By Steve Friess, Globe Correspondent
LAS VEGAS -- Her naked corpse was discovered by accident by a pair of
brothers more than 23 years ago along a dirt road on the edge of town. She
looked like a teen, perhaps no older than 18, possibly a runaway. Her head
was beaten by a hammer, but the coroner believes she actually died from six
stab wounds from an unidentified three-inch object.
The murder weapon isn't the only thing that remains unidentified. All these
years later, the young woman is still known officially as Jane "Arroyo
Grande" Doe, after the desolate desert path where her body had been dumped.
Over the decades, that path became a major interstate and the young
policeman who arrived on the scene became a veteran detective. But every
effort by Detective John Williams to identify the victim he calls "my girl,"
including exhuming her body last year to gather DNA samples, has failed to
bring him any closer to closing the most vexing case of his career.
Now, in a controversial move, the coroner here is taking the search for
answers to nagging cases like this to the Internet by posting the actual
photos of dozens of unidentified bodies on the Clark County coroner's
Several coroner and medical examiner websites around the United States
publish information about so-called cold cases, and some even accompany the
blurbs with artists' renderings or clay-model representations that
approximate what the deceased looked like when alive.
, a prominent box beseeches visitors to
help identify human remains." A few clicks -- and a couple of warnings for
those with weak stomachs -- later, and the screen is filled with mugshots of
dead people. Although, as the warning says, "no decomposed remains will be
shown" and gruesome details are digitally patched, many remain difficult to
"These are not glamour shots," said coroner P. Michael Murphy, whose site
has photos for about 40 of his 180 cold cases dating back to 1967. "The real
issue is to make sure we don't show too much. We're only putting up some
pictures because in most cases there isn't any image we can use."
Indeed, in this city that provides the backdrop for "CSI," the CBS crime
drama popular for its gritty realism, the off-air reality is that some cases
aren't solved for decades, let alone in an hour.
Most coroner offices have tiny budgets and few of the show's high-tech tools
Murphy said one reason they chose to use real pictures was because the
department can't afford to hire a full-time sketch artist.
While Murphy is applauded for trying something new, some question his tact.
"I just don't know if actual photos are the best way to accomplish this,"
said Sergeant Mike Harper, operations manager for the Alameda County coroner
s office in Oakland, Calif., whose website is limited to contact information
"A good description of the Doe and the circumstances would probably be just
as beneficial as having a photo. If the photo is a clean shot of the face,
maybe that's OK, but I don't think there's a need to go into the grotesque
end of things."
And Jerry Nance of the Washington-based Center for Missing and Exploited
Children said the photos could appeal to online fetishists who are excited
by viewing such material. At the center, whose website also shows images of
unidentified dead people, photos are doctored to show the person smiling,
eyes open, and any trace of injury erased.
"You start getting a lot of sick people who want to admire it from the gore
standpoint," Nance said. "Even if the body is fresh, we still have our
forensic artists open up the eyes and give some sort of spark of life to the
thing. It does you no good to show a deceased person. It just appeals to the
morbidity aspect, and the chances of recognition are better when you show
Clark County says its approach is working. Since the site launch in November
it has received more than 350,000 hits and has helped identify as many as a
dozen people, said assistant coroner Les Elliot. In one case, the Dayton,
Ohio, family of a slain homeless man found buried in a Las Vegas backyard
confirmed that he was their relative from the online picture after seeing
the case profiled on the Fox show "America's Most Wanted" in November. "CSI"
also has mentioned the website in its closing credits, Elliot said.
The problem of unidentified remains is a national challenge. While more than
95 percent of the dead are positively identified within a day of death,
there are more than 5,200 unidentified in the FBI's National Crime
Information Center database. Experts believe that's less than 15 percent of
the total, because no law requires police to enter unidentified corpses into
Use of the Internet to identify these people is just as scattered. While
small counties in places like Aiken, S.C., and Hackensack, N.J., have sites
with information about and images of unidentified remains, such major cities
as Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles have done little online.
In Massachusetts, the State Police display two photos of unidentified dead
people on their website, but state medical examiner spokesman John Conin
said that is "not a policy we endorse." Nobody from the State Police
returned calls to discuss the pictures and Conin said he, too, had
difficulty getting an explanation.
"We utilize the local and Massachusetts State Police to identify people,"
Conin said. "We don't take our images and launch them for assistance by the
mass media or the public at large because we feel that infringes on the
privacy of the family and the decedent."
But Todd Matthews of the Doe Network, a national organization of volunteers
and aggrieved relatives whose website served as a model for the Clark County
site, said the wider audience can help. The Doe Network does not post actual
photos, but Matthews isn't bothered that Clark County does.
"I take a local case that would normally be heard within reach of the local
newpaper and make it go global," Matthews said. "It's not unusual for a girl
to go missing in a small Kentucky town and for people in Australia to know."
Williams, still on the hunt to find justice for Jane Arroyo Grande Doe,
holds out hope that Matthews is right and someone will someday help resolve
"If you look on TV, you'll see worse than what you see in this photo of my
girl," Williams said. "I'm sure things will offend people, but so be it. You
got a young kid, dumped in the desert. That's more offensive."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.