Milwaukee hopes images of dead can heat up cold cases
Police use composites, like this from a 1969 California murder victim, to ID remains, but some jurisdictions are taking it further.
January 4th, 2012
01:56 PM ET

Milwaukee hopes images of dead can heat up cold cases

The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office is taking a drastic and admittedly desperate step in its effort to clear cold cases, some stretching back to 1970.

Law enforcement officials have long posted sketches or clay models  - and more recently, digital reconstructions - of unidentified persons in hopes that a friend or loved one might recognize the deceased and help police identify them. Taking its lead from Las Vegas, Milwaukee County is taking it a step further and releasing actual photos of the deceased.

It sounds gruesome - and it is, if you peruse the Milwaukee medical examiner's unidentified persons site - but forensic investigator Michael Simley says that in the 17 cases featured, authorities have run out of options.

"They were born with a name, and they deserve to have that name in death," Simley said. "This is the best way to get that information out there to the public."

Just because bodies are found in Milwaukee County doesn't mean the deceased lived there. They may have been a homeless transient or perhaps a visitor, so Simley wanted to create a database anyone could search.

It's a twist on the U.S. Justice Department's NamUs system, which is a database of unidentified human remains. The database, which contains more than 8,000 cases, is searchable by sex, race, body features, dental information or other characteristics.

There are many systems like NamUs. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, South Carolina Coroner's Association, New York State Police, Texas Department of Public Safety and even the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are among the law enforcement entities that post their John and Jane Does online, but they rely on reproductions of the deceased.

Milwaukee and Las Vegas appear to be the only U.S. cities whose police are posting photos of the actual bodies. The University of Milan in Italy, via its Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology and Odontology, also maintains a website that uses actual photos.

A news release from the Clark County, Nevada, Office of the Coroner/Medical Examiner states that since 2003, when it launched its own website and designated a group of investigators to handle cold cases, it has identified the remains of 30 people. The site says 152 remain to be identified, the oldest case dating back to 1969.

Milwaukee's site has yet to yield any identifications, but Simley noted it has only been live for a few weeks.

Simley knew the Milwaukee venture "may not sit well with some people," he said, so he took great care in how he arranged the site, putting up two pages of graphic content warnings before a visitor can view photos of the deceased. He decided the actual photos were a necessity after considering that all other leads in these cases had been exhausted and that sketches and clay composites can sometimes be inaccurate.

"Nothing quite describes a face like a picture of a face," he said.

Between their day-to-day duties, Simley and fellow forensic investigator Genevieve Penn in 2009 began importing the unidentified victims, which include adults, infants and fetuses, into a system.

For some victims, there were no photos available. For others, the face was so badly decomposed that investigators had to rely on other photos, like those of tattoos or belongings found with the corpse. There were also a few photos which required delicate doctoring to make them less grotesque yet still recognizable.

Simley began working on the website early last year, and it launched last month. So far, he said, there's been no negative feedback aside from one news report quoting an anthropologist who felt it would be traumatic for family members to see the photos.

Simley respects the opinion, but noted that protocol doesn't allow a loved one to identify a body via a composite, so at some point in the identification process, friends and family members will have to see the actual remains or at least a photograph.

In short, he said, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office understands these are sensitive matters, but is placing the identification of Jane and John Does on "a slightly higher bar" than the public's potential squeamishness.

"It's tragic to family members to have that in the back of their mind every day, wondering where their loved one is," he said.

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Filed under: Crime • Georgia • Italy • Justice • Nevada • New York • South Carolina • Technology • Texas • U.S. • Wisconsin
soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. George

    I looked at that picture while eating lunch and pueked.

    January 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Justiceforall

      Amazing. Another baffling cold case happened in 1966 and a new book tells the amazing story of the investigation into it, and who the likely killer was. Sympathy Vote: a Reinvestigation of the Valerie Percy murder. You can find it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

      January 11, 2014 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
  2. lee

    I saw the picture with this article of the "reconstructed" girl in Sue Grafton's book "Q Is For
    Quarry." Ms. Grafton's novel was inspired by the factual incident of this girl's body being found in a California quarry. No one has ever come forward to identify her. She had prominent front teeth which should have made an id relatively easy. Apparently from the 1960's.

    January 5, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jason

    You guys are incorrect as far as the Texas Dept. of Public Safety posting just sketches. Like Milwaulkee, they have actual photographs as well, and what is grisley is that a majority of the photgraphs there are actual photographs. Check out the TDPS website and see for yourself.

    January 5, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jarimiah

    Looks like the Progressive chick

    January 5, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ann

    Two words: Doe Network. That is all.

    January 5, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Syl

    I too recognized this girl from Sue Grafton's "Q is for Quary".

    January 5, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jazzy

    I only read a few of her books (Sue Grafton) I love John Grisham tho!
    Yes, She does have prominent features but there could be any number of reasons why no ID has been made, still someone should know of this women.

    January 5, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ilovefarts

    She's a man, baby!

    January 5, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Calli

    I believe Mexico and India has an online database with pictures of unknown deceased.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jesus C.

    Looks like Casey Anthony. Really, no pun intended. It's just creepy.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • dredzone

      I thought the exact same thing...before her (Casey) dye job video surfaced.

      January 9, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
  11. MC

    Man, you know those shots are going to be all over the web. Watch out for some freaky new Facebook profile pics. The Milwaukee site has a link for photos of "unidentified babies and fetuses" – first stop for heavy metal CD Cover designers...

    January 6, 2012 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
  12. betterday

    I think there could be victims, of murders or accidents, out there that nobody even realizes have gone missing. For that reason, I think it's important to show the photos, but the bigger problem is that it's unlikely that many people would seek out the website where they're displayed unless there was a specific person they were trying to find. Most people who wonder "whatever happened to ......." would check Facebook or Google first.

    January 6, 2012 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
  13. deepthunk

    I’m amazed that cnn.com is reporting that police are making dummies of dead people to try and solve cold cases (something which has been going on for years) but doesn’t seem to be giving any coverage to the teenage that got shot with a pellet gun by police in Texas.
    Interesting too how the police claim he pointed the gun at them when it’s reported he didn’t threaten any students or teachers with it. If he didn’t threaten students and teachers and moreover knew it was a pellet gun why would he point it at police?
    Interesting too how the 15 year old boy was Latino and the police statement was issued by “interim” police chief Orlando Rodriguez. I wonder how recently he might have been made “interim” police chief?

    January 6, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  14. FIND THE KILLERS

    its most likely the killers of some of these victums visit this sight with that being said if any individual has information reguarding these cases they should be careful discussing it on this site.

    January 7, 2012 at 8:52 am | Report abuse |
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