Doe Network finds identities for unidentified bodies

Doe Network finds identities for unidentified bodies

April 14, 2008
The Kansas City Star

“If it can give one family answers or if it can put a name with one set of bones, then it’s all worthwhile,” Traycie Sherwood of Richmond, Mo., said of her work with the Doe Network, a group that tries to find identities for unidentified bodies.


As Traycie Sherwood sits in the living room of her home, a glass of diet Mountain Dew beside her, the hours tick away.

She’s there most nights, sometimes until 1 or 2 or 3 in the morning.

She stares at a 17-inch computer screen, and there, staring right back at her, are the vacant eyes of dead people. And grisly post-mortem photos. And age-progression sketches.

Sherwood can’t look away.

“I lose all track of time,” she said.

Sherwood is a member of the Doe Network, a nationwide consortium of volunteers who dedicate countless hours to a single purpose: finding identities for unidentified bodies.

They’re trying to bring answers to grief-stricken families, to let them know what happened to their missing loved ones.

“Every solve we have is bittersweet,” said Sherwood, who helped crack a Missouri case in 2005. “Somebody is going to get a phone call.

“But at least they know what happened. They have some closure.”

That’s what the Doe Network is all about.

Founded as a Web site in 1999, the Doe Network now claims more than 500 volunteers nationwide. People such as Sherwood, a Missouri state employee who carves out volunteer hours between life in the workaday world and trips to the grocery.

People like Shelley Denman of Spring Hill, whose personal tragedy led her to the network in 2002. Denman, a vice president of Peoples Bank, was shocked to learn that her husband’s sister and the sister’s two children went missing from their Independence home in 1974.

None has yet been found.

“The not knowing, to me, is just devastating,” Denman said. “The loss, the unanswered questions …

“It’s extremely important that people be offered closure. And there’s no way law enforcement alone could dedicate the time or the resources to sit down and make all these matches.”

So she and hundreds of others sit in front of their computers, looking not only at cold cases involving their own families but also at victims throughout the country.

They find reports online of unidentified bodies. They study the body, or at least the body’s demographics: gender, race, height, weight. They look for identifiable markings, such as tattoos or birthmarks. They note in what part of the country the body was found and the approximate age of the victim.

Then, they look for a match.

They scour the Internet for missing persons reports, tapping into any of a number of Web sites: www.DoeNetwork .org, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the North American Missing Persons Network.

It’s a tedious, time-consuming task. Sherwood said she might spend months, even years, trying to find a match for a single body.

If she or other volunteers find a potential match, they forward it to a panel of volunteers with the Doe Network. Each panel member looks at the possible match, then “votes” as to whether the match should be forwarded to law enforcement officials.

The Doe Network wants to assist local police departments, not overwhelm them, and this is the network’s way of weeding out unlikely matches.

Every year, more than 300 potential matches are passed along to various law enforcement agencies. So far, the Doe Network has solved or assisted in solving 42 cases.

One of them was in Missouri, where a man’s head was found in Kearney in 2001.

The detective in charge of the case, Sgt. Tom O’Leary of the Kearney Police Department, contacted the Doe Network and asked that the case be added to its Web site. More than three years later, a network volunteer in Mississippi found a potential match that was eventually sent to Sherwood.

Sherwood contacted O’Leary, who confirmed the identification in 2005.

The victim: Gregory May of Bellevue, Iowa, a Civil War buff whose body was dismembered and discarded by a man who then stole May’s Civil War artifacts. The killer was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

“The Doe Network is definitely what solved the case,” O’Leary said. “It wasn’t something I found on my own.

“I had a great experience with them. They were sending me stuff regularly during the course of my investigation, and it was a huge asset.”

That’s what motivates people like Sherwood, what keeps her going.

It’s the reason her computer is bookmarked with Web sites such as the Las Vegas coroner’s office site, the reason she pores over descriptions like this one: “The man was shot three to five times in the head and torso with a large caliber pistol, and his body was stuffed into a black garbage bag.”

It can be overwhelming at times, emotionally taxing.

“There are times when I have to walk away,” said Sherwood, 42.

But she always comes back, ready again to scour the Internet or drive several hours to rural Warren County in Missouri, where a headless, limbless torso was found in 2004.

This is her passion, her calling. Her boyfriend and his 4-year-old daughter understand why it means so much to her.

She learned of the network from a friend, a retired homicide detective who encouraged her to check out the site.

She did, spending several somber hours at her desk one afternoon while the magnitude of the problem became ever more obvious.

“The shock value of my first visit to the site,” she said, her voice tapering off. “There was just so much there. I was astonished.”

Why? Because there are more than 40,000 unidentified bodies in the United States and more than 100,000 people listed as missing. Sherwood wants more than anything to put even a small dent in those numbers.

“If it can give one family answers,” Sherwood said, “or if it can put a name with one set of bones, then it’s all worthwhile.”

To reach Steve Rock, call 816-234-4338 or send e-mail to [email protected]