Volunteers work to identify bodies
Sunday, April 18, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:15 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

They are the Missouri task force. There’s Mary Palmer, early 40s, a soft-spoken homemaker from rural Alabama. After her husband goes to bed, she works on Missouri cases until the wee hours, her cat lounging on the 19 notebooks stacked by her computer. There’s Liz Chipman, a woman in her early 20s. She recently moved from the Rolla area to Florida but didn’t leave her Missouri cases behind. There’s Shelley Denman, an upbeat mortgage underwriter in her late 40s who serves as media liaison on Missouri cases from Kansas.

And these are the people they work for: The Caucasian female found in 1987 in St. Louis, aged between 15 and 30 years, had brown hair and only weighed about 74 pounds. The Caucasian male located in Jefferson County in 1994 was in his late 30s, had balding brown hair and a medium build. The black child discovered in Kansas City in 2001 had black hair weaved into cornrows, brown eyes and a crescent-shaped birthmark on her shoulder.

Task force members and the people they serve have never met and never will. Their unusual connections have woven their way through the indifferent void of cyberspace.

For more than two years, volunteers from the national Doe Network, a Web community dedicated to missing persons and the unidentified dead, have been working to name the people who died nameless. Years before the network was founded in May 2001, some of the 200 volunteers had been on solitary virtual journeys through bleak databases and sparse coroner reports. Then, their cyber trajectories started intersecting, and the isolated investigators came together in a remarkably diverse but close-knit group.

Joe Polski of the International Association for Identification, a professional forensic organization, thinks some citizens have always been frustrated with the low-priority status the police give the unidentified deceased. “The people haven’t changed,” he speculates. “The Internet has given them the tools to do something about it.”

Before, their online investigations met with mistrust and derision both from baffled acquaintances and from the police officers they were out to assist. Now, law enforcement listens to what they have to say. In fact, about 30 percent of the network’s members are law enforcement pros, who, like South Carolina forensic artist Wesley Neville, channel their expertise into volunteer work on cases they can’t always get to on the job. A self-described fan of the network, Jerry Nance of the well-known National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says he relies on them for possible matches and aptly likens their work to “mining with kitchen utensils.”

Day after day, volunteers sift through databases of missing persons in search of a match that would fill in the blank line on a dead person’s papers. They scrupulously build the bits and pieces into the country’s most comprehensive online database of unidentified bodies: a compilation of facial reconstructions and information from police and medical examiners accessible on the Doe Network Web site. When searches reach a stalemate, they join the Cold Cases online forum and brainstorm fresh leads. For the most part, however, they are solitary investigators with a sole allegiance to those who died alone.

The Doe Network Web site lists 800 unidentified cases, but volunteers acknowledge that the number might account for as little as 10 percent of actual cases. Some volunteers came to care because of a personal drama; others join with the belief that such a tragedy can happen to anybody.

The organization boasts a modest 17 solutions in its two years of existence. In summer 2001, for instance, network members discovered a match between the 1993 police file of an unidentified accident victim in Waco, Texas, and the missing person report of Angela Parks, a Kentucky woman missing since 1992. In 2003, a volunteer discovered the identity of Arthur Wuestwald Jr., a murder victim who had been missing from his family in South Dakota for two decades.

At least for a moment, when the scattered pieces of the puzzle finally come together, the few cases the Doe Network solves transform tragedies into success stories of compulsive perseverance. But these are also small victories over anonymity, triumphs of the primordial human urge to pin down identity in the face of namelessness.

Volunteers believe that bad news helps families move on. They believe in closure. But they also think that everyone is special and nobody deserves to die as a nobody, even the occasional outcast who society once branded as a nobody. “A special thank you to those who refuse to stop fighting for people who can no longer fight for themselves,” says the Doe Network Web site.

Looking for Jane Doe

In late fall 2003, detective Tom Carroll of the St. Louis Police Department got a call from the Missouri task force's Palmer. The new Doe Network area director was calling to introduce herself and get an update on one of Carroll’s cases, one on which he rarely received calls. With countless failed leads weighing down its file, the case was something of a department legend, a 20-year mystery that still cropped up in casual department conversation, like a specter haunting the homicide unit. In 1983, the body of a strangled and decapitated black child had been found in the basement of a vacant building in the city. Her head, her family and her murderer were never discovered.

Neither was her identity.

Since Carroll had taken the case in 1998, he had ruled out eight possible matches via DNA tests. He had scoured missing person databases and Web sites where medical examiners post unidentified body parts. He works on the case in his spare time, making sure the St. Louis Post-Dispatch prints a story every year about his failure to make progress as the case slips from the local community consciousness.

So when an Alabama woman got in touch, he welcomed the offer for help. But her introduction and the ensuing partnership, in which they swapped updates for ideas about possible matches, came as no surprise. Even before Palmer called, he had searched for matches on the network’s missing person online database and knew that, as viewers scrolled through the procession of facial reconstructions in the Doe Network unidentified database, an incongruous image would stop them in their tracks: a photo of a soiled V-necked sweater Jane Doe had worn 15 years before Carroll got on the case.

The bizarre collaboration between the matter-of-fact homicide detective and the Alabama homemaker would have baffled Carroll’s predecessor on the case, sergeant Joe Burgoon. For Burgoon and his team 10 years ago, getting people beyond the St. Louis area involved in the investigation had been a slow, tedious process. They wrote to Ebony and other black magazines and mailed letters to police departments across the country; more recently, in hopes of attracting national attention, Burgoon spoke about the case on “Oprah.”

But an Alabama homemaker? Twice, Burgoon’s team had crossed paths with citizens wanting to help: the Illinois junior high school kids who donated a gravestone and a Kansas woman who paid $4,500 in 2001 for DNA tests. But for the most part, says Burgoon, “It was a local matter. It was a police matter. Only the police involved with the case seemed to care.”

The collaboration between Carroll and Palmer embodies a shift in Jane and John Doe identification. The all-out, two-decade search for the St. Louis Jane Doe is an exception in a law enforcement area that, because of personnel and budget pressures, figures low on the list of police priorities. Now, the Internet has allowed civilians to assist long-distance on behalf of the nameless and their families, and police officers are more likely than ever to take that offer seriously.

South Carolina forensic artist and volunteer Neville says that for overworked police departments nationwide, opening up to organized outside assistance is a natural progression: the “Good Old Boy Network” mentality gives way to cooperation with the Doe Network. “God bless them,” says Polski, the forensic organization member. And whereas institutional pressures make for a pragmatic approach on the part of law enforcement (“You’re happy to bring closure to the family and close the case and move on to the next case,” says Polski), network members’ relationships with what some call their “pet cases” are often touchingly — if sometimes bewilderingly — intimate. As the Internet is making namelessness, placelessness and flux staples of human interaction, they use the high-tech trappings of the cyber age to restore the old-fashioned trappings of individuality: a name, a place and a trace.

A Name

Three years ago, Chipman saw an Internet photo of a young woman faintly smiling behind the shield of her oversized tinted glasses and her unruly bangs. In 1984, the woman known simply as “Robin” had arrived in Missoula, Mont., out of nowhere; several months later, hardly anybody in town wondered why and when she left. But she didn’t leave. Before she was discovered on Christmas Eve, she lay in an unmarked, concealed spot in the forest just outside town, shot and buried there by a man she had befriended in Missoula.

A glance at the photo instantly drew Chipman to the case, for no logical reason at all, as always with her “pet cases.” But the more she delved into it, the more the homebound young woman from Missouri identified with the vagrant whose journey ended in Missoula. She, too, had longed, Chipman thought, to get away from everything that oppressed her, from places where she didn’t fit in. She, too, had been an outsider often unheard and unseen by those who belonged.

So, using information from a book about Robin’s murderer, serial killer Wayne Nance, Chipman created a Web site where she recast Robin’s story in the first person to let the outcast voice one last request — a fictional plea that flails like a trapped butterfly against pictures of impassive case artifacts: a police shot of the killer’s gun and undistinguishable prototypes of Robin’s and another victim’s clay reconstructions. “It’s been over 19 years, and I want my name,” the conclusion to the story reads. “I want people to know who I was, that I had a life and that I had an impact on the world, no matter how small it was. I’m not in pain anymore, but it would be nice to be remembered down on Earth. Nineteen years is a long time to wait for your name. Can you help me get mine back?”

Many Doe Network volunteers find it deeply disturbing that people should die nameless. Their job, among other things, is a tribute to naming, which has value in itself beyond closure, beyond solving a crime, beyond unraveling a mystery. This unease about namelessness shows in members’ occasional rejection of the generic John and Jane Does in favor of personalized nicknames that capture a scrap of scarce information: Grey Eyes, a middle-aged accident victim whose case Chipman tackled in Missouri; or the Tent Girl, the unidentified young woman who for 10 years haunted Doe Network media director Todd Matthews, an auditor for an automotive supplier in Tennessee.

This unease is also condensed in the acronym members picked for the network’s project with volunteering forensic artists: EDAN, which stands for Everyone Deserves a Name. This unease shows in nameless graves’ special hold on their imagination, like the laconic “a mother’s son” inscription on a John Doe’s grave, an 80-year-old case Matthews tackled though the son’s mother wouldn’t be around to take the news. “Where’s the dignity of not being able to go back to your Maker with your name?” says Matthews. “Whether anyone misses this person or not, they deserve the dignity of their name.”

To address this unease about namelessness, Doe Network volunteers harness the Internet, the medium of anonymous romance, unattributed manifestos and fictitious college diplomas. On the public Cold Cases and Doe Network forums, anonymous volunteers brainstorm ideas about finding the name of a featured Doe of the Day. Volunteers are clearly aware of the fuzziness of cyber identities, and some in a way appreciate the impartiality of the computer screen. Because of a previous open-heart surgery and a heart condition, Matthews couldn’t see himself as the hero of a frantic car chase, but he is proud to help police investigators in front of his computer. When Palmer was growing-up in West Virginia in the 1970s, they never told poor young women that joining the police was an option, and like most everybody else, she married, took her husband’s name and had children. Now, in front of the computer, she becomes the homicide investigator she could have been.

But anonymity isn’t an option to become part of the network. Would-be members fill out a detailed application asking for their job, skills and interests; then, they do a phone interview. Those who want to progress in the network’s hierarchy need to pass background checks and have their identity even more clearly established. The five members forming the administrative core of the group are close friends who, though they’ve never met in person, share deeply personal issues and digital family pictures. “We are in the business of putting a face to people, after all,” Matthews says.

A Place

Palmer dreamed about one of her unidentifieds. This case’s hold on her was almost irrational. She had always associated biker types with rudeness and drunkenness, yet she had instantly taken to heart the case of this heavily tattooed man who drowned in the Styx River near a biker rally spot in Alabama. For months, she waded through red tape to get photos for his facial reconstruction; for hours and hours, she gazed at online pictures of biker rallies in the hope of spotting a familiar face. In her dream, she was searching for him along the river and asking herself where he came from. Then, a disembodied voice confided the man was a sea captain, a “revelation” she has been reluctant to take seriously, a gossamer thread her subconscious had spun to the murky realm of his past.

A biker, a sea captain, a restless spirit, that’s how she thinks of him; she, the sedentary Southern homemaker who once, during a rough period in her teens, hitchhiked from West Virginia to Texas to stay with her sister. She hopes to find out where home was for this traveler.

For Doe Network members, thoughts of the unidentified sometimes become restless ghosts haunting them in their dreams and waking hours until they can ground the dead by “sending them home.” In the slow search for an ultimate location, volunteers hold on to the two places that give their investigations a setting and a focus: the locations of discovery and the places the unidentified were buried. As he recreates the face of an unidentified person, artist Neville thinks about the place the body was found as a tacit source of information about the Doe. As her family moved from Missouri to Florida, Chipman visited the grave of Grey Eyes, the unidentified woman who died in an accident on the interstate on a May night in 1998. As the setting sun played off the magnolia blossoms and the white sand in the pathways, Chipman felt an incredible bond with the woman she had never met.

Although members are committed to grounding lost lives in a physical location, the Doe Network itself does not have an office, administrative headquarters or a central P.O. box. “It exists in cyberspace, in our homes and our brains,” says Matthews.

The network’s cyber diffusion helps transcend the limitations of thinking and acting locally in Doe cases: the possibility that the deceased had been on the move and the limited resources of local police departments. Volunteers are undaunted by physical distance and often get passionate about cases across the country. None of the volunteers in charge of Missouri cases actually live in Missouri. “In all honesty, I had to look Missouri up on the map to see where it was,” says Palmer. “It’s a lot closer than I realized. But it doesn’t really matter where we are anyway.”

Even as they harness the disembodied medium of the Internet, volunteers retain a sense of the importance of place. Matthews was born in a small town in Tennessee, where he now lives with his wife and two children. He communicates weekly with

an L.A. online broadcast network, www., to film a Doe Network Webcast, but the glamour of the big city doesn’t call to him. “I have a sense of heritage and a sense of where I belong in life,” he says. “With a lot of these Does, you wonder where they belonged.”

A Trace

Matthews came across the Tent Girl’s story in 1987, several years after a well-driller in Kentucky discovered the body of the suffocated young woman, a 5-foot-long bundle roped in an old green tarpaulin. Matthews, then 17, was dating the well-driller’s daughter.

At a time when it seemed all leads had been exhausted and the case was sinking into oblivion, Matthews’ future father-in-law showed him a 1969 clipping about the discovery of the body. As he tried to assemble the scattered clues to the woman’s identity over the next 10 years, Matthews would collect many more cuttings, yellowing pieces of newspaper pages crumbling in his hands.

In 1992, he bought a computer, stuck a picture of the Tent Girl’s gravestone onto it to stay motivated and stored all he knew about her on a special Web site. Eventually, as he was fighting sleep in front of the computer late one night, he stumbled upon a missing person listing posted by Rosemary Westbrook, who, a DNA test later confirmed, was the Tent Girl’s sister. Matthews had made sure the life and death of Barbara Taylor, who died two years before he was born, would not be forgotten.

The lives of the unidentified imperceptibly vanish from the public’s recollection, and Doe Network members see their work as an act of archiving that leaves traces that the community can revisit some day, when it’s ready. Maybe for that reason, members are routinely drawn to cases that seem doomed to the public’s forgetfulness. An alleged biker with an extensive tattoo collection would be the last person a Southern rural community would care about, Palmer thinks. A drifter who showed up in Missoula out of nowhere would not be on top of anybody’s mind, thinks Chipman, who used to feel ignored and unloved in school. Members’ urges to preserve the blurry memory of these outcasts exemplify the documentary bent of their work in general. “We’ve left something behind if nothing else,” Matthews says. “It’s a record of what little we know about these people’s lives. It will never be lost.”

In the medium where information is instantly updated and pages disappear overnight with a terse “page cannot be displayed” explanation, the Doe Network keeps a permanent record of the scant evidence about these people’s lives. With cases in the United States, Canada and Europe, the database contains pages upon pages of facial reconstructions punctuated by the occasional tattoo or personal possession to aid recognition when a reconstruction is lacking. These images serve as links to pages that spell out any detail that might lead to identification: snippets from medical examiner reports, glimpses of the contents of victim’s pockets, the circumstances of discovery.

Whereas some states feature medical examiner Web sites with statewide unidentified databases, Missouri’s five cases get collective exposure only here, from the rough sketch of a man, accompanied only by his estimated age, height and weight, to the page of a child dubbed “Precious Doe,” who was found in Kansas City, a page complete with five different reconstructions (from computer-generated images to clay sculptures) and a detailed description and account of her discovery. Since she took up the position of area director last year, Palmer has mailed letters and placed phone calls — at her own expense — to police departments all over the state to check about new entries and extra details on existing ones.

Volunteers do tend to be somewhat uneasy about the Internet’s flux, and Matthews and the other four top people in the network have all the Web site information saved in their hard drives. Palmer has her own sorting and archiving technique.

She has printed out all the pages and arranged them in 19 notebooks by gender, approximate date of discovery, age and race. “What if something happens to the Web, and all the cases are erased?” Palmer asks. She enjoys the monotonous rhythm of her sorting tasks.

“It’s about respect for people, a history of our society, a record of the magnitude of this problem.”

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