Sketch of murder victim who was later identified as Reet Jurvetson Credit: Courtesy of reetjurvetson.com

Police in Los Angeles recently revealed that a publicly accessible government database helped identify a woman who was brutally killed in 1969.

Reet Jurvetson was 19 years old when she disappeared from Canada nearly 47 years ago and later was found dead – and unidentified ­– with 150 stab wounds near the location of the notorious Manson family killings.

As Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting reported in-depth last year, such Jane and John Doe cases no longer are impossible to solve, and there are fewer excuses police can give for failing to revisit them. The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, a database first launched with support from the federal government in 2007, played a critical role.

Detectives at the Los Angeles Police Department used what limited tools they had at the time in an attempt to identify the woman. But an important turning point came decades later when a cold-case detective added information about Jurvetson to NamUs, along with a post-mortem photograph of her.

A friend of Jurvetson’s was searching the NamUs website and came across Jane Doe No. 59 from Los Angeles. No missing persons report had ever been filed for Jurvetson, so connecting the Jane Doe with someone – anyone – who happened to know her was essential.

The friend contacted Jurvetson’s sister, Anne, and after they reached out to police, authorities proceeded with a DNA analysis, which ultimately led to a match last year. Not until last week, however, did authorities and Jurvetson’s sister go public.

Police said they interviewed Charles Manson, who’s been behind bars since 1969 for a string of infamous killings involving his followers, but nothing useful emerged regarding Reet Jurvetson’s slaying. So now they’re asking the public for any new information. Jurvetson reportedly had gone to Los Angeles to meet with a man she first met in Montreal named John or Jean, whom police still regard as a person of interest.

Meanwhile, although Jurvetson’s sister has requested privacy, she issued a lengthy statement. Anne Jurvetson wrote that the family had fled Estonia for Canada during World War II. As a teen, Reet Jurvetson “developed a taste for adventure and freedom” and headed to California after high school during the youth culture explosion there in the 1960s. Her family received a single postcard and never heard from her again.

“My little sister was savagely killed,” Anne Jurvetson wrote in her statement. “It was not what I wanted to hear … I can hardly grasp how she could have been stabbed over 150 times. It is devastating. I try to draw comfort from the coroner’s report that at least she was not raped, nor were there traces of drugs or alcohol in her system. … Nevertheless, I am horrified to think of how terribly frightened and alone she must have felt.”

Today, Anne Jurvetson is Reet’s last remaining immediate relative. Over the years, a forensic artist attempted to produce drawings of what Jane Doe No. 59 may have looked like while alive. But Anne Jurvetson said in her statement that they “did not resemble her in the least.”

That fact is important, as Reveal learned last year. Before the creation of NamUs, authorities in Las Vegas were among the first who were bold enough to place not only case information about unidentified human remains online, but also morgue photos of the victims. Despite layers of warnings that the site contained images of deceased individuals, former Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy told us last year that the site was controversial when it went online in 2003.

“The pushback we got from people in my own business was that it was inappropriate, that it was sacrilegious, that we shouldn’t do it,” he said. “All the things you could imagine that you can think of on the negative side. And then within 24 hours, we got our first hit.”

Other hits followed, enough so that Clark County pressed ahead. Coroners and medical examiners around the United States shed their own anxieties and began doing the same. Following a 2004 nationwide survey of coroners and medical examiners, the U.S. Justice Department assembled a group of experts to come up with a larger strategy on the unidentified dead.

From the panel’s conversations, NamUs was launched in 2007 to match biological details of the unidentified dead to reports of missing people across the nation. But as we reported last year, NamUs is a voluntary database, and many officials still choose not to use it, nor do they always take advantage of other modern forensic services. Reveal reported that efforts to expand the reach of NamUs in Congress repeatedly have failed to gain traction.

Nonetheless, the publicly searchable version of NamUs is what enabled Reet Jurvetson to reclaim her identity.

“Because we now live in the age of the internet, where information overflows and where all kinds of websites exist,” Anne Jurvetson wrote in her statement, “the last steps to identifying my sister were enabled. This would have been impossible even twenty or twenty-five years ago.”

G.W. Schulz can be reached at gwschulz@cironline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @GWSchulzCIR.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.