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Investigators identify cold-case murder victim

February 23, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
It took 16 years for detectives to solve an Ontario teenager's disappearance and bring closure to an immigrant family. It only happened because of two dedicated investigators.For 16 years Dawn Sihakhom's whereabouts remained a mystery. The 17-year-old Ontario girl ran away in 1993 and police initially wouldn't take a missing persons report. Dawn's family, Laotian immigrants, didn't press the police.

Fast forward to July 2009 and a chance encounter at a McDonald's restaurant in Riverside. Dawn's sister ran into a man wearing a T-shirt that read "Missing Children's Poster Partners," an organization run by the man's wife, Becky Castillo, who is also a volunteer with the San Bernardino County Coroner's Department. The sister contacted Castillo, who urged her to file a missing person report with the county sheriff's department.

"There's a myth that there's a 24-hour waiting period," said Becky Castillo. "There is no waiting period in the state of California, or the United States, to take a missing person report."

Becky Castillo also convinced Dawn's family members to submit DNA samples. That information could then be entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a federal database, and could be matched with an unidentified body.

As Castillo began reviewing cases, she came across the L.A. County Coroner's "Jane Doe #7," a teenage girl found dead in Sierra Madre on February 7, 1993, just days after the last contact Dawn had with her family.

"You're going to look at time of death, the physical characteristics, the location, there's a lot of things you're looking at that are giving you the probability or the possibility," said Castillo.

On September 10, 2009, 107 days after the police report was taken, Castillo found a DNA match and revealed the identity of Jane Doe #7.

"I believe I've brought closure to this family, they can move on, it may not be the answer they wanted but they have an answer," said Castillo.

But too often that doesn't happen, and it's frustrating for Castillo and for San Bernardino County Deputy Coroner Investigator Dave Van Norman, who's been working to improve the way missing person reports are handled.

"What's absolutely essential and unfortunately what's not happening is the missing persons case must have dental records, fingerprints and DNA, submitted to the same searchable data bases because that's where the match would be made," said Van Norman.

But Van Norman says most families have no idea that's the case, and he says it's up to law enforcement to make sure they do their part to enter this necessary information into the appropriate databases.

"The fact is, an unidentified person who is identified, that gives us an opportunity just like it did with Dawn, to attempt to apprehend the person who did this to her," said Van Norman.