For decades, unidentified bodies have been consigned to the back rooms of morgues and all but forgotten. Now a handful of campaigners are on a quest to find out who they are and where they come from. Deborah Halber reports.
On a Saturday morning in late February in the town of Tonawanda, New York, men and women bundled in heavy winter coats and parkas walked past waist-high piles of snow into a red-brick structure with stained-glass windows. Tall banners reading “Welcome” and “Rekindle” framed the doorway.
Family, friends and business associates sat in the pews of St Christopher Church listening to ‘Days of Elijah’, which refers to Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones resurrected to flesh. The deceased was a gemmologist, by reports mild-mannered and helpful. He owned and ran a jewellery store in nearby Kenmore that had been in his family for three generations. The church had been the family’s spiritual home for a quarter century.
Earlier that month, the 53-year-old had walked out of his home and disappeared. Monsignor Fran Weldgen, a friend and one-time St Christopher pastor, addressed the assembled mourners. “Words are difficult,” he said. “Our emotions are deep, raw. We’re confused, hurt.”
It was a funeral mass without a body; a memorial to a life whose final page was blank.
How do you listen and communicate with a missing person’s family? How do you not give them false hope, but keep their spirit alive?
On a pleasant early-summer afternoon in 2015, a kayaker paddling in upstate New York’s Irondequoit Bay spotted something in the water.
Pontoon boats were enlisted. Donning an orange life jacket, the Monroe County medical examiner boarded one, along with a gaggle of sheriff’s deputies. They hoisted the kayaker’s gruesome find from the chilly lake into the vessel and noted the meagre facts: Adult white male. No ID. Wearing an overcoat, even though it was 26 June.
That evening, a Rochester TV news station reported that county officials had begun the “tedious work” of identifying the victim – if he was in fact a victim. There are different ways a person could end up in something as enormous as Lake Ontario. A body could have originated from one of the rivers that feed the lake’s 7,300 or so square miles, anywhere along its 700-plus miles of American and Canadian shoreline. Through quirks of geography, suicides from Niagara Falls or its hydroelectric plants can wind up in Lake Ontario. As water temperatures rise, bodies are more likely to surface. Seasonal wind changes and shifting currents subject an object in the water to centrifugal force, pushing it out toward the shore.
A white van equipped with stretchers, its emergency lights off, drove the body 17 miles, bypassing downtown Rochester for the sleepy suburb of Brighton, New York, pulling up next to the low brick building on East Henrietta Road where chief medical investigator Robert J Zerby, Jr has worked, in different capacities, for the past 26 years. Few of the 3,000 or so bodies that move through the Monroe County system every year are unidentified for long, but for the ones that languish in the cooler, it’s up to Zerby and his staff to coax them into giving up clues to their identities.
Across the USA, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) estimates that 40,000 bodies or partial human remains are unidentified. The population of a small city is buried in nameless graves or stored, in many cases, in the back rooms of buildings such as the one in Monroe County. “The number of unidentified bodies in ME [medical examiner] offices across the United States – it’s like a mass fatality, except it’s a quiet one,” said Zerby, his eyes hooded and dark, his hairline receding. “You start adding up all the little counties like us, and then the big cities, you could be in the tens of thousands of unidentified dead. Which is horrific. It’s not like mass graves in Bosnia. But the resources just are lacking [to identify these bodies].”
Charles Heurich, programme manager of the NIJ’s forensics division, told me that approximately 4,000 sets of human remains are found every year, and that at the end of each year, 1,000 remain unidentified. The 40,000 figure is widely bandied about, but Heurich says it’s difficult to get an accurate estimate of how many cases of unidentified remains there are in the USA. “I do believe that there are still issues with filing systems dating back to the 1970s and before with regard to unmarked graves and case information,” he said. “That will continue to be a challenge.”
For decades, records of unidentified bodies – and sometimes the bodies themselves – lingered in the back rooms of morgues, a silent testament to an enormous case of national neglect. In the past few years, a handful of vocal advocates have been slowly effecting a change. “I believe the biggest changes that I see are the increasing visibility of these cases to the general public and the greater attention being paid to them in the law enforcement and medical examiner/coroner community,” Heurich said. But for each case that makes its way into the public view, there are thousands – nearly 1,300 cases of unidentified persons in New York State alone – that do not.
Here’s a sad fact. We have a body. We have remains. We really want to figure out who it is, versus the police, who are more concerned about who did something.
Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Bob Zerby wanted to be a cop. But after badly injuring a knee, he switched to working as a paramedic and certified respiratory therapist – jobs he found abysmal. When he saw a posting for a job in the medical examiner’s office, he sat the exam and was hired in 1990. Zerby tells me he loves his job. “It’s never the same story twice. Every individual dies in their own way,” he said. “We never have a happy story, per se, because someone’s always dead. At the same time, you can take that really horrible day in somebody’s life and maybe help them through some aspect of it. They’re never going to overcome it, obviously, because you can’t just resurrect [the dead]. You can at least try to give the living some measure of understanding.”
In addition to doing autopsies for the city of Rochester, the Monroe County medical examiner is contracted to autopsy the dead from surrounding counties that employ coroners, typically those counties that are less well-equipped. The list of deaths that legally demand an autopsy is long: A bad fall, electrocution, a gunshot. A death that is unwitnessed, or takes place in a jail. Any death considered a tad suspicious. Of the 7,700 total deaths in the county each year, the medical examiner will be notified of around 3,000. They’ll respond to around 1,500 death scenes and bring around half of those bodies to the building on East Henrietta Road.
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The Lake Ontario floater arrived late in the day. If a body turns up after hours, it is tagged and stowed in the cooler until the medical examiner or her deputy can lay it out on a stainless steel table in one of the two autopsy rooms, with their characteristic drop ceilings and linoleum floors. Personal items found with the corpse are displayed nearby. If the items are wet, they are placed on drying racks; otherwise they are slipped into paper bags or envelopes labelled with the individual’s name (if known), the case number and date. The medical examiner or deputy initials the envelopes and seals them. Items considered evidence – bullets, for instance – are held in the evidence room. Personal property is stowed in a safe until it can be released to next of kin.
The medical examiner photographs the body and documents scars, marks, tattoos – you never know what might lead to an ID.
The man collected from Lake Ontario, it was noted, wore a plaid long-sleeve shirt and brown overcoat with Eddie Bauer labels. His trousers were from Gap, his belt from Brooks Brothers. He had $31.01 in US currency, as well as an electronic device that might be used to disarm a security system. He was wearing New Balance shoes with blue socks and a distinctive ring on his finger.
A week after the body was recovered, the medical examiner who had conducted the examination and autopsy gathered up the details she had accumulated and clicked on an internet database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs (pronounced ‘name us’).
The man in the Eddie Bauer overcoat became Unidentified Person (UP) 14015.
The ‘body watch’ can take months or sometimes years. It never gets easy, never something you get used to.
One day in 2010, Julie Anne Kelley dashed into a Family Dollar store in Norfolk, Virginia, to buy dog food for her lab–shepherd mix, Buster. Julie had been married three times, her third marriage a brief but painful 11 months that left her bitter, convinced that men were a bunch of jerks. She was done with relationships, she told herself. She’d be married to her nursing job. Amid the aisles of cheap sundries, a stranger with a greying blond buzz cut and neatly trimmed moustache glanced at her. “You know, you have really pretty eyes,” he said. “Flattery will get you nowhere,” she responded, but when they ended up in the same checkout line, she with her bag of dog food and he with paper towels, they shook hands. “Hi, my name’s JR.” “My name’s Julie.” She dawdled in the parking lot, hoping they would speak again. Julie’s eyes are a striking hazel, with thick dark lashes and arched brows, but something in JR’s blue eyes had given her pause: a glimpse into a soul that, she sensed, mirrored hers.
They had dinner together that night, and for the next five years rarely spent more than a few hours apart. Their friends called Harold ‘JR’ Molohon “a male Julie” and Julie “a female JR”. They both owned black motorcycles – his a massive Suzuki – and rode them together. Between them, they had ten grandchildren and an adopted calico rescue cat named Snickers. After almost three decades as a firefighter in Norfolk, JR was 62 years old, retired, and had a heart condition that sometimes sent him to the emergency room in an ambulance with his heart racing out of control. He spent most days running errands and taking a spin on his motorcycle. When Julie got home from her job as the nursing director at an assisted living facility, they’d occasionally go to Mom and Pop’s Family Restaurant on nearby Bayview Boulevard for meatloaf and stuffed cabbage, but more often ate dinners JR reprised from his days as the firehouse cook.
Julie and JR exchanged frequent texts and calls, so Julie found it particularly strange when JR didn’t respond to her messages when she returned from work on 3 August 2015. After dropping her off at the nursing home at 8.30am – pulling her close for a kiss and quipping, as usual, “Go earn us some money” – she later pieced together that he must have returned to their grey clapboard two-storey house, located on a quiet suburban street, and somehow wrestled his beloved surfboard down a steep set of narrow stairs, outside to the driveway and into the back of his huge black Ford pickup.
She may never know why JR blew off a medical appointment that day, left his cell phone and heart meds at home and drove two hours to a remote North Carolina beach. Although he had once aspired to be a professional surfer, he had told her surfing was “a young man’s sport”, and his board had sat idle in its silver cover for at least five years, a trophy, as Julie put it, of his former youth and athleticism. Yet when JR’s truck was found two days later on a narrow spit of sand known as the Outer Banks’ last frontier – which is dotted with clusters of oaks, cedars and pampas grass, accessible only to 4x4 vehicles and the wild mustangs that roam between the ocean and the handful of beach homes – the surfboard was propped in the truck’s cargo bed.
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It’s been more than five years since Lori Bruski was summoned to a crime scene, but the decade she spent as a forensic scientist with the Michigan State Police is fresh in her mind. There were the days – they always seemed to come in streaks or after long dry spells – she’d tuck a Polaroid camera, sketchbook and notepad into her bag and dash out to document and analyse blood spatter at a crime scene. Now a regional administrator for NamUs, she still checks her iPhone obsessively for word of a newly discovered death, but the remains these days might be skeletal or heavily decomposed. No blood, no need for her to rush anywhere.
She works out of a spare bedroom in a two-storey building in a suburb outside of Detroit. Her makeshift office is a kid-free zone: she doesn’t want her young sons to catch a glimpse of the images on her screen. Perusing those images, like attending the scene of a death, is a duty. It’s also a mission. I’ve heard Bruski and others in the death brigade speak the word gravely, with a capital M, implying how seriously they take their responsibility to treat the dead and their loved ones with respect and compassion.
Bruski, blonde and fine-featured, first became aware of the mission at her great-aunt’s funeral, at age four. “I was sitting on my great-uncle Eddie’s lap and my mother and my grandmother and my great-aunts and uncles were talking about how beautiful my great-aunt Vera looked and what a great job that the mortician had done with her,” Bruski told me. “And I said, ‘What is that?’” They explained what a mortician does.
Soon after, unsure how to spell ‘mortician’, she wrote “a doctor for dead people” on a cardboard Thanksgiving turkey as part of a school project on future careers, while the rest of her classmates chose more cheerful professions. As she got older, she realised she wanted to understand how people die. “I was not intrigued by death, but intrigued by the effect of death on families,” she said. “How do you listen and communicate with them?” If a family is missing a loved one, “how do you not give them false hope, but keep their spirit alive?”
After Bruski had kids and the 2am calls to crime scenes were less convenient, she joined NamUs, which by 2009 had come online as a fully searchable database. “Sometimes it was just cold calling,” she said of her efforts to make coroners, medical examiners and law enforcement aware of NamUs and to convince them to take the extra time to input their cases of missing people and unidentified remains. Before NamUs, there had been no repository besides the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, designed more for reporting stolen goods than found human bodies. “I travelled a lot. I tried to talk with the medical examiner or coroner – law enforcement organisations, Missing Persons Day, detectives working the case – just trying to make those contacts.
“I hate to say it, but sometimes you need to show them that we can work, to make them trust that, hey, we do have some good resources,” she said. “We’re just trying to bring a name to these people and get them back to their families.”
The figure of nearly 1,300 unidentified bodies from New York State documented in NamUs is among the highest for any state. Monroe and surrounding counties have a few dozen, one of the earliest from 1975, when a man was found in a weed-choked vacant lot in Rochester; the most recent, a middle-aged white male, was recovered from a creek in Onondaga County in May 2015. He wore size 10-and-a-half Timberland work boots and had a total of seven tattoos on his limbs, including “Love Mom” on his right upper arm.
There’s a gruesome case from 1988 that the former Rochester Times-Union described at the time as a case of “a butcher gone mad”. An excavator working in a building in downtown Rochester that had once housed a butcher shop pulled down the first-floor ceiling to see a man’s mummified foot and severed lower leg tumble out. A closer look uncovered 20 to 25 pieces of bone, including the partial skeletal remains of a woman – she was around 40, maybe five foot three – mingled with the remains of at least one other woman and the man in the joists. It looked like they had been cut up with a meat saw.
In perusing the case file, Bruski saw that attempts to isolate DNA from the bones had been unsuccessful. She started gently pushing Monroe County to release a sample of the remains to the NamUs-affiliated Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas (UNT). “Honestly, it took about a year,” she said. “Talking with the medical examiner, talking with different medical examiner investigators, talking with an anthropologist that contracts with theirs, and talking with the detective, trying to get him to push from inside to release a bone to UNT. Someone finally gave in and said, ‘Okay, we’ll let the UNT lab try.’ DNA can be finicky. You can’t get DNA from everything. But we were lucky, and we were able to get a mitochondrial DNA profile.”
The profile didn’t immediately turn up a match. Zerby told me the ‘mad butcher’ case is probably a lost cause, all of its main players and potential witnesses dead or gone. He doesn’t hold out much hope that the victims or the murderer will be identified. But the case helped Lori Bruski forge a connection with Monroe County.
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When human remains are discovered and not immediately identified, families of the missing often wonder if the remains could be those of their missing loved one. This ‘body watch’ – the agonising wait for an ID that would confirm or deny their suspicions about the remains – can take months or sometimes years. Some families find themselves launched into repeated body watches. “It never gets easy, never something you get used to,” Missouri-based victim advocate Mo Reintjes posted on Facebook. When a person is inexplicably missing, cycling from despair to hope and back again is “part of the hell of having a loved one missing that the public never thinks about,” Reintjes wrote.
In the months after JR went missing, Julie and their mutual friend Laurie groped for an explanation. “We kept going down these different avenues – maybe it was this, maybe it was that. And we kept getting stopped cold on each one.” As winter set in, Julie was filled with angst. “Is he warm? Is he safe? Is someone torturing him? Did JR sign up for a mission to Mars? These are the kinds of crazy thoughts you have. But no, he would have told me. And I would have said, ‘Sorry, babe, I love you, but I’m not going on a mission to Mars.’”
She doesn’t sleep much. She pops awake, thinking she hears JR in the house. She suffered from migraines in the past but now has an almost constant low-grade headache. While we eat dinner at the same restaurant she used to go to with JR, she fishes an Advil container out of her purse and shakes out the last pill.
Earlier, we sat in her living room, cosy with a fireplace, wicker tables and white leather couch, JR’s Christmas stocking still on the mantel. Julie fetched from the kitchen a receipt for groceries JR had stapled to a flyer from the local supermarket. She noticed, for the first time, a few scribbled words in his handwriting amid the pictures of produce. Her cheeks flushed and tears sprang to her eyes.
Julie knew at age 14 she wanted to be a nurse, but she worried that a too-short right arm and disfigured hand – which she was born with and underwent multiple surgeries for as a girl – would quash that dream. After raising three children, she did become a nurse, but it was JR who nursed her when she had foot surgery and could barely drag herself out of a wheelchair to use the bathroom. He’d make her breakfast and bring it to her in bed. He’d help monitor her blood sugar, keeping her diabetes in check.
“For them to say to me – I don’t know if they said they are 95 per cent or 98 per cent sure – that he drowned, I said, ‘I don’t care. I don’t want your speculation. I just want facts.’ I said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, he was abducted by aliens, because to me that’s just as plausible as you telling me that he drowned, because there’s no body.’ You can bet I searched all over the internet for drownings and recovering bodies, body parts. I looked under shark attacks, because they mentioned to me that the Outer Banks were swarming with bullhead sharks.
“Sharks might bite you and then they’re going to spit you out because they’re like, ‘Wrong flavour here.’ They don’t devour you. That’s why I’m like, ‘Where’s the body parts? Why wouldn’t the body come ashore?’ They’re like, ‘Well, if it was punctured it would go to the bottom.’ They did days of search and rescue. They were in the water, on land, in the air. Okay, if the body did sink, they had divers in the water and they had sonar. I would think they would have seen him.”
JR used to take Julie to that very beach, where she remembers the exhilaration of driving on sand for the first time. The area is remote, but in August it would have been frequented by tourists with beach blankets, picnics, umbrellas and chairs, and specially outfitted jeeps transporting loads of sightseers. Clutching a photo of JR looking serious and dapper, Julie trudged two miles of the beach, asking people if they recognised him. How could JR have slipped through the crowd unseen?
“I still keep thinking I’m in a dream or a nightmare that I’m going to wake up from,” she told me. But every morning, she remembers that JR is still gone. “People are like, ‘Are you going to get rid of his clothes?’ I’m like, ‘No, he could still be alive, you know.’” But Julie knows that JR is most likely not coming back.
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In July 2015, Lori Bruski learned of the Lake Ontario floater. Because the body was found across the lake from Toronto, she remembered thinking that it could be that of a Canadian citizen. But the body was recovered by New York State, which is part of her area of responsibility.
Bruski exudes nervous energy. On the phone, I can hear her tapping keys, clucking staccato sounds like ‘do, do, do’ with her tongue – verbal placeholders to fill the silence while she looks something up. She talks without pausing, poses questions and answers them before I speak. She misses the hands-on part of police work, she says, and as she relates her story, she sounds terse, businesslike.
“I started looking more into these cases. Geography, circumstances. I knew this guy still had tissue on him, so I knew he wasn’t a 20-year missing persons case. Looking at the more recent cases, I started Googling their names, seeing if any of them were in the media.”
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She ruled out juveniles and women. The unidentified man was listed as a Caucasian male, but Bruski knew African-Americans could look Caucasian. That mix-up has happened, more than once, when even veteran forensic anthropologists have misidentified the race of remains.
It took time after UP 14015 was first entered into NamUs, she recalls, to get photos uploaded. Among the dead man’s effects was a ring engraved with two letters in a flowing script and set with a single colourless stone, maybe a diamond. “I remember the photo of the ring’s script lettering. When you have that unique piece of jewellery or a unique tattoo, it kind of jumps out at you.”
The first letter was hard to make out: an A or a D. The second letter was clearly an H. She checked the National Crime Information Center for missing persons whose circumstances and description might fit UP 14015, then searched for individuals whose last names started with an H. This narrowed a list of 4,500 people to 15.
She came across the name Dominic Hofert. Bruski pinpointed Lewiston, where Hofert lived, on a Google map, and saw that it borders the Lower Niagara river. She checked the direction of the current. Sure enough, the Niagara river flows into Lake Ontario.
“So I’m like, ‘Okay, this is a good sign. This could be a thing,’ so I Google him, and there were a lot of news articles about him and I see he was a jeweller.
“He has an alarm fob in his pocket. Interesting. He’s got nice jewellery on. Interesting, right? Then I look up the family. Because it’s a family-owned business, there’s a photograph of him standing with his hand on his hip and there’s another one with his hand on a microscope or something like that. You can’t tell what exactly it is, but he looks like he’s wearing a gold ring that’s flat. You can’t read it or see if it even has a stone in it, but I’m looking at the script on the ring and I was like, ‘Yeah, it looks like it could be a D,’ so it just kind of it fit the flow; the jewellery was fitting, the fob was fitting.”
On 13 August 2015, Bruski called the Lewiston police department and asked them to take a picture of the ring to Mr Hofert’s family. Later that afternoon, the family confirmed that the ring did belong to Dominic Hofert. But that wasn’t enough.
I don’t care. I don’t want your speculation. I just want facts.
Randolph Mitchell is a dentist in Lyons, New York, a small town midway between Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes. Lyons – population 3,520 – is known as the Peppermint Village, with a bandstand, greenery, and nostalgic brick and clapboard structures straight out of a model railroad set. In his office on William Street, Mitchell fills cavities and the like, but the original CSI, and then 9/11, motivated him to take up forensic dentistry and forensic anthropology. Seven years ago, he started driving twice a month, almost an hour each way, to the medical examiner’s office in Brighton.
“The medical examiner is charged with identifying the deceased, and where legal issues are involved, it must be a scientific positive identification,” Mitchell emailed me. Fingerprints, dental or DNA: “The condition of the remains and availability of exemplars – something to compare against the records – determine the method of ID used. Dental structures and materials are the most durable parts of the human body, making them good for ID in fires, decomposition cases, etc. In all forms of positive ID, an exemplar is required.”
In the case of a John Doe, Mitchell does an examination and X-rays of the cadaver, noting restorations, missing teeth, unusual conditions, etc on a dental chart. The chart is disseminated to NamUs and elsewhere, hoping for ‘hits’ in any part of the record.
“It is a veritable match game,” he wrote. “What are the odds of one set of 32 teeth matching another? Almost astronomical.”
Mitchell compared dental records to his post-mortem chart of the Lake Ontario floater. On 13 August 2015, UP 14015 officially became Dominic Hofert.
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Almost seven months earlier, on Monday 2 February, at around 8pm, Dominic Hofert walked outside on a moonlit night. Earlier in the evening, Hofert – a solidly built, square-jawed and sandy-haired man – had shovelled snow at his home in the 4400 block of Lower River Road. His wife later told investigators that her husband had not appeared agitated or sad. That night, temperatures dipped into negative numbers. The edge of the Hoferts’ yard is a few hundred yards from the Lower Niagara river. Although some sections of Lower River Road drop 80 feet or more to the shoreline, police said the area where Hofert walked was not one of them. The approach to the riverbank there is gradual, with ice formations pressing up against the shore. Police followed tracks around the house, through a wooded area and down to the shoreline – a single set of tracks that did not return. The US Coast Guard brought in a helicopter from Detroit early the next morning, but a human being couldn’t have survived more than an hour in the ice-choked water.
The Lower Niagara, several miles downstream of Niagara Falls, continues with a swift current to Niagara-on-the-Lake, where it empties into Lake Ontario. Hofert’s body somehow traversed more than 100 miles of river, open water and lake shoreline on its journey to Irondequoit Bay.
After 192 days as a John Doe, Hofert was reunited with his identity, and his body turned over to his family.
It was a funeral mass without a body; a memorial to a life whose final page was blank.
Julie lives with the agonising reality that she may never know how and why JR left her life as suddenly as he entered it. “I don’t care what the outcome is,” she said. “I’ll be madly in love with him for the rest of my life.” If she had his body, she would opt for cremation and return his ashes to the sea. But first she would mourn her husband properly, a luxury that most people who lose a loved one take for granted.
Zerby and Bruski are all too aware of the many families who share Julie’s plight. “Here’s a sad fact,” Zerby told me. “We have a body. We have remains. We really want to figure out who it is, versus the police, who are more concerned about who did something.”
“With high-profile media attention, these cases are now being dealt with more quickly than they used to be,” Heurich said. “The biggest remaining challenges [for NamUs] are increasing the number of law enforcement and medical examiner/coroner users, increasing the number of cases entered and increasing the visibility of the system overall. These three, in combination, can lead to many more success stories.”
Dominic Hofert was the subject of a handful of local news stories. After JR went missing, Julie was interviewed by a local TV news station and newspaper about his enigmatic disappearance. But there are thousands of cases that don’t get attention. When Julie began looking into missing persons groups on the internet, she went slack-jawed at the number of other flyers on the sites. “So many cases similar to JR’s, where they found vehicles, wallets, person missing, no clue,” she said. “They just vanished.” And she now understands that the flurry of initial interest from law enforcement and from the public quickly fades away, and families of the missing are left, like her, in limbo – watching and waiting, unable to move on, mired in an insidious, bottomless pool of uncertainty.
NamUs is a great tool, Zerby claims, but dead people don’t vote. “There’s not a lot of money thrown at medical examiners’ or coroners’ offices,” he said. “The unidentified thing, it’s kind of like a back-burner project.” It’s up to people like Zerby and Bruski, whose work flies below the public radar, to keep cases alive when the media and law enforcement have moved on. A Monroe County resident posting on Yelp – of all places – wrote: “The folks working [for the Monroe County medical examiner’s office] don’t get the credit they deserve. Seriously good people doing serious work from which we all benefit, usually without knowing about it.”
Heurich says recent advances in the processes and technologies used to analyse DNA samples have sped up the identification process. If in the past a body yielded a less-than-ideal sample, which is often the case when remains have been exposed to the elements or degraded over time, the NamUs lab at the UNT Center for Human Identification would have to run the sample multiple times, and still might not get a usable profile. Now they can amplify the DNA and get a complete (or near complete) profile that can be compared to a database such as the National DNA Index System on the first try, working more rapidly through potential matches and leading to identifications or associations in a higher percentage of cases. “The key factor to this improved technology, though, is the ability to acquire family reference DNA samples for actual identification,” Heurich noted. “This is tougher in older cases, where the relevant family members may be deceased or have simply moved to a new area.”
Two unidentified bodies in NamUs have been proposed as potential matches for JR – his case is still in the process of being compared to unidentified bodies in the system. JR’s dental records are on file, but “some of these cases in NamUs, we have absolutely nothing to compare them to,” Bruski told me. No matter how obvious it may seem that a missing person and a set of remains are one and the same, “there’s no way to conclusively associate these cases just because of the circumstances. There are no family members available. The person was never fingerprinted and dental records don’t exist. Some people are just like, ‘Why bother putting the [body] in NamUs?’”
She answers her own question. “Because I’m hoping,” she said, pressing on, a bulldog on a mission, “that maybe something somehow comes out.” Something that would allow thin strands of circumstantial evidence surrounding a nameless body to coalesce into enough certainty to issue a death certificate, to resurrect a lost identity.