M.E., OSBI team to ID Oklahoma's John, Jane Doe's
SARAH STEWART reportsIt's the ultimate mystery, almost one hundred dead bodies and state officials have no idea who these people are: row after row of unidentified skeletons kept at the medical examiner's office.
Updated: February 18, 2004 10:11 AM
This is the fourth cold winter a Watonga mother has struggled with the mystery surrounding her son.
"He always had those fat little cheeks," she said.
Even at age 36, Donna Marshall's son was her baby. But all she has left of him now are pictures. Tracy Marshall was reported missing in August of 2000.
"You keep looking and you keep waiting," she said. "You know that phone's going to ring."
Marshall calls it a horrible feeling, living not knowing what happened to a loved one.
"You know, a million things go through your mind," she said.
Could Marshall's answers be found in nearly 100 boxes?
"Each one of these boxes will contain all or part of the remains that have been, you know, recovered," said Kevin Rowland, chief investigator with the medical examiner's office.
They're identified only by a 7-digit number. They're Oklahoma's unidentified dead.
"If it were only as easy as it is on television, you know, we wouldn't have any unidentifieds," said Rowland, who adds his office has roughly 94 unidentified bodies from 1972 to the present.
"We get a lot of bodies that are dumped near the interstates with Oklahoma being the crossroads of America," he said.
And without a national clearinghouse for the unidentified deceased, it can be a daunting task to assign a face a name.
"You can't just search against every known missing, you know, white female age 25 to 30 years old in the United States," he said. "It would be totally impossible."
When a Jane or John Doe comes in, Dr. Jeffery Gofton says the search for identity often begins beneath the skin.
"This individual has multiple cavities that have been filled in the past," he said. "Some people have their appendix removed. Some people have their gall bladder removed."
They're the unique scars we all accumulate throughout life that can provide valuable clues in the search for a positive ID. But, even more importantly, doctors say someone needs to be searching for the missing person.
"If you don't have that suspicion that somebody's missing from society, you really have nothing to compare it to," he said.
Canadian County sheriff Lewis Hawkins has his own Jane Doe, his most perplexing unsolved case.
"The survey crew was doing a survey for right down along through here and when they discovered the skull, it was face up," Hawkins said. "It's the only one that we haven't identified the person that existed."
January 5, 1990, half of her complete skeleton was found in a creek bed one mile north of I-40, next to an intersection called "Dead Man's Corner".
"I actually found that lower jawbone that had the teeth in it," Hawkins said. "From that, though, we've been able to eliminate lots of people as to possibly being this person."
But despite a facial reconstruction, the woman's positive ID has eluded officials who can't even investigate the homicide they believe happened, until they know the victim.
"I would really like to, if nothing else, just to be able to say that this person gets buried properly," he said. "It's sort of, you know, for lack of a better term, having a skeleton in the closet."
It's a frustrating fact for the medical examiner's office who, after our calls, undertook a new venture with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
"Our office and the Oklahoma City Bureau of Investigation are now trying to merge our database of unidentified bodies with their database of known missing persons," Rowland said. "And, hopefully, try to be able to go back and identify some of these old cases.
"It's like these individuals just didn't exist," he said. "Which isn't true. They did."
Sometimes, families do get closure. After almost three years, a man drilling an oil rig found Tracy Marshall's remains. Donna says if it weren't for a car accident Tracy was in, he might have never been identified. His facial surgery left behind dental records that were compared to the remains.
She now has a gravesite to visit, complete with the tree she kept lit the whole time he was missing.
"And then I brought it up here so that I didn't have to look at it and it wasn't lighted anymore," she said. "I knew where he was."
Marshall calls herself lucky, and said her heart goes out to the dozens of families who don't know the fate of their loved ones.
"I'm one of the lucky ones and that sounds terrible," she said. "But I'm one of the lucky ones, because I do know where my son is."
Some unidentified bodies, if they are not already skeletons, are buried in the county where they were found. But the medical examiner's office can get access to them if a lead ever surfaces involving their identity.