Volusia forensic techs remain in hot pursuit of cold-case files

Volusia forensic techs remain in hot pursuit of cold-case files

December 21, 2009
Daytona Beach News-Journal

DAYTONA BEACH - The remains of two dozen unnamed, unidentified and unclaimed bodies are tracked by the Volusia County Medical Examiner - and Todd Martin Smith was one of them for nearly 20 years.

His body washed ashore in the 700 block of South Ocean Boulevard with only his swimsuit, fins and a flashlight May 18, 1989. His family in New Jersey had no idea what happened to him, and forensic investigators here had no idea who he was.

After exhausting all leads available at the time, the examiner's office made the call to bury the body in a pauper's grave.

But these technicians don't quit. Nineteen years later, officials here contacted Smith's family after forensic technician Kari Larson Pierce matched his post-mortem photo to a profile on the Doe Network Web site for missing persons and later a formal identification was made.

"It's not really closure, but it's an answer and we needed it then," Smith's sister Kimberly Schmalenberger said by phone from her home in Iselin, N.J. Their mother and father both died shortly after he was identified.

Schmalenberger described her brother as fun-loving and somewhat adventurous but not foolhardy. She said he'd regularly jet off on a cheap flight to play a round of golf for the day without even renting a hotel room.

"None of us were strong swimmers. I mean we took swimming lessons as kids and all, but he probably thought (snorkeling) was no big deal, just fun," she said.

With Smith found, the county is left with 23 unidentified bodies - three are known homicides, several are partial remains, but none of them are children younger than 15.

"I started in family practice and had to see an autopsy," said Dr. Marie Herrmann, Volusia County's medical examiner of three years. "I stayed for a second, and here I am, but it's still family practice."

And identifying Smith so he could be exhumed from his grave here and laid to rest in the family plot in New Jersey makes her point.

"A big part of any cold case is the identification," she said. "If you don't know who they are, it's (difficult) to come to a conclusion. You can't call something an obvious suicide just because you found a gun there."

Jessica Lunt, medical legal death investigator with the Medical Examiner's Office, now handles the county's "unidentified project." A database chronicles each case including whether fingerprints are on file, DNA has been collected and dental records available.

Lunt combs through the files and fills in the blanks whenever possible - like sending out samples for DNA profiles and cross checking the numerous databases and Web sites for unidentified and missing persons.

Intact bodies are preserved in the morgue as long as there is an active lead, otherwise they are buried.

"We have a body here that's been here since May 6," said Herrmann, who is also the medical examiner for Seminole County. "He was hit in Apopka by two cars."

In all cases, X-rays are taken to look for things like plates and hip replacements - anything with a serial number that can be tracked. X-rays can also help with the recovery of a bullet in a homicide.

The medical examiner's lab also tests for carbon monoxide, glucose in the eye fluid, vitreous electrolytes (to test for time of death), which helps with a diagnosis about what happened.

Herrmann gleaned some information about the Apopka man in the months his body has been under her care, and believes a forensic sketch - without showing the trauma to his face - may ultimately help her get confirmation about who he is. She's collected his fingerprints, DNA and dental records. If that fails, he'll be returned to Seminole County for burial.

In Volusia County, the unclaimed and unidentified intact bodies are buried at Evergreen Cemetery on Enterprise Road in a wood-base cardboard box that is then placed in a steel reinforced concrete vault, county spokesman Dave Byron said. But not until all measures to identify them are exhausted.

In years past - long past - unidentified bodies were buried in an old and unnamed cemetery in DeLand on North Stone Street. That cemetery ran out of space in 1999, and the last unidentified body was buried in the late 90s, Lunt said.

Skeletal remains, 15 of them, are stored in locked evidence boxes at the morgue, Herrmann said, though two are currently at the University of Central Florida for an anthropological analysis.

One is far from complete.

"A mandible (lower jawbone) washed up in the ocean," Herrmann said. The only thing she knows about it for certain is that it belonged to a female.

"It could be someone buried at sea - or fallen off a cruise ship," she said. "Or it could be someone murdered and dumped."