Web Helps ID John and Jane Does

BY RANDY DOTINGA
Wired News

April 19, 2003

Maybe a Web surfer will finally give a name to Jane Doe #13-01, found dead in the desert east of Los Angeles with bright yellow flames painted on her fingernails. Or perhaps an identity waits online for another woman whose long, flowing black hair would have been as distinctive in life as it was on the skeleton discovered in a Southern California ditch.

Both women are among hundreds of unidentified dead people whose faces, body measurements and dental records are being posted on the Internet by coroners and volunteers. They're tapping technology -- and each other -- to solve cases that reach back decades.

The communications are so open now," said Todd Matthews, a Tennessee amateur detective who helps run The Doe Network. "I don't know if people realize how much has changed." The site allows visitors to search through a long list of unidentified bodies without having to contact a homicide detective or coroner.

No one knows exactly how many John and Jane Does lie in morgues or pauper's graves nationwide, but California is home to at least 2,100, according to state statistics. The trick is to match the bodies with reports of missing persons from around the country and the world.

The Orange County Coroner's Office in Southern California was one of the first to take advantage of the Internet. About four years ago, senior deputy coroner Kurt Murine began posting information about some 50 unidentified bodies going back as far as 1970.

Visitors to the coroner's website can see artist's sketches of the faces of men and women whose bodies were discovered on beaches or in the mountains. While none of the bodies has been identified, the site has allowed detectives to quickly look through the county's files, Murine said.

"They're able to log onto our website, see the thumb print and the dental information, and rule out or rule in a possible match within a minute or two," he said. "It's shaved a lot of time off faxing information back and forth, mailing information and charts."

The general public can also look at the website, but Murine isn't optimistic about a match coming that way. "I'm not holding my breath that someone will stumble upon a sketch of their lost uncle, but there's always hope," he said.

In fact, the Internet has already played a role in reuniting bodies with their identities. Volunteers working with the Doe Network have matched four bodies to names.

Matthews, the site's media director, spent 10 years on an unpaid search for the identity of "Tent Girl," a young woman found wrapped in a tent cloth in Kentucky in 1968. Matthews, who works as a quality control auditor at an automobile plant, discovered her identity and now spends his free time promoting the Doe Network.

The website taps into a network of amateur detectives and professional forensic artists to help find the true identities of John and Jane Does.

Detectives often neglect the cases because they have more pressing matters to worry about, Matthews said. "With a missing person you have a family. With unidentified persons, you have no one to complain. They're certainly not going to complain."

The majority of coroner and medical examiners don't take much advantage of the Internet, and the federal government's database of unidentified bodies isn't open to the public.

But coroner's and medical examiner's offices from New York City and Atlanta to Colorado and Iowa have followed Orange County's example. They each offer information about unidentified bodies, as do several others listed on the Doe Network's website.

Elsewhere in Southern California, coroners in sprawling San Bernardino County plan to post information about cases like the long-haired woman found in a ditch and the woman with flames on her fingernails, said supervising deputy coroner investigator David Van Norman.

The San Bernardino County coroner has already ventured online to solve another kind of forensic mystery -- so-called "unclaimed persons." Run by the county, visitors will find a long list, of the names, ages and death dates of people who were found dead in the area but were never claimed by relatives.

If they have little or no details about the family of a dead person, coroners often can do little more than flip through out-of-town phone books looking for relatives. In one case, Van Norman called everyone in the state of New Mexico with a particular last name.