Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s latest project is “Left for Dead,” an ongoing series of deeply-researched articles and accompanying podcasts addressing a fascinating and tragic mystery: why are there so many unidentified and unclaimed bodies in America?
And there’s more: “Left for Dead” also includes the development of an online tool that allows for easier searching of the US Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (known as “NamUs”), enabling the massive database to be more effectively used in cross-checking missing people with John and Jane Does. (Tips on using the search feature here.) A promising match could lead to a positive ID—which in turn could bring closure to the missing person’s worried, grieving friends and family, as well as help law enforcement determine if foul play was involved in their death, and then bring a killer to justice. With the information available to anyone with dogged determination and computer access, amateur sleuths have helped solve some of these cases.
For true crime followers, “Left for Dead” is a must-read and must-listen experience, with new material being posted throughout the month and beyond. I caught up with Reveal reporter G.W. Schulz (full disclosure: Schulz was a former colleague of mine at the late, great San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper) to learn more about this important ongoing project.
io9: Why did you decide to take on this topic?
G.W. Schulz: It actually started when I was at the Guardian. I used to go to the San Francisco medical examiner’s office to look at autopsy reports while I was working on stories. On the cork board next to the walk-up window at the ME’s office were these yellowing notices, curling at the corners, that were charcoal sketches of people who’d been found floating dead underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Likely, they were suicide cases. And the notices would say, “Do you know who I am?” or “Can you identify me?” What struck me immediately were the dates on them. The individuals had been found years before, and still hadn’t been identified.
I thought that was profound, so I started looking into it as a potential story for the Guardian. But it turned out there weren’t that many Jane and John Doe cases in San Francisco, somewhat surprisingly, considering the huge transient population and the huge homeless population. In fact, Las Vegas has a lot of Does because of those reasons.
[But I wondered if] there was state-level data, national data ... there had to be a way to peek more deeply inside what I was assuming was an overlooked class of victims, homicide or not. So I started poking around into seeing what data I could find online. What I initially wanted to do was try to get federal-level data on Jane and John Does and compare it to overall death rates for each state, so I could get a sense, per 10,000 deaths, how many Does each state was generating. I realized pretty quickly that wasn’t possible, because there wasn’t good federal-level data on Jane and John Does with the exception of one voluntary database. It was brand-new at the time, called NamUs.
What was using NamUs like?
I started tinkering with it at first, manually typing in information about individual cases from California to see if I could compare the numbers to overall death rates, and at least come up with a numbers-based story for the Guardian. I was just starting to learn about data-driven journalism at the time. And it was so painstaking, I thought, “There’s got to be a better way to do this.” Some federal websites, you can download data in the form of an Excel spreadsheet and then analyze it however you want. You can’t do that with NamUs.
So I was like, “I’m going to have to FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] this thing to get the raw contents of it.” But NamUs was so new at the time, they didn’t know how to handle my request. I realized over time this was going to be a way bigger challenge than I’d bargained for. I eventually joined the Center for Investigative Reporting, and [while I was working on other projects], I kept nudging along these FOIA requests. And I started realizing more and more that the strategy would have to be: get the raw contents of NamUs, call up medical examiners and coroners who had expressed interest in this subject before and were interested in reforming it, and ask them about how the problem could be fixed.
Eventually, I did get data sent from NamUs, but I wanted more; by then, I’d gotten much more training on analyzing data. It wasn’t until early last year that I got the first raw data sent from NamUs that I was pleased with, that I thought I could actually do something with. By then, the database had been around for six years, so a lot of data about cases had accumulated in it.
How did you decide which cases to feature in “Left for Dead”?
Five or six years ago, I set up Google alerts for the phrases “Jane and John Doe,” and the phrase “unidentified person,” and I got a ton of little blotter items. It would never be a big story, but something like: “Sheriff’s deputies are seeking the identity of a young woman found deceased.” Or ten years later, “Sheriff’s deputies are still trying to find out the identity of a young woman found deceased.” I collected hundreds of these.
From the clips, I started to learn about particularly compelling cases around the country, cases that were strange or mystifying or would surprise the crap out of people. I thought, the whole idea of Jane and John Does would surprise people: “How can you die without a name?” Anything we do from there, I thought, would pique peoples’ interests. As a society we already have an interest in cold cases and criminal justice. The way I looked at it, it was almost like we found a public-policy angle on our preoccupation with cold cases, and it enables us to raise real issues about this.
I really pushed for getting NamUs’ data on manner of death, which they had on the administrative side. The non-public side. A large part of the FOIA battle was getting those numbers. I really thought the story would be enriched by us and the public having an understanding of how many of these cases do and don’t involve homicides. They’re the coldest cases.
[Once I got that data], from there I had to isolate cases that I really wanted to get into and report the hell out of: old serial killer cases from Alaska and Indiana; years-old cases of, like, a child who was found dead and was never ID’d. That might tell me something about how much police actually worked the case, and it would help me unpack the narratives around these cases and try to bring them to life. And ultimately, my bosses at CIR wanted to find a case with which we could take the audience on a journey, from exhumation to potential identification ... which is harder than it sounds.
What made you decide to feature the case of “Mountain Jane Doe”?
I was talking to [NamUs spokesperson and director of case management] Todd Matthews about the idea of taking the audience on a journey starting at exhumation. I said, “I know they’re not common, but what do you got?” I didn’t realize until later how hard it is for reporters to get access to exhumations. He said, “We’ve got this case coming up in Kentucky, we’re going to dig up a girl called Mountain Jane Doe and try to get her ID’d.”
We packed up and flew out there to shoot this exhumation; the Kentucky State Police were a little blindsided by having media there. But they didn’t make too much of a stink out of it. We interviewed some of the police, the coroner, and then filmed the whole exhumation. They did not restrict our access at all, which was remarkable.
As the story reveals, this particular “journey” isn’t resolved exactly the way you’d hoped.
Leading up to rollout of the project, she was still a compelling case. She still told the story of cold-case Jane and John Does really well. Because in a lot of these cases, if authorities aren’t moving or doing anything, then nothing happens to the case. It just stays cold and unsolved unless somebody takes action, authorizes an exhumation, and says “Send the DNA out.” As long as she was still in the ground, the story ended there, and that was OK. Because we could still tell a great story about this girl who had to have come from somewhere. Had to have had a family. Every Jane and John Doe has to come from somewhere. We thought we could still craft a story around that, and use it as a vehicle to bring people to the 21st century side of all this.
What was the biggest surprise you found while working on this project?
I was surprised that a new generation of investigators could rotate in, and the cases would just sort of languish. There’s an expectation that there’s an expert cold-case unit that’s constantly revisiting these cases, and that detectives are haunted by them and spend their whole lives trying to solve them. And there were plenty of cases like that, by the way. I talked to some really cool investigators who were determined to get names for some of the cases.
But in other cases, there were a multitude of reasons why agencies wouldn’t be able to work them anymore. There’s often no money to have cold-case units. There aren’t multi-million dollar grant programs for Jane and John Doe cold cases, the way there are for homeland security, things like that. After a period of time, the cases would just gather dust, just the way projects in any workplace can. At the time, they were worked diligently. But they just couldn’t find out who the individual was.
The narrative of the missing in the United States has been fairly well-told. Kids go missing, it’s on the news for a long time. The narrative of Jane and John Does hasn’t necessarily been that well-told. And that’s what really intrigued me.
Read more about the surprising discovery the Kentucky State Police made when they opened Mountain Jane Doe’s grave by reading Schulz’s first installment of “Left for Dead;” and check back for updates on the case on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s site.