Update: 7:57pm Eastern…Just received word…no match between Marizela’s records and the unidentified remains in Morton…questions about bureaucratic lapses still unresolved…see more below
This is a sketch released by Lewis County, Washington authorities last week. It is a reconstruction of the facial features of skeletal human remains found on a logging road in April outside of Morton, WA. The small town is located about two hours south of Seattle. The remains are believed to be of a young woman of “small stature,” “possible mixed ethnicity,” and estimated to be in her 20s or 30s. It has haunted me the past four nights as I toggle back and forth obsessively between the artist’s rendering and the vivid, flesh-and-blood photos of my missing cousin, Marizela.
Seven months of searching and not finding. Seven months of praying and not knowing. Seven months of fear, frustration, false alarms, anger, and despair. Seven months of what one war historian documenting the plight of families of the missing so aptly described as “the dread void of uncertainty.”
Is the woman in the drawing Marizela? If not, dear God, WHERE IS SHE?
We have been told there is a good chance it may not be her. But after spending all Friday on the phone demanding answers, we still await final word on whether this is or is not Marizela.
Either way, there is no solace. The unidentified is someone’s loved one. If she is not ours, she belongs to another family suspended in limbo — craving “closure,” but not, never, this kind.
Compounding the dark cloud of unknowing is the unbearable encumbrance of apathy.
The longer Marizela is missing, the less interested news outlets are in covering the case. The quieter her friends, classmates, and university community have become. And the more lackadaisical some authorities have grown.
The persistent lapses on the part of the Seattle Police Department are maddening. Just when we think it can’t get worse, it does.
My family found out about the sketch thanks to readers who e-mailed me a link to a local Washington state website report late Thursday night. Her parents received no notification, no courtesy call, from the Seattle Police missing persons bureau detective assigned to Marizela’s case. In fact, we have yet to hear from him. As has happened on more than one occasion over the last seven months, he was out of the office on Friday and unavailable. He has yet to return several e-mail messages and phone calls.
The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and the King County Medical Examiner’s office, by contrast, were amazingly responsive and helpful. I found out they have tried for weeks to obtain Marizela’s dental records and DNA from the Seattle Police. But for some inexplicable reason, the police have yet to provide them or the Washington State Patrol with the information.
Marizela’s parents provided her dental records and their DNA samples to the Seattle police five months ago.
Washington state law — RCW 68.50.320 — requires the missing person’s case detective to obtain this crucial information “within thirty days” of the person going missing and to input the data with the Washington State Patrol “as soon as possible.”
Procedures for investigating missing persons — Availability of files.
When a person reported missing has not been found within thirty days of the report, or at any time the investigating agency suspects criminal activity to be the basis of the victim being missing, the sheriff, chief of police, county coroner or county medical examiner, or other law enforcement authority initiating and conducting the investigation for the missing person shall: (1) File a missing person’s report with the Washington state patrol missing and unidentified persons unit; (2) initiate the collection of DNA samples from the known missing person and their family members for nuclear and mitochondrial DNA testing along with the necessary consent forms; and (3) ask the missing person’s family or next of kin to give written consent to contact the dentist or dentists of the missing person and request the person’s dental records.
The missing person’s dentist or dentists shall provide diagnostic quality copies of the missing person’s dental records or original dental records to the sheriff, chief of police, county coroner or county medical examiner, or other law enforcement authority, when presented with the written consent from the missing person’s family or next of kin or with a statement from the sheriff, chief of police, county coroner or county medical examiner, or other law enforcement authority that the missing person’s family or next of kin could not be located in the exercise of due diligence or that the missing person’s family or next of kin refuse to consent to the release of the missing person’s dental records and there is reason to believe that the missing person’s family or next of kin may have been involved in the missing person’s disappearance.
As soon as possible after collecting the DNA samples, the sheriff, chief of police, or other law enforcement authority shall submit the DNA samples to the appropriate laboratory. Dental records shall be submitted as soon as possible to the Washington state patrol missing and unidentified persons unit.
The descriptive information from missing person’s reports and dental data submitted to the Washington state patrol missing and unidentified persons unit shall be recorded and maintained by the Washington state patrol missing and unidentified persons unit in the applicable dedicated missing person’s databases.
Marizela went missing on March 5, 2011. Seattle police didn’t collect her dental records and DNA information, which her parents repeatedly offered, until mid-May 2011.
When Lewis County authorities searched the state database for any matches with the remains, Marizela’s case didn’t come up. Why not? Because the DNA and dental records had not been input.
It is now October 2011.
Seven months of neglect. Seven months of administrative bungling somewhere along the line. Seven months of not following the law.
Lewis County reporter Sharyn Decker has covered the Morton WA case closely and published these horrifying details last week:
The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office confirmed today they believe foul play was involved in the case of the woman whose skeletal remains were found near Morton this past spring.
A motorist who pulled off U.S. Highway 12 to take a break spotted the remains off the side of a logging road about 5:30 p.m. on April 7.
The sheriff’s office has revealed very little about the case, but today released an artist’s sketch they hope will help them identify the woman.
“Obviously we’re at a standstill in the case until we find out who she is,” Chief Civil Deputy Stacy Brown said.
An image was made by studying the facial bones of the female they say is believed to have been between 20 and 35 years old when she died.
She is described as small in stature and possibly of mixed ethnicity.
An examination by a specialist at the King County Medical Examiner’s Office could not determine the cause of death, according to Brown.
The discovery was made 100 yards up a logging road just outside Morton, according to the sheriff’ office. They still won’t specify where, even if that was east or west of town.
“We’re not giving the exact location because whoever killed her knows those details,” Brown said.
The sheriff’s office is not commenting on whether they believe the woman died there or elsewhere but have previously said it was doubtful the remains had been there very long, because it was a well-used logging road.
The sheriff’s office isn’t yet saying what they were told by the expert for an estimate of how long ago the woman had died, in part because they have not yet received the report, according to Brown.
Dental records and DNA from the deceased have been entered into databases with no matches found.
On Friday, after we proactively contacted King County and Lewis County authorities, Marizela’s dad Edgar immediately provided a summary letter from Marizela’s dentist to the medical examiner. The actual radiographs, however, are in the Seattle police department’s possession. Without them, there can be no definitive word on a match or no-match with the Morton, WA remains.
The King County medical examiner, Kathy Taylor, gave Marizela’s parents the latest update on Friday and also provided some much-appreciated words of comfort and humanity:
Thank you for forwarding the written notes from your daughter’s dentist. At this point there seems to be some discrepancy between what the dentist is relating and what is present on our unidentified. That would imply that our unidentified is not your daughter. However, we can not rule her out with 100% certainty until we receive her radiographs.
My understanding is that the Seattle Police have her dental x-rays. We are working hard to get those submitted to the State Patrol so that a final determination can be made. The Lewis County detective, the State Patrol, the State Forensic Dentist, and I are all working to get that done. I will let you know as soon as we have a definitive answer. My apologies at the delay.
Please know that I have been aware of your daughter’s case from the beginning. When the Lewis County remains were found, she was one of the first people that came to mind. However, we think the unidentified is a bit older than your daughter. We also believed her x-rays were in the data base so would have hit when we searched (but we now know her x-rays are not in the database).
I know your daughter is dearly loved and desperately missed. That makes her very important to me too. I will continue to keep her at the front of my mind every time I receive an unidentified case. I will keep you posted on our progress. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or concerns.
Kathy Taylor, Ph.D.
King County Medical Examiner’s Office
And so, enveloped again in that dread void of uncertainty, we wait.
Marizela’s missing persons flyer and information are all here. Please continue to keep your eyes and ears open.
We have contacted both the Washington state attorney general’s office and SPD Assistant Chief James Pugel for answers about the failures to abide by RCW 68.50.320 and the delays in sharing Marizela’s dental records and DNA information with requesting authorities.
UPDATE 7:57pm Eastern… We just heard from the King County medical examiner. The remains do not belong to Marizela. Momentary relief is mixed with overwhelming sadness for the young woman who has still not been identified — and continued frustration with the failures of the Seattle police department.
Here is the letter informing Marizela’s dad, Edgar, of the news and of the process from here on out on how her DNA and dental records will be handled:
Detective Ogard from Seattle Police called me this morning and has related that the DNA samples they took when you all were in Seattle have been submitted and are being processed. In addition, he delivered Marizela’s dental x-rays to me. I have compared them to our Jane Doe and can assure you that the Jane Doe is NOT your daughter.
I have scanned the x-rays and will retain a copy so that I can easily compare them to any remains that are found in the future. I will then forward the x-rays to the State Patrol (they should go out in the mail tomorrow) so that her dental radiographs will be on file for comparison across the state and nation.
I will always keep Marizela in mind. She will not be forgotten. Now that the dentals are on file and the DNA is being processed, everything is in place. If you have any questions, at any time, please call me.
Kathy Taylor, Ph.D.
King County Medical Examiner’s Office
We are still awaiting an official explanation from Seattle PD on why the law was not followed and why the records were not turned over in a timely, legally required manner. Hopefully, this experience will alert other families of missing persons to the pitfalls that may face them in their searches for their loved ones.