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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soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. kim

    I hope this website bring people family members home or at least closure to these mystery of who these people where.

    January 4, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
  2. banasy©

    Uh, leeintulsa...they have a lot of cool gadgets on Bones that aren't actually *real*, you know that, right? Lmao!

    January 4, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Emmanuel Goldstien

      Sadly, most people do not realize that. I can't count how many times I have had a conversation with a seemingly half-way intelligent person, only to have them talk about some far-fetched sci-fi gadget they saw on CSI or Bones, thinking it is real. If you want to know why our economy is in the toilet, don't blame the left or the right; simply go outside and have a conversation with the first few people you meet. {End of Tangent}
      {On Topic} It is sad that so many people can go missing without being ID'd. This is a great tool, and if it helps one family in dealing with the disappearance and death of a loved one, it is worth it. The idea of 'closure' is a myth, but by not knowing their loved one's fate, some people can not move on.

      January 5, 2012 at 2:04 am | Report abuse |
  3. banasy©

    Mrs. Fizzy:
    You're absolutely right...but I should think that is they have gotten so desperate for answers, they're at least mostly prepared to see it...
    This way is a bit kinder, imo, and as the article said, to make a formal I'd they need more than just an ID from the ones shown.


    I hope so, too. The wondering is hard.

    January 4, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mrs. Fizzy

    I know right.

    January 4, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mrs.Fizzy

      Heyyyy you're not the real MrsFizzy ... but I'd have said the same thing anyway. To quote PeeWee: That's my name, don't wear it out! 😛
      @banasy I was commenting on the person quoted in the article whose criticism was that it was traumatic for the families to maybe see a photo of a dead loved one online... sure it is but so is having no answers ever (so basically we agree 😉 )

      January 5, 2012 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
  5. Tcr c2

    Them bones them bones i hope they do have closure because i have two dauhghters id want the same help finding my loved one to god help me if that ever happens but what a sweet thing technology ives back in someones life

    January 4, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
  6. jamesnyc

    My heart aches for anyone who feels that they need to use this database to find a loved one.

    January 4, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. rooney

    I think it's good that they're thinking outside the box for ways to identify these people. If it helps even just a few, it would be worth it. It may be disturbing for some to look at pictures of people in that condition. But if I were looking for a missing family member or friend, I'd want to find them no matter what.

    January 5, 2012 at 4:31 am | Report abuse |
  8. PDC

    I do hope the families find their loved ones that have been missing for so long...

    January 5, 2012 at 6:43 am | Report abuse |
  9. oldman100

    that photo is so creepy, especially considering the topic of the article

    January 5, 2012 at 7:18 am | Report abuse |
  10. banasy©

    Did John List die?
    Oh well, good riddance!

    January 5, 2012 at 8:52 am | Report abuse |
  11. sbast18

    Wow...even this database seems to be hurting some feelings today. Do bad feel bad? It's a remarkable tool that has already helped many families get some of the closure they've been waiting for. Creepy? Sure. Sometimes people have to step outside of the box to get things accomplished.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
  12. ShenShen

    Holy uncanny valley, Batman.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
  13. TexanGal

    Is the lady in the picture an actual corpse or is it fake?

    January 5, 2012 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
    • TexanGal

      Never mind, I looked up what a composite was. 🙂

      January 5, 2012 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
  14. Maxwell

    Lot of websites out there looking for information to solve cases.
    The Charleyproject, Doe NEtwork, Connecticut's Cold Cases, New York's Cold Cases, Cold Case Center. The internet with it's many sites has really heled law enforcement with these cold cases.

    January 5, 2012 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
  15. rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy one

    Rick Santorum is doing a digital reconstruction of the dead fetus he and his wife brought home.

    January 5, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
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