing was a case known as "Tent Girl," an unidentified woman whose body was found in 1968, and you really became so involved with this. What is it about this work that is so important to you? What keeps driving you to do this?
Mr. MATTHEWS: It's the people. You know, that one case - I wish the Doe Network existed then. I might have had somebody to go to and I wouldn't have had such - you know, it caused a lot of emotional problems for me, a lot of problems in my relationship with my wife, but if I had a group of people that I could have worked with, then it would have been a lot easier. I was alone at the time.
MARTIN: And it caused problems within your own family, just because of how involved you were?
Mr. MATTHEWS: That case is my sole focus. It wasn't that I was neglecting my family, but I think they felt like maybe I was because I was so involved in it. Three hundred dollar phone bills when you're making minimum wage, how can you explain that?
MARTIN: And so why do you do it?
Mr. MATTHEWS: I had to, with the Tent Girl. The Tent Girl - there was no choice, and I never want to be that consumed ever again, and that's why I like to work with the Doe Network because I can paint with a really broad brush - here, today, advocating for many all at the same time, rather than trying to do that one on one and getting too personally involved in it.
We get personally involved every day, don't get me wrong, but I don't want it to ever take my life over. I don't want to get to that spot again where you have to be on top of everything constantly. Now, I can step back and affect the cause as a whole.
MARTIN: And help a lot of families in the process put names to these missing people. Hey, Todd Mathews, volunteer media director of the Doe Network, thank you so much for sharing your story and your work. We really appreciate it.
Mr. MATTHEWS: Thank you for having me.