Victims’ families change how missing people are tracked in Texas
Two families in Texas, grieving after separate tragedies, decided something needed to change. Alice Almendarez’s father, John, disappeared when she was just 16. She spent her later teen years visiting the local morgue looking for his body. She wouldn’t have answers for more than a decade even though his body was found just days after he died. David Fritts’ son, Joseph, was a veteran. When he disappeared, David had no idea where to turn. Enter a tenacious young woman running for the Texas statehouse. Together, the newly elected politician and these two unlikely community advocates helped pass a law that makes tracking missing people a priority. Full transcript available at https://www.whatremainspodcast.com.
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Amanda: In 2004, 18-year-old Alice Almendarez had been searching for her missing father, John, for two long years.
Two years of frustration looking through unidentified body reports online, two years of grief and confusion and it came to a head one day during her senior year.
Alice Almendarez: I remember this day specifically because I wanted my dad at my high school graduation.
I felt like I was moving on with my life and he still wasn't there. And it felt wrong to even just graduate without having the man who brought you into the world there.
Amanda: So, Alice did the only thing left she knew how to do to look for her father.
So, you're 18 years old and you go to the morgue to look for your dad's body?
Alice: Yeah, and I went there before my high school graduation, which was in May of 2004. And I remember going repeatedly that year throughout my senior year. And they told me that no one there matched my father's description.
I think about the times that I went in there asking for him, and during the times that I was in there, he was right there in that same building, in a freezer.
Amanda: Alice says she knows this because when her father was finally identified, she learned that the county morgue did have his body there during some of those visits. In fact, it was found and delivered to the morgue just days after he was reported missing. But Alice wouldn't find that out for so long.
Alice: And that's hurtful because we spent 10 more years after that, still hurting, still searching, still wondering, you know. There was no holiday that felt right or was celebrated completely because he was missing. You just stay stuck, and you can't move on.
You want to, and you try, but you really don't move on.
Amanda: It’s an experience Alice vowed to make sure others don’t have to go through...
In this episode, Alice turns tragedy into action and helps a tenacious young lawmaker change the way missing people are tracked.
From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains: stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I’m Amanda Lamb.
When Alice was just 16 years old, her 42-year-old father, John Almendarez disappeared in Houston, Texas. Her parents had split up, but Alice says her dad was still very much part of her big, loving family. He didn’t have a cell phone or a home phone. So, he’d call them on a regular basis from a pay phone. The last day she saw him was Father’s Day.
Alice: We talked to him after that on the phone, he would call us and then all of a sudden, his calls stopped.
When we realized, he hadn't been calling and we didn't understand why he just stopped contacting us. There was no way to get ahold of him.
Amanda: The family reported him missing to Houston Police, but, according to Alice, the case wasn’t taken very seriously, the response they got was.
Alice: You know, he's an adult and he's allowed to be missing.
Amanda: Alice says there can be confusion as well as grief when someone goes missing.
Alice: You go into these police stations, and you think that you're going get the help that you need, but it depends on the person; the age, the circumstances. Of course, children do matter, I agree they should be the first priority but that doesn't make any of the other cases any less important. And this was out of the ordinary. My dad was a good dad. He was a constant dad.
And so, for him to just leave like that and for us to be told; well, he had too many kids. He's allowed to go missing, or he was tired of his responsibilities. Nothing they said convinced me because they didn't know him, and I did.
Amanda: We reached out to Houston Police about this case multiple times. They told us that no one who handled the case was still there, that they had either retired or moved on. And so, they couldn’t really comment on any specifics about what did or did not happen. Still, Alice believes that her father’s case didn’t get as much attention as others.
And your dad was Hispanic, correct?
Alice: He was half white and half Hispanic.
Amanda: Do you think that played a role at all in the case?
Alice : Oh yes. A huge role, a huge role. Um, I do feel, really being involved in this world for so long. It's not even that he was Hispanic. I feel more that his gender played a role because he was a male, an adult male. You know, I feel like it goes, the importance goes from kids, of any gender and then it goes to females and that's where I feel it does play a bigger role. You know, like I do feel like if you're a white female, you get more attention than an African American or Mexican, you know. That's where I feel it plays a role. With men, I just feel like men are completely left out of the picture. Like they're supposed to be able to handle it, handle whatever comes, whatever is thrown at them. So, it's like, they almost don't matter.
Amanda: Alice says she and her family felt like they were spinning their wheels. They would go in and out of actively searching for John. It was an emotional rollercoaster that Alice had to take a break from at times to preserve her mental health.
Lacey: Just the process and the pain and agony that she went through for 12 years searching for her dad and it was a jurisdiction issue.
Amanda: A jurisdiction issue and so much more. Coming up, Alice finally finds her dad and teams up with a Texas politician to help other grieving families. That’s after the break.
MIDROLL BREAK 1
Amanda: Alice Almendarez was more than a decade into her search for her missing father John, when she happened to see a movie about a missing person on television. At the end of the movie, they encouraged anyone with a missing loved one to go to a website. It was a website Alice was unaware of NamUs.
Alice: And this entire time, we didn't know that NamUS existed.
Amanda: NamUs is the National Missing and Unidentified Person Database.
Alice: I never heard about this database before. I mean, I've never been told about it, heard about it. And I've been in, you know, police departments, missing persons departments it felt like a hundred thousand times before.
Amanda: Alice researched NamUS. To her dismay, her father’s missing person report had never been entered into the system. But there was a list of unidentified bodies found in the area around the time he disappeared. She started searching the list looking for someone who might be her father. Nothing jumped out. So, she decided to contact the people at NamUS and see if they might be able to help.
Alice: Someone wrote me back the next day. And that was the first response that I actually got, from anyone. Out of the entire 12 years, that was the first response I got from anyone.
Amanda: Alice gave the missing person report to NamUS, and they contacted the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences to compare the unidentified remains on their list with DNA samples Alice and her sister provided.
In Texas, a DNA sample from all unidentified remains is kept in evidence after someone is buried as a John or Jane Doe. Alice says the law requiring this passed after her father died, but thankfully they followed this protocol prior to the law and took a DNA sample from his remains before he was buried.
Alice: They kept a fragment of his, the bone fragment from his finger and some other DNA and that’s how he was able to be identified.
Amanda: After the connection was made, the floodgates opened.
Alice was able to get the original report from when John’s body was found dead floating in the Buffalo Bayou, in July of 2002. He was found in Harris County just outside of the city of Houston a few miles from where the family lived. The report included details like the fact that he was wearing a T-shirt with a Houston Astros emblem and green cotton Nike shorts.
Alice: His missing person's report had to be filed with the city of Houston, but his unidentified body report went to the county.
Amanda: This is kind of hard to get my head around, so let's break this down. John’s body was found in Harris County—the population of Harris is close to 5 million and it includes Houston. John’s body was found the same week he was reported missing by her family to Houston Police. But no connection was made at the time between the missing person report to the Houston police and the unidentified body at the Harris County morgue.
So, there was like a, a disconnect, a big disconnect.
Alice: Oh yes. And that's why, you know, if this can happen to my family, when he was found two miles, maybe from where he lived his entire life in the same area where he worked at his entire life, he was, it was not even just a disconnect. It's just like they felt he didn't matter, because if he mattered one bit to them, it was a phone call. It was a simple phone call. Hey, do you have anybody in the morgue? He, you know, he has a big mole on his left ankle, or he has a scar on his abdomen or here's this guy's fingerprints, can you see if you have anybody in there that... That's as simple as it could have been.
Amanda: And there was something else in the report that jarred Alice. Her father had been classified as a homeless Hispanic male, two descriptions she thinks kept the case from getting the attention necessary to solve it.
Alice: You know, automatically to just assume that someone was homeless because you found their body. I mean he was somebody to somebody. So, regardless of whether he was homeless or a female, male, he should have got a little bit of attention or even just a news report that his body was found would've been helpful.
Amanda: The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences which houses the county morgue and is responsible for conducting autopsies did respond in detail to our questions about John’s case. They said they gave the case details to the media in August of 2002 and to the Houston Chronicle in September of 2002. That same month the pathologist classified the death as an accident, Asphyxia due to drowning. But Alice doesn’t buy it. She said her father didn’t like to touch anything dirty and he wouldn’t have been anywhere near a Bayou.
The County told us they submitted John’s fingerprints three times to the FBI, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in late July 2002, in September of 2006 and in September of 2007. There were no hits.
On January 7, 2004, John’s finger bone was submitted to the University of North Texas for DNA analysis and then uploaded into CODIS, the combined DNA Index System.
The Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that John’s body was in the morgue from the time it was discovered in the Buffalo Bayou on July 2, 2002, until it was transferred to the Harris County Bereavement Department in early March 2004, and then buried in a county plot.
Remember, Alice says some of her visits to the morgue occurred at a time when her father’s body was there.
A few years later, in September of 2007, the case information was also entered into NamUs, but his missing person report was not in the system, so there was nothing to compare it to.
When Alice found out her father was dead so many years after he disappeared, of course she grieved.
And she also went to work, to try to prevent the anguish that she endured for so many years. And she had some help.
State Representative TX, Lacey Hull: I'm Lacey Hull. I'm a state representative in Texas. I represent a part of Houston, and I am in the Texas house.
Alice: My first impression with her was that she cared, you know, and you don't find a lot of people who care, when it doesn't happen to them. And she genuinely cared.
Lacey: No matter who you are or what happened, you deserve to be identified and your family deserves to know what happened. No one deserves the pain of not knowing where a loved one is.
Amanda: Tell me how the missing person issue, you know, came across your desk. How did you first learn about it?
Lacey: Actually, when I was campaigning.
David Fritts: It’s almost like divine intervention. I don't use that word too, too often. I was working on my car, and she happened to come door knocking, running for her campaign. And it's something I, usually wouldn't answer the door for, for people that typically don't know. Typically, don't, wouldn't and I, I did in this particular case, and she explained to me that she was running for office.
Lacey: And like everyone's door that I knocked on. I asked what issues they care most about and what he wanted us to work on and what he wants to see us do. And this man shared with me that he had been searching for his son for a couple of years who had been missing. And he was going the very next day to Laredo, a different part of Texas, to have his son's body exhumed. He had been buried as a John Doe.
Amanda: The man, David Fritts, had lost his 31 year old son Joseph.
David: You'll never be the same person after losing a child, you know. I've had friends say, you know that, oh yeah, my mom just passed away and all that, which I understand. I mean, that's, that's hard when any family member or anything, but there's nothing like. I don't think anything can compare to losing a child. Because I mean, you're the one who, you're the parent, no matter how old they are, you're responsible or you feel like you're responsible for 'em and want them to do good. And you know, it's just; you still have a pretty heavy burden on your shoulders even you know, years later.
Amanda: David explained to candidate Lacey Hull that he had not been able to find out what happened to his son for almost two years. He said it was because there was no requirement for the NamUs database to be used in missing person cases in Texas.
Lacey: And I was shocked, and you know, hearing this man's heartbreaking story trying, I was like choking back tears on this man's porch. And I broke the cardinal rule of block walking, especially in Houston and I went into this man's house, and he showed me the NamUs database and was explaining it all to me. And so, I promised him that if I won that I would help him, and we would work on the issue. So, I won the primary and told him, well, I got through the primary now I've got to get through the general. And so, in November, when I won, I reached back out to him a couple days later and said, well, I won and let's, let's get started on this.
Amanda: So, three people; Rep Lacey Hull, the man she met while block-walking named David Fritts, and Alice Almendarez they got to work.
Alice: Our law is called John and Joseph’s law.
Amanda: More about David’s son Joseph, and how this trio came together to fight for mandatory reporting to NamUs in the state of Texas after the break.
Amanda: Memory is a funny thing, so selective. It’s interesting what we choose to remember about the people we love.
David: Joseph was just such a character when he was a little kid, you know, he was just funny. We called him the little big man because he had this vocabulary of like an 18-year-old when he was like six, you know, he loved big words and stuff. So, it's so funny. So, I could be walking in grocery store and see some little kid goofing off, you know and talking funny or something, and it will just remind me of Joseph, and I’ll just start smiling you know, of how funny he was. Yeah.
Amanda: David’s son, 31-year-old Joseph Fritts, disappeared on October 26, 2017.
David: I reported him missing approximately two days after he left. He left on a trip, he had told me he was going go to Laredo, Texas, just to get away for a while. Which, I encouraged him but when I didn’t hear back from him the next day and then the following day, I grew even more concerned and filed a missing person report.
Amanda: David reported his son missing to both Houston and Laredo Police. Joseph was a former U.S. Marine who had been stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. He was injured on the job and received an honorable discharge after he developed seizures. David said his son had his struggles.
David: He suffered a little bit from depression and had addiction issues, but he seemed to be getting better. And that’s why I encouraged him to take a break for a while and I thought everything was going pretty good, so that’s why I grew concerned when I hadn’t heard from him.
Joseph, even if we had a problem or between us, we always talked on the phone; we always communicated all the time. So, it wasn't typical of Joseph to not return my phone calls or answer me.
Amanda: Like Alice, David didn’t know where to turn. The investigation into his son’s disappearance seemed to be going nowhere.
David: I was learning the ropes of how to find a missing child. They don't have any books on it or anything. And unfortunately, unless you know what you're doing it's going to be very difficult, and it just took time to navigate through the system.
Amanda: David learned about how to look for his son from a support group for parents of missing children. He learned that NamUs was a valuable tool, but that there was no requirement for law enforcement agencies to enter information about missing people or unidentified remains at the time. This included the more than 2700 law enforcement agencies in Texas, and also medical examiners. And even some counties that are so small, they don’t have a medical examiner, and so, a justice of the peace makes these decisions.
It was all voluntary. This meant there was a much smaller chance the missing person reports would ever be matched with unidentified remains.
David: I had no idea that something like that didn't exist. In fact, I'd been looking on NamUs for Joseph to see if his remains turned up in Laredo and never saw anything. And I didn’t realize until I talked to a sheriff down there that it was voluntary.
Amanda: Here’s where things get tricky the medical examiner in Webb County did put Joseph’s DNA into CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System. It’s run by the FBI and basically has everything from suspects to unidentified remains-just DNA, no other information. But they never put a report about the unidentified remains into NamUs and even though David put the missing person report into NamUs, there was no way to connect the two.
David and his other son went to a missing persons’ day in Houston offered by NamUs. He and his son gave DNA samples and told NamUs representatives their story. NamUs then uploaded their DNA into CODIS. A few months later, their DNA matched with the DNA of an unidentified man found dead in Laredo in 2017.
It was Joseph.
David: September 20th, 2019, the policeman called me and told me that they, found his remains. And it's kind of sad to say I'd had a dream before with policemen coming to my house, parking across the street and getting out of the car. And I knew they were coming to notify me that he was dead.
Amanda: And this wasn’t only sad news David received. He learned that Joseph’s remains had been found just 6 days after he went missing.
David: His remains were found in the river, in the Rio Grande River. He floated up on shore. I believe he was found by Texas Park and Wildlife that also patrols the river.
Amanda: Just like in Alice’s father’s case, a connection between Joseph’s remains and the missing person report was not made until David pushed for answers. Meanwhile, he was searching for his son all over the world, in Mexico, or Joseph’s favorite place to visit, Costa Rica.
When David finally got confirmation of his son’s death. He still had questions.
David: As far as how he passed away, or any of that information I’ll never know, because my son Joseph was; his mom is Hispanic. So, Joseph is half Hispanic.
So, the coroner told me that they didn't do any toxicology reports because he was Hispanic.
I mean I couldn’t believe she was so honest and blunt about it to be honest with you.
Amanda: We reached out to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Webb County, and they told us we would need to go through the county’s public information officer. We shared with him David’s exact comments to make sure they understood what we were asking for feedback on. After continued attempts to get feedback, they did not respond to us.
We also reached out to Laredo Police Department. Investigator Jose Baeza says they regret they could not locate Joseph, and that they fully understand the Fritts’ family’s concerns in the wake of their ongoing grief. They send Joseph’s family their sincere condolences but did not comment on the details of the case.
Just like John, Joseph had been buried in an unnamed grave in the county cemetery as a “John Doe.”
David wanted to move his son out of this cemetery as soon as possible. He was fed up and like Alice, he felt like he needed to do more to prevent this from happening to other families.
And that’s where newly elected State Representative Lacey Hull came in. Lacey was elected to serve the 138th district in Texas in November of 2020. About a week after the election, she called David and said let’s get to work.
Lacey: I met with him, and he introduced me to another woman named Alice who had a similar story. She was searching for her dad for about 12 years.
Amanda: Alice and David became friends through their shared grief and desire to advocate for families of missing people. They were introduced by Vicki Frost-Curl at an event for the family members of missing people. Vicki’s mother, Francine, disappeared in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1981, but it took 30 years to identify her remains. Vicki’s son was the one who made the connection after uploading his grandmother’s information into NamUs.
Vicki successfully lobbied for “Francine’s Law” in Oklahoma which requires all missing persons reports to be entered into NamUs by law enforcement across the state. It was signed into law in April of 2019.
Vicki was urging Alice and David to push for the same law in Texas.
So, Alice was invited to that first meeting with David and Representative Lacey Hull and Alice had some reservations about Lacey Hull’s motivations on her way to the meeting.
Alice: But no when I met with her, I really felt and saw in her emotion of, she just didn't understand how this wasn't a law already.
And you know, Lacey's a Republican and then we have our Democrats. We have everybody involved in, wanting to help us. When we went to go testify, the response that we got back was the same as Lacey. Like, how is this not already mandatory? How is it not mandatory to enter everybody into one database?
Lacey: It had bipartisan support all the way through. We worked very hard, to make sure that that was the case, and telling the stories of John and Joseph. It was very moving for people.
Amanda: House Bill 1419, named “John and Joseph’s Law” after Alice’s father and David’s son, is pretty straightforward. It requires law enforcement to enter all missing persons reports into NAMUS within 60 days and medical examiners and other officials who attend to unidentified remains to enter information about those remains in the same time period.
This kind of buy-in from both political parties doesn’t always happen in a state the size of Texas.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in June of 2021 and it took effect September 1.
I mean, that's pretty amazing. To go from being a victim's daughter to lobbyist advocate and be part of this group that pushed this law forward in just a couple months in a big state like Texas. I mean, that's pretty impressive.
Alice: You know, it took a lot of teamwork and people always say that, but it, it just took speaking up. I think what motivates me the most is just seeing these families that are still in the situation that we were in. I can't walk away from this issue when we have all these people still suffering.
Amanda: Since the law passed, Representative Lacey Hull says a lot has changed.
Lacey: So, with the requirement that law enforcement and medical examiners and justice of the piece now have to use NamUs. Now we are seeing an uptick in the number of reports being put into NamUs. We are seeing cases being matched and unidentified remains and missing persons reports being matched.
And, it's been really wonderful to see law enforcement kind of embrace this and, they're doing what they are supposed to be doing
Amanda: In 2020, before the law passed, 106 missing persons cases were entered into NamUs in Texas that year. According to information provided by Lacey Hull’s office, after the law passed in Fall 2021 the number of cases entered in NamUs more than doubled. And in the first five months of 2022, there were almost twice as many cases entered into NamUs as there were in ALL of 2020.
Alice: If you know what it feels like to have somebody missing you. It's like from an outside perspective, like someone else would be like, well, I hope like you find them alive. And to us it's like, well, if they're dead or alive, we still want to find them. Because that's the only way you're going to get closure. Like even if they are gone, I still got closure.
Amanda: Currently, 13 states including Texas have laws requiring that information be put into NamUs. Alice and Lacey and David hope other states will follow their lead.
Alice: I do want to try and fight to get this law passed nationally.
Lacey: So, no matter what state you're from or what state you go missing in. Or if something, you know, horrible happens to you that no matter where you are, your family would be able to find you.
David: When these laws all get, eventually they will get all passed. And when they do; you'll really never know the effectiveness of them because it'll just be assumed that it was always this way.
Lacey: They went through the worst pain imaginable and losing a loved one is hard enough, but to have to go through and not know where they are and what happened. So, for them, just wanting to fight for other people and making sure that this doesn't happen to other families, it’s pretty amazing.
Amanda: Thank you to Alice and David, and to Lacey. And thank you for listening to What Remains.
The best way you can support us is by listening and sharing What Remains with your friends. Rate and review us in your podcast app. If you’d like more information including links to our social accounts where we share photos of the people from each episode, check out our website, whatremainspodcast.com That’s where you can also sign up for our newsletter and read my blogs. You'll also find full transcripts for every episode. There’s a lot of cool stuff there, you should check it out. This episode of What Remains was written by me, Amanda Lamb. It was produced and edited by Rachel McCarthy, with final mix by Doug Miller. Our Director of Podcast Operations is Anita Normanly and our Executive Producer is Ashley Talley.