Some of them got into their cars and drove away, never to be seen again. Some left the house one morning and never came back. Years, or even decades later, their families still struggle to find out what became of their loved ones.
Now some relatives of the missing persons are pinning their hopes on genetic technology. They are providing samples of their DNA to a national database so it can be compared with DNA from unidentified bodies across the country.
"There are many families out there who are needlessly going without an identification and slipping further and further into a state of despair," said George Adams, a coordinator for the University of North Texas System Center for Human Identification, which processes genetic information for the missing persons database.
He is scheduled to address relatives of missing persons and law enforcement officers at an event sponsored by the Maryland Task Force for Missing and Unidentified Adults and Children in Annapolis this morning.
The group was formed by relatives of some of 57 people reported missing in Maryland, including two sisters of Bernadette Caruso, who was last seen on a Saturday evening more than two decades ago leaving Eastpoint Mall. Her family members long ago accepted that she is most likely dead, but they yearn for the closure of finding her body.
"Who's to say that my sister hasn't been laying somewhere in Maryland or in another state and we haven't been able to identify her?" asked Caruso's sister, Darlene Huntsman of Millersville.
More than 40,000 sets of unidentified remains sit in the offices of medical examiners and there are more than 100,000 open missing person cases across the country, Adams said.
The FBI sponsors a national database of genetic information pertaining to these cases, the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which compares information from relatives of missing people to found remains, Adams said.
Yet DNA has been collected from only a small fraction of relatives of missing persons, he said. The process of gathering it is quick and painless - a cheek swab - and the DNA is processed for free at the University of North Texas, one of three labs approved by the FBI to update the CODIS database.
"There is no backlog," Adams said, noting that his lab does not receive enough samples to keep its robotic system occupied. "They should be coming in by the thousands."
Huntsman and her sister, Susan Bowerman, expect to have their cheeks swabbed at today's event. They say that they plan to reach out to the families of other missing people and to urge law enforcement officials to take advantage of the genetic technology.
The sisters, along with Cathy Gardner, stepmother of Tracey Leigh Tetso, a Rosedale woman who disappeared on her way to a Motley Crue concert in March 2005, launched the task force a few months ago to push missing persons issues and to be a liaison between law enforcement and families.
"The impetus was frustration," said Susan Bowerman's husband, Sam Bowerman, a retired Baltimore County police detective who met his wife when he was investigating her sister's disappearance.
Adams said that missing persons units are often short-staffed and underfunded, yet he urged law enforcement officials to take advantage of the free service that his lab provides.
"There should never be a cold case involving a missing person," he said.
If you have a blood relative who is missing:
Contact the detective assigned to your missing person's case and ask to have a DNA sample taken.
Visit the task force's Web site, www.themarylandtaskforceforthemissingand unidentified.org.
Attend an informational meeting at 9:30 a.m. today at the Maryland Inn at 16 Church Circle in Annapolis.