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(Introduction to show begins)

TODD MATTHEWS (Missing Pieces Host): I’m Todd Matthews.  This is Missing Pieces.  Christmas Special tonight, we have Mary Weir.  Welcome Mary.

MARY WEIR: (Guest):  Thank you.

TODD:  How are you doing?

MARY:  Pretty good overall, I think.

TODD:  She’s in the wintry world of Alaska and I’m in Tennessee, and we’re freezing at 60 degrees and she’s complaining about 20 below.

MARY:  Yes, it’s getting a little chilly up here.

TODD:  Well, what do you expect in Alaska?

MARY:  Oh, it’s about right for this time of year; we usually have some more snow, but…

TODD:  Well, you’ve had a good and a bad year and, in fact, you’ve come to some conclusions, and you still have a few…well, a lot, of unanswered questions.  Your daughter was Samantha Bonnell, and she left her home there, headed toward California, I think, and she went missing.  Can you tell us about the point where she actually went missing from you?

MARY:  She left here just before she turned 18, and she left with one of those magazine door-to-door groups…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …and she called…her and her boyfriend were in trouble and they needed a bus ticket and I bought them bus tickets to his parents’ home…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …at their request.  And he called the night after they arrived that she called and said that they made it there okay, and that same night he called and said that they had been at the movie theatre and she had got up and left.

TODD:  And that was in September of 2005?

MARY:  Yes.

TODD:  Okay, now where was that at?  Where did they actually go to?

MARY:   That was in Montclair, California.

TODD:  Okay.

MARY:  And we now know that that was the night she was killed, but for 19 months we spent making phone calls, searching, looking…she just dropped off the face of the earth that night and it was a long, hard road to go down.  Seven months after she disappeared, her luggage turned up in South Carolina, which we still don’t know how her luggage got there or why.

TODD:  How were you notified that her luggage actually turned up there in South Carolina?  And some of the questions I’m asking you, I know, but I’m hoping people are going to read ‘Mother solves painful mystery,’ the link, and kind of pick up and we’re filling in all the things that I see are missing from this article.

MARY:  Officer Semlitch called…actually he called her grandmother’s house and my house…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …because she had left…there were still the paper tags…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …on there like you get from the airlines, and our numbers were on there as her permanent numbers, and they called and said her luggage was there and they didn’t know how it got there either.

TODD:  Do you think she ever was physically in South Carolina?

MARY:  No.

TODD:  Okay.

MARY:  No.  It was a brief glimmer of hope that, you know…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …that she was still with us.

TODD:  Now, when you filed the missing person report, what did you have to go through to do that?

MARY:  Oh…that was probably the hardest thing to get done because I started…it was about a week after she went missing because she hadn’t contacted anybody.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  And the first night, you know, when we got the phone call, we thought that maybe she left on her own accord, and it wasn’t uncommon for Samantha to go out of contact for a week of so.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  But she was pretty in contact either with me, or her family, or mostly with her best friend, and when nobody had heard from her, I called the police here and tried to file a report and, of course, since she officially didn’t live here anymore, they wouldn’t take the report.  It had to be filed in the state where she went missing.  And I called California, and because we didn’t have a last known address where she was seen, we couldn’t file one, and I kept trying and I was told repeatedly, “She’s 18, she has the right to go missing.”

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  And, “If you don’t know where she is, how do you expect us to find her?  It’s not against the law for her to be missing.”

TODD:  And that was frustrating for you to hear, but can you understand the law enforcement end of it where they are going to have a difficult time laying their hands on an adult?

MARY:  Yeah, I absolutely understand that.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  But the part that I have the hardest time with is, I knew that they couldn’t do a door-to-door search for her.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  I was trying to be realistic about this, but at the same time, having her information in the computer would have been so helpful.  We would have known immediately if they had taken the report, and I’d like to see it changed, at least to the point where you can file the report.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  And they’re not required to do anything other than just file the report and put it into the computers.

TODD:  And there are a lot of motions in place that are trying to, even though California is required to take a report, supposedly they don’t really have to do anything with it once they get it.

MARY:  Right.

TODD:  That’s the scary part.  So you went through all of this to get this done, but what about the NCIC report?  How soon did you realize, “I need an NCIC report?”

MARY:  We’d been trying to get her into the NCIC…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …from the very beginning, and when her luggage turned up in South Carolina, is when we finally got the report filed and they put her into the NCIC, but unfortunately there’s not a standardized format to put a missing person into NCIC…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …and they used the luggage date as the date of last contact, I think.

TODD:  So they just sort of assumed that she was alive at the point that, you know, involved with the luggage?

MARY:  Right, and that’s what prevented us from getting a match right away.

TODD:  Now, you know there were errors in your NCIC report?  That was the error.  Now you did try to actually…

MARY:  Not until afterwards.  I was not allowed access to the NCIC report until after we had identified her.

TODD:   Now I’ve heard conflicting reports about this.  Now I’ve understood that some people feel like you don’t have access to it or you can’t review the data.  I’ve heard other people tell me, “Yes you can.”  And actually we’re going to get somebody from the state of California to make a comment on this that we’re going to add to this episode, which I’ve been involved in a few projects lately and I’m hearing that you can.  I don’t understand why it’s not possible for law enforcement, you know in that weekly call that you make to them, or however often you call them, just for that update because you’re living from update to update.  Just to call and hear somebody say, “Hey, we’re working on it.”  Why can’t you sit there and have a beneficial conversation and actually confirm what was on the NCIC report?  They don’t have to show it to you.

MARY:  I think that’s changing from state to state.

TODD:  It is, but not fast enough, I feel like, you know.

MARY:  Right.  Yesterday isn’t fast enough.

TODD:  Yeah.

MARY:  It’s hard to have any patience with this issue but, again, everything takes time, and the legislation we’re working on in the state of Alaska is going to change that so Alaskans will have access to the NCIC report, and not only will they have access to it, they will be asked to confirm the information that’s put in.

TODD:  And it should be because that could have actually resolved this much sooner.  I don’t think it would have changed the outcome because you know how immediately that happened, but…

MARY:  Right, nothing would have changed the outcome with Samantha, and probably wouldn’t change the outcome with many others.

TODD:  So, we know that she was struck by a car…several cars, in San Bernardino County and, ironically, I know the coroner there, David Van Norman; I’ve actually already done an interview with him.  And it’s funny, it was back in the early fall, I think, of this year, I was in Walmart shopping, and I got a phone call from Mary Weir, and you were telling me that you had found your daughter on the Doe Network, and I’m one of the administrators of the Doe Network, and some people get confused because a lot of us that are involved in some of these projects wear so many different hats, but my number is the number for the Doe Network currently, and you were telling me this story and I was just stunned…in the middle of Walmart.  And I knew, and I said, “Have you spoken to David Van Norman?”  And you had, because I remember him talking about this case before we knew who she was.

MARY:  He is an absolutely incredible man.  I cannot say enough nice things about him.

TODD:  And he’s with the coroner with San Bernardino County, and he is one coroner that I’ve seen with great compassion towards his cases and he’s a stickler for details.  He’s very outspoken.  He speaks exactly what’s on his mind.  He doesn’t care who it harelips, let me tell you, he’ll say exactly what’s on his mind.  How did you find him?  Now, you first contacted him and you spoke with him.  How did that conversation go?

MARY:  Well, I had been in contact with the police here because I had found Samantha on your website…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …and the contacting officer had passed the information onto the missing person’s clearinghouse, which hadn’t reacted to it yet, and it had been about 19 days, I think…

TODD:  Wow.

MARY:  …and I called David Van Norman directly.  I just couldn’t take any more days of waiting to find out, and I called him and said, “You know, I don’t know how to do this, but I’m sure that this is my daughter.”  And the first thing he said was, “No this can’t be your daughter, and this is how we go about it, and we will eliminate your daughter as a possibility, but we handle everyone as if it’s not…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …and then we prove it’s (inaudible).  And he was…oh, comforting in this.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  And said that when he proved that this wasn’t my daughter, he would assist me in getting all of the proper channels, all the NCIC reports, and make sure everything is done.

TODD:  And he would have.  I guarantee you.

MARY:  Yeah.  And he would assist me with getting DNA from myself and her father, into CODIS, so that if she appeared on this thing that she would be identified.

TODD:  Now there had been 160 attempts to identify her when she was actually an unidentified body, so you can understand that he was…it was surprising to him to actually find somebody that probably had real data.

MARY:  Yes, and it took about 5 days to get the identification done.  I went down and got her dental x-rays and didn’t want to wait to mail them so I scanned them and emailed them to him.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  And from the time I emailed them, it was just a little more than 24 hours and we had the positive identification.  He was real comforting in that he would help me...

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …which, after so many phone calls and begging for help and not getting the help, it was really comforting to have somebody say, “Well, look we’re going to prove that this isn’t her, but when we’re done, we’re going to get you straighten out.  We’re going to get all the information in there; we’re going to make sure everything is right, and you can stop hunting unidentified websites.”

TODD:  Now, how long had you been looking on the Doe Network?

MARY:  Oh, I think I had probably started in January 2006.  When Samantha hadn’t called or come home for Christmas…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …I knew that she was either abducted and couldn’t, or she was dead, because Samantha was just so social and she kept in contact with everybody so closely…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …that when she hadn’t been here for Christmas, I knew.  And I kind of kept it a big secret from my family that I was doing this.  It’s amazing how many unidentified-bodies websites there are.

TODD:  Oh wow, I remember when there were none and it was rare to find them, you know when you were trying to find somebody or try to put somebody out there, it was so difficult at one point in time.  But now that’s pale in comparison for how difficult it was for you.  Now, what’s it like for a mother, you know, and you didn’t have a long-term case compared to a lot of people, but to sit down and you’re flipping through these unidentified bodies?

MARY:  It’s really, really heartbreaking at first and then you reach a point of kind of being numb…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …but it kind of overtook my life.  It’s all I did.  I would stay up all night; I’d go to bed with my husband and wait for him to go to sleep, and I’d slip out of bed real quiet…

TODD:  Wow.

MARY:  …and then I’d be hooked to the Internet all night long.

TODD:  I know the feeling with that.  You know you could have done that for many, many years and actually destroyed yourself, because I know people that have done it, but it paid off for you.

MARY:  I feel like, even with the outcome of this, I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones because I have an answer.

TODD:  Yeah.

MARY:  But it did; it just overtook my life and it was this big secret of what I was doing because I didn’t want to tell everybody I was looking through unidentified bodies for my daughter.

TODD:  Did you think that it was going to be like you were giving up on her being alive?

MARY:  Yes.

TODD:  Okay.

MARY:  And I felt like if I told everybody what I was doing that they would give up in helping me look.

TODD:  Ahh.  Okay, I can understand that.

MARY:  And then, of course, you don’t leave the house during this time because you’re afraid the phone might ring.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  And I don’t know how many telemarketers I called back for 19 months.

TODD:  So every number that showed up on your phone, you called it back no matter what.

MARY:  Oh yeah.  I think I called the same telemarketer in New York a dozen times trying to demand that they let me speak with her.

TODD:  How did they like getting the call back?

MARY:  Well, first they started giving me their sales pitch, and I was like, “No, no, no, I don’t want your sales pitch, I want to talk to my daughter; she’s got to be working for you.”  I confused a lot of people.

TODD:  Well, you were confused.

MARY:  Oh yeah.  Oh yeah.  But I kept hoping, you know, that that would be the phone call.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  And then you hear the horror stories…oh, the horror stories that you hear.  I don’t remember exactly what month it was, but they found the young girl who’d been in a hole in South Carolina.  (Elizabeth Shoaf)

TODD:  Uh huh.  Yeah.

MARY:  She had been kidnapped and she managed to get out and then, you know, with that being the last place my daughter’s luggage was seen, you know, I went through that.

TODD:  Now as horrific as that was, was that something that you could actually say, “I hope that’s the case for me”?

MARY:  Yeah.  It was.  I kept hoping that, you know, she’d come home alive; that this was not something that she had chosen to do or that she maybe really wasn’t dead and that she was just gone, you know, she was kidnapped.

TODD:  Now I’ve been able to ask you some really difficult questions because I know what kind of woman you are; I know you’re very strong, you’ve been very strong and I know that you want to see a positive change.  Was is easier to know for sure that she was deceased and to go ahead and finalize it, than to still be looking today, and still hanging on to a little bit of hope that she might still be alive?

MARY:  It’s much easier to know.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  And, as horrible as this is to say, I think that it’s almost easier to know that she died instantly…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …than if she had been abducted in some manner and then tortured and then have to bury her.

TODD:  You know, even doing these interviews, I have to put the fact that I’m a parent out of my mind and think of the cause, because it’s so difficult to do these things.  I know how hard it is to do this, being a parent, and sometimes you’re close to tears when you’re actually talking to somebody but you have to kind of suck it up and do the interview because there are people out there in you’re position that don’t know what to expect.  They ask me all the time, “What happens when we find a body and it turns out to be my child?  What do I do then?”  You know I think that’s what you’re going to help teach people.

MARY:  You grieve, but it’s a relief at the same time, and they shouldn’t feel guilty in feeling the relief.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  I probably grieved for the entire 19 months that she was missing…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  And when we finally found out that, yes, that was her body, I cried for probably a good solid 12 hours, and then I had to pull myself enough together to face what had to come next, which was getting her body home and burying it.

TODD:  Well I sent somebody to talk to you that night we talked because I was worried.  I mean, I walked the floor all night because I didn’t know what I was thinking; I didn’t even ask you if you have somebody to take care of you, I didn’t know, and I couldn’t get to you.  I sent Rosemary Westbrook to talk to you that night; her sister was the Tent Girl, and we went through all of this together.  I hope that she helped you that night because she’s been through it; she’s lived that life.

MARY:  Yes, she did.  She did, and she has been through so many more years of this than I have, but I don’t know…I don’t know that time would make it easier, I think that it would make it harder.

TODD:  I know a sister is different than a child.  I know that, but still, you know, all those years of unknowing, and I saw that family transformed from somebody that was just desperately searching to just such relief, at some level, that it was just over.

MARY:  Oh, it is.  It’s a relief when it’s over.  I forced myself the watch the movie ‘Human Trafficking’ when Samantha was still missing…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …hoping that I would find a clue, something in there: an email address, a person to call to get help, and that was one of the hardest things that I did, was watch that movie.  I’d watch about 30 minutes of it, and I couldn’t take anymore and I’d walk away.  I think I had that movie for, probably, 10 or 12 days before I made it through it.

TODD:  It’s amazing what you’ll do for your child though.

MARY:  Yeah, and the nights of tears have subsided for the most part.  Since we’ve found her, it’s been easier.  Before that, you know, I would…her birthday, or Christmas, or something happening in the family; my niece-in-law had a baby and, you know, we couldn’t go through that without thinking about, you know, “We should call Samantha,” or “I wish we knew where she was.”  But everything that happens in the family, any event that you include your family in, it becomes so difficult to make it through, and now that we know where she is, I have a feeling, just a faith that she’s with God, and I don’t know how I would make it through this without my faith in God.  But now I can just say a prayer and feel like I’ve talked to her.

TODD:  Yeah.  Yeah.  Well, you know, I know that you’ve got a goal; that you don’t want her death to have been in vain, and I think that’s why you’re trying to change some of the obstacles, you know, unselfishly.  You went through a lot of barriers and you want to prevent other people having to go through these same barriers because some people might not be as strong to get through them.  They might not find that clue that you found and they need help getting to those clues.

MARY:  The only thing I can do positive out of this is to try to help the next family.  I don’t know if it will be emotional support for them, or give them a direction, something, and you know, I've been working on changing the law here in Alaska, and that’s going fairly well, but that’s a long-term process.  But the only thing I can do is try to help the next family, you know, to know that hopefully it will be solved, and that there is hope and that there are other people that are going through this.  And, if they’ve reached the point that I did of searching these websites, you know, they don’t have to be ashamed about it.  It shouldn’t have to be a secret.  There should be somebody out there that they can call, and the person on the phone at least will understand what they’ve been through and what they’re going through.

TODD:  Well, not everybody has the open mind that you have, you know, everybody goes through their phases.  I don’t think that I would be able to be as strong as you are, knowing what I know, and working all the years that I’ve worked in it; you’ve been really strong.  I’m sure you’ve had your breaking points, but you do have to look through these databases, you know, you’ve got to keep an open mind.  Just because you ignore the fact that they’re there doesn’t mean that your child’s not going to end up there, or however this person’s connected to you, cover all the odds, you know.

MARY:  Even after I found her on the website, it probably took me 4 months of looking at it before I had come to the decision, you know, that I had check this.  It was like I opened this particular picture and went, “Ah, oh, I found her!”

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  That wasn’t…it was, “Gosh, if that picture was a little different, it might be.”

TODD:  Well, you had an educational process there to go through.  It took you a while to let all that soak in and understand and realize.  Seeing it the way I have to look at them, with forensic art, I see a very good likeness there, but I can still see the differences that you would see as a mother.

MARY:  Yes.  Things that were slightly different, were enough that I tried real hard to convince myself that this couldn’t be.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  There weren’t any freckles on the composite…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …and the hair was too straight…

TODD:  Yeah.

MARY:  …and apparently she had dyed her hair because her hair was no longer sandy-blond, it was red.  And there were just enough differences, right down to the description of clothing.  Samantha’s shoe size was a size 5, and when she was killed, she was wearing a size 7, which probably weren’t her shoes for some reason, but I looked at all those things and said, “This can’t be her.”  And when I finally got brave enough to do this, it was the clothing description that she was killed in, was something that I knew my daughter would wear.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  And it was close enough and I thought, “Well, you know, it’s not going to hurt to check it.”

TODD:  Better to rule it out than to not know really.

MARY:  Yeah, well that’s was I was doing, was ruling it out, because I found myself, rather than searching the websites and looking at different images, I kept going back to this same image and looking at it.  The composites, you know, the forensic drawings and the composites are all just slightly different than what the person actually looks like, so the advice I’d give to anybody who is out there looking would be, you know, if it’s close…I mean, her height and weight descriptions were even slightly off, but within the range of what it could be…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …they might want to check.

TODD:  Because what was that 4 months like, that you kept going back?

MARY:  It was horrible because it had even stopped, you know, my life had stopped because I was searching…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …but it even stopped my searching because I’d sit there and I’d stare at this.

TODD:  You got in a standstill so there’s no reason to go through that.

MARY:  No.

TODD:  When you can check it out.

MARY:  No, and if they find somebody that they think is close and they check it out and it’s not, they may in the process get some help in making sure everything in the NCIC records is correct and that the details are there to be matched.

TODD:  Yes.  There’s movement.  Now you create movement even when you do a rule-out.  With the Doe Network, that’s one of our most important databases is the ruled-out database.  We can’t share that with the public unless law enforcement says it’s okay because, you know, sometimes there’s a murder and you can’t really tip your hand; they might not want that data known and we don’t recklessly give that out but, you know, with that database, we can prevent lots of searching for somebody that emails with a possible match and we say, “That’s already been checked out.  I can’t give you the details but that one has been checked out and ruled out.”  Wow, that’s a big showstopper for somebody that’s in limbo.

MARY:  Yeah, and when you hit, it’s like hitting a wall and you can’t move forward in any direction when you think you’ve found the match…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …and I’m kind of glad that I did the 4 months of looking at it, because I had a chance for my brain to say, “Okay, this could be her,”

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …and prepare myself for that.

TODD:  You did what was right for you, I think, you did.  That was the formula for you, but everybody need not take that period of time if they don’t feel like it.  You’ve listened to Mary’s experience now and you kind of see where you’re going and why she took the time that she took, and if you can review it as quickly as possible, somebody might already have the answer.  You could have called me or somebody else in the Doe Network very quickly on and we could have said, “Oh, that’s already been ruled out.”  That was a possibility.  We wouldn’t have told you that obviously with this case, but had it been ruled out, you could…that time, you could have spent searching.

MARY:  Right, and everybody is going to be different and every case is going to be different.

TODD:  Yeah, and the forensic art thing, the thing about it is, what we have to work with, is different.  No two sets of unidentified bodies, you know sometimes it’s completely skeletal, so that’s definitely going to impact the final rendering.  And you can’t always say that, you know, exactly how somebody was found, but you did something unusual when there was a positive ID, when you had the memorial.  You had people actually send donations to the Doe Network to help out in lieu of flowers, and that’s kind of unusual because we’re not 501(c) so we don’t solicit donations; we are 100% volunteer.  But it was very important to you and we had that conversation that you do something, so what I was able to do was, to directly take that money and begin applying it to the website fees so it was more like you were helping pay some of the web bills rather than making a donation.

MARY:  Right.

TODD:  And you’re helping keep it up, I mean, you’re helping making it be there.

MARY: Oh, to me, it was so important because…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …not just because the Doe Network is where I found Samantha, but Doe Network is one of the first sites that I found when I was searching and the Doe Network is easier to look at than some of the other website, emotionally.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  It’s easier to navigate, which is really good because when you’re on no sleep and you’re upset, the ease of navigation is really good.

TODD:  Now, I’ve had people that have asked, “Why don’t you advance it and put it in a new format and put all these bells and whistle?” and the administrative team, we’ve looked at a lot of different things, and so many things complicate it and make it more difficult because you’re putting too much into it.  And I think we’ve found a formula that works and we’re pretty happy with it.

MARY:  It does.  It works well.  It was easy for me to navigate and get through even being on no sleep and being so upset about what I was doing, but there are other websites out there that actually put photographs on and those photographs still haunt me.  I’ll close my eyes and I will actually still see those photos.

TODD:  Now, we like to do things with Doe Network, you know, we also work with Project EDAN, and we have Project EDAN that actually donate the art.  We have volunteer artists that are real professional artists, they’re not just people out there, they actually work with law enforcement and most of them are IAI certified forensic artists and that was the goal of that.  I don’t ever want anybody to see a face that they can’t wash out of their mind, and it happens.  Now, I have a good friend, Michael Murphy, now I know Michael Murphy with the Clark County Coroners Office, Nevada, and they do that, it’s just like pulling a body out of a drawer, and though I don’t really disagree with him, it’s just not how I would like to do it.  To me, it just seems so much better to soften it a little bit, you know, you have the option of going to the Doe Network and looking at the remains if you want to click on through, if that law enforcement agency has made the remains be available, you can get there.  You can navigate through them, you know, we don’t want to block access to that.

MARY:  Well you don’t accidentally pull up that victim…

TODD:  Yeah.

MARY:  …without knowing.

TODD:  It’s a shock.  I mean, I’ve seen things that haunt me, you know, and if it was my child, I don’t think I’d ever get over it.

MARY:  I think it was one of the eastern states; it was either Chicago or New York…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …that had pictures that haunt me, and if they were in the morgue it might not have been so haunting, but these were actually, you know, crime scene photos…

TODD:  Yeah.

MARY: …of the body where they found it, and I’m glad that the photos are there because…

TODD:  They’ve worked.

MARY:  …some times it’s the only way that they can be identified.

TODD:  And they’ve worked, you know.  They have served an effective purpose but I have to think of the Marys and the Samanthas out there.  Even though you had a softer image to look at, you still relate it to your situation, the other images that you saw?

MARY:  Oh yeah, and I think, I’m sorry you guys have to be there, I’m sorry Doe Network even exists.

TODD:  Oh yeah, we are too.

MARY:  Very sorry, but I’m glad that you’re there at the same time.

TODD:  I think we’ll be here as long as we need to be.

MARY:  I don’t know how the rest of the people with missing family members make it day to day.  I don’t know how I made it day to day for 19 months, and if it had gone on longer, I don’t know how I could have done it, because your life does stop.  You don’t dare change your phone number; you don’t dare move.

TODD:  You can’t do anything.

MARY:  No.  No.  I couldn’t go farther…I’ve got a portable phone and I wouldn’t go farther than my phone would reach.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  Occasionally I’d have to go to the grocery store or go somewhere, but I wouldn’t go…we have a game night that we do with friends, and I wouldn’t go to game night, I wouldn’t go to church, I wouldn’t go anywhere.

TODD:  Have you been able to resume those activities now?

MARY:  Yes.  Yeah, it feels strange going out and being able to walk away from my phone.  I haven’t quite got used to it yet.

TODD:  But you had to.  You had to live again.

MARY:  Yeah, I had…there were several months after we found her that I was putting so much energy into the law that I was working on, and I’ve got a MySpace account that we were working for on for Samantha and some other personal projects about her, and I finally had to stop and say, “Wait a minute, I’ve got to live for the living too.”

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  And I had to give myself permission to…it’s okay for me to walk away from my computer.

TODD:  Yeah.

MARY:  I’ve got two other children and I’ve got to remind myself, you know, I’ve got to live for the living and when I’m working on all these issues, they don’t come first all the time, and I have to be able to put them down and walk away.

TODD:  And that’s important, you know.  There are times that I feel guilty because I’ve been too much in this world or too much in my family world, you know I feel like I’m neglecting one or the other, always, no matter where I’m at, I’m neglecting the other.  But, you know, there is only one of us and you only have one life to live and you’ve got to take care of yourself.  I’m preaching to the choir, I think.

MARY:  Yeah, it’s hard to find the balance in between the two, and it’s strange because I thought, you know, once I found her, my life would go back to normal.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  Well, I’m not sure what normal is any more, but I turn to what it was before she disappeared, but I still find myself going on to the different websites and see if I can help another family make a match.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  And I find myself going back to it but I have balanced that more now, that I’m not there every day.  I find time to go have a night out with friends and be able to go spend Christmas with family, which is coming real soon.  I can go spend Christmas day with family and not be thinking, “I can’t leave my phone.”  So I can walk away now.

TODD:  Long enough to live your own life.

MARY:  Yeah.  I have a life again.  It’s not the same one that I had, by far, but it’s definitely…I’m able to go out and do again, which is one of the few graces that has come out of this.

TODD:  We’re living in a very exciting time, in this field though, because you know I have been getting to work with the NamUs Project and it’s the first federally-put-together missing and unidentified persons’ database and there has been some progress.  I’m very positive about it.  It’s not going to put the websites like Doe Network, all the other websites for missing and unidentified persons, it’s not going to put them out of business; it’s not intended to put them out of business, it’s intended to be a new tool for them, and for the families and for law enforcement.  It’s intended to be something to help bind things together and I think it’s going to be an incredible tool that’s going to bring everybody closer together in this world and make the communications a lot easier.  If it’s not what I’m thinking it is now, I’ll be very disappointed, but I have a lot of hope in it; that it’s really going to be something that’s going to update the technologies that we use.  But there’s still that plain simple effort like Doe Network, that advocacy, we’re still going to have a need for it.  I wish something would put us all out of business, because it’s not really a business, it’s a pastime; a lot of us do this instead of going bowling, we do this type of thing, but I think we’re making a positive impact on things and nothing feels like that, when you know that something you were able to do tonight will help somebody tomorrow.

MARY:  Yeah, and it’s a hard thing to do but, yeah, it’s a pastime of searching for families, it’s rough.

TODD:  And for me, as a parent, I don’t have a missing child, and you know what, I don’t want to have it.  I want as much protection out there and a means to prevent it than anything.  I never, ever, ever want to be in your position and that’s just me speaking as a parent, and the only way I know how to do that is to prevent it and provide better methods of prevention and follow-up, so there can’t be too many things out there for the families that don’t have a missing person.  There can’t be enough.

MARY:  Many people ask me, you know, what can they do to help prevent this, and I don’t know how to prevent somebody from going missing, but I do know that...the little fingerprint kits that you get from the police department or the grade school…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …are really important, and keeping a current picture.  That actually would have helped.  My sister had the most current picture; I hadn’t seen Samantha in about 5 months when she went missing.

TODD:  Because her pictures were really different. 

MARY:  Yeah.

TODD:  Now I saw several of her pictures.

MARY:  She had changed drastically in 5 months and when I finally got that picture from my sister, and I was hesitant to push my family for identifying criteria.

TODD:  Uh huh.  But that’s what you were doing.

MARY:  Yeah.

TODD:  And dental records, I mean if you’re consistent with the same dentist and you go every six months for your cleaning, there are X-rays, there are excellent dental records there.  It’s the perfect thing.  It’s exactly what they need. 

MARY:  Yes, but I’ve told people, I’ve said, “You know, it sounds horrible, but pull a little bit of hair out by the roots and save it.”  Don’t just take a clipping of hair; you need to have that ‘tag’ on the end.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  If you ever have to have it, you’ll be glad you did it, and hopefully you never will.

TODD:  And how would you store that?

MARY:  I haven’t got a solid answer on it…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …but the hair that I have stored for my other children and other family members, I have just put in an envelope…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …which I’m sure is probably not stored properly…

TODD:  But you have it.

MARY:  …but I have it.

TODD:  Now I know of DNA being extracted from the hair root, after burial for months, so that’s in extreme conditions, so in an envelope in the refrigerator, even the freezer possibly.

MARY:  I have mine in the freezer.

TODD:  That’s it.

MARY:  Right next to the frozen peas but, yeah…

TODD:  Do you think you’re prepared for a second time?  Do you think you’re better prepared say, God forbid, it happened to another one of your children, do you know how to approach it better?

MARY:  Oh yes.  Oh yeah.  First of all, I wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  I would go down to the police department and I would stand there, and I wouldn’t go away until they took the report and filed it.  And if it meant that I had to go every day for 6 months…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …I would do it.

TODD:  Now the thing about the NamUs Project that’s coming up, you know we’re doing some database trials on this project, this administration, our current government’s administration says that the public will be allowed to enter their own missing persons in this database.  There’s a little hub out here because we’re thinking valid cases; how are we going to make sure that they’re valid?  You know, I’m not against the public doing it, but I’m also wondering, you know, “What are we going to get?” and “What’s going to happen?”  But, we were told very quickly that that’s not up for    debate, whether the public can enter it; they will.  We will give this as a tool to the public.  Part of the job now is to do some trials to see how we can filter, how we can make an effective gathering from the public because we’ve got a big mass entry to put into here.  We know that the FBI NCIC has over 100,000 cases; that’s a lot!

MARY:  Yes, and I wonder how many of those cases…I look at that number and I wonder how many of those cases, the families gave up on filing a report.

TODD:  Oh, and I’m positive that they are, you know, I think that’s why there’s only 100,000 when we know that there are thousands and thousands more.  You know, the National Homicide Investigators Association tells us that there are 40-50,000 unidentified bodies, probably more, which the NCIC can only account for 6,000 plus, so we know there are more.

MARY:  Those numbers are going to explode and that’s a scary thought, but maybe with that number explosion, maybe some of those will start getting matched.

TODD:  I think with the legislation that’s in place, that’s in process with many states, and not just your state, but a lot of states, and then the NamUs Project.  The NamUs Project is actually concentrating on NCIC entries and there is somebody there from NCIC as a panelist; there are people from a lot of branches of the government there.  I think it’s actually going to stand out like a flag saying, “Hey, this doesn’t have an NCIC number.  Why?  Can somebody route a signal back to the law enforcement agency and see if there is some reason that there shouldn’t be one?”  And I think that’s going to be a constant process until it’s finally done.  It’s sort of an automated system.

MARY:  One of the factors in deciding to do the law here in Alaska is, they’re concerned about people abusing the mandatory reporting laws.

TODD:  It is a concern.

MARY:  It is.

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  Absolutely.  We have a high percentage of runaways here.

TODD:  Uh huh.  And then if it’s actually abused…

MARY:  If, every time somebody runs away, they have to report this, it is going to create some paperwork problems.

TODD:  Probably too much.

MARY:  Yeah, and I’m hoping that there will be a way that they will begin to deal with it but, you know, Samantha had been a runaway a couple of times here…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …not for very long, but she had run away and I know that even the couple of times that she had run away as a young teenager, would have created paperwork problems, and it’s going to.

TODD:  Well, the priority level drops down when you here “repeat runaway.”  I mean, you don’t the person, you don’t know their background, you don’t know the family, you just hear, “this is probably the third time that she could be” and you just instantly hope that she just probably took off on her own, and you hope that it’s okay.  Law enforcement, I’m sure they hope, “Well probably it’s just this” and it’s a difficult situation.

MARY:  And that was kind of our hope too, that everything would be okay, but the hard part is, you don’t know which time will be for real, you know.

TODD:  Yeah.

MARY:  And, where Samantha had had a couple of reports before, this one was for real, you know.  And the others were for real too, but she came home in one piece.  So, I’m hoping that, you know, somehow they find a common ground with it.

TODD:  I know that’s a big concern; it’s a big topic, I mean to the point of many battles in discussing some of these things.  I think if somebody enters a false report, if we do roll this out to the public and they can enter it, you know you have to think of responsibility.  I think if we have the address of whoever enters the information, they should have to sign their name to it if they enter it, and there should be some penalty if they falsify a claim and put something in there that’s not accurate or intended to hurt somebody.  I think it’s just as bad as a false police report.

MARY:  Oh, absolutely.  I think that there should be some kind of repercussions to the person if they are filing falsified reports, and they should definitely have to put their information and their contact data in there, because if you’re really looking for somebody, you want your information out there.

TODD:  Yeah.  Absolutely.  You know we worry about the spouse seeking another spouse that really has run away, it could be an abusive situation, there are so many different things that you don’t want to put out there; that’s not responsible.  That’s why I think NCIC is important because that’s a good validator.  That’s what I’m looking for; what’s a good validator?  How can we validate this really quickly?  Because you don’t want to hesitate and create something that’s going to take months and months to validate, you have to have something that’s going to help you do it really quickly.  You want the information out there as soon as possible

MARY:  You have the valid concern that, you know, this could have been somebody who was abused and may have run away for good reason.

TODD:  Yeah, so we don’t want to endanger those people.

MARY:  They’re hiding and they don’t want to be found, but on the same note, if the police find them, that person can say, “Look, I’m fine…”

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  “…I’m hiding.”  And that’s okay.  If that had been the case with Samantha, we would have said okay, you know.  All we wanted to know was that she wasn’t in trouble.

TODD:  Yeah.

MARY:  If they had contacted us and said, “Look, she’s just decided that she doesn’t want contact with you,” it would have been hard to take, but we would have accepted it.

TODD:  What would it have taken to convince you that this was Samantha actually sending that information to you?  I mean that would be a hard, bitter pill to swallow.

MARY:  I think I would have had to have the police make contact with her…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …and for them to validate that, yes, it is her.

TODD:  But just hearing it, if a law enforcement officer told me, “Your son’s okay, Todd, but he doesn’t want contact with you,” well, you know, I’m going to be upset because I would be wondering, “What if?”

MARY:  I would have been very upset and I probably would not have stopped looking…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …or trying to contact her, but I would have been in public circles.  I would have been looking for a phone number on the Internet, or…

TODD:  Quietly.

MARY:  …looking to contact her in another way, but nobody knew what had happened.  It was the police, and the police…looking back, I feel like that should have gotten involved sooner…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …but it wouldn’t have changed anything for us.

TODD:  No.

MARY:  It wouldn’t have changed the 19 months of hell that we went through.  But the first 7 months were really bad because we knew she wasn’t in the computers and, unfortunately, I knew that we were probably looking for a dead body, and I was hoping that, you know, somebody hadn’t dumped her out in the woods where she’d be found as a skeleton in 10 years.  But that was probably my worst fear, that she had been abducted and abused…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …and then murdered.

TODD:  Well one of the things we’ve not talked about yet tonight is, do we know who hit her with the car?

MARY:  No, we do not know the first vehicle.  There’s not even a positive number on vehicles that hit her.

TODD:  Do we know that this was an accident or a homicide?

MARY:  I believe the official report is that it was an accident, at this point…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …but they’ve closed the case on that.  We still believe that it was homicide because you just can’t get onto a California freeway without somebody knowing and she was in the center of the freeway trying to get off.

TODD:  Uh huh.  Do you think maybe she jumped from a car?

MARY:  We believe that either she jumped from a car or was thrown from a car.

TODD:  Thrown from a car.  Now, the boyfriend, do we…what do we know about him currently?

MARY:  Um…very little.  The only thing I know is that the police did interview him…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …and said that his interview was convincing and believable, and that he reported that he was not with her at the movie theatre that night, that she had been with this magazine sales group.

TODD:  And again, it’s important that people read your articles that will be connected on this page before listening to this broadcast, it makes a lot more sense when you hear the whole thing and I know that you’re not going to give up.  I know that you’re not just resigned to the fact that it’s over, I mean, it’s over as far as the search, but you kind of need to know what happened.

MARY:  We have a private detective that I figured was, unfortunately it took me a couple months to react to him because I figured he was another one of the…I’ll just be gentle and call them ‘flakes’…

TODD:  Yeah.

MARY:  …because he contacted me, and there have been plenty, and it’s been a little hard to take at times, but he emailed me through one of the reporters that did one of the articles and said that he’d like to help.  And we’re not rich people, I figured he was an ambulance chaser looking for, you know…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …an easy case and money.  Turns out he’s not.  He took the case; charged me $1.00, just to make it legal, and he has had a number of businesses, and I’m not sure who the businesses are that have put funds forward for him to investigate this.

TODD:  There are some good ones out there.

MARY:  Yes, and he’s still working on it.  He’s hoping to have an answer for us by the end of January, at least as to what happened between the last time that I spoke with her and when she was killed.  He may not, or nobody may not be able to tell us exactly how she got on the freeway, but he might be able to tell us a little about what happened that day, and hopefully we’ll get some answers as to how she got onto the freeway; the vehicles that hit her, you know, 10 minutes after they hit her they were a hundred miles down the road, so…

TODD:  Yeah.  But we are working on a timeline, you and him.  We’ll probably try to help you too, to try to get some kind of timeline so that we’ll have it on the page, as to what you know now, and hopefully that timeline will improve in quality over the next few weeks and months, and maybe somebody out there listening saw something and can tell us a little bit more.  Mary’s email address will be on the website so that you can email her with information.  Hopefully the flakes won’t call.  I’ve heard from them too; I’ve interviewed some of them, as a matter of fact, but they’re out there and I think Mary’s a strong woman and I think you know how to sift through things.

MARY:  Yeah, and I have.  I even emailed some of them back, and most of them their hearts are in the right place, I think…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …but maybe they shouldn’t hit the bottle of booze so hard before they write their emails.

TODD:  (Chuckles)  I know the feeling.  You know, I think everybody wants to help, but it’s just not the bag for everybody.

MARY:  No.

TODD:  It’s really not a game that you really want to play; it’s not fun.  It’s just not fun at all, I mean I’ve had a great interest and fondness in working in this but it’s not something that you do for recreation or pleasure.  It is very difficult.

MARY:  I know that somewhere out there, there are real psychics, and I want to be careful not to piss them all off, but most of them…I even reached the point where if I had a psychic who worked with the police department here, I probably would have gone to them.  I’m glad that I didn’t, but I had reached that point of desperation in looking for Samantha.  I have yet to run across a psychic, or a psychic that worked with a police department, that can give you a solid answer.

TODD:  Okay, Mary, so how is this Christmas going to be different than last Christmas?

MARY:  Oh, I’ll spend it with family.  Last Christmas, we just didn’t do Christmas, and we stayed at home.  I didn’t hang one single ornament.  I was definitely not in a Christmas mood, and this year, I don’t know that I’m in a Christmas mood, I’m still really missing her, and I don’t know that that will ever stop, but we will celebrate this year.  We’re going to go to in-laws and have Christmas dinner, which will be a change from the last 2 years, so there’s a little more Christmas spirit and I think that it’ll get better each year.

TODD:  Healing has begun, right?

MARY:  Yes, healing has begun.  I do want to say…we had talked about the accident, and I want to say that there was one gentleman who stopped, and if he ever listens to this, I want him to know that I want to thank him for stopping and I know that he has grieved greatly over this and I don’t blame him.  I thought often of calling him or writing him a letter, but I keep hoping that maybe he has put this to rest somehow for himself, and if he hasn’t and he ever runs across this webcast, I want him to know that I don’t blame him, which is a hard thing because I’d really like to blame somebody, but he’s not at fault.  He wasn’t the first vehicle that hit her, he’s just the only one that had the compassion to stop.

TODD:  We’ll make a special note of that so that he can see that.  I mean, I feel like you’re offering forgiveness.

MARY:  Yes, I am.  He doesn’t have anything to be forgiven for, but I’m offering it because I know that he did call regularly to see if she had been identified…

TODD:  Uh huh.

MARY:  …and I would like to put out there that he doesn’t need my forgiveness because he wasn’t at fault, but if he needs it, he has it.

TODD:  I’m sure it’s very difficult what he had to go through with that, and it would make a big difference to me if I knew that you didn’t blame me.

MARY:  I’m very sure that Samantha didn’t blame him too, believe it or not, I mean, I know who was daughter was and it was beyond his control.  It’s not like he…

TODD:  Caused it.  He didn’t cause it.

MARY:  Yeah.  It’s not something that you would expect driving down the freeway, to have somebody pop out in front of you.

TODD:  Well, I’m going to look forward to an update from you at the end of January, and Mary and I talk fairly often through email so we kind of know what’s going on.  I know some of the things she’s been up to and likewise with me, but if we have something that we can share here, we’ll definitely put it out there so that maybe you guys can help in a positive way and we’ll try to filter out the flakes.  (Laughs)

MARY: (Also laughs)

TODD:  I just want to tell you to have a Merry Christmas this year, Mary.

MARY:  Thank you.  You too, and God bless, and I hope everybody gets to bring their loved ones home.

TODD:  Well that’s our hope.  And Merry Christmas to everybody and we’ll start a new year really soon.

MARY:  Yes.

TODD:  Goodnight, everybody.

MARY:  Goodnight.

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Guest: Mary Weir
Mother of "Samantha Bonnell"
Aired: December 25, 2007
Mother Solves Painful Mystery
Reconstruction photo that helped mother; Mary Weir,
to identify her daughter; Samantha Bonnell,
on the Doe Network.
Mother solves painful mystery

Anchorage Daily News
Published: September 18, 2007

WASILLA - Law enforcement didn’t help Mary Weir track down her missing daughter this spring. On her own, she found her daughter’s picture on the Internet and connected her to Jane Doe 17-05 in San Bernardino County, Calif.

Samantha Bonnell left her Palmer home two or three days shy of her 18th birthday and moved to California, Weir said. The last Weir heard of Samantha was a September 2005 phone call from her boyfriend saying she’d run off after a fight at a Montclair, Calif., movie theater.

It wasn’t until April that Weir learned her daughter died that night, struck by several cars as she ran across Interstate 10. Samantha had no identification on her and she lay unclaimed at the San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office until Weir called.

Alaska State Troopers took a missing persons report for Weir after Samantha’s luggage surfaced in South Carolina. Weir’s tenacity led her to the coroner’s office.

Still she wasn’t acting alone. She had help from Doe Network, a missing/unidentified persons advocacy group and from deputy coroner investigator David Van Norman, San Bernardino County’s unidentified persons coordinator.

Though the news was bad, Weir said Van Norman gave her the first comfort she’d had in 19 months. Finally she knew what happened.


“Can you imagine the courage it would take for a mother, terrified, not knowing the fate of her young daughter, to call a coroner?” Van Norman wrote by e-mail.

Weir’s call was the 160th attempt by someone to match a missing person with Jane Doe 17-05, Van Norman wrote.

He counts himself as an advocate for unidentified persons. His e-mail was at its most strident in criticizing law enforcement for what he sees as its relaxed attitude toward missing persons reports. He said he’s heard countless stories of people turned away while trying to report someone missing. And he was very critical of the National Crime Information Center report troopers made for Weir. “Samantha’s NCIC gave the date that she was last seen as six months after she died!” Van Norman wrote.

Lt. Kathy Peterson, who took the report, said that’s true, the dates were incorrect. But she was working with the best Weir could remember at the time. She pointed out that the other information that leads to matches - height, weight, hair and eye color - was correct. Definitive matches come from dental records, DNA or fingerprints, Peterson said. And she forwarded dental records Weir gave her to the state’s Missing Persons Clearinghouse to be entered electronically with the report. They were waiting to be entered when Weir called California, she said.

Weir and Van Norman both said Weir could have corrected the report had she been allowed to read it. Peterson said that generally those reports are confidential.

Van Norman said that about 100 bodies show up at his office every year and are labeled Jane, John or Undetermined Doe. He said 95 percent of those are quickly identified and claimed. But the unclaimed cases add up. Currently there are 250 active unidentified person cases in his office, he said.

Nationally, as of July, law enforcement lists 6,048 unidentified bodies and 106,255 missing persons, according to Todd Matthews, media director for Doe Network.

Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters said troopers know of 1,154 missing people as of Sept. 10 in Alaska. The number fluctuates daily, Peters said, as it includes 157 runaways, who are lost and found frequently.


The Web site on which Weir found Samantha’s picture, doenetwork.org , is run by a group composed of hundreds of members, dozens of whom are actively working to match missing persons with unidentified bodies nationwide, Matthews said by phone from Livingston, Tenn.

“I knew about her case before I knew Mary,” Matthews said. He hosts an Internet radio show devoted to unidentified bodies and missing persons and at one point interviewed Van Norman (Episode 15).

“He actually described a Jane Doe and that turned out to be Samantha,” Matthews said.

Almost all of Doe Network’s members have a story similar to Weir’s, Matthews said. He’s no exception.

In 1998, after 10 years obsessed with the case, Matthews managed to identify the body of Barbara Ann Hackman-Taylor, whose unidentified body was discovered by his father-in-law in 1968 in Kentucky. The story of his search is detailed on his Web site, tentgirl.com.

Matthews said that when Weir called him after having identified Samantha, he put her in touch with Hackman-Taylor’s sister to help Weir with what she was going through.

In his work with the Doe Network, Matthews said information is the one thing he thinks would help most in solving the problem of missing and unidentified persons. If law enforcement could create a standard missing persons report that is entered into a national database to be compared against other uniform reports, maybe the number of open cases would drop.

But the key is to get law enforcement to use the system.

“It’s not going to be effective if you don’t use it,” Matthews said. Until that happens, Van Norman’s advice for families of missing persons was clear.

“If any family, anywhere, is told by law enforcement that they will not take a report, that family should keep calling up the chain of command of the department, and keep on calling, through their legislative representatives, to the governor, if that’s what it takes,” he wrote.
Special Thanks to
with www.whokilledtheresa.blogspot.com
for transcribing this episode!