To identify 'John Doe' victims, investigators turn to the Web

By Steve Friess, Globe Correspondent

Boston Globe

January 25,2004

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 website.

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.

But at , 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 view.

"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 them alive."

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 the system.

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 his case.

"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."

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