Australia’s first database of unidentified human remains seeks to identify ‘needle in haystack’.

By Erin Parke.

Australian Federal Police (AFP) are creating the nation’s first database of unidentified bodies, revealing there are 500 sets of human remains currently languishing in morgues and laboratories.

AFP victim-based crime coordinator Marina Simoncini said the remains, some only a fragment of bone, were found scattered across Australia before being put in the care of state and territory police.

“When you do have unidentified human remains it’s like looking at a needle in the haystack,” she said.

“You can take DNA from the bone for instance, but what do you actually match it to know who that person may have been?

“So this year the National Missing Persons Victim System went live, which will allow us to cross-match unidentified human remains with long-term missing persons at a state by state level, as well as at a national level.”

The details of 1,600 long-term missing persons files have been entered into the new database.

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In January, state and territory police will begin uploading details of the unidentified remains, in a process expected to take about six months.

Police investigators, pathologists and others involved in solving cases will have access to the information, some of which may eventually become accessible to the public.

The hope is the database will help match long-term missing persons with remains found in different state or territories, solving cold-cases and providing some resolution for families left wondering what happened to a loved one.

Stephanie Fielding’s been grief-stricken ever since her brother Rigby disappeared after visiting friends in East Perth 18 months ago.

“It’s terrible not knowing what could have happened to him, or where he might be now,” Ms Fielding said.

“It’s affected all of us in the family in different ways, but they’ve all been bad, not having him to be able to have a funeral for or grieve over prolongs it, so it’s a perpetual state of grief.”

She said families would be closely watching the progress of the database.

“I was really shocked that this hasn’t been done before, but hopefully there’s 500 families out there that may get some sort of closure for their missing people,” Ms Fielding said.

“I think when people go missing this long you’ve already come to the realisation that they’re not around and that something bad has happened to them, but having that closure and knowing where they are and what’s happened, I think people can move forward from that and get on with their lives.”

Mysterious circumstances

The circumstances in which the bones and other remains have come to police attention are varied.

Some were found during construction work, or by campers and bushwalkers.

Sometimes the discovery indicated foul play, but in many cases the bones are too old and small to tell who the person was or how they died.

It is a situation that’s consumed hundreds of police hours in a remote northern corner of Western Australia, where two sets of human remains surfaced within a year.

Detective Sergeant Brett Fowler, from the WA Police Major Crime Squad said a skeleton was found in June 2015 on a bush track just off the Victoria Highway, about 30km west of Kununurra.

“They were brought back to Perth for our pathologist and anthropologist to examine, to try to work out who it was through some forensic DNA testing,” Detective Sergeant Fowler said.

“We have been able to establish that the remains are most likely a young adult male, and most likely of Aboriginal ancestry, but we haven’t been able to get beyond that.

“We don’t know how this person died. We don’t know if it was or wasn’t from a traumatic event, or if it could have been as simple as dehydration or a snakebite.”

Less than six months later a second set of remains was found a few kilometres away down the highway — Kununurra detectives are also trying to identity them.

And despite the proximity of the remains to the Northern Territory border there had been limited capacity for police to liaise with their counterparts interstate.

Australian Federal Police officer Marina Simoncini said she hoped the new database will allow to states to work together better.

“We’re hoping this system will be able to close jobs that have been ongoing for some time, and provide some resolution to families,” Ms Simoncini said.

“To be able to give information back to families who still don’t know what’s happened to someone they love is of critical importance to us.”

This post originally appeared on ABC News.


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