Identifying the unknown

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

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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