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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Susanna Arroyo pulled up a picture on her phone. It was the most recent one she had of Seferino Ybarra: a driver’s license photo.
She started walking toward a bus stop along Cameron Road in East Austin, showing it to anyone who crossed her path — anyone who might have any information about her older brother, missing for more than two years.
“I want to see who’s in these tents,” she said anxiously, nearing a small homeless camp in the grass just off the sidewalk.
It looked promising because there was a walker nearby, which could have belonged to Ybarra. A woman in the tent was sleeping, but there were no signs of her brother.
She approached a group of people closer the bus stop.
“He’s using a walker now,” she told them. “Was told by the police department that he was in this area. This is a picture of his driver’s license — more like what he would look like now.”
She had traveled the four-hour stretch from her home in Tyler many times before, looking into possible leads. The latest led her back to Austin just before Christmas. She had heard Ybarra was spotted at a state office trying to get a birth certificate.
Arroyo explained the veteran was diagnosed with cancer, and she worried about the toll of it all.
“The last time I spoke to him he … had lost his apartment. He was living homeless on the streets,” she said. “I’m just concerned that something will happen to him and we won’t know.”
Who’s reporting cases?
The siblings used to call each other weekly. But after receiving no communication from her brother for months, Arroyo said she filed a missing persons report with Austin Police in April 2021.
She explained investigators didn’t consider him missing because he was known to be homeless. So, Arroyo started posting about him on social media and created a profile in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs.
If he had disappeared just a few months later, a new state law would have required police to report to NamUs.
“John and Joseph’s Law,” which went into effect in September 2021, requires police across Texas to enter cases into the national, public database within 60 days of someone filing an official missing persons report with that agency.
“Every investigation is different, and in this incident, Mr. Ybarra’s relatives made a report with APD and advised he was believed to be homeless. There are differences between a ‘Missing Persons’ report and a ‘Request to Locate’ report. This specific case did not meet the criteria for a ‘Missing Persons’ report,” an APD spokesperson said.
When KXAN investigators asked if APD had any interactions with Ybarra, the spokesperson replied, “To respect Mr. Ybarra’s privacy rights, we cannot release other details regarding his case aside from what has been provided.”
The spokesperson said even before the law passed, APD investigators already utilized NamUs for long-term missing cases. In early 2023, the department had 37 cases classified as “long-term missing.” APD added many cases come weekly but are typically cleared within a few days or weeks.
Arroyo is one of hundreds of Texans with loved ones in the NamUs database.
Data obtained by KXAN investigators shows out of 614 Texas cases entered into NamUs between the new law taking effect and the end of 2022, 24 profiles were created by family or close associates. Most — 450 — were made by NamUs staff, medical examiners or law enforcement. A total of 140 public entries were created by any citizens and have to be verified by law enforcement before they are posted.
The Texas law details police are required to enter into NamUs all available identifying features including dental records, fingerprints, other physical characteristics, and a description of the clothing worn when last seen. The details are considered law enforcement sensitive information and cannot be viewed by the public or family members.
Public users including family members can enter cases into NamUs, track cases and search all information including name of missing person, age, physical description and date of last contact along with location. All public case entries are vetted with the investigating agency before being made publicly viewable in NamUs. Once a case is vetted and NamUs obtains permission from the investigating agency, the case is published for public viewing and searching.
Family members who have missing loved ones are encouraged to search the database. Missing persons advocates tell KXAN investigators that many times families have helped solve their own cases.
NamUs says more than 600,000 individuals go missing in the United States every year. By early 2023, there were 2,294 open Texas cases in NamUs. Since the system’s launch in 2008, 2,149 Texas cases have been resolved, according to the NamUs website.
Texas cases spike
Since the law took effect, the number of cases in Texas has increased.
Data KXAN obtained from NamUs shows the year before the law went into effect there were 348 Texas cases entered into the database. In the year after, NamUs data showed the number entered jumped to 969.
By comparison, Texas Department of Public Safety data obtained by KXAN investigators showed 64,262 missing persons reports were filed with Texas law enforcement agencies between the new law taking effect and the end of 2022.
According to state’s criminal code, each time someone files a missing persons report with Texas law enforcement, that agency is required to submit the name and other important details to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, within two hours. Unlike NamUs, that database is not public. In contrast, police must submit case details to NamUs within 60 days of receiving a missing persons report. While some cases are likely cleared before that 60-day deadline, KXAN investigators found many other cases may fall through the cracks – never reported by police to NamUs despite the law’s requirement.
By 2023, Texas was among at least 13 states with laws mandating the use of NamUs by law enforcement. KXAN found some states have shorter reporting requirements — between 30 and 45 days.
State Rep. Lacey Hull, R-Houston, crafted “John and Joseph’s Law,” which passed last session.
She negotiated Texas’ 60-day timeframe to avoid an administrative burden on agencies, which her office said should allow them to more easily comply with the reporting requirement. Her office noted changing the timeline for reporting at this time wouldn’t help address the issues of agencies complying with the existing law.
It’s why Hull continues to spread awareness of the resource by joining families as they navigate their search for missing loved ones. Most recently, she spoke about the impact of the law at a “Missing in Harris County Day” event.
“The more people that know about this — the more that we spread the message, the more it can be used, and hopefully the more cases that can be solved and families that can have closure and hopefully find their missing loved ones,” she said.
No compliance, no penalty
Hull worked closely with two Houston families on the law, named after John Almendarez and Joseph Fritts, who were missing. Their families felt faster police action would have helped their cases.
“It’s the impact that it makes to these families. Just hearing that — that someone cares, and that something is being done to try and help them means — means the world to these families,” Hull said. “We have seen agencies, you know, a huge uptick in reporting of cases. And we see compliance and we see these agencies wanting to make these reports.”
While the number of Texas cases in NamUs has increased, the law has no penalty for those police agencies that might not be reporting. KXAN also learned the state doesn’t track compliance, and the law doesn’t say who should enforce the requirement.
“I think a lot of it is awareness. I don’t believe that — you know, overall, that there’s agencies out there who are unwilling to comply. I think a lot of it is just some of them don’t know,” Hull explained.
She believes police agencies in Harris County — one of the state’s populous counties and includes her district — are complying, but she wants to make sure smaller counties have the resources to comply.
“Some places will say, ‘We don’t even have a computer,’ or ‘We don’t have a medical examiner,’ and they’re trying to figure out who would be responsible for it — for inputting that information into NamUs,” she said.
Hull added she wants to review the data gathered by KXAN investigators. She’s looking at the law to see if any changes are necessary and if something needs to be done this legislative session, which runs through May. She said if any agencies are running into problems following the law, she wants to know why.
The APD spokesperson said obtaining DNA and dental records from family members located outside of Texas has been challenging when entering cases into the database.
“Lawmakers can help fund DNA testing, update the DPS laboratories with modern equipment and testing procedures, and implement a genetic genealogy division,” a spokesperson shared when asked how lawmakers can help departments utilizing NamUs.
The other states with requirements KXAN checked also don’t have any enforcement measures.
“We don’t want to, you know, penalize people for if they are truly trying, or they just truly don’t know. If they don’t have the resources, and they don’t have awareness, we want to give them the chance to be able to do that — the education and those resources to be able to do it,” Hull said.
Federal law streamlines reports
The law also requires medical examiners and justices of the peace to use NamUs for unidentified persons cases. They have to enter information about remains into the system within 10 days after determining one or more identifying features, or 60 days after the date the investigation began.
A Houston Chronicle investigation in 2022, which cited KXAN’s research, found some were not complying. The Chronicle found out of 274 records at the time from justices of the peace, medical examiners and district attorneys’ offices across Texas, at least 13 unidentified bodies were not entered into NamUs after the law went into effect.
Hull said her office has teamed up with Operation Identification out of Texas State University which has been on the forefront of education efforts with justices of the peace and medical examiners. Operation Identification’s team works to identify human remains found along or close to the South Texas border. Hull said teams have been providing valuable education, especially to smaller counties, about NamUs.
Missing persons advocates hope a new federal law can be the answer to the issues Texas still sees.
President Joe Biden signed the Help Find the Missing Act, or Billy’s Law, in late 2022. It is named after a Connecticut man whose family pushed for the law after their son vanished 18 years ago. And it is supposed to streamline missing persons reports across the nation.
The law aims to connect NamUs with NCIC. Within one year of going into effect on December 27, 2022, the United States Attorney General will be required to issue a report to federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies describing best practices for the collection, reporting and analysis of data and information on missing persons and unidentified human remains.
In late January, Rep. Hull filed a resolution in honor of Missing Persons Day. The resolution recognized February 3, 2023, as National Missing Persons Day, and calls attention to the hundreds of cases which need to be solved.
“National Missing Persons Day serves as a reminder that missing persons are not forgotten and that their loved ones are not alone in their search for answers, and it presents a fitting opportunity to affirm our commitment to bringing justice to victims and closure to the families of Texans who have gone missing,” said the resolution.
Hull also added in the resolution that technology has become a powerful tool for law enforcement and families, and one of the most significant resources available today is NamUs —helping clear cases that might otherwise go cold.
‘I think about him every day’
The Texas law is not retroactive and does not include cases like Ybarra’s. That means, if a person was reported missing before the law went into effect, police are not required to add their cases to NamUs.
Rep. Hull said she wishes all cases could be entered into the database, but including those older ones would mean costs for agencies since it would take more time and resources.
Arroyo understands. But she said a stronger law would help more families dealing with unimaginable anguish in the future.
“I think about him every day since he’s been missing — every day. Every day I pray to God that we will find him,” she said.
She spent the rest of the afternoon that December day going block by block asking anyone she encountered about her brother.
“I’m looking for my brother. I don’t know… heard he’s in this area. He walks around with a walker… Petey Seferino Sam,” she said to a couple several blocks from where her search started.
“That’s Pete!” said the woman excitedly. “He stayed with me last night. He’s supposed to come back tonight.”
Arroyo was shocked. “You guys for real?”
It was the closest she had come to finding someone who might know him. Hours after connecting with the couple, Arroyo got a call that her brother was at their place. She immediately rushed over and reunited with him.
Arroyo said he’s now working on finding a more permanent home. She said she’s lucky she found him but knows many other families never get that kind of ending. She said her experience has made her an advocate, and she will be pushing for more resources to help other families desperately looking for missing loved ones.
“If you have a missing person, if you have a lost family member, reach out to the police,” she said. “You never know if you can find that person alive, that would be wonderful.”
Senior Investigative Producer & Reporter David Barer, Investigative Photojournalist Richie Bowes, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Graphic Artist Aileen Hernandez, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report, which launched Feb. 8, 2023.