About 4,000 unidentified corpses turn up in the U.S. every year, of which about half have been murdered. Can the Internet help?
The public seems fascinated, if not obsessed, with crime-solving, if the high ratings of TV shows such as “CSI” and “NCIS” are any indication. The interest in crimes often proceeds from the high-profile identity of the victim or perpetrator. Think of the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, the vanishing of Jimmy Hoffa or the trial of O.J. Simpson. At the other end of the spectrum are crime victims who have no identity at all.
These are the John Doe and Jane Doe corpses that are found without any papers or other identification markers. Even in an age when we are tracked electronically by our phone companies at every single moment, about 4,000 unidentified corpses turn up in the U.S. every year, of which about half have been murdered. In 2007 no fewer than 13,500 sets of unidentified human remains were languishing in the evidence rooms of medical examiners, according to an analysis published in the National Institute of Justice Journal.
In her brilliant book “The Skeleton Crew,” Deborah Halber explains why local law enforcement often fails to investigate such deaths:”Unidentified corpses are like obtuse, financially strapped houseguests: they turn up uninvited, take up space reserved for more obliging visitors, require care and attention, and then, when you are ready for them to move on, they don’t have anywhere to go.” The result is that many of these remains are consigned to oblivion.
While the population of the anonymous dead receives only scant attention from the police or the media, it has given rise to a macabre subculture of Internet sleuthing. Ms. Halber chronicles with lucidity and wit how amateur investigators troll websites, such as the Doe Network, Official Cold Case Investigations and Websleuths Crime Sleuthing Community, and check online databases looking for matches between the reported missing and the unidentified dead. It is a grisly pursuit involving linking the images of dead bodies to the descriptions posted by people trying to find someone.
Ms. Halber devotes most of “The Skeleton Crew” to describing a handful of cases that have given rise to this bizarre avocation. It started with an infamous Kentucky crime known as the Tent Girl Case: The victim was known only as Tent Girl because her body was found in 1968 inside a canvas tent bag. The hero of the story is Todd Matthews, a factory worker in Tennessee. Mr. Matthews became fascinated with the mystery in 1988, when he was still a teen, but was unable to find any clues to her identity until a decade later, when he stumbled on new information on the Internet. In 1998 he began searching forums and found one for lonely hearts and genealogy that had an intriguing post from a woman still looking for her long-lost sister, Barbara Hackmann-Taylor.
Barbara had vanished in late 1967, on a date not far from the time when the Tent Girl was found. She had lived near the Tent Girl’s locale, and her sister’s description roughly matched that of Tent Girl. Mr. Mathews wrote the Kentucky police, who arranged for the remains of Tent Girl to be exhumed and her DNA to be tested. Eureka, it matched, and Tent Girl finally had a name. Mr. Matthews later founded the Doe Network, which became a nexus for curious citizens who wanted to follow in his footsteps.
Ms. Halber superbly reports on this morbid new subculture. Aside from Tent Girl, she describes such odd cases as the Lady of the Dunes found in Cape Cod, Mass., in 1974; the Jane Doe in a red T-shirt who was found in Baltimore in 2000; and what Ms. Halber calls the “head in the bucket” case from Kearney, Mo., in 2001. Besides interviewing the Sherlock Holmes wannabes who have pursued these cases, Ms. Halber talks to police officers, forensic experts and medical examiners. She even attends grisly autopsies. As a result, we learn many unusual details: A human skeleton, it turns out, will fit in a 200-square-inch box.
But the focus on anecdotes, as interesting as they are, diverts attention from a larger question. Just how many murders do these amateur sleuths help solve (if one considers cases like Tent Girl, where the murderer was never discovered, to be solved)? Ms. Halber estimates that, since the identification of Tent Girl in 1998, roughly 30,000 unidentified murder victims have been discovered. The posse of amateur sleuths, as far as I can see from her book, have helped police crack no more than a dozen cases. So 99.99% remain unsolved.
The key to finding a solution to the stockpile of unidentified corpses, I would suggest, is not Internet sleuthing or crowdsourcing the identification of images of human remains, but increasing the efficiency of the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database. At present, the NCIC stores more than 100 million fingerprints in its automated fingerprint-identification system and is in the process of developing a national DNA- matching system. Its computers and software need to be upgraded to better mesh with those of local police, sheriffs and medical examiners. Once that task is accomplished, it has the potential to greatly (and speedily) reduce the population of the unidentified dead.
Amateur sleuths, no matter how great their dedication, simply lack the resources. Because of legitimate privacy concerns, they do not have access to this FBI database. To be sure, they now can use a government-run website called National Missing and Unidentified Person System to find a roster of fresh cases, and they can continue searching for macabre matches on the Internet. And amateur sleuthing provides great satisfaction to armchair detectives, the author makes clear, not only in America but in such far off places as Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Indonesia. Ms. Halber’s real service is to bring to light the workings of this fascinating new subculture and one can expect her entertaining book will only add to their numbers.