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July 23, 2014

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Cold cases go online, with respect for victims

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Tiffany Brown

An unknown woman rests at Palms Mortuary in Henderson decades after her death. A new online effort is aimed at helping authorities identify the dead.

Audio Clip

  • Coroner Mike Murphy emphasizes how important having a positive attitude is in his field.

Audio Clip

  • Coroner Mike Murphy discusses the personal side to being a coroner.

An unsolved case, 27 years cold, sits on Clark County death investigator Rick Jones’ desk. He flips through it every day, and sometimes on the weekend, because he can’t shake two simple facts: Jane “Arroyo Grande” Doe makes him think of his own daughter, just as someone out there must still be thinking of Jane “Arroyo Grande” Doe.

The popular estimate is that there are 40,000 unidentified human remains in the United States. Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy, like many experts, will tell you this number is conservative.

Buried or laid out in a coroner’s industrial cooler like unclaimed luggage, Clark County’s 162 unidentified dead are lost in a slow slipping from the earth, followed by the haunting of families that have no idea — the gnawing of not knowing.

In July, the Justice Department launched a Web site that allows anyone to search through photos of America’s unidentified dead, carefully cropped images compiled from coroners and medical examiners across the country. The site, called NamUs after the federal National Missing and Unidentified Persons Initiative, is an sign of just how much public opinion has changed. When Murphy launched a local version of the same online identification concept in 2003, he took considerable criticism from colleagues who thought it was too morose, too disrespectful of the dead.

Then his office identified 29 bodies.

Now the Justice Department is developing a missing person’s component to the NamUs site. The goal is to create a public database of missing people, then cross-reference it with the unidentified remains on record, in the hope that each match will close two cases at once. The government is trying to get this done by 2009. Murphy, who has been closely involved with the creation of NamUs, said it could take years.

Arroyo Grande Doe is one of the cases that now lives online, unresolved.

Death investigators estimate she was 14 to 20 years old when she was discovered about 9 on an October night nearly three decades ago, nude and face down in the desert near what is now the intersection of the Las Vegas Beltway and the street that became her name: Arroyo Grande Boulevard. Her photo, the one they can show online, reveals nothing of her homicide: blunt trauma to the head, stab wounds to the back. Her fingerprints and X-rays are still in the coroner’s case file, but she’s long since been buried in Henderson, under a headstone that says “Jane Doe, Oct. 5, 1980. From your family at the Henderson Police Department.”

And Jones, sitting in his cramped cubicle in the coroner’s office, still flips through her file, scanning for something he can hold on to.

•••

Bodies left to decompose in the desert do all kinds of things — swell and shrink, attract animals, bleach into bones. These bodies, discovered outside, make up most of Clark County’s unidentified, for a number of reasons. Bodies found in homes, hotel rooms or apartments give investigators more to go on; they can identify a person by his papers and possessions. People found outdoors are often homeless, and have no identification at all. Or they’ve been dumped, victims of foul play.

Roughly half of Clark County’s unidentified are homicide victims.

Left alone in the Southern Nevada heat, bodies go through a transition that’s not unlike meat drying into jerky, Murphy said. This complicates the death investigator’s first job, finger printing.

To rehydrate fingertips, the coroner must soak them for 90 days. Clark County medical examiners use embalming fluid to do this, though other coroner’s offices have been known to use Downy fabric softener.

When the fingers are printable, medical examiners run a ball of Silly Putty over the pads, capture the print and transfer it to paper. Silly Putty, as it turns out, works just as well as an expensive polymer sold for the same purpose, Murphy said.

Bodies left in damp environments start to waterlog and loosen. Layers of skin can slip off in neat sheets. Sometimes, inexperienced investigators will try to hoist these bodies up by the hands and the entire epidermis sloughs off. This is called “de-gloving,” Murphy said, and it presents its own problems. The only way to get fingerprints from de-gloved hands is for a medical examiner to slip the skin on and roll the prints himself, as if they were his own.

It’s one of those chores, Murphy said, that curls even the most experienced medical examiner’s toes.

Once prints are collected, they’re run through local and federal databanks to search for a match. When this doesn’t work, the medical examiners turn to secondary techniques. They’ve identified a few people through the footprints that were pressed when they were newborns. Foot ridgeology, like the swirled patterns and lines of fingertips, never changes.

In cases where body parts are missing, tattoos help. Once investigators found a torso, in the desert, and identified the victim by her birthmark.

When all other options are exhausted, medical examiners take X-rays of teeth and bones, looking to pinpoint an age range and unique characteristics.

Jane “Sahara Sue” Doe, for example, was discovered in 1979 outside what was then the El Rancho casino parking lot, a homicide victim with an unusual feature: Though she was only 17 to 21 years old, she had a complete set of dentures.

In years of searching national records, investigators have come across only one other missing woman that matched Sahara Sue Doe’s profile — a woman in Reno. It seemed as if that had to be her, so in 2003 they exhumed Sahara Sue, only to find out the DNA didn’t match.

Considering about 120 unidentified bodies are rolled through the Clark County Coroner’s office every year, with the vast majority identified within a matter of days, Sahara Sue is an exception to the rule. Still, she weighs on Murphy’s staff, just like all the others.

“We speak for the dead,” the coroner said. “These are the silent folks, and we have an obligation to speak for them. To carefully listen and to speak.”

Coroners across the country deal with different problem populations. In the states along the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s illegal immigrants. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s suicides. Murphy’s burden is people who come to Las Vegas to check out of life. It’s the people who come here to escape families, or hide from them, who are hard to identify when they die, and harder to trace to a family.

Determining unknown identities often boils down to DNA. The coroner’s office collects samples from family members and compares them with the DNA from the remains — if there’s something to work with. When only bones or teeth remain, medical examiners must send out samples to test for deep-drawn mitochondrial DNA, a complex process performed at only a few labs across the country.

One of those labs is at the University of North Texas near Dallas, where pathology professor Arthur Eisenberg directs the Center for Human Identification. A pioneer of DNA research, Eisenberg thinks the number of unidentified remains is a crisis on par with Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11, or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Our nation’s bank of unidentified bodies, he said, amounts to a “mass disaster over time.”

Eisenberg’s center receives federal funding to conduct DNA tests and identify remains for coroners throughout the country, free of charge. The center also collects tissue samples from family members of the missing and cross-checks them against databank of DNA that his center is slowly compiling from human remains. Just entering the information has lead to 19 “cold hits,” identifications no one was expecting, Eisenberg said. Tissue samples sent by coroners and medical examiners have bumped up the center’s identification total to 130.

It’s still not enough.

“How do you start an investigation,” Eisenberg said, “if you don’t know who you have?”

Part of the problem lies in the tendency of coroners and medical examiners to operate their offices like fiefdoms, he said. Murphy doesn’t disagree. Medical examiners have historically used different methods to catalog their unidentified remains. Others really haven’t bothered counting them, so surveys of the national numbers have never been complete.

Some coroners cremate unidentified remains because it’s cheaper than burial. This means testing the remains later, if a lead comes in, or technology advances, is more or less impossible.

Moreover, Eisenberg said, now that coroners are being urged to get their unidentified remains tested at his center, some are reacting as if it’s an insult to their own offices.

The tide is turning, Murphy said, and coroners are more willing to work together, but there is still a tendency toward isolationism that needs to be dealt with.

And DNA isn’t everything, either. Sometimes matches just don’t exist, and the death investigators are left to their lonely legwork. Jones has spent hours scouring online missing persons sites, looking for someone who resembles Arroyo Grande Doe. Other Clark County death investigators have formed a cold case unit, a group that reviews the old files in its spare time.

And for all this work, even when you get an identification, it’s a hollow victory.

Hollow because the thrill of putting a name to a case, Jones said, is quickly undercut by the task of telling someone his friend or family member is dead.

Some coroners use the word “closure,” but Murphy’s office doesn’t. Murphy doesn’t think his staff provides closure. So instead they say “resolution” and hope it heals more than hurts.

•••

There have been successes. Jones was once called to a suicide near Lake Mead. The dead man had no identification, so Jones collected prints. He entered them into the system and, after some searching, discovered that his man had a criminal record in Texas. He was a child molester who victimized his three daughters and spent time in prison for it.

Ten years after he was released, he became part of Jones’ caseload.

The death investigator tracked down the Texas prosecutor who handled the case, hopeful he could connect Jones to a family member. The attorney explained that the man had told his daughters he would come after them and their children when he got out of prison. So the three sisters decided to split up, to move to different cities and never contact one another again, never reveal where they were living. This way, they hoped, when their father got out, if he found one of them, he couldn’t use her to get to the others.

They lived this way for years, unknown to one another and petrified. Jones was able to find two of the women and report that the father they had spent a lifetime looking over their shoulders for, the man who they thought they saw in crowds, or down an alley, or in a passing car, was no longer.

“They knew the monster was dead,” Jones said.

The third sister has not been found.

But there’s an optimism in the coroner’s office, one that employees have to cling to if they’re going to last, Murphy said. So maybe Jones will find the third sister. Maybe Jane “Arroyo Grande” Doe will be identified. And even if she isn’t, maybe that’s OK for now.

“I often wonder why she’s the case that kind of started it all, and yet she’s the one that we’ve yet to identify,” Murphy said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever know who she is, but I know a whole bunch of folks have found homes as a result of her case, as a result of a case where we wanted to put a young lady to rest.”

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