They are not caskets, just plain brown cardboard boxes. There were no flowers. No eulogies. They were not lowered into the earth. They are stacked in neat, tight rows on gray metal shelves at the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center.
They hold the scant remains of people who have never been identified, the secrets of their lives, and in some cases the secrets of their deaths.
One unanswered question common to all of them: Who were you?
A common denominator for all of them: they are missing persons, but many may have never been reported missing.
“Even if there was never an official missing report filed on them, it is obvious that all of them are missing from somewhere, and many of them are probably missed by someone,” said Todd Matthews, communications manager for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).
The forensic center has 55 of them. Most are cases from East Tennessee, including six from Knox County. Each story is as incomplete as it is different. Some have been there for decades.
It is unknown how many unidentified remains cases there are nationally. Estimates by some authorities range from 40,000 to 60,000.
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Dr. Lee Meadows Jantz, Coordinator for the Forensics Anthropology Center and Senior Lecturer at the University of Tennessee, goes over the skeleton of an unidentified male from 1993, from the William M. Bass Skeletal Collection, Tuesday, June 11, 2013. The man was hit by a car on Cedar Bluff Rd. and had an orthopedic rod in his right leg. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL)
NamUs (www.namus.gov) is the first national resource center for cases of missing persons and unidentified bodies. It allows anyone to cross-check descriptions of a missing person with information about unidentified bodies. It is available for free to the general public. There is also a section available only to law enforcement and medical examiners for the exchange of confidential investigation.
NamUs estimates there are 4,400 new cases of unidentified bodies each year. Most will be identified within a year. But, despite many advances in forensics and anthropological sciences, about one of every four will not, and of those many remain unidentified for years — maybe forever.
“We are light years away from where we were 40 years ago,” said UT’s Dr. William Bass, founder of the Forensic Anthropology Center. “As the ID processes have matured, we can ID more and more people, and there are organizations and Internet sites that focus on the missing. But there are still some disconnects in the system.”
Cold cases stored in the William M. Bass Skeletal Collection
Some medical examiners and coroners still do not file all of their cases with national databases, such as the FBI’s NCIC or the relatively new NamUs. Also, many law enforcement agencies around the country do not participate in NamUs. And DNA is no guarantee of an identification.
“DNA is a wonderful tool, but for it to be of any help, you still have to find someone whose DNA can be compared to the person it was drawn from,” Bass said.
“If you don’t get them identified fairly soon through forensics, then it becomes more difficult,” said David Davenport, head of the joint cold case squad of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and Knoxville Police Department. “And the longer you go without getting their name, the less likely it becomes that you ever will.”
There are success stories in even the oldest of cases. In 1982, skeletal remains of a black man who had been shot execution style were found in a wooded area of Knox County. A likeness of his face was circulated. But it was not known at the time that the victim had a beard, so the likeness did not show that.
More recently, an age-regressed likeness of him as a younger man was created, and that was the key that led to his identification, said Amy Dobbs, criminal analyst with KCSO. Family members saw it, and their DNA positively identified him in April of this year.
His case is now an open and very active homicide investigation, Dobbs said.
Many unidentified bodies and unreported missing persons are from the ranks of people who live transient lives: homeless people, drifters, the mentally ill, runaways, street prostitutes or gay male hustlers, said Dr Kenna Quinet, professor of criminal justice at Indiana University and Purdue University. If they disappear, it often goes unnoticed, she said.
A rendering of an unidentified man whose body was discovered on Oct. 1, 1985, off Buttermilk Road in Loudon County. The man had been shot twice in the head. (The Doe Network)
“Some of these people do not even have a post office box for a Social Security check,” she said. “They are literally people with no family ties.”
Quinet has studied cases of unreported missing persons. She calls them the “missing missing,” and holds that many of them who turn up dead — perhaps more than realized — are victims of serial killers.
Bass offers an equally chilling scenario: in some cases, unidentified homicide victims may not have been reported missing because their killer is a family member.
The unidentified bodies at the Forensic Anthropology Center were first found in all sorts of sordid locations. Makeshift graves. On roadsides. Left in woods. Floating in lakes or rivers.
Most range in age from teenager to 60. But two of them are infants, their tiny bodies stuffed in a suitcase that was hidden for at least 15 years before they were found.
In some cases, the foulest of play is obvious.
Body on Buttermilk Road
On Oct. 1, 1985, the remains of a white man, about 5-feet-7 and estimated to be 51 to 60 years old, were found off Buttermilk Road in Loudon County. He had been shot twice in the head. He had removable dentures, no teeth, a medical implant in his aorta, and he wore a bracelet. All of that could help identify him.
Photo by Submitted
A facial reconstruction by forensic artist Joanna J. Hughes of an unidentified body found March 6, 2000, in Melton Hill Lake. She is known as the "Lady of the Lake." (Joanna J. Hughes/Special to the News Sentinel)
“You would think that a brother, an uncle, a friend, someone, has to be missing this guy and wondering what happened to him,” said Detective Lt. Patrick Upton of the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office.
The proximity of his body to an Interstate 75 exit led detectives to wonder if he was killed at another location — maybe even out of state — and dumped there.
A likeness of the victim’s face was circulated in the immediate area, but the only result was to exclude one man who was reported missing.
In those days, there was no national database for missing person reports, and it was a common practice of some police agencies to periodically purge unresolved cases of missing adults, Quinet said.
“One of the first things you do in a homicide case is find out who was the last person known to be with (the victim),” Upton said. “That’s pretty hard to do when you don’t even know who the victim is.”
Upton said anyone with information on this case should call the Loudon County dispatch office at 865-458-9081
Photo by Knox County Sheriff's Office
A post-mortem photograph of a pedestrian killed by a moving car on May 24, 1993, on Cedar Bluff Road. The man has never been identified. (Knox County Sheriff's Office)
Lady in the Lake
On March 6, 2000, two fishermen discovered her nude body floating in Melton Hill Lake. Oak Ridge police say she might have entered the water upstream, in Knox County.
She had drowned. How and why she went into the water remain unknown. Since March was still a bit chilly for skinny dipping, Oak Ridge Police Detective John Criswell doubts she went in of her own accord.
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Murray K. Marks, Ph. D., a forensic anthropologist with the Knox County Medical Examinerâs Office, in the Regional Forensics Center at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, Tuesday, June 11, 2013. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL)
She was white, appeared to be in her mid-20s, possibly her early to mid 30s. She had long brown hair. She had pierced ears but no jewelry on her.
She had never given birth, had no distinguishing marks and appeared to have been healthy. She had very good dental work, and had perhaps once worn braces.
Despite the circulation locally of five images of her face, she remains unidentified.
Criswell said the quality of her dental work makes it more likely that someone cared enough about her to have filed a missing person report.
“I think the right family person has just not seen (the image of) the facial reconstruction” of the woman found in the lake, Criswell said.
But he faces the same dilemma that the Loudon County case presents: with no clue as to where the victim is from, it is not known where a missing person would have been filed or where information about the case could be circulated.
Anyone with information on this case should call ORPD at 865 425-3504
Hit By a Car
On the evening of May 24,1993, he stepped in front of a moving car on Cedar Bluff Road near Cross Park Drive. Just under 6 feet tall, he and appeared to be about 51 to 60 and had reddish gray hair and a full beard. He wore a black wooden cross on a black cord chain necklace, and an “Advance” brand wristwatch.
There was an orthopedic rod in his right leg, and the bone around it was unhealed, indicating that injury was “very recent,”one. Even more promising, the rod had a number on it. All of that raised hopes for a quick ID, said Dr. Lee Meadows Jantz, the forensic anthropology center coordinator.
“We were thinking ‘Aha! A Quincy moment!” said Jantz, referring to a popular TV show of the early 1980s about a medical examiner who always identified the body and solved the case. “We thought we could identify him.”
But disappointment set in. Records are conflicting, but either the company that made the rod had purged the records that contained the serial number, or the number was only a model number.
Anyone with information on this case should contact Dobbs at KCSO, 865-215-3705.
Babies in the Suitcase
On Feb. 21, 1985, while cleaning out the crawl space in a house he had just bought in Cleveland, Tenn., a man came across a black leather suitcase. It was cracked and rotting with age, and inside were the bones of two infants, both white. One was wrapped in a baby blanket, the other in a shoebox.
They were no older than six months, and both could have been stillborn. The cause of death could not be determined. It is possible they were twins.
Pieces of newspapers and other items found in the trunk indicated the bodies had been placed in the trunk around 1964 to 1970. Some items suggested possible links to several different towns, including Knoxville and Chattanooga.
“I can still remember going into that crawl space and taking pictures,” said retired TBI Agent Stephen Cole, who worked with the Cleveland Police Department on the case. “It was very frustrating that we never identified them or found out what happened. I still think about that case sometimes.”
DNA science was in its early stage when their bodies were found. Later, when DNA collection from remains at the forensic anthropology center began, it was not initially drawn from the infants.
Jantz said the time frame of their deaths and circumstances of the case made it unlikely that they would have been reported missing, or that there would be a family member’s DNA sample on file somewhere for a match.
But the infants’ DNA is scheduled to be taken soon and placed into the NamUs database. The DNA will tell the infants’ sex and if they were related.
Bass, who retired in 1995, examined the bones when they were found. He vividly recalls the case.
“It isn’t every day that you get a suitcase full of the bones of two kids,” he said. “We did everything we could with the science available at the time to identify them,” and the police and TBI pursued the few aging clues in the suitcase as best they could, he said.
“That case was so different from all of the others,” Bass said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could solve it?”
Said Matthews: “We will never be able to solve them all, but we can always try to identify them all.”
Anyone with information on this case should contact Jantz at 865-974-4408.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs)
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
The Doe Network
North American Missing Persons Network
Project EDAN (Everyone Deserves A Name)
Outpost For Hope
Telco Productions, producers of syndicated TV series on missing persons
Disappeared," Discovery Channel series
America’s Most Wanted
See also: The Mystery of 'Shotgun Jane'
Previous News Sentinel profiles of cases of missing persons