Detectives search for ID’s among unclaimed dead

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There have been many stories lately regarding the John and Jane Doe’s at the Los Angeles County Morgue. That’s because not only are there more than 6,000 unclaimed bodies, but among them, there are nearly 600 unidentified human beings. Back when I wrote about it in 2005, there were actual photographs of the dead on the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office website. Here is my story about the unidentified, unclaimed bodies (Daily News, Nov. 9, 2005):

Inside the Los Angeles County morgue, John Doe No. 132 plays a silent game of Who Am I? with the forensic investigators trying to identify him.

A ragged, heart-shaped tattoo around the word “Hi” marks his left calf. Stud earrings shine from his lobes. Scars run up his right leg to his hip. His white T-shirt reads: “Simply for Sports.”

“He could have been a labor worker,” said Gilda Tolbert, an investigator who works with her husband, Doyle Tolbert, and a partner, Daniel Machian, for the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner.

“He could have wanted to be in a gang. Those tattoos, they seem homemade, not done in prison.”

Often with even fewer clues to guide them, the investigating trio embarks on an arduous search for the names – and then the survivors – of about 30 corpses each year whose identities stump authorities.

Now, the Internet is making their job a little easier. Inspired by a similar Web site run by Mexican authorities in Tijuana, the county coroner last year set up a virtual morgue, complete with photos of the deceased and a description of when, where and how they were found.

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So far, the macabre site has been credited with identifying two bodies and leading family and friends to claim the remains of 10 others.

That may not sound like a huge accomplishment, if you consider the county – home to one of the nation’s busiest morgues – has had some 3,000 unclaimed remains since the early 1990s.

But the three investigators are confident it will lead to more identifications and claims.

“We’re going back a lot more, putting in older cases,” Machian said. “We’ve had a couple of hits on it. We expect to get more hits as people become more aware of it.”

Carrying a warning that the contents could be disturbing to viewers, the site includes a collection of photographs and sketches of thousands of unidentified corpses. Their expressions vary from peaceful to tormented, depending on their manner of death.

Descriptions of race, approximate age, scars, tattoos, clothing and other remains are also noted.

“They all leave behind a tale,” Machian said, referring to the scars, the tattoos, the moles and the gold or silver dental fillings. “You just have to know how to uncover it. You have to determine what they are trying to tell you.”

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Thousands of people flock to Los Angeles each year in search of fame or fortune or simply to start a new life.

Many, such as migrant workers, die in anonymity, far from loved ones in Central America and Mexico. In recent years, the number of Latino corpses has increased, making the job tougher for Machian and the Tolberts.

“I think a lot of the difficulties (in identifying) in the last years are those that are coming over the border and are here illegally,” Gilda Tolbert said. “There are times they could be here under a different name.

“Some of the difficulties we have is loved ones are not coming forward. A lot of them don’t even know where to start looking for someone.”

But even if a body is identified, the job is not finished. In fact, that is when Doyle Tolbert begins searching for the deceased’s next of kin.

He searches the Internet, credit reports and criminal records. He may have to contact former neighbors of the dead in Oklahoma or find a translator to help him call Iran.

But some identified bodies are never claimed or families members never found.

“They could have lost touch with the family,” Machian said. “Family members get into disagreements. Sometimes people leave because of a lifestyle they lead, and they don’t want their family to know. There are a lot of reasons.”

Sometimes, a family member will emerge 20 years later.

“I just had one mom in here who hadn’t seen her son since 1982,” Doyle Tolbert said. “It can be like a kick in the stomach to have to tell a loved one the final news.

“But a lot of people fear the worst. They imagine their son or daughter out on the streets, exposed, exploited, but for some reason, even though the death is hard, it is easier to take.”

Over the last year, the coroner’s office has worked to get its Web site linked to more databases across the nation and around the world, which has cut down on some of the legwork in getting clues. And any help is welcome.

Each year, about 400 nameless dead come through the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.

Most cases are relatively easy to solve: They’re listed as a missing person, have fingerprints with a police department or have children or a spouse searching for them.

But about 30 arrive without wallets or driver’s licenses or even a piece of paper with a friend’s telephone number.

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John Doe No. 132, who had the poorly drawn tattoo on his calf, was found Aug. 15 on a sidewalk in the 100 block of West 45th Street in Los Angeles.

A Latino believed to be in his 20s, who was known around the neighborhood of Chakali, he was killed in a gang-related shooting. Based on police interviews, he is believed to have come from Van Nuys.

After three months, Machian said, there are no missing person’s reports on a man fitting No. 132’s description, and his prints do not match with those in the police database. If Machian believes a lead is coming, John Doe No. 132 will stay in the morgue a bit longer, maybe up to a year.

But if no one comes forward to help identify him, No. 132 will be X-rayed and photographed from head to toe, then cremated. His possessions will be placed in a box and his remains will be held for three years.

After that, his ashes will be deposited into a common grave at the Los Angeles County Cemetery.

“The last thing we want to do is have (the Does) cremated by the county,” Machian said. “You feel bad, because you kind of failed.”

 

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