Amateur sleuths band together to name the dead

Doe Network finds identities for unidentified bodies

June 15, 2008
By Brian Fraga

In October 1996, a woman's body turned up in the water off Popes Island in New Bedford.

The cause of death was homicide. The woman had been hit in the face and shot a dozen times.

However, almost 12 years later, investigators still do not know her name. She is known only as "Popes Island Jane Doe."

For amateur sleuths like Dan Brady, that is an injustice crying out for answers.

"It's haunting to think how many unidentified people are out there," he said. "The fact that they could be left in these positions, that they can't be traced to any time or place, is tragic."

Mr. Brady, 40, a Milford software sales representative, is among thousands of volunteers who scour online databases, missing-person reports and old news articles, trying to identify missing or unidentified people across the country.

The collaborative is known as the Doe Network, and it includes housewives, radio technicians, journalists, college students, white-collar professionals and plumbers who look for possible matches of the thousands of John and Jane Does listed on the organization's Web site.

The Doe Network's volunteers have solved dozens of missing and unidentified person cases. In 2006, the group identified a Medford woman whose remains were found in a Peabody hillside.

In Missouri, the Doe Network solved a case in which a skull was found in a concrete pot at a rest area. A forensic scientist reconstructed what the victim's face would have looked like. A Doe Network volunteer saw a resemblance from a missing persons case, leading to a positive match and a subsequent murder conviction.

Theresa Foxx, the Doe Network's area director for Massachusetts, contacts law enforcement agencies for information about missing and unidentified persons that can be placed on the network's Web site:

Ms. Foxx, a former radio broadcaster who is now a stay-at-home mother, also calls police whenever the Doe Network believes it has made a solid potential match of a missing or unidentified person.

"It's more of a passion for me. I just felt I had to do it," Ms. Foxx said. "It was an opportunity to help, to do something instead of being a bystander."

Doe Network volunteers decry the "pandemic" of missing and unidentified people. From 1980 to 2004, almost 10,300 unidentified human remains were reported to the National Death Index, which is maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.

"There are so many unidentified and missing people out there," Ms. Foxx said. "This is a serious problem."

On its Web site, the Doe Network highlights more than a dozen Massachusetts missing and unidentified cases. One featured case is that of the "Lady in the Dunes," a woman whose body was found July 1974 in the Race Point Dunes in Provincetown.

Christina Monteiro, 20, a suspected victim of the New Bedford area highway killings in 1988, also is profiled on the Doe Network. Her body was never found, but her disappearance is believed to be linked to the murders of 10 women whose remains were dumped along SouthCoast highways.

The difficulty of solving some missing and unidentified persons resulted in investigators from the Bristol County District Attorney's Office supplying information on the "Popes Island Jane Doe" for the Doe Network.

The woman's case profile on the group's Web site includes her estimated age (30 to 45), height and weight, a sketch, a description of the clothing she wore, her eye color, hair length and dental information.

The profile mentions she had a gold ring with an emerald-colored stone, which experts believe came from Belarus, part of the old Soviet Union.

Her dental fillings and root canals were judged too poor to have been done in the United States.

Because her body was still intact and investigators have a good idea of what she looked like, Mr. Brady said the case should be solvable.

The fact that she remains unidentified 12 years later probably signifies that she did not have strong ties to SouthCoast.

"Does it involve some type of organized crime hit? That's one scenario," Mr. Brady said.

"Getting at that information will not be easy because the people who have it are not likely to communicate with law enforcement."

One hope of cracking the case would be if a Doe Network volunteer came across an old missing-persons report and a picture that matched the victim's sketch.

Doe Network volunteers also look at other similar Web sites, such as, that include profiles of missing Europeans.

"We're always scanning the media, the Internet, law enforcement sites, message boards, all sources of information," Mr. Brady said.

"We also have side projects. We sponsor reconstructions for unidentified cases; 3-D computer-generated and sketch reconstructions."

Often when police find a victim's remains, an identification is made within days, and the case proceeds.

But if months and years go by without the body being identified, the case is usually put on the back burner as police investigate new homicides.

"We pick up cases that people have forgotten about," Mr. Brady said.

"You go back 25, 30 years, when we didn't have Internet or media coverage of some of these cases, there is just stuff that goes down the memory hole. It's just amazing in terms of what's out there in possible cases and things we don't know about."