Author: Steve Friess, Special to the Tribune
March 5, 2004
He was the very definition of a drifter, a 45-year-old homeless man found dead on the pavement with no identification. For more than 18 months, he was known to the Clark County coroner's office merely as John "White Street" Doe, after the road where he was struck by a car and left to die.
Then, in late November, an acquaintance spotted a photo on the coroner's Web site and wrote an e-mail to the coroner suggesting that the deceased man might be Gary Kavanaugh. Investigators ran that name through their computers, found out that a Gary Kavanaugh had been fingerprinted years earlier during a misdemeanor arrest, matched the prints to that of the John Doe and then contacted next of kin in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
It's no surprise that many coroners are turning to the Internet to solve such mysteries, including the one in the Nevada county containing Las Vegas. But whereas others post sketches or photos doctored to make the deceased look alive, Clark County is the first in the nation to post online pictures of the dead -- sometimes showing gruesome injuries.
Indeed, at www.accessclarkcounty.net, a prominent box beseeches visitors to "help us identify human remains online." A few clicks later, the screen is filled with thumbnail-size pictures of the deceased that can be enlarged.
Warnings at the top of the pages state that "no decomposed remains will be shown," and some of photos have been digitally altered to erase some of the more horrifying trauma, but many remain difficult to view.
"These are not glamor shots," said Coroner P. Michael Murphy, whose office's site has photos for more than 30 of his 172 unidentified cases dating to 1969. "The real issue is to make sure we don't show too much. We're only putting up some pictures because in most cases there isn't any image we can use."
In Las Vegas, which provides the backdrop for "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," a CBS television drama popular for its gritty realism, the reality is that some cases are not solved for decades, let alone in an hour. Most coroner's offices have tiny budgets and lack the expensive, high-tech gadgetry of that show's forensic investigators.
Some criticize approach
Murphy said one reason his office chose to use pictures was that they already were in the case files; the department can't afford to hire a full-time sketch artist, he said. While some applaud Murphy for trying something new, others question the propriety of the approach.
"I just don't know if actual photos are the best way to accomplish this," said Sgt. Mike Harper, operations manager for the Alameda County coroner's office in Oakland, whose Web site provides only contact information. "A good description of the Doe and the circumstances would probably be just as beneficial as having a photo. . . . I don't think there's a need to go into the grotesque end of things."
And some officials, such as Cook County Medical Examiner Ed Donoghue in Chicago, concern themselves with reaching a smaller, local audience.
"It's a worthwhile project, and perhaps the pictures [on the Clark County site] could be improved with cosmetics and better lighting, but we'd like newspapers to publish our sketches instead because that's more effective in the local area," Donoghue said. "This is going all over the world, but we find that a targeted approach works better."
Jerry Nance of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children expressed concern that the photos could appeal to online fetishists. At the center, whose Web site also shows images of unidentified dead people, photos are doctored to show the person with a smile and open eyes, and with any trace of injury erased.
Aided in 14 identifications
So far, Clark County says its approach is working. Since the Web site's launch late last year, it has received more than 350,000 hits and has helped identify as many as 14 people, Assistant Coroner Les Elliot said. Most of those were resolved by Elliot and his staff by having investigators review the cases as they prepared the data for the Web site, but the Kavanaugh case is a clear-cut triumph that might not have happened without the Web, he said.
The problem of unidentified remains is a national challenge. While more than 95 percent of the dead are positively identified within a day of death, there are more than 5,200 cases in the FBI's National Crime Information Center database.
Experts believe that is fewer than 15 percent of all unresolved cases, but there is no law requiring law-enforcement agencies to enter their unidentified corpses into the system, so it's an incomplete data bank. California accounted for a disproportionate 2,188 of those cases, whereas Illinois had just 116 in the system as of Oct. 31, the most recently available statistics.
Use of the Internet to identify such people is just as scattered. Despite California's assiduous reporting and homegrown high-tech industry, no San Francisco Bay-area counties use the Web to disseminate information about their cold cases.
While smaller counties in such places as Aiken, S.C., and Hackensack, N.J., have sites with information about and images of unidentified people, such major cities as Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles have done little online.
But Todd Matthews of the Doe Network , a national organization of volunteers and relatives searching for missing loved ones whose Web site served as a model for the Clark County site, said the wider audience possible on the Internet can help. The Doe Network , however, does not post actual photos.
"I take a local case that would normally be heard within reach of the local newspaper and make it go global," Matthews said. "It's not unusual for a girl to go missing in a small Kentucky town and for people in Australia to know about it."
Police Detective John Williams of Henderson, also in Clark County, hopes so. He was a young police officer in 1980 when he first started trying to identify a teenage girl found slain on a desert road. All these years later, he's hoping he someday can bring justice to Jane "Arroyo Grande" Doe, the most vexing case of his career.
"If you look on TV, you'll see worse than what you see in this photo of my girl," Williams said. "If it's my daughter, I'd definitely feel bad to see a picture of her dead, but it would not bother me if someone saw it on the Internet or TV to give me some closure and family some closure.
"I'm sure things will offend people, but so be it. You got a young kid dumped in the desert. That's more offensive."