In the first installment of the new series, Left for Dead: Inside America’s Coldest Cases, readers met Mountain Jane Doe, a young woman who was stabbed to death and left naked in the woods near Harlan, Ky., in 1969.
“She was buried quickly without a name in a cemetery surrounded by slender oak and poplar trees at the edge of a steep, rutted trail called Red Dog Road,” writes author G.W. Schulz of Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Schulz explained that authorities hoped that by digging up the woman’s remains they could solve the 45-year mystery. Their plan was to compare her DNA with samples from families who’d reported their loved ones missing in hopes of establishing an identification.
As difficult as that seemed, it would prove harder still. Schulz reported in his second installment that the remains exhumed from the ground in the primitive cemetery with temporary markers were not those of Mountain Jane Doe. They belonged to a man, also unidentified.
Read about it on the Reveal site, and see the Colorado State of Mind report tonight at 7:30 on Rocky Mountain PBS.
Even in this era of modern forensic science, including DNA matching, exacting dental records and much more, the FBI estimates there is a national list of 10,000 people found deceased without identity. On a given day, there are 80,000 missing people in the U.S.
Details about the missing and unidentified dead are recorded in a growing but voluntary federal database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, housed at the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas.
“Never before has such a comprehensive portrait of these Jane and John Does been available to the public,” Schulz writes. “Launched in 2007 with help from the Justice Department, NamUs operates similar to a dating site, suggesting compatibility among cases. Medical examiners and coroners upload information about a person who is dead and unknown, and a list of possible matches to missing persons reports appears based on a number of criteria – hair color, height and date the individual went missing, for example.”
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, one of the founding proponents of NamUs and an early advocate of DNA testing, said that the system is a true advance. But with the absence of mandatory national reporting standards and the wildly disparate qualifications of medical examiners and coroners from thousands of jurisdictions, it isn’t perfect.
On Colorado State of Mind on Rocky Mountain PBS Friday night at 7:30, Morrissey describes in moving detail a complicated Denver case of a woman taken off Colfax Avenue, murdered and buried in Adams County. A combination of factors led to the ultimate DNA testing that proved the woman’s identity – word that her daughter and other family had long awaited.
On the same show, I-News reporter Katie Kuntz presents a Boulder cold case that went on for years before finally being resolved through almost fluke circumstances that led to conclusive DNA testing. I-News collaborated with Reveal and Left for Dead author Schulz in reporting the Boulder case, a John Doe who proved to be 16-year-old Cristobal Flores of Denver at the time of his disappearance.
The elements of these mysteries can be compelling and complex, and devastating to those family members and friends who wait and wonder without knowing.