Chicago psychologist Willa Wertheimer spent two-thirds of her life wondering what happened to her kid brother, who disappeared in 1978 or 1979. On Wednesday, she stood alongside Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and a childhood picture of her half-brother, Andy Drath, to announce the mystery had finally been solved.
The teenager had been shot to death in San Francisco in 1979. But the "John Doe" remains were unidentified until this month, when San Francisco police matched the body with Drath's DNA -- a chance test result that came from a renewed push to identify Cook County victims of the prolific serial killer John Wayne Gacy. It turned out Drath wasn't killed by Gacy, who was active in Chicago around the time the teen disappeared.
Missing and unidentified persons cases like Drath's are complicated, often expensive and once were near-unsolvable. They rarely take top priority on a police docket. In 2007, the Department of Justice called the crisis of missing persons and unidentified remains "the nation's silent mass disaster."
"One of the things we found out, sadly, is the way missing persons are handled is atrocious," said Dart, who said San Francisco was an exception. "You want to talk about people no one cares about?
But that's changing. Advancements in databases and DNA processing are boosting the closure rate for missing and unidentified persons investigations toward a tipping point, according to Todd Matthews of NamUs, a federal database for the cases that can be accessed by the public.
Wertheimer and Drath were maternal half-siblings whose mother died when they were young. After their mother's death, Drath's stepfather turned the boy over to be a ward of the state. Wertheimer said she now believes that Andy, then around 16, traveled to San Francisco to get his guardianship transferred to California.
"I didn’t memorize when it was because I didn’t realize that was the last time I would see him,” said Wertheimer, now 51.
Gacy raped and murdered dozens of young men in the Chicago area throughout the 1970s. He preyed on teens and young adults, including those who were gay, drifters, homeless or employees of his construction company. Eight of the 33 bodies found in the crawlspace under Gacy's home were never identified.
In 2011, Dart reopened the investigation and made a national appeal to anyone whose relative disappeared from 1970 to 1979.
Tips came flooding in, and Dart's office identified one of the Gacy victims, William George Bundy, almost immediately. In the course of investigating the seven Gacy victims who remain unidentified, Dart's office has closed 12 unrelated cases.
At least four missing men once considered possible Gacy victims have been found alive and reunited with their families. Other closed cases include a man whose remains were found on a mountainside in Utah, and another whose body was found in the woods of New Jersey with no foul play suspected.
Drath was among the approximately 84,000 missing persons in the U.S. in 2011, when his half-sister saw the sheriff's appeal. She contacted Detective Sgt. Jason Moran, the Cook County detective leading the Gacy cold case investigation, and submitted her brother's DNA.
San Francisco police had taken exceptional care of Drath's remains. In 2014, Drath's DNA samples were uploaded into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. This month, Dart's office was notified of a match with a San Francisco homicide victim.
With her brother's fate now confirmed and San Francisco police pursuing a murder investigation, Wertheimer said she takes comfort in closure.
"There’s a certainly that he’s not suffering anymore and no one can hurt him anymore,” she said.
"We missed out on so much. My sons will never know their Uncle Andy. I never got to know him as a man," Wertheimer said. "I would have liked to have just had the ordinary: life's ups and downs, Thanksgiving dinner. I'd like to think we'd have had each other's back in this world ... pals though it all."
In the 10 years since the formation of NamUs, based at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, the database has led to a number of "collateral solves" like the Drath, said Matthews.
The university has one of nine forensic labs that submit data into the FBI's CODIS system. Matthews said the combination of the FBI's DNA database and NamUs' missing and unidentified persons database has been "amazing."
Matthews singled out Cook County sheriff's detectives as “power users" of the system. "I have other agencies coming to me saying, 'I want to do what Chicago just did,'"he said.
But many police agencies lack the funds, manpower or resolve to take advantage of the systems, Matthews said.
The university lab, and several others nationwide, process DNA, fingerprints and dental records for free. But even at zero costs, Matthew said, "maybe it’s not enough."
Matthews said the federal Help Find the Missing Act, dubbed "Billy’s Law" would require law enforcement agencies to use NamUs. The bill would streamline reporting for police and medical examiners by connecting NamUs with the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database and provide grants to medical examiners and law enforcement to enter data.
"That’s going to change everything,” Matthews said of a universal system where missing persons reports can match up with unidentified remains data. "Without that one little puzzle piece, you’ll never solve it"