Amateur sleuths use the Web to help solve cases gone cold

Amateur sleuths use the Web to help solve cases gone cold

April 14, 2008
The Montgomery Advertiser
By Marty Roney

Shelley Denman spends her spare time with ghosts.

The Kansas City, Kan., mortgage banker does her work by the flickering light of computer monitors or by gleaning bits of information from dusty files in state and local libraries.

She's the Alabama media representative for the Doe Network, a nationwide organization of amateur sleuths who spend their free time trying to solve murder and missing person's cases gone cold. The network works to get unidentified bodies -- the John, Jane and Baby Does of the world -- identified.

"We have a project called EDAN, for Everybody Deserves a Name," she said. "These are people who had lives. They are someone's son or daughter. We want to give these people their names back, and bring them back to their families."

Denman said she can spend several hours a week of her free time trolling cyberspace and record rooms for clues.

She watches Alabama cases carefully. Her sister-in-law, Freida Denman, went missing some 30 years ago. Freida Denman's husband lived in Alabama off and on and had served time in a state penitentiary and county jails throughout the state, Shelley Denman said.

She has accepted the fact that Freida Denman is probably dead. Her two children and husband simply disappeared after she went missing, Shelley Denman said.

"There are so many cases out there," she said. "We work with other outlets like the Center for Missing and Exploited Children to try and find information. Then we forward that information to law enforcement to allow them to do their jobs."

It's not an easy task finding names for the unknown dead. According to federal law en forcement records, there are more than 40,000 cases of unidentified bodies across the country. There are more than 100,000 reports of missing persons. Some of the cases date back several decades.

The premise of the Doe Network is simple. If the correct information -- dental records, DNA, police reports, photographs -- is properly entered into the right databases, many of the unidentified can be matched with the missing. Law enforcement agencies and medical examiners' offices simply don't have the time or manpower to do the necessary research to identify unknown bodies. But using the Internet and other tools, volunteers can do the job.

The network includes people with normal jobs -- truck drivers and schoolteachers -- and members with law enforcement and forensic backgrounds. Often the identification effort uses artists' sketches or clay facial reconstruction techniques. The methods, used for badly decomposed bodies or skeletal remains, try to portray what a person looked like.

The Doe Network got its start in 1999, and since then 42 cases have been solved with input from the network, Denman said. There are more than 1,000 members of the network nationwide.

There are 36 cases of unidentified bodies in Alabama, records at the Department of Public Safety show.

"Some of our investigators have had contact with the network, but no Alabama cases have been solved due to information they have forwarded," said Dorris Teague, a spokeswoman for the DPS. "The ABI (Alabama Bureau of Investigation) in their offices throughout the state have agents that check on older, unsolved cases. Sometimes the review is because new information comes in."

Cases listed on the Doe Network's Web site with local connections include:

Unidentified white male, whose skeletal remains were found Jan. 14, 1977, near I-85 on Wire Road in rural Macon County. It is estimated his remains were there some 16 months before being discovered. The man was estimated to be 20 to 25 years old. His remains were found sitting under a tree about 100 feet from the roadway. Investigators believe he may have died from a snakebite or from a heart attack while sitting under the tree waiting for a ride.

Unidentified black male, whose body was found floating in the Alabama River in Montgomery County on July 8, 1997. His age is unknown; he was 6 feet tall and weighed 132 pounds. He had natural teeth that showed good dental hygiene. There was a well healed surgical scar on his left knee.

Unidentified black male, whose body was found March 28, 1999, along U.S. 80 in Dallas County about 10 miles east of Selma. His death is believed to be a homicide and investigators beleive his body had been there about a year before it was discovered. He was wearing a red and blue winter shirt, black winter coat, black pants and Rockport shoes. Near the body, investigators found a sports bag that held a change of clothes.

Jamie Donovan of Montgomery stumbled across the Doe Network site about six months ago. The first few times he clicked to retrieve images from the site "kind of freaked me out."

"It's disturbing because you realize these people wouldn't be on this site unless they were dead," the draftsman said. "It's spooky to see a dead person staring back at you from a computer screen. I guess it's just human nature, that we are attracted to this type thing, while being shocked at the same time."

He said he spends six to eight hours a week looking for clues.

"It's not an obsession with me, but it bothered my wife at first," he said with a laugh. "I'm really not an investigator. All I can do is put some words in Google and go from there. It's like working a big jigsaw puzzle, except most of the pieces are missing and you don't know what the picture is supposed to look like when you're done."

His comments seem to echo across the nation.

In the suburbs of Chicago, bank executive Barbara Lamacki spends her nights searching for clues that might identify toddler Johnny "Dupage" Doe, whose body was wrapped in a blue laundry bag and dumped in the woods of rural Dupage County, Ill., in 2005.

In Kettering, Ohio, Rocky Wells, a 47-year-old manager of a package delivery company, scoots his teenage daughters from the living room computer and scours the Internet for anything that might crack the case of the red-haired Jane Doe found strangled near Route 55 in 1981.

And in Penn Hills, Pa., Nancy Monahan, 54, who creates floor displays for a discount chain, says her "real job" begins in the evening when she returns to her house, turns on her computer and starts sleuthing.

"It's like they become family," Monahan says. "You feel a responsibility to bring them home."