Volunteer works online to track missing people

Montgomery Co. woman helps crack cold cases

April 20, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Kylen Johnson, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mother of two, spends most days-- and frequently well into the nights--toiling at her computer in her western Montgomery County townhouse, trying to crack missing-persons cases.

She has solved mysteries that have stumped law enforcement officials for years. In the past three years she has provided authorities across the country with information that helped to close four cold cases -- two in Maryland.

Johnson does her sleuthing for the Doe Network, an international Web site with a network of volunteers who work with law enforcement to locate missing persons and identify human remains.

Her most recent discovery made it possible for Maryland State Police to identify a woman whose remains were found eight years ago in western Howard County at the bottom of a steep embankment near Interstate 70. Johnson matched the woman's Jane Doe case profile on the Doe Network to another profile on a Crime Stoppers Web site of a missing woman from Pennsylvania.

Dental records confirmed that the two Web sites described the same woman-- Tonya Gardner of Reedsville, a town in central Pennsylvania.

"It's like an online mystery to me," said Johnson, the Doe Network's coordinator for the Maryland, Washington and West Virginia area.

Her work has earned the respect of investigators with the state police, who often consult with her on cases.

"I'd hire her tomorrow; she's great," said Cpl. Linda Lozier, with the homicide unit. "When she calls and suggests ideas, we definitely listen to her."

Johnson, formerly a press technician for newspapers, said her interest in missing-persons cases came about by chance, when she stumbled across the Doe Network Web site one day. The organization was founded in 1999 by a Michigan woman.

"I was shocked at how many people were missing. They're somebody's mother, father, sister, brother," said Johnson, who has never endured the disappearance of a family member.

Since becoming the Doe Network's area coordinator in 2001, Johnson has made it her mission to help families desperate for answers.

She passes on tips to her law enforcement contacts across the country and alerts authorities to potential matches. Every day, she scours Maryland newspapers for articles on missing persons or unidentified victims to post on the Doe Network.

Johnson said she sometimes works more than a 40-hour week, pursuing matches on missing-persons Web sites.

"I read these stories of these missing people, and I'm so sad for the families that I've got to find out what happened," she said. "Next thing I know, I'm up at 3 in the morning, comparing this person to bodies found across the United States."

A mystery fan, Johnson said she also enjoys the search for answers.

"My shelves upstairs are nothing but true-crime books," she said.

Lozier said that one of Johnson's strengths is finding match possibilities that might not look promising at first.

"If a missing person is 55, she doesn't stick to looking for possible matches that are only 55," she said. "She broadens the scope of her searches, which is why she's so successful."

Johnson used this skill to identify Tonya Gardner.

In her most recent match, Johnson found a missing-person profile on the Pennsylvania Crime Stoppers Web site that described Gardner, a woman in her 50s, who hadn't been seen since June or July of 1996. Her remains were discovered in Howard County that August.

Johnson remembered the case, but had doubts that Gardner was a match because the Jane Doe profile said the woman was between 27 and 35.

But the Gardner profile also mentioned a large scar on the back of her neck. That fact set off alarm bells for Johnson, who recalled that the autopsy on Jane Doe showed that she had had an operation to treat a rare congenital brain condition.

"I started wondering, `Well, there's this unidentified case,' and remembered she had a rare disorder," she said. "So I sent the profile off to the Maryland State Police."

The match was confirmed this month through dental records, and Gardner's family was notified.

Dr. Warren Tewes, the lead forensic dentist with the state's office of the chief medical examiner and a Doe Network volunteer, confirmed the match.

He said he communicates with Johnson by e-mail about twice a day to share information on missing-persons cases.

"She has a fantastic memory," said Tewes, a faculty member at the University of Maryland Dental School.

"With what she does and what she has to work with, I can't beat the drum loud enough on her behalf," he said.

In addition to volunteering with the Doe Network, Johnson created the Web site www.marylandmissing.com, which focuses exclusively on missing persons from Maryland.

She gathered most of the information from police Web sites, but some departments wouldn't release the missing-persons cases. She then turns to other sources, such as newspaper archives.

She said there's a need for the site because the state police missing-persons Web site lists only cases involving children.

"I get tips and e-mail from family members who count on this Web site," she said.

Johnson said she's considering going back to school to study forensics or pathology.

"In a way it's like an obsession with me, but not like it's a bad thing," she said of her avocation. "It's hard to explain."

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