Unidentified Bodies: Confounding The System

Posted: July 06, 1988

The nameless man and woman are buried without markers in the rough, weed- covered field on a hill behind the Delaware County morgue, kept company by the scattered graves of forgotten paupers and wrecked cars in an overgrown field.

The man, who might have been a wayward seaman, has been unidentified since he was found shot to death at the edge of Crum Creek in Ridley Township nearly 10 years ago. The woman, probably a drifter, lost her life and her face to a shotgun blast in an Upper Darby playground in 1981, according to investigators.

Dr. Dimitri L. Contostavlos, the Delaware County medical examiner, said both bodies were kept refrigerated for years while investigators searched for clues about their identities. When the clues ran out, the bodies were interred in the potter's field off Route 352 in Lima.

Contostavlos believes that identities of these two murder victims - and many of the estimated 35 other unidentified bodies in the Philadelphia region - could have been established long ago if there were a more reliable exchange of information among area police departments, medical examiners and coroners.

"We have pursued every avenue and tool available to us," said Walter Hurst, 38, Contostavlos' senior investigator.

Three years ago, the FBI created a computer file in Washington to centralize information about unidentified bodies and catalog the many murders, suicides or deaths by natural causes of unidentified people.

Contostavlos and other authorities report that their experiences with the computer system have been unproductive.

"I don't think it's going to work," Contostavlos said. "I think the input is poorly managed."

The man found in Ridley Township and the woman killed in Upper Darby fit the pattern of the most-difficult bodies to trace: they were slain; they had no identification; and they almost certainly came from someplace else.

During spare moments, Hurst spreads the thin sheaf of documents that detail what little is known known about the man and woman. He wonders what more can be done to solve the mystery.

"They're beside my desk in a filing cabinet with a big 'unknown' label on it," he said. "But they're never forgotten."

The man's body was found Dec. 13, 1978. He had been shot several times and was partially submerged in the creek. He was white, 6 feet tall, weighed about 175 pounds and had dark brown hair and eyes. For a long time, investigators tried to link him with the merchant marine because he was wearing a watch purchased in a military store. He also wore an arrow-shaped earring and a necklace with a silver horn and heart.

A West Philadelphia man who was convicted of killing two other women confessed to the shotgun slaying of the black female found in Upper Darby, but he told investigators that he did not know who she was.

Other unidentified bodies include that of a pregnant young white woman in Bucks County, a white man found hanged next to a Montgomery County railroad spur in 1978, the skeletal remains of the man in blue jeans and leather jacket found last Halloween next to a lean-to in the Chester County woods, a man who burned himself to death in Burlington County, and a white woman who, 20 years ago, died during an illegal abortion and was dumped along a Delaware road.

In none of these deaths did relatives or friends contact authorities who found the bodies. The victims' clothing and personal effects led investigators nowhere. If they still had fingerprints, they could not be matched with any existing record. Their dental work did not match that of known missing persons filed in a computer crime listing and maintained by the FBI since 1967.

The FBI's national crime file was expanded in 1985 in response to a furor over the number of children believed missing and murdered. Now, reports on unknown bodies are matched daily against the information on more than 63,000 missing people kept elsewhere in the computer memory banks.

In theory, a report of an unidentified body should match with a missing- person record and provide a name and other pertinent facts almost immediately.

In reality, that doesn't always happen. Contostavlos said the vast majority of "kidnapped" children actually were being snatched back and forth between estranged and divorced parents fighting over custody. Nor has the unidentified-person's file been effective for adults, he said.

"The chances are that children are more readily identified because people pay more attention to them," said Dr. Ali Z. Hameli, the Delaware medical examiner. "When a child is missing, people are more alarmed."

Hameli said he was "very unhappy" that his office never has identified the abortion victim found along rural Porter Road outside Wilmington.

"The law enforcement agencies could not trace the person who committed the crime," he said. "And maybe the person committed other crimes."

In 1986, the body of a young black man infected with the AIDS virus was brought to Contostavlos' office. No one came forth to claim the corpse. Investigator Hurst ran the fingerprints through the FBI file, without success. But a check with the Philadelphia police turned up the man's identity, his

criminal record and his city address.

"We cleared it belatedly," Contostavlos said, adding that the Philadelphia information should have been in the FBI computer file, but wasn't.

Bill Carter, a FBI spokesman in Washington, said the file contained reports on 1,645 unidentified bodies in the United States as of June 1. Twenty-nine of them are from Pennsylvania, 79 are from New Jersey, and there are one each

from Delaware and Philadelphia, he said.

Some estimates from authorities, however, indicate that the file contains only a third or less of the actual number in the country.

"The law enforcement agencies in a lot of states do not do anything about their unidentified bodies," said Detective Sgt. Wayne Price of the New Jersey State Police, who heads a unit in Trenton that was formed in 1984 to help identify mystery bodies.

He said the New Jersey totals in the computer system appear high only

because that state has taken the trouble to compile information from the county medical examiners. Still, he said, he has identified only about 75 percent of the initially unidentified bodies in the state.

At first, medical examiners in New Jersey reported a total of 16, but when they were pressed for details the number rose to 60 and then higher, Price said.

Still, he said, the New Jersey total has to be more accurate than the one for Washington, D.C., which reports just one unidentified body. He said New York states in the computer file that it has about 100 unknown bodies.

Price is sure that at least one of his unknowns came from New York City. He just has not been able to pinpoint a name.

The victim is a black man between 19 and 25, 5-foot-5, 120 pounds, who burned himself to death with a flammable substance in a wooded area in Burlington Township in August 1986.

Price said the man had two keys in his pocket, and both were made in New York City. One, he said, was traced to a three-block-long apartment complex in

Harlem, where the locks had been changed and no one knew of a missing resident.

Dr. Marcella F. Fierro, deputy chief medical examiner for central Virginia, said the nationwide computer system she has advocated for more than a decade and helped set up is a step in the right direction, but needs to be better used.

"The mechanism is in place," she said. "The major problem is under- utilization."

Fierro said that the national registry has given pathologists and investigators who deal with unidentified bodies a clearer view of the problem they have faced for years.

She said investigators have been able to determine that two-thirds of the unidentified are men, nearly 80 percent are white and more than 80 percent have been killed. By contrast, she said, only 8 percent come from accidents and about 5 percent from suicides.

Some disagree as to the registry's effectiveness, though. An investigator for the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office, who did not want to be identified, said, "It's really been of no help." He said the one report from the city in the FBI file was an attempt to identify the skeleton of an overdosed drug addict found in the basement of an abandoned house in the 2300 block of North 10th Street on Aug. 4, 1987.

"It was a narcotics dump job," the investigator said. "They didn't want him found where he was when he died."

He said the man was black or Hispanic, 20 to 40 years old, perhaps 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, and that he wore a navy blue scarf and white ring with turquoise stones.

The investigator said the skeleton was one of 14 unknown bodies in the office. The longest unidentified was of a white male found dead at 15th and Ionic Streets on May 25, 1986. Thirteen of the 14 were not entered in the FBI file, he said, because the missing-person reports they would be matched against are so fragmented that they are virtually useless.

"Police don't write missing-person reports unless there is something really wrong," the investigator said. "They don't have the time. The country would have to hire 20,000 more police officers."

Delaware County has a third unidentified body, a black man in his early 20s found shot June 2 in Upper Darby. He carried no wallet or identifying papers, and was wearing only red-and-gray swimming trunks. He had small circular scars on both knees.

Investigators theorize that he was killed elsewhere and his body dumped where it was found.

No matter how long he remains unidentified, he will not be buried in the potter's field behind the morgue.

County funds now are used to place bodies of the poor and the unknown in the hands of funeral directors for cremation or burial in professionally maintained cemeteries.

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