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Profiles in DNA

Vicki Kelly

Executive Director of the Tommy Foundation


An interview with Vicki Kelly, executive director of the Tommy Foundation.

Would you share a brief summary of your story? 

My 17-year-old son Tommy Kelly disappeared on January 29, 1999, and never returned. The day after he disappeared, I called law enforcement. They took a report but said Tommy was "probably just a runaway," even though he had left his truck, his wallet, and his paycheck behind at our house. But law enforcement stuck to that theory, and we were told just to wait. 

Six days after Tommy disappeared, we went to the media, and they covered our story. Then four people called the station to report that on the day Tommy had disappeared, they had seen a boy who looked like him. He ran up to them with a gash on his forehead, what appeared to be a broken nose, his clothes drenched in blood and mud. He begged for help, saying "I've got to hide, they're after me," and then ran away. Some of these people reported the incident to law enforcement. But it took five more days for a detective to be assigned to the case, two and a half weeks for Tommy's information to be entered into the FBI's National Crime Information Center database, and more than three weeks for rescue dogs to be sent out. For the following year and a half, we pursued every lead, rumor, and tip, no matter how absurd. Then on June 13, 2000, my daughter heard on the radio that a skull had been found in a nearby irrigation ditch.   

Law enforcement concluded that the skull was Tommy's, but they said they would not search for the rest of his remains. "You have his skull-that should be enough," they told us. We went back to the media for help, and the corporation that owned the orchard where the skull was found agreed to hire their own crew to recover our son's remains. They found 25 bones. We asked for a meeting with the coroner to find out how they had determined the skull was Tommy's, but he told us he had no time for our "silly" questions. It was not until nine years later that we received a positive DNA identification of Tommy's remains from the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. On that day, our questioning, searching, and nightmare were over. Tommy was brought home to us.

What made it possible to identify your son's remains? 

For a year and a half, we did everything possible to find Tommy. We even staked out houses if we heard rumors that there was a boy who looked like Tommy staying there. We took horses and covered the wilderness areas. Every boy that looked like Tommy walking down the street, we would stop and check out. When the skull was found in Gore Creek on June 13, the media started calling and was there at our house all week waiting for identification.  

When we finally got the phone call that said the skull had been identified, I asked how it had been determined, and they said forensic odontology (dental evidence). I had a lot of questions, but they told us we just had to take their word for it that the identification was correct. We were told they were going to try to recover the rest of his remains, which were in a mile-long bed of blackberry bushes. But then we found out that law enforcement had called off the search because they didn't have the funds. They told us if we wanted to recover the rest of his remains, we would have to do it ourselves.

Did you ever find out why Tommy disappeared?

The night before Tommy disappeared, he had been at the home of Philip Bendell-a man we had known since he was a teenager. He was like another child in the family, and he lived with us for many years. Phillip had a methamphetamine problem, and we would take him in, get him clean, find him a job, and then suddenly he wouldn't come back. Sometime before Tommy disappeared, I had heard Phillip was back into meth, and that night Tommy was standing there with Phillip. I realized Tommy was high on meth, and I knew you don't confront anyone in that state. I looked at Tommy and said "we'll talk later." That was the last time I ever saw him-11:14 p.m.-the last minute I saw Tommy alive.

We knew that somehow Philip was involved in Tommy's disappearance, but law enforcement wouldn't bring him in. My daughter forced Phillip to go to the police, and he admitted introducing Tommy to meth and injecting Tommy with the drug the night before his disappearance. We don't know what happened after that, except for the moment that he ran up to four people and ran away.

The day after the skull was found, Phillip was arrested for the delivery of a controlled substance to a minor, a class-C misdemeanor, with a 90-day sentence.

What did you think of law enforcement's response in this case?  

The police just assumed he was a runaway despite all the evidence to the contrary. They took a report over the phone but never came to the house and interviewed us. It took seven days to assign a detective who came to the house. By that time, they knew something had happened. We wanted search and rescue sent out, and we were told dogs couldn't search in the rain, fog, and snow. It took three and a half weeks for them to send out dogs, and by then the scent was gone.

But around the time the skull was found, a new detective (Sergeant Fox) was assigned to the case. He understood how we felt and got us to talk about it. Over the years, when new information came up, he would follow through and let me know what was going on. Since the recovery [of Tommy's remains], law enforcement has done the best they can, and they take it seriously.

Law enforcement should always:

  • Go to the home;

  • Get a picture of the missing person;

  • Avoid assuming that the child is a runaway, even if he or she is a teenager. Any missing child is at risk for victimization and exploitation;

  • Immediately enter the child into NCIC (the FBI's National Crime Information Center database);

  • Listen to the parents, and keep the families involved and updated because they need to feel that they are helping and that law enforcement takes them seriously.

  • Work with other jurisdictions to solve the case;

  • Provide National Center for Missing and Exploited Children cards to the family;

  • Be aware that the federal Amber Alert legislation of 2004 classifies all missing persons up to the age of 21 as children. Police who know about this law will understand the importance of immediately taking reports on any missing person 21 or younger;

  • Inform families that victim advocates that serve the families of missing persons can offer them support and help in working with law enforcement.1


What was the role of forensic DNA in Tommy's case?

I saw an article about the President's DNA Initiative-how DNA was being used to identify previously unidentified human remains. There was always the possibility that the remains we had buried were not Tommy's. His father, sister, friends, and I hadn't entirely accepted the identification. On the advice of Jerry Nance, a case manager at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, I had kept a sample of Tommy's bones. When Oregon passed the new Missing Persons Law in 2008, we were able to have them analyzed by the University of North Texas Center on Human Identification, and the DNA analysis showed that the bones were Tommy's.

How did you become an advocate?

When Tommy was missing, I read John Walsh's book, Tears of Rage, and became enraged with everything that went wrong in Tommy's case. When we buried Tommy, I made a vow to become a voice for the missing. Just before the burial, something amazing happened. My daughter was in line at the store getting paper products for the wake, and a woman behind her asked if she was having a big July 4 celebration. She said, "no, these are for my brother's wake." People had been hearing about Tommy in the news, and the woman asked if she was Tommy Kelly's sister. My daughter mentioned that we were hoping to get some legislation passed on what to do when a child is missing. The woman said she was the wife of the majority leader of the Oregon Senate and that she would talk to her husband immediately. The senator called that evening, we met with him, and nine months later the Tommy Law passed unanimously in Oregon.

The Tommy Law requires law enforcement agencies to enter information about a missing child into the NCIC database no later than 24 hours after receiving a report that a child is missing. It also requires that police are trained to investigate and report cases of missing children. Also, it made it a class-A felony to apply a controlled substance to the body of another person. Under the Tommy Law, Phillip's mandatory sentence felony would be 20 years.

We also helped pass the Missing Persons Law of 2008, which requires law enforcement to offer families of missing persons the opportunity to submit a reference sample to be submitted to CODIS, the FBI's national DNA database.2

As we searched for Tommy, I got involved with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which was a wonderful source of information and support for us. I started as a volunteer for TeamHope, a support network for families of missing children, and eventually became its senior coordinator.3

What advice can you give other advocates to help families with missing children?

Victim advocates need to inform victims' families about NamUs and voluntary family reference samples.4 They can read Duane Bowers's book, Guiding Your Family through Loss and Grief,5 which has so many helpful ideas. For example, he talks about the term "closure." People shouldn't use that-there is a hole in my heart, and it will never go away. "Resolution" is a better word. Also, when talking about a missing child, ask the family to "introduce me to your child. What does she like to do-paint, play sports? Asking for an "introduction" establishes trust.

Do you have any final thoughts about your experience?

The experience of having a missing child is beyond description. Time stands still. We measure time before and after Tommy disappeared. Law enforcement, the media, victims' communities need to understand that you can never understand what families of missing children go through.

For more information about the Tommy Foundation, visit www.tommyfoundation.org.

____________________________


  1. Team/Hope of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (www.teamhope.org), for example, provides resources and suggestions for the family's search and interaction with law enforcement, as well as support and empowerment from someone who has experienced the trauma of a missing child.  


    Team/Hope of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (www.teamhope.org), for example, provides resources and suggestions for the family's search and interaction with law enforcement, as well as support and empowerment from someone who has experienced the trauma of a missing child.  

  2. Combined DNA Index System for Missing Persons (CODIS 6.1), also known as the National Missing Person DNA Database (NMPDD), is a database specifically designed to assemble data on missing persons and unidentified humans remains cases. CODIS 6.1 includes information on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA from unidentified remains, relatives of missing persons, and personal reference samples.


    Combined DNA Index System for Missing Persons (CODIS 6.1), also known as the National Missing Person DNA Database (NMPDD), is a database specifically designed to assemble data on missing persons and unidentified humans remains cases. CODIS 6.1 includes information on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA from unidentified remains, relatives of missing persons, and personal reference samples.

  3. For more information, see www.teamhope.org/who.html

  4. NamUs is an information hub, a unique system of two working databases, one of missing individuals in which families provide information about their missing loved ones and the other of unidentified human remains records held by law enforcement, medical examiners, and coroners. Both databases are available to the public and offer families with missing persons a way to connect online with information from coroners and medical examiners that might help the families determine what happened to their loved ones.


    NamUs is an information hub, a unique system of two working databases, one of missing individuals in which families provide information about their missing loved ones and the other of unidentified human remains records held by law enforcement, medical examiners, and coroners. Both databases are available to the public and offer families with missing persons a way to connect online with information from coroners and medical examiners that might help the families determine what happened to their loved ones.

  5. Duane T. Bowers, Guiding Your Family through Loss and Grief (Fenestra Books, 2005).


Vicki Kelly is executive director of the Tommy Foundation in Phoenix, Oregon; senior coordinator of Team Hope of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; and chair of the Law Enforcement Best Practices Committee of the Surviving Parent Coalition.


This project was developed with funding under cooperative agreement 2009-SZ-B9-K010 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed herein are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.