The region’s nameless dead have been found floating in the Connecticut River, hidden in ditches and dumped in forests and near highways. Around the state, human remains have been found by street sweepers, hunters, hikers and passers-by and unearthed by construction crews.
Police have worked for years trying to figure out who they are — a young woman found murdered in East Haven still remains nameless after 37 years.
East Haven police Detective Sgt. Bruce Scobie said police would like to solve the mystery, know her name and capture her killer.
Scobie, a father himself, thinks about Jane Doe’s parents and relatives.
“You wonder if this person had family somewhere at one time,” Scobie said. “Are they out there wondering? Did they pass on, never knowing what happened to her? It is hard to believe no one ever missed her. There must be someone out there with a story of a friend or cousin who disappeared. Someday, I’d like to hear that a name has been put to her.”
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center, the country’s number of unidentified deceased was at 7,551 as of Jan. 1. However, it isn’t mandatory for law enforcement to enter all cases into this database, according to a center spokeswoman.
U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5, who has proposed the federal “Help Find the Missing Act,” or “Billy’s Law,” in honor of missing Waterbury man William Smolinski Jr., estimates there are 40,000 sets of unidentified remains nationwide. Murphy’s proposal seeks to create an organized system to match remains to missing people, and an incentive grants program for law enforcement and medical examiners to report information to NCIC, the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, and the National DNA Index System.
“Unless you put information about unidentified remains on NamUs, you are cutting out the most important investigators, the loved ones of the missing,” Murphy said, as NamUs is open to the public. “The Internet is perfectly positioned to solve these cases, yet we aren’t using it to its capacity.”
On Friday, NamUs, which launched in 2007, listed 41 cases of unidentified remains found in Connecticut, going back to 1972. It listed 8,165 open unidentified remains cases for the country.
While various databases can help match the missing to the unidentified, investigators frequently aren’t using all available databases. Older cases predate DNA extraction technology. In many area cases, the unidentified bodies were buried, so investigators don’t have DNA to add to databases unless they exhume the bodies.
Of the 41 cases of unidentified remains listed on NamUs for Connecticut, only three show DNA samples have been submitted, with no DNA samples taken even for many cases in years when the technology was available, the site shows.
Under state law effective in October 2011, in cases involving remains where homicide is suspected, the office of the chief state medical examiner has to obtain tissue samples, bone and hair for DNA typing, and these samples must go to the Division of Scientific Services within the Department of Public Safety.
While several cases of unidentified remains from years ago have been added to NamUs in recent months, the NamUs list isn’t complete. State Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz said plans are under way for statewide training for law enforcement on how to use NamUs.
East Haven’s Jane Doe, for example, isn’t on there yet, though police say they are considering including her.
A truck driver found her body Aug. 16, 1975, in a drainage ditch behind a department store on Frontage Road. The white woman was found wrapped in a canvas tarp with black wire around her neck, waist and knees. Her cause of death was asphyxiation by suffocation, according to police.
Police have circulated an artist’s rendering of the brunette, who is believed to have been 18 to 28 years old. They have featured her case on The Doe Network. This has led to occasional leads, but none have led to Doe’s identity.
Scobie said police are discussing exhuming her body from a Hamden cemetery to try to get DNA from her remains.
Police have Jane Doe’s dental records, but she was found in an era that pre-dates the widespread use of DNA testing, Scobie said.
Scobie said having her DNA may not lead to any matches, because there may not be DNA available from women who went missing back then for comparison.
“Exhuming her body is something that has been discussed,” Scobie said. “If the laboratory said there would be viable DNA, we would probably do it.”
Also, while an artist did a rendering of Doe years ago, Scobie said computer technology has advanced so much that using her skull today could result in a more accurate image of what she looked like.
Henry C. Lee, forensics expert, professor and founder of the University of New Haven Forensic Research Training Center, said technology has changed tremendously in the years since the discovery of East Haven’s Jane Doe. According to Lee, in older cases of unidentified remains, DNA samples weren’t taken, but with today’s technology, DNA can be extracted from hair and bone.
Lee also cautioned that getting DNA from the remains won’t necessarily solve the East Haven mystery.
“It is so many years ago, it would be hard to track down family to get the known DNA (for comparison),” Lee said. “If we don’t know where the victim came from, we don’t have known DNA to compare with, and that becomes shooting in the dark, and makes the case very difficult.”
Scobie said he doesn’t believe Jane Doe was from the area, as he believes someone would have reported her missing, and she would have been recognized back then from publicity about the case. It is possible her parents are dead, he said.
“The theory is she was killed elsewhere and then brought to that location,” Scobie said. “I personally don’t think the crime occurred very far away. She was pretty well bound, tied and gagged. Someone took their time with her. I think it was a premeditated killing.”
Doe possibly had a small mole on her chin, and she had pierced ears and wore small gold circular earrings, according to Scobie.
“There was an item used to gag her which leads me to believe the homicide was committed locally,” he said.
Police don’t want to be specific about the item used to gag the victim, because if police ever get a confession, only the killer could identify it, Scobie said.
Police believe she had been there up to five days before her discovery.
“Whoever put her there, did not want her found,” Scobie said. “There are a lot of theories. I’m not sure a person who was just traveling through would take the time to conceal a body like that.”
Over the years, leads about her possible identity have come through the Doe Network, but they have all been ruled out through dental or medical comparisons, according to Scobie.
According to Scobie, police have a suspect in Jane Doe’s death, Glen Askeborn, who served prison time for a similar slaying in Maine. Askeborn, who dressed in women’s clothes, used the name Samantha Glenner also, according to police.
According to the Maine Department of Corrections, Askeborn was released from prison in September 2009.
“The body in that (Maine) case was concealed and disposed of in a similar manner, and we went to interview (Askeborn) in a Maine prison,” Scobie said. “He denied any knowledge of it. He lived in East Haven at the time of this (Jane Doe) incident, and there were a lot of similarities. Personally, I do think he was involved, but we have no direct evidence.”
Investigators in Old Saybrook have their own unsolved case. Fishermen discovered the badly decomposed body of a man floating in the Connecticut River in Old Saybrook on March 31, 1998.
John Doe’s case is on the Doe Network, and it was entered on NamUs in 2008. The NamUs site says his DNA is not available, but his dental information is available for comparison. The site estimates his age at between 30 and 35 and describes him as a white male, who was 5 feet, 8 inches tall. His remains were mostly skeletonized. He was wearing a coat with a purple zipper, and had remnants of black socks and pants, and he wore size 9½ FILA brand sneakers. He also had a silver lighter, the NamUs site shows. Officials estimate his death as between 1990 and 1998. His remains were eventually buried as a John Doe.
The man is featured in the state’s cold case playing card deck, which is given to state prisoners, as the nine of hearts. The card describes him as an unidentified person, aged between 29 and 32, and about 200 pounds. A drawing of him on the card depicts him as dark-skinned.
Old Saybrook police Sgt. Charles Mercer said the investigation determined his body was in the water for years, and police believe he floated downriver to Old Saybrook.
“The condition of the body indicates he was in a marshy area before high water moved the remains to the river,” Mercer said.
According to Mercer, the facial reconstruction of a dark-skinned male was done by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and police believe it is an accurate representation of what he looked like, though Mercer said the skin color could be much lighter and is “at best a guess.”
“His bone structure suggests he probably was Hispanic or Caucasian, or of mixed race,” Mercer said.
Police have widely distributed the man’s image, even featuring his case on America’s Most Wanted’s website. His dental records were submitted to the American Dental Association and the Department of Defense’s dental unit, according to Mercer.
Police do not know the victim’s cause of death, so they don’t know if there was foul play, Mercer said. They also do not have his DNA, Mercer confirmed.
“We could not submit DNA as there were some restrictions at the time, and we really did not have a cause of death,” Mercer said.
Exhuming the body, such as for DNA testing, isn’t likely until police can locate someone linked to him, according to Mercer.
Police distributed descriptions of the man’s clothing, and because of the lighter he had, even contacted the National Lighter Museum in Oklahoma, hoping for leads and clues to his identity. The lighter model was widely distributed, police said.
“It is all to no avail,” Mercer said. “I had always hoped to identify him before I retire. A lot of time was expended, but with no results, I’m afraid.”
Milford police are still investigating two unidentified remains cases that date back to the early 1990s.
On Aug. 21, 1992, people walking in the woods off Oronoque Road in Milford found the body of an Asian man in his early to mid 20s. The victim had been shot multiple times and rolled up in a rug. His case is listed on the NamUs database. The site indicates DNA testing was not done, but investigators do have his dental X-rays. He is also on the Doe Network.
Also in Milford, on March 24, 1994, a city public works crew found a male headless torso in a bag, also near Oronoque Road by the Housatonic River. The torso case hadn’t been entered into NamUs as of Friday.
Officer Jeffrey Nielsen, spokesman for the Milford police, said both cases are active investigations. Investigators received an inquiry on the torso case as recently as December from Canada, but the remains didn’t match, according to Nielsen, who said the torso case likely hasn’t been put on NamUs because of the lack of identifying information.
“We are hopeful any open investigation can be solved,” Nielsen said. “One of the obstacles for the torso case is that there are no dental records or fingerprints to go off of, no limbs with tattoos, which are all helpful in identifying. When these cases happened, DNA databases weren’t available.”
“You need to have identifying information on the people — you need things for comparison,” Nielsen said.
Lee said he was involved in investigating the Milford dismembering case.
“That victim was more than likely not from Connecticut,” Lee said. “No missing person matched that individual. Either the person was from another place and came to Connecticut and was killed here, or was murdered someplace else and dumped in Milford.”
According to Lee, while technology has improved for identifying remains, investigators still face obstacles such as time and staffing. “Technology has changed tremendously — we now have databases,” Lee said. “Police departments are pretty busy and have new cases. Sometimes, when nobody in a family is pushing and police have new cases, and the laboratory people have a big backlog, a lot of cases fall through the cracks, with nobody really pursuing them. It is possible, if they were focused on, they would be solved. Reviewing the cases takes a lot of time and manpower.”
Lee noted that the National Cold Case Center at the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven has had success at solving old cases, but investigators have to ask for their assistance.
State police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said he doesn’t know exactly how many unidentified remains cases there are in the state.
Vance said he doesn’t think staffing at the laboratory is an issue.
When asked why it is so difficult to identify these people, Vance said, “Sometimes there are no identifiers, or there is nothing on file to compare them to, even if the information is entered into a database.”
Kenna Quinet, associate professor of criminal justice, law & public safety at Indiana University-Purdue University, said some long unsolved cases may fall under the category of the “missing missing,” or unidentified people who were never reported missing.
These individuals often are prostitutes, homeless, drug addicts, children who have been kicked out of their homes, undocumented immigrants, or people who lost contact with family and friends, according to Quinet.
“There’s really two levels, one group of people who are never missed by anyone, and others who are eventually missed but there is a significant delay in the missing report — days, weeks, months, even years,” Quinet said. “That obviously makes for a difficult investigation for police.”
“I think we are underestimating the number of homicides and the number of serial murders in the U.S. because we are not counting the ‘missing missing,’ and some people are not only never reported as missing, but we never find the body,” Quinet said.
Visit the Missing in Connecticut Facebook page at Facebook.com/MissingInCT.