Identifying the unknown

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 (www.accessclarkcounty.net/coroner/unid.htm).

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."

The working group in this room came up with the idea of posting pictures of deceased, unidentified persons on the Web and asking the public to take a look and respond if they recognized someone.

The development team then approached the county for help with building the site. Although the county was willing to provide its services, this site was low on the priority list. Taking matters into their own hands, one of the office's part-time employees purchased a few how-to books on building Web sites and created the site.

At the same time the site was being built, the office was converting from standard to digital photography. "With the advent of digital photography, you can literally create a face by taking a damaged area, copying one side and then flipping the image," notes Murphy. He estimates that 40 to 50 percent of the photos on the site have been retouched in some fashion.

Murphy also cautions that these are not glamour shots or airbrushed magazine photos. They are identification photos. Efforts are taken to conceal everything except the face, which may be altered to make the image more palatable to the general public, but beyond that, they are photos of deceased persons. "We do some very, very basic things, and if we think the photo is viewable, we may not even touch it at all," he says. Sometimes photos of tattoos or identifiable scars also are placed on the site.

Many other unidentified persons sites choose to use artist renderings or claymation representations of the deceased individuals. Initially, the decision to post photos was made because of the costs involved in hiring an artist — up to $3,000 per sketch — when there isn't one on staff. Since the launch of the site, Dalene Nielson, the artist of the "Emanuel" rendering used to help solve the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case, has volunteered her services to create sketches of people where the face is too disfigured to post online. Therefore, now sketches also appear on the site.

Murphy feels that both photos and artist's renderings have their advantages. "I think people recognize photos much quicker than they do drawings if they really know the person," he says. "If they may have seen the person once in passing, then the drawing may do something that the photo wouldn't."

With the site complete, the coroner's office went back to the county who agreed to post it. "Solutions to problems are not always money based," notes Murphy, "but they have to be done with compassion and with an eye toward success."

Success quiets controversy

The decision to post photos of the deceased was very controversial, but Murphy, only having been coroner for four months at the time, teases that "I was too dumb or naïve to know it was a bad idea or might be considered a bad idea. All I thought of was if we identify people, and we can reunite families with their deceased, how is that a bad thing?"

Unfortunately, this was not the initial view of the media and some medical examiner's offices who described the site as macabre, inappropriate and disrespectful of the dead.

This dissent was quickly quieted following the successful launch. The first identification was made within 24 hours of the site's unveiling. Three additional IDs were made within the first two months. In 2004, eight decedents were identified, six in 2005 and one in 2007. "All these cases are a direct result of the task force and/or the Web site," Murphy points out. "Almost all of them have some type of Web site connection."

Both the public and police agencies have successfully used the site to make IDs. In the Jane "Cordova" Doe case, a Tulare County (California) Sherriff's Department detective utilized the site after receiving a missing person's report.

Jane "Cordova" Doe, a 3-year-old Hispanic girl, was found beaten to death and placed in a Dumpster on January 12, 2006. She was wearing a white fleece jacket with pink hearts on it. Because of her age, there were no fingerprints on file and anti-mortem dentals were not available. Therefore, the Clark County Coroner's Office set aside its 90-day protocol and put her image online immediately.

But rather than posting the post-mortem photo, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children stepped in and, using their technology, was able to convert the identification photo into an image that made it look like the girl was alive and playing. "That was invaluable for us in this particular case, because it allowed us to take this 'rendering' and post it on the mobile billboards driven down the Las Vegas strip while distributing fliers," explains Murphy.

The Tulare detective, having received the missing person's report, contacted the Reno (Nevada) Police Department, who then directed him to the Las Vegas Unidentified Web site. Seeing a resemblance in the posted photo, the detective went to the grandmother who made the report. After viewing the image online, she made an immediate identification of the child.

"The grandmother not only identified the little girl, but also identified the coat she was wearing noting that she had bought it for the girl as a Christmas present," recalls Murphy. Within six weeks of discovering Jane "Cordova" Doe's body, she was identified as Crystal Figueroa and reunited with her grandmother.

Building a network

Because of successes like the Jane "Cordova" Doe case, the backlash against the site has stopped, and some of those agencies that were very critical of Clark County initially have asked for help in developing similar Web sites, notes Murphy.

"When we started getting phone calls asking, 'Can you help us create a Web site because we heard you were solving cases?' it was certainly a validation that we were doing the right thing after all," he says.

Some agencies call with specific questions about disclaimers used, methods or step-by-step development processes. Other departments inquire about the success of the site and whether or not it would be a good investment.

Clark County has assisted Maricopa County, Arizona, and Ontario, Canada, agencies, among others, in site development. Currently there are 38 unidentified deceased persons sites on the Web, with the development of a national Web site a strong possibility in the near future.

"Our goal would be to offer families a one-stop site," explains Murphy, who notes that the National Association of Medical Examiners is currently working with the Institute of Justice on this project. This site would utilize the national database of unidentified deceased, which also is currently under development.

Because of the allure of Las Vegas — popular vacation destination, notoriety of the "CSI" television series, etc. — the Clark County Coroner's site has received solid traffic. "Media exposure has been good for us," says Murphy. "We estimate about 1,500 hits on our site each month, and have had more than 1 million hits since the site was launched."

Other unknown deceased sites have not seen this type of traffic. Many times families searching for loved ones stumble across these sites through Google searches or links. Volunteer organizations, such as the Doe Network, also direct families to informational Web sites.

"We're fortunate because people have a tendency to go to sites about Vegas," explains Murphy. "But the truth is everybody should have an opportunity to have that exposure. It shouldn't be that the family just has to know where to look."

Since Jane "Arroyo Grande" Doe's discovery in 1980, there have been three near identifications. But yet today, she remains unidentified.

"The thing I'm sad about is we still haven't identified Jane 'Arroyo Grande' Doe," comments Murphy. "There is someone, somewhere missing a teenage girl, and I know where she is.

"I think what you have to accept is it doesn't always happen right then. You don't pick the time; it picks the time. So I believe that she will be identified, but look at the good that came out of that process — all the other people who have been identified."

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