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ID-ing the Dead : Bodies of John and Jane Does Trigger Special Concern Among 34 Members of Coroner's Office

August 17, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer

The skull rests in a brown cardboard box on the highest shelf in the room cooled to 40 degrees. The bones are around the corner in another box.

"Someone knows who she is," Bill Lystrup says softly, firmly. "Someone knows who she is."

But does anyone who knew her realize that she is dead and now known to Lystrup and his colleagues in the Orange County coroner's office as 87-4092 EL?

On a Sunday evening in August, 1987, a man stopped his car on Santa Ana Canyon Road near Gypsum Canyon Road in a rural section of Anaheim. He got out and started walking through heavy brush, only to stumble over a scattering of bones strewn across an area 50 yards by 50 yards. Searchers found handfuls of blond hair but no clothes, pocketbook, car keys--no clues to the identity of the skeletal remains.

The discovery started a process of sleuthing that continues to this day. Of the unidentified victims in the coroner's office in Santa Ana, the "John Does" and "Jane Does," No. 87-4092 EL has been there the longest.

Of the 14,000 people who die in Orange County each year, about 2,500 wind up in the coroner's office. State law requires the coroner to investigate deaths due to homicide, suicide or accident. Other deaths are reported to the coroner as well--people who die during surgery and those not seen by a physician in the past 30 days. But most are routine cases, and the bodies don't wind up in the refrigeration room. Unidentified corpses do.

The overwhelming majority enter with identities. In May, for instance, of the 39 bodies in the office, 29 had been identified. Over the course of a year, maybe 100 bodies will be "Does" for a time.

Most won't remain unknown for long. A fingerprint check will turn up a "hit." A parent who reports a son missing, with description of the clothing he was probably wearing and the distinctive tattoo on an arm, will be called and asked to identify a body matching the description.

Still, "I don't think a week or 10 days goes by that you don't have a John or Jane Doe in the office," says Jim Beisner, chief deputy coroner.

A body without a name triggers technology: X-ray machines are adjusted a tad more precisely; multimillion-dollar fingerprint systems begin to hum. A John Doe also ignites a special concern in the 34-person coroner's office. "We have a potential of someone . . . out there who doesn't know the loved one is dead," Beisner says.

"It's hard to perceive that someone could walk around on the face of the earth and then die and not be missed by someone."

When the body remains unidentified, fingerprints are taken, matched with those on file at the Orange County Sheriff's Department, then with those kept by the state Department of Justice and finally with the FBI in Washington.

X-rays are taken of the body and teeth. Teletypes chatter with descriptions of the body, asking law enforcement agencies in the region or throughout the state if they know of any matches.

In extreme cases, such as the Santa Ana Canyon Road bones, extraordinary measures are taken.

An autopsy on the woman's remains didn't turn up the cause of death. But a month later, examination by Judy Suchey, a Cal State Fullerton forensic anthropologist who has a contract with the coroner's office, helped show "defects" in two ribs, according to Cullen Ellingburgh, supervising deputy coroner assigned to the case.

In the careful language associated with events that can wind up in the courts, the marks were ruled "consistent with penetrating stab wounds." Ellingburgh ruled the death a homicide.

As time went by and the remains were still unidentified, Suchey decided to have Shannon Collis, a San Diego State graduate student in forensic anthropology, reconstruct a model of the victim's face. Collis is one of a handful of people in the country who do such work.

"I selected this for Shannon specifically because (the victim) was young . . . a teen-ager," Suchey says. "Younger females approximately that age will have more family connections than an older person. This means the chances of identification will rise. The purpose of the facial reconstruction is to jog relatives or a friend's family. When the picture appears in the paper, it will jog the memory and they will say, 'Yeah, I haven't seen her in a while.' And they'll call in. This will produce new leads that can be investigated."

Suchey said forensic anthropologists can study a skull and gauge skin depth and facial contours. They also can figure the age, sex, race.

Collis put clay atop the skull and worked for more than 40 hours to reconstruct the face. "We knew she had long blond hair and a chipped tooth in front, so that allowed us to individualize the features," Suchey says.

Still, no luck.

The keepers of the bodies at the coroner's office hope they'll get lucky with 87-4092 EL as they did with 84-3271 MZ.

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