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'Doe Network' restores names to the missing dead

Amateur sleuths, scouring the Internet, work to solve the mysteries behind unidentified bodies.

April 13, 2008|Helen O'Neill | Associated Press

LIVINGSTON, TENN. — Four days a week, Todd Matthews earns $11.50 an hour working for an automotive parts supplier. After work he drives half a mile to his little beige house on a hill, where he spends the next seven hours immersed in a very different world.

The faces seem to float from his computer -- morgue photographs, artist sketches, forensic reconstructions -- thousands of dead eyes staring from websites as though crying out for recognition. "John" and "Jane" and "Baby Does" whose bodies have never been identified.

His wife, Lori, complains that Matthews, 37, spends more time with the dead than he does with the living. You need a hobby, she says, or a goal.

I have a goal, he replies, though he describes it as a "calling."

He wants to give "Does" back their names.

His obsession began two decades ago, when Lori told him about the unidentified young woman wrapped in canvas whose body Lori's father had stumbled on in Georgetown, Ky., in 1968. She'd had reddish brown hair and a gap-toothed smile. Locals named her "Tent Girl."

Tent Girl haunted Matthews. Who were her siblings? What was her name?

Matthews began searching library records and police reports, not even sure what he was seeking. He scraped together the money to buy a computer. He started scouring message boards on the nascent Internet.

In the process, Matthews discovered something extraordinary. All over the country, people just like him were gingerly tapping into the new technology, creating a movement -- a network of amateur sleuths as curious and impassioned as Matthews.

Today the Doe Network has volunteers and chapters in every state. Bank managers and waitresses, factory workers and farmers, computer technicians and grandmothers, all believing that with enough time and effort, modern technology can solve the mysteries of the missing dead.

Increasingly, they are succeeding.

The unidentified dead are everywhere -- buried in unmarked graves, tagged in county morgues, dumped in rivers and under bridges. There are more than 40,000 unidentified bodies in the U.S., according to national law enforcement reports, and about 100,000 people formally listed as missing.

The premise of the Doe Network is simple. If the correct information -- dental records, DNA, police reports, photographs -- is properly entered into the right databases, many of the unidentified can be matched with the missing. Law enforcement agencies and medical examiners' offices simply don't have the time or manpower. Using the Internet and other tools, volunteers can do the job.

In the suburbs of Chicago, bank executive Barbara Lamacki spends her nights searching for clues that might identify toddler Johnny "Dupage" Doe, whose body was wrapped in a blue laundry bag and dumped in the woods of rural Dupage County, Ill., in 2005.

In Kettering, Ohio, Rocky Wells, a 47-year-old manager of a package delivery company, scoots his teenage daughters from the living room computer and scours the Internet for anything that might crack the case of the red-haired Jane Doe found strangled near Route 55 in 1981.

And in Penn Hills, Pa., Nancy Monahan, 54, who creates floor displays for a discount chain, says her "real job" begins in the evening when she returns to her house, turns on her computer and starts sleuthing.

Monahan's cases include that of "Beth Doe," a young pregnant woman strangled, shot and dismembered, her remains stuffed into three suitcases and flung off a bridge along Interstate 80 near White Haven in December 1976. And "Homestead Doe," whose mummified body was found in an abandoned railroad tunnel in Pittsburgh in 2000. Her toenails were painted silver.

"It's like they become family," Monahan says. "You feel a responsibility to bring them home."

The stories of Doe Network members are as individual as the cases they are trying to solve. Traycie Sherwood of Richmond, Mo., joined when her adoptive mother died and she went online searching for her birth mother. Daphne Owings, a 45-year-old mother of two in Mount Pleasant, S.C., needed something to take her mind off the war when her husband was sent to Iraq. Carol Ceiliki of Whitehall, Pa., was searching for her ex-husband.

And Laura Allen Hood of Fort Smith, Ark., was searching for her brother.

For years, Hood refused to speak about Tony, who vanished without a trace in 1978 while visiting friends in Oklahoma. He was 16, two years older than his sister.

Hood describes years of false sightings and false hope -- stalking someone in a car because he looked like Tony, picking up hitchhikers who bore a resemblance, her mother wrapping a Christmas present year after year for the son who never came home.

It wasn't until 2004, when Hood's own son became a teenager, that she decided to find her brother once and for all. Trolling the Internet, she discovered the Doe Network. Sifting through its vast indexes, she found new hope.

Hood e-mailed Matthews in Tennessee: "Can you help me find my brother?"

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