A former NFL player persuaded politicians that his child ID kits help find missing kids. There’s no evidence they do.

Utah and at least 10 other states have agreed to distribute fingerprinting kits sold by Kenny Hansmire’s National Child Identification Program. Some are spending millions even though similar kits are available for free.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes' office set up a five-year, $1.7 million public-private partnership to provide fingerprinting kits to schoolchildren.

This story was originally published by ProPublica. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox. This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans.

Last fall, millions of public school children in Texas brought home envelopes that bore the state seal and read, “A gift of safety, from our family to yours.”

Tucked into each envelope were an inkpad and a piece of paper prompting parents to take their children’s fingerprints, record their physical attributes and get a DNA sample by having them suck on the corner of the form.

Every envelope also came with a warning: “Over 800,000 children are missing every year — that’s one every 40 seconds.”

The fingerprinting kits were produced by the National Child Identification Program, a Waco, Texas-based company that has persuaded lawmakers and attorneys general in at least 11 states to provide the kits, at times spending millions of dollars purchasing them. In Texas alone, lawmakers allocated about $5.7 million on kits for all students in kindergarten through eighth grade. They are currently considering funding additional kits for the next two years.

(Duane A. Laverty | Waco Tribune-Herald via AP) Then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry talks about National Child Identification Program Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2006, in Waco, Texas. At back is Ed Smart whose daughter, Elizabeth, was abducted in Utah in 2003. Perry was an early proponent of the program.

But similar kits are available for free from nonprofit and governmental entities, and claims made by the company about the number of missing children and the effectiveness of such kits are exaggerated, according to missing child and law enforcement experts.

“The organizations promoting the kits are preying on people’s fears,” said Stacey Pearson, a child safety consultant who oversaw the Louisiana Clearinghouse for Missing and Exploited Children during a 20-year stint with the Louisiana State Police.

Pearson called the kits “crime control theater,” a term used to describe criminal justice laws and policies that make people feel as though they are being proactive but in reality accomplish little. “They’re promoted as preventative measures, but they’re not preventative at all,” she said.

The National Child Identification Program, or NCIDP, is led by Kenny Hansmire, a former NFL player who has a string of failed business ventures, has racked up millions of dollars in outstanding federal tax liens, has twice pleaded guilty to felony theft and, in 2015, was sanctioned by banking regulators in Connecticut for his role in an alleged scheme to defraud or mislead investors, an investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found.

Hansmire has deep connections within the world of professional and college football, and he promotes those relationships while seeking support for his child ID kits from elected officials. He has offered to honor lawmakers and attorneys general at high-profile events such as football games, where he has handed out awards at pregame ceremonies and lauded supportive officials as child safety champions.

In touting his kits, Hansmire has cited a feature that he says makes them superior: They use a colorless chemical solution rather than the usual black ink, resulting in less mess. He said parents and guardians can store the kits at home and present them to law enforcement if their children disappear.

Over the years, Hansmire has claimed that the kits helped law enforcement identify multiple missing children and that officers say they are helpful in the early stages of a search.

In an interview last year with the news organizations, he recommended that reporters call various Texas law enforcement agencies and speak to “any policeman” about their effectiveness, specifically mentioning the case of a runaway girl in Dallas whom he said was found with the use of a fingerprinting kit.

The news organizations did just that, contacting 15 police departments and sheriff’s offices in the state’s major metropolitan areas, including three Hansmire mentioned specifically.

Out of the 11 law enforcement agencies that responded, none could recall using a kit to help find a runaway or kidnapped child. The executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas also said he could not think of a case in which the kits helped.

ProPublica and the Tribune also found that the startling figure Hansmire and his company have repeatedly cited to promote his product is inflated.

Eight hundred thousand children do not go missing every year. The figure, which comes from a 24-year-old Department of Justice study, is no longer accurate and overstates the scale of the missing children problem, according to David Finkelhor, a co-author of the report. Nearly half of the cases cited in the study, for example, are for children who are missing for “benign” reasons such as spending the night at a friend’s house or coming home later than expected, said Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

“It is a mistaken number to cite without any context,” Finkelhor said. “It sounds very scary and is not a good reflection of the number of kids who need serious law enforcement mobilization.”

Hansmire said his company’s messaging has shifted away from what he called the “historically high” number of missing children, though at the time of publication his website continued to feature the claim. But, he said, the number itself should not matter because “one missing or exploited child is one too many.”

Serial entrepreneur

A San Antonio native, Hansmire played in the NFL in the mid-1980s for the Houston Oilers and Philadelphia Eagles.

After retiring, he sought to reinvent himself as an entrepreneur. He teamed up with a Dallas inventor to form a company called Inkless Image Security Corp. in 1996 and later filed a patent application for an “inkless fingerprint methodology” that would allow businesses and other entities to verify the authenticity of documents.

In January of that year, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman disappeared while riding her bicycle near her grandparents’ home in Arlington, Texas. She was found dead four days later. Her murder got Hansmire thinking about the need for child ID kits, he later told the San Angelo Standard-Times. He pushed for widespread distribution of the kits, talking with police departments, churches and schools, but found no takers.

“Feeling beaten, Hansmire prayed about the situation, and, during the night, something told him to call Grant Teaff,” the story stated.

Teaff, a legendary former Baylor University football coach, had just become executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and was working to expand the organization. Hansmire quickly sold him on the idea of a program that would distribute free inkless child identification kits at football games across the country.

In a video last year celebrating NCIDP’s 25th anniversary, Teaff thanked Hansmire for his “vision, passion and relentless dedication” while describing Hagerman’s disappearance as a major inspiration for the collaboration.

“It took her parents several days to provide law enforcement with needed information,” Teaff said. “At the time, less than 2% of parents had copies of their child’s fingerprints.”

Arlington Police Department spokesperson Tim Ciesco disputed Teaff’s assertion that fingerprinting kits would have made a difference in Hagerman’s case, saying her parents provided a photo and basic descriptive details. “The bigger challenge for us was getting that information widely circulated to the public,” Ciesco said. The case was the impetus for the Amber Alert, a notification system for missing children.

Teaff did not answer questions about his relationship with Hansmire, the company or Ciesco’s comments. He did, however, express his continued support for the company.

The collaboration with the coaches association came at a critical time for Hansmire, who had faced a series of legal and financial troubles, according to public records.

In the decade before the partnership, Hansmire pleaded guilty to two felony charges — cattle theft in 1988 and theft by check in 1993 — and was convicted of drunken driving. He got 75 days in jail, a $500 fine and a one-year license suspension for the DWI. For the two felony charges, he received deferred adjudication, a process that lets people accused of certain crimes avoid a conviction if they successfully complete probation without any other violations. The terms of his probation included drug and alcohol programs and hundreds of hours of community service in addition to paying thousands of dollars in restitution.

Hansmire and various companies he founded were sued at least four times in the 1990s for unpaid debts including rent, according to court records. A judge ordered him to pay in three of those cases. He reached a settlement in the fourth case. He also began to rack up what would eventually become millions in federal tax liens, public records show.

Over the next decade, Hansmire pursued a series of entrepreneurial ventures that centered on college football all-star games in Hawaii and Texas. The companies, which faced several lawsuits and financial and public relations struggles, eventually fizzled.

In an effort to raise funds for his businesses, Hansmire linked up with a Connecticut securities broker named Dale Quesnel. Quesnel received $166,000 to persuade at least 10 investors to lend $1.9 million to Hansmire’s companies, according to public records. One of the promissory notes obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune shows Hansmire pledged to pay back the money at an interest rate of 12%.

The Connecticut Department of Banking investigated the scheme and found that the men defrauded or misled investors in violation of the state’s securities law. It determined that Hansmire and Quesnel failed to register the promissory notes they sold to investors and to notify them of the risks associated with the loans. In June 2015, the department ordered the men to stop seeking investments and to pay an undisclosed amount in restitution.

Quesnel failed to pay, according to a March 2019 settlement agreement his employer reached with the Banking Department. Neither he nor the employer responded to requests for comment.

Hansmire reached a settlement agreement with the state in which he admitted no fault but acknowledged the evidence against him. He agreed to pay restitution and not conduct certain types of finance-related business in Connecticut again. At the time, he said he didn’t have enough money to reimburse investors, records show. He later paid two of them $63,000, according to the Banking Department, which declined to say if that was the full amount Hansmire owed.

“As with most businesses, there have been legal disputes including the one with the State of Connecticut. Those matters have been properly resolved, closed, and are completely unrelated to the National Child ID Program,” Hansmire told ProPublica and the Tribune in an emailed statement.

A public filing shows that Hansmire and his wife had more than $2 million in outstanding tax liens as of October 2022 even after making a $374,000 payment. An IRS spokesperson would not confirm if that’s how much the couple still owes to the federal government, but publicly available records show that none of the liens had been released at the time of publication. That usually means that they have not been paid in full, the spokesperson said.

Hansmire’s wife did not respond to emailed questions. In his statement, Hansmire claimed to have “paid debts entirely.” He did not provide details or respond to additional questions about the tax liens.

Speaking broadly about his legal and financial troubles, Hansmire said: “We live in a society of second chances. My story is no different.”

“A gift of safety”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes addresses delegates at the Utah Republican Party 2023 Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University's UCCU Center on Saturday, April 22, 2023.

In the past four years, Hansmire has been increasingly successful in securing support from politicians despite persistent concerns about whether his kits are effective or necessary.

He has promoted the kits as a vital child protection tool alongside his former college football teammate and business partner Mark Salmans and Mike Singletary, an NFL Hall of Famer who played for the Chicago Bears.

“Our program enjoys bipartisan support from elected and unelected leaders who agree this is a gift of safety that provides parents with the peace of mind of knowing they can safely store most of the information law enforcement needs should their child ever go missing,” Hansmire told the news organizations.

Salmans did not respond to requests for comment or to detailed questions. Singletary declined to comment.

In 2019, the company hired lobbyists to push federal legislation that would bring in more business. One measure — filed in the House by Donald Norcross, a New Jersey Democrat, and in the Senate by Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican — would have allowed the U.S. Department of Justice to award grants to local law enforcement agencies to purchase child ID kits.

Twenty Republican attorneys general, including Texas’ Ken Paxton and South Carolina’s Alan Wilson, sent a letter to then-President Donald Trump urging him to support the legislation. In the letter, they noted that “the cost for protecting approximately 30 million K-6 students across America is just below $52 million.”

“Statistics show that more than 800,000 children go missing each year including runaways and those abducted. That is one child gone every 40 seconds. And we are seeing those statistics rise along with child sexual abuse, exploitation and human trafficking,” stated the letter, which was penned by Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.

Finkelhor, the child safety researcher, said a more accurate number to use is the FBI’s list of 30,000 active cases for missing children under 18, which better represents instances in which law enforcement agencies are working to locate them. Even the FBI’s figure, which includes runaways, can misrepresent the number of abductions in which children are hurt, killed or taken great distances by strangers, Finkelhor said. That number is just over 100 per year, according to multiple Department of Justice studies.

Emails obtained through public records requests show that staff members for Reyes and Wilson raised questions either about the 800,000 statistic or the effectiveness of the kits as their states pursued partnerships that extended beyond the support of federal legislation.

Reyes’ staff concluded the figure was far too high as the Utah attorney general moved to set up a five-year, $1.7 million public-private partnership to provide kits to schoolchildren, according to internal emails. The company ultimately agreed to remove the number from the kits it handed out to parents. Yet Reyes’ office included a breakdown of missing child statistics that added up to the figure when it issued a press release about the program last year. The office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In South Carolina, a top staffer for Wilson could find no evidence of the kits’ effectiveness, saying in a June 2021 email that investing in them was not an “an eligible or wise use” of dedicated funds for crime victims’ assistance. Despite the conclusion from his staff, Wilson emailed Hansmire the next day to say he was “very interested” in partnering with the company. Wilson’s office successfully lobbied lawmakers who appropriated $2 million last year to purchase inkless fingerprinting kits. NCIDP was awarded the contract in January.

Wilson did not respond to detailed questions.

Staffers for attorneys general weren’t the only ones warning about the company as it sought to expand its reach.

In correspondence with members of Congress, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children criticized the use of the 800,000 statistic, calling it erroneous. The nonprofit questioned why federal lawmakers would direct taxpayer money toward a specific company when “more robust, lower-cost/free kits are available to the public.” (The nonprofit, which was created by Congress during the Reagan administration as a national clearinghouse for missing child cases, is among a wide variety of entities that provide similar kits for free or for a lower cost.)

While pushing back against federal legislation that would specifically direct funding to NCIDP, center officials said the company’s kits lacked necessary educational programming to teach young students how to avoid and extricate themselves from dangerous situations.

“The legislation presents a false narrative that if a child ID program were funded through state Attorneys General, child abduction or runaways would not exist,” the center wrote in comments provided to lawmakers including Cruz.

Hansmire told the news organizations that the nonprofit’s concerns were “rooted in a funding turf war” but gave no details. He also said that NCIDP is planning to publish a new educational tool kit this year.

In the end, the legislation did not pass.

Norcross did not respond to detailed written questions.

Darin Miller, a spokesperson for Cruz, pointed to the company’s long history of support from leaders in Texas and in Washington, D.C., as a reason the senator filed the legislation.

The company “isn’t a controversial organization and child ID kits are not a controversial idea,” Miller said in a statement. “Senator Cruz was proud to introduce this measure to try and help keep kids safe.”

Neither Cruz nor other elected officials whom the news organizations reached out to responded to questions seeking examples of cases in which the kits helped locate missing children.

In an interview with the news organizations last year and during several other public appearances, Hansmire broadly pointed to the case of a runaway girl from Dallas.

When the news organizations reached out to the Dallas Police Department, a spokesperson said she was unaware of the case and asked for more information. Reporters returned to Hansmire seeking additional details to confirm the case.

He did not provide any of the requested details, instead responding in an email: “My apologies for the difficulty with the Dallas departments. The anecdote I mentioned was several years ago and would have involved one of the 50+ departments in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.”

“A very hot item”

Texas leaders have been instrumental in directing millions of dollars to Hansmire’s child ID kit business.

A key win came in 1998, when then-Gov. George W. Bush discovered the kits at a Texas A&M University football game and, according to Hansmire, requested some for his daughters. Two years later, Texas became the first state to distribute the kits to all of its 4 million schoolchildren. Voluntary contributions from various organizations and individual donors covered the cost, according to House and Senate resolutions.

After becoming president, Bush was also crucial in helping NCIDP land a formal partnership with the FBI to distribute kits across the country, according to Hansmire, who said the relationship ended around the same time Robert Mueller, a Bush appointee, left the bureau in 2013. Neither Bush nor Mueller could be reached for comment.

Bush is only one of the Texas politicians who have supported Hansmire over the years. During his tenure, former Gov. Rick Perry directed at least $3 million in public funding to the company to purchase kits.

The support stopped after Perry, who could not be reached for comment, left office to run for president. Then, during a committee hearing in April 2021, Texas state Sen. Donna Campbell introduced legislation that would not only reestablish funding for the kits but enshrine that commitment in state law.

Campbell repeated the claim that 800,000 children go missing every year while touting the importance of the program. “This bill seeks to help locate the missing children,” Campbell said during a hearing.

She said the bill was brought to her by Hansmire, Singletary and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. She proudly exclaimed that its passage would “make Texas the first state in the United States to legislatively implement this essential program.”

Then she urged her colleagues to support the measure, turning to the state’s famous refrain.

“And what do we say?” Campbell, who declined to comment, said during the hearing. “How goes Texas, so goes the nation.”

No one spoke publicly against the measure, but Gary Gates, a Republican state representative from Richmond, was among the few dozen lawmakers who voted in opposition to the bill.

“Nobody would really tell me: How are kids saved by this?” Gates, a father of 13 children, recalled in an interview.

“This program has been in existence for 20 years,” Gates said. “If it really was an effective program, someone would have gotten up there and cited statistics.”

The bill passed with large majorities in the state Legislature and was signed into law that June by Gov. Greg Abbott, who didn’t respond to detailed questions from the news organizations.

The Texas Education Agency then scrambled to finalize an agreement to get the kits out amid pressure from Patrick’s office and a looming kit price increase that the company blamed on its supplier, according to emails obtained under a Texas Public Information Act request.

“This is for a very hot item with the Lt. Gov’s office looking over our shoulder,” Patrick McGinnis, a contracts and grants accountability manager, wrote in an email to colleagues in August 2021. “And time is also of the essence as prices go up soon which means about 600,000 less Texas students can be served.” McGinnis didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Records show that the education agency determined it didn’t need to undertake a longer and more rigorous contracting process and instead gave NCIDP funding through a noncompetitive grant.

Patrick did not answer questions related to the comments from McGinnis about his involvement. In a statement to the news organizations, Patrick noted Texas’ long history with the program and its broad support base among the football community. He said the participation of Singletary, the NFL’s former Man of the Year, gave the company credibility. Patrick said Singletary did most of the talking when he and Hansmire pitched the kits during a meeting in early 2021. He said he didn’t remember meeting Hansmire previously.

“Anything we can do to speed the safe return of a missing child should be a priority for the state,” Patrick said.

Hansmire used Texas as an example later that year while speaking to attorneys general as he promoted the positive publicity politicians could get for purchasing the fingerprinting kits.

“We have a captured audience of parents and grandparents in our college and NFL games,” he said during a conference.

Then he laid out his plans in Texas. The state, he said, would distribute 3.6 million child ID kits. The company would give out a ceremonial first kit at a Dallas Cowboys game with Texas’ attorney general, Paxton, and the governor in attendance. Ceremonial kits would also be handed out at University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M and Houston Astros games, he said.

“We want our communities to know the great things that the AGs are doing, and it doesn’t hurt that you know half a million fans will know that in the great state of Texas,” Hansmire said.

Because of pandemic restrictions, none of those ceremonies occurred, according to Hansmire, who said he didn’t promise Texas officials awards in exchange for their support.

Hansmire honored numerous politicians for supporting the company at an October 2021 Green Bay Packers game in Wisconsin. Campbell, Patrick and Paxton were among those who received awards.

“As other Texans before me, I was focused on a program that could keep children safe. I was not looking for or asking for an award,” Patrick said.

Campbell and Patrick, who were seeking reelection at the time, promoted the recognition on their websites and in newsletters to constituents.

“Selling false hope”

(Evan Vucci | AP) Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry talks to reporters outside the Supreme Court, Jan. 7, 2022, in Washington.

A week after the ceremony in Wisconsin, Hansmire set his sights on a bigger prize.

In conversations with attorneys general from both parties, Hansmire learned that the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Attorneys General was receiving millions of dollars in interest payments annually.

The nonpartisan association provides training and advocacy for attorneys general across the country. Its foundation manages more than $100 million in assets from a 1998 multistate settlement with the tobacco industry. Interest from the fund typically goes toward education, research and training for attorneys general; enforcement of the settlement; and funding for the association’s programs and initiatives.

Some Republican members of the association have criticized it for accumulating large sums of settlement money that they argue should be distributed to individual states.

Hansmire told the news organizations that he had discussions with attorneys general in which they considered whether the association could use some of that money to help pay for the kits.

On Nov. 1, 2021, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry asked that the association’s executive committee set aside time at its next meeting to explore how “resources” could be used to support Hansmire’s company, explaining that “$9 million would fund a Child ID Kit for every kindergarten student in America.”

No member had ever made a request that large and much less one to support an outside organization, prompting Chris Toth, then the association’s executive director, to ask that staff to look into the company.

Two weeks after Landry’s request, Hansmire reached out to the president of the association, Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine. Racine, who had attended the Green Bay Packers game the previous month, is pictured holding an award alongside other attorneys general. In an email, Hansmire offered to host a reception in Racine’s honor with Singletary and various other former NFL players who were going to be there lobbying for federal legislation in support of the company.

A staffer for Racine declined the invitation a week before Landry made his pitch to the association’s executive committee.

At a Dec. 6, 2021, meeting, Landry proposed a grant program that would allow corporate sponsors to match the association’s contributions. Draft minutes from the meeting, which were obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune through a public records request, say that Landry wanted committee members to know what the company “will be able to do for the attorneys general. AG Landry states that there ‘has to be a quid pro quo.’”

It’s unclear what Landry meant by “quid pro quo.” Neither Landry nor Racine, who has since left office, responded to requests for comment.

The phrase, however, didn’t appear in the final version of the meeting minutes. That’s because Landry requested that it be removed, Toth said.

As the executive committee considered Landry’s request, association staffers began gathering information about the company and Hansmire that they considered troubling, including the 2015 Connecticut settlement, details of which are easily found on the state Banking Department’s website.

As part of its inquiry, association staff reached out to the FBI to ask about the agency’s relationship with NCIDP. On its website, the company claims to sell the only kit to have partnered with and been approved by the FBI.

In an email responding to the inquiries from the association’s staff, FBI attorney Thomas Aldridge said that the agency was no longer associated with NCIDP and that any mentions of the FBI should be removed from the company’s website. Neither the FBI nor Aldridge would comment.

“No one should rely upon statements made on the website as FBI endorsement, partnership, or approval for that organization or its products,” Aldridge wrote in the email obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune.

For his part, Hansmire said NCIDP’s website does not “reflect a current partnership” but rather a “historic relationship.”

Staff members of the attorneys general association completed their research and provided a report to the chair of the committee weighing the request for funding. At a Feb. 16, 2022, meeting, the board decided against the grant for NCIDP.

“While AGs overwhelmingly supported the request, NAAG staff did not want to lose control of how they spent the money,” Hansmire said in a written statement. He claimed that criticisms of his company largely stem from “the biased opinions of a former staffer of a national organization.” He did respond to questions about who he was referring to or how the person was biased.

Landry, who also received a copy of the staff’s findings, didn’t give up.

Nine months after the association turned down his request, he announced that his office, along with the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, was entering a partnership with NCIDP to provide kits to Louisiana students. Private partners would pay for the kits, according to his office.

At an Oct. 21 press conference announcing the partnership, Hansmire called Landry, who had declared a bid for Louisiana governor a few weeks earlier, “one of the top leaders in this country.”

Landry is one of at least five attorneys general who have begun partnerships with the company in the past year. That is disappointing, said Toth, who retired last year after 18 years at the association.

“Anyone can spend 20 minutes on the internet and realize there is something fishy about this guy,” Toth said in an interview. “I was flabbergasted that Hansmire was operating this way for so long, without anybody calling it out.”

“What really bothers me is he’s making a buck off of selling false hope,” he added. “This isn’t going to protect any children.”

Lexi Churchill contributed reporting.