LAS VEGAS: Her naked corpse was discovered
by accident by a pair of brothers more than 23 years ago along
a dirt road on the edge of town. She looked like a teen, perhaps
no older than 18, possibly a runaway. Her head was beaten with
a hammer, but the coroner believes she actually died from stabbings
of an unidentified 3-inch object.
The murder weapon isn't the only thing that remains unidentified. All these years later, the victim is still known only as Jane "Arroyo Grande" Doe, after the desolate desert path where her body had been dumped.
Over the decades, that path became a major interstate and the young officer who arrived on the scene became a seasoned veteran. But every effort by Detective John Williams to identify what he calls "my girl," including exhuming her body last year to gather DNA samples, have brought him no closer to closing the most vexing case of his career.
Now, in a controversial move, the coroner here is taking the search for answers to nagging cases like this to the Internet by posting, in what is believed to be a national first, the photos of dozens of unidentified bodies on the Clark County coroner's Web site.
Several coroner and medical examiner Web sites around the
United States publish information about so-called "cold cases,"
and some even accompany the blurbs with artists' renderings
or clay-model representations that approximate what the deceased
looked like when alive. But at www.accessclarkcounty.net,
a prominent box beseeches visitors to "help identify human remains."
A few clicks -- and a couple of warnings about graphic content
-- later, the screen is filled with thumbnail-size pictures
that can be enlarged to show actual shots of dead people.
The warning states that "no decomposed remains will be shown," and some of the photos have been retouched to erase the more gruesome trauma. But many remain difficult to view.
"These are not glamour shots," said Coroner P. Michael Murphy, whose site has photos for about 40 of his 180 cold cases dating back to 1967. "The real issue is to make sure we don't show too much. We're only putting up some pictures because in most cases there isn't any image we can use."
Indeed, in this city that provides the backdrop for "CSI," the televised crime drama popular for its gritty realism, the reality is that some cases aren't solved for decades, let alone in an hour. Most coroner's offices have small budgets and little of the high-tech gadgetry of that show's death investigators. Murphy said his department chose to use real pictures partly because it can't afford a full-time sketch artist.
Still, while Murphy is applauded for trying something new,
some question the propriety and tact of his approach.
"I just don't know if actual photos are the best way to accomplish this," said Sgt. Mike Harper, operations manager for the Alameda County coroner's office in Oakland. "A good description of the Doe and the circumstances would probably be just as beneficial as having a photo. If the photo is a clean shot of the face, maybe that's OK, but I don't think there's a need to go into the grotesque end of things."
Appeal to fetishists
Jerry Nance of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Washington, D.C., expressed concern that the photos could appeal to online fetishists who are excited by viewing such material. At the center, whose Web site also shows images of unidentified decedents, any photos are doctored to show the person with a smile, their eyes open and any trace of injury erased.
"You start getting a lot of sick people who want to admire it from the gore standpoint," Nance said. "Even if the body is fresh, we still have our forensic artists open up the eyes and give some sort of spark of life to the thing. It does you no good to show a deceased person. It just appeals to the morbidity aspect, and the chances of recognition are better when you show them alive."
Yet Clark County says its approach is working. Since the launch in November, the site has received more than 350,000 hits and has helped identify as many as a dozen people, said Assistant Coroner Les Elliot.
In one case, the Dayton, Ohio, family of a slain homeless man whose body was found buried in a Las Vegas backyard confirmed that the deceased was their relative through the online picture after seeing the case profiled on the Fox show "America's Most Wanted" in November.The problem of unidentified remains is a national challenge. More than 95 percent of the dead are positively identified within a day of death, but there are more than 5,200 cold cases in the FBI's National Crime Information Center database. Experts believe that's less than 15 percent of all unresolved cases. California deaths accounted for a disproportionate 2,188 cases in the database, whereas Illinois, for instance, had just 116 in the system as of Oct. 31, the most recently available statistics.
Use of the Internet to identify these people is just as scattered. Despite California's assiduous reporting and homegrown high-tech industry, no Bay Area counties use the Web to disseminate detailed information or pictures about their cold cases. While smaller counties in places like Aiken, S.C., and Hackensack, N.J., have sites with information and images of unidentified people, major cities such as Chicago, Boston and San Francisco have done little online.
S.F. exploring possibility
"It's something we're exploring at this point to see if it's feasible," said Herb Hawley of the San Francisco County medical examiner's office. "I don't believe we'll be putting up actual photos. The most we would do is put up sketches."
But Todd Matthews of the Doe Network, a national organization of volunteers and aggrieved relatives searching for missing loved ones, said he supports the effort.
"They're showing reality, and sometimes it's hard to hide this reality from the public," Matthews said. "They're definitely bringing some attention to cases that otherwise have not seen the light of day for years."
Williams, still trying to bring justice to Jane "Arroyo Grande'' Doe, holds out hope that Matthews is right and someone will someday help resolve his case.
"If you look on TV, you'll see worse than what you see in this photo of my girl," Williams said. "If it's my daughter, I'd definitelyfeel bad to see a picture of her dead. But it would not bother me if someone saw it on the Internet or TV to give me some closure and my family some closure. I'm sure things will offend people, but so be it. You got a young kid, dumped in the desert. That's more offensive."