Coroner Posts Photos of Unidentified Corpses Online to Solve Cases
LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Linda Foster always worried about her baby brother, Gary, and his inner demons.
When he vanished among the neon lights and nickelodeon sounds of Las Vegas, Foster was concerned but not frantic -- Gary had disappeared before. But after nearly two years she began to fear the worst.
It would be through a remarkable set of circumstances -- an enterprising new coroner, a curious corrections officer and what is believed to be the unprecedented move to post photographs of unidentified corpses on the Internet -- that Foster would eventually learn the sad truth.
"I wouldn't even want to think about never knowing what happened to him," Foster said. "It's a horrible feeling when you don't know where they are."
The body of John "White" Doe was found March 2, 2002, lying in the middle of a boulevard north of Las Vegas. He had been struck by a car.
For months, investigators with the Clark County coroner's office unsuccessfully tried to identify him. Eventually he joined a growing list of 168 other John and Jane Doe cases.
When Mike Murphy took over the coroner's office and its swelling caseload in May 2003, he knew he would have to be creative. The office is responsible for the fast-growing Las Vegas area. It handles more than 3,000 cases and performs some 1,300 autopsies a year.
"Our resources are very, very limited. Just like everybody else's in government. So we're trying to figure out how to do more with less," Murphy said.
With that, Murphy decided to try something that apparently had not been done before. The office began compiling digital photographs of the county's unidentified dead and posting them on the Internet.
"While this is certainly outside of the traditional norms, it made commonsense to me," Murphy said.
In early November, the coroner's office set up a Web page with some 35 photos. An article ran the same day in the local newspaper, catching the attention of Sgt. John Gierczic, who works at the city jail.
Less than 24 hours after the photographs were posted, Gierczic logged on.
On the second page of photos, he recognized someone -- John "White" Doe.
"I knew his first name was Gary," Gierczic said, but it took awhile to figure out the last name -- Kavanaugh.
When Gierczic did, he sent an e-mail to the coroner's office, and the lingering mystery of John "White" Doe was quickly solved.
"We had actually talked about the idea that if we only identify one person off the site, we were happy," Murphy said. "And, here the first day we identified someone."
Since then one other person has been identified through the site.
That success outweighs any criticism or ethical questions about posting photographs of the dead, Murphy said.
"I asked myself the question, are we doing the right thing for the right reasons? And my answer was yes," he said.
The office has taken steps to ensure the photos are not gruesome. A software program allows wounds to be covered and stitches blurred, he said. No decomposing skin is shown.
"Our goal was to identify people in a respectful, dignified and appropriate way," Murphy said.
Most other coroner's and medical examiner's offices hire artists to produce black-and-white sketches of their unidentified dead, and many use the Internet.
Michigan State Police use a combination of sketches and clay models to provide images for its Web site.
Sgt. Mark Krebs, one of a handful of artists on the Michigan staff, said he doesn't object to the Clark County coroner's plan as long as it's done "with taste and reverence."
Gary Tindel, president of the California State Coroner's Association and assistant coroner for Marin County, Calif., said he didn't find the site to be distasteful and might consider posting photos in some cases.
Still, most of those who work to identify the dead are in no rush to copy the program.
"Whatever works is good, but we don't want to put on a display for some of the people who enjoy seeing dead bodies," said Rick Bogan, senior deputy coroner with the Riverside County, Calif., coroner's office.
To prevent people from stumbling upon the site, Murphy said he posted a number of disclaimers, and a person must navigate through several screens before reaching the photographs.
"If you're offended by it, you're only going to go there if you need it," Murphy said.
The Web site has generated some controversy, said Todd Matthews of the Internet-based Doe Network, an international volunteer organization devoted to solving unidentified cases.
Some worry that people with morbid fetishes will take advantage of the site, but Matthews said it also brought publicity to missing cases.
"I don't think they have done anything wrong," he said. "There are far more shocking images on the Internet."
Doe Network's site posts hundreds of sketches and clay models of the unidentified. Matthews said the mission is the same regardless of what method is used.
"Some people may take pleasure from this," Matthew said. "If that's the price we have to pay, let 'em. The right person has to see this."
Foster said she was grateful for the photo of her brother, though it brought mixed feelings.
"He had a lot of problems. It was just like his life wasn't a happy life," said Foster, a 56-year-old office manager from Niagara Falls, N.Y.
But the photo not only allowed her to learn what had happened to her brother, it also allowed her to know he had finally found what he was looking for.
"For me, it was like Gary was at peace. The demons in his mind were gone," she said. "It gave us closure. "
On the Net:
Clark County coroner's office: http://www.accessclarkcounty.com/coroner/index.html
Doe Network: http://www.doenetwork.org
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