Identifying the unknown

Clark County Coroner's Office uses Web to put a name with a face

Naked, beaten and stabbed, the body of Jane "Arroyo Grande" Doe was found along a Henderson, Nevada, dirt road on October 5, 1980. Nearly 27 years later, the impact of her death and search for an identity has been a life-changing experience for many and an impetus for the launch of the Clark County Coroner's Cold Case Unit and Las Vegas Unidentified Web site.

"She is the case that started it all for us," says P. Michael Murphy, Clark County Coroner, noting the Las Vegas, Nevada, department's quest to answer, "Why aren't we doing more and what more can we do?"

In 2003, one of the coroner office's investigators came across a strong lead to a family in California. Because DNA and dental workups were not completed in 1980 at the time of discovery, Jane's body was exhumed in 2003. Unfortunately, the DNA was not a match.

But this process, and the hope and drive that came with it, led the coroner's office in a new direction for identifying the unidentified. "Out of the emotion of the Jane 'Arroyo Grande' Doe case hatched the idea about what we could do," says Murphy. On November 1, 2003, the coroner's office launched its cold case unit in tandem with the Las Vegas Unidentified Web site (

Cold case unit does all it can

Each year, the Clark County Coroner's Office handles 120 unidentified persons on average, more than 99 percent of which are identified within 24 hours of arrival. "But that 1 percent is what causes the most concern and are the ones that go long term without being identified," says Murphy. To date, the coroner's office has 156 active John and Jane Doe cases dating back to 1967.

Before a person is placed on the companion Web site, the cold case unit fully exhausts every forensic option to identify the person. The office follows a protocol recommended by the International Homicide Investigators Association, National Association of Medical Examiners and the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners. This protocol is a checklist of procedures beginning with the basics — taking an identification photo, identifying the clothing — and advances to such procedures as forensic odontology, X-rays and DNA matching. "Each of these steps takes it to the next level of identification, and it can sometimes take up to 90 days to complete the process," notes Murphy.

One such 90-day process is the rehydration of fingers to recover prints. Printing results will actually improve throughout the 90 days, but after that point, "whether you soak it another 120 days or another day, it doesn't matter. The absorption rate is complete," he explains.

The goal of the cold case unit, responsible for identification of the decedent and location of next of kin, is to make sure they have done everything possible to identify the person before the photo is placed on the Web site. Before the initial launch of the site, all 182 active cases at that time were reviewed applying the latest technologies — some of which were noticeable advancements since cases dated back to the 1960s.

Today, the cold case unit continues reviewing prior cases every 18 to 24 months looking for new developments and leads. "We've found that sometimes fingerprints that didn't come up five years ago will come up now," says Murphy. "So we are always, always looking."

Web site reaches out to public

So while Jane "Arroyo Grande" Doe was the impetus for the creation of the cold case unit and rededication to thoroughly examining all historic cases, a less noble factor was a significant influence on the creation of the Web site — money.

"We are always being asked to do more with less," tells Murphy. "But if you put the right people in the room to start thinking it out, you can come up with some unique solutions. You've just got to be willing to do something different."

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