‘Without data, we can’t tell a story’: North Dakota Missing Persons database is a ‘step forward'
The attorney general’s office launched the North Dakota Missing Persons database at the end of 2022, but the process began when legislation passed in 2019.
GRAND FORKS — There are nearly 80 people classified as missing in North Dakota, according to the state’s recently launched missing persons database. Some went missing just days ago, while others haven’t been seen for decades.
The North Dakota Attorney General’s Office launched the North Dakota Missing Persons database at the end of 2022, but the process began when legislation passed in 2019.
Former Rep. Ruth Buffalo, primary sponsor of the bill, said the original intent of the legislation was to gather data on missing Native people.
“Digging deeper, we found that North Dakota didn't have a missing persons database, period,” said Buffalo, a Democrat from Fargo.
Other lawmakers shared Buffalo’s surprise and concern. As a result, the bill was amended to require the implementation of a missing persons database — highlighting tribal affiliation and access to tribal jurisdictions.
However, “it didn’t just magically happen overnight,” Buffalo said.
In fact, the bill originally passed without any funding, and Buffalo discovered no action had been taken to get the database up and running. Buffalo was able to submit a proposal for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, “literally in the nick of time” for the 2021 special session.
There were additional roadblocks, though, as the attorney general’s office informed Buffalo establishing the database would no longer cost $75,000 as originally proposed, but instead $300,000.
“That was really hard for me to understand and wrap my mind around,” said Buffalo. “... It just didn’t make sense to me.”
During the special session, the Senate Appropriations Committee denied the $300,000 request.
“If I would have just accepted that loss, that defeat, it would have taken longer to get [the database] up and running,” Buffalo said.
Instead, she spoke with colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee who reintroduced the request at the original asking price of $75,000, which was approved. The amount was later amended to $300,000.
“The sad thing is that we didn't know that this $300,000 was included in the attorney general's budget in the last biennium in the 2021 legislative session, and it didn't pass,” said Buffalo. “... It definitely sends a message … that it's not important.”
Buffalo said if it wasn’t for the federal dollars, the database wouldn’t have been established.
Buffalo hopes tribal nations are being included in the implementation of the database, and that everybody comes together to find solutions.
“One thing I saw firsthand during the pandemic was that human trafficking didn't stop, and it didn't slow down,” said Buffalo. “... It's still an ongoing issue and it should be a sense of urgency for everybody, because nobody's immune to this.”
“It’s a step forward, definitely,” said Buffalo. “... Without data, we can't tell a story. … It's really connecting the dots, and hoping that we can prevent further tragedies from happening.”
The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigations maintains the database through an automated process that occurs every night after the BCI receives data from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
If someone files a missing persons report, and law enforcement’s investigation confirms the report, the missing person’s information is entered into the NCIC. This allows law enforcement agencies to access information about missing persons across the country.
“If that missing person ends up in another state, you want that cross-communication,” said Steve Harstad, chief agent at the BCI.
Harstad said a missing persons report should be made to local law enforcement as soon as a reporting party starts to get concerned.
“In general, there’s no minimum wait period,” said Harstad. “... Sometimes that rumor gets out there a little bit.”
Harstad said there’s no minimum because every circumstance is different.
Before a local law enforcement agency reports a suspected missing person to NCIC, an investigation is done to follow up on who last saw the missing person, who spoke with them, where they might have gone and other similar questions.
“Does that investigation take an hour, or a day? It depends on the agency, and depends upon the circumstances,” Harstad said.
Lt. Jeremy Moe, investigations commander at the Grand Forks Police Department, said the investigative process depends largely on the information law enforcement receives from the reporting party, as well as the age of the suspected missing person.
For example, a report for an “absenting juvenile” – a child who left without a guardian’s permission or knowledge – will likely be easier to confirm than a missing adult.
There are close to 30 juveniles currently listed as missing in the North Dakota Missing Persons database.
“There’s other cases where … it's an adult that may have the right or the ability to leave whenever they want to,” said Moe. “So those ones have a little bit more in-depth investigative steps, but this is mainly to determine if they're actually missing.”
Harstad said there’s no “time limit” on how long someone remains classified as a missing person.
As a general rule, people are only removed from NCIC and the North Dakota Missing Persons database once they’ve been found. Only the local law enforcement agency assigned to the missing person’s case can make changes to their data or remove them from the database altogether.
Norman Limesand went missing from LaMoure County on Nov. 11, 1999. If he is still living, he’s the oldest person in the database at 105.
“As long as they’re never found, they continue to be a missing person,” Harstad said.
In LaMoure County, Limesand’s case will remain fairly inactive unless new information comes up.
“[If we] find remains, or things like that,” said Bob Fernandes, the county’s sheriff.
Donna Michalenko has been missing the longest of anyone currently on the database. She went missing from McLean County in 1968. If she’s still alive, she is now 102.
On older cases such as Michalenko’s and Limesand’s, there is “probably no work happening at any given moment,” according to Harstad.
Since missing persons stay in both the state and national databases, unidentified bodies or human remains found anywhere in the United States may eventually be traced back to them.
“[The database] really gets the general public involved,” Harstad said.
The NCIC is only available to law enforcement, so by introducing the statewide database, law enforcement can now receive public input on missing persons cases.
“We really want to encourage that,” Harstad said.
If someone has information about a missing person – whether on the database or not – they should contact the relevant local law enforcement agency, according to Harstad. If the missing person is in the database, the relevant agency and contact information will be listed.