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This story is part of an ongoing series, Left for Dead: Inside America’s Coldest Cases.

At first, Scott McCord thought the boxes contained trash and nearly tossed them out.

It was 2008 and McCord, a paramedic for more than 25 years, had just been elected coroner of northwestern Indiana’s Newton County, current population 14,156. The outgoing coroner had carried the two old bankers boxes to McCord’s new office. When McCord lifted the tops to look inside, he found human bones and a slip of paper with an Indiana State Police case number.

McCord called the state police District 13 station one county north, in Lowell, to find out more about the case. As McCord tells it, a higher-up called back to say the case was closed and the bones had all been returned to the families.

But the higher-up was wrong.

The bones in the boxes belonged to two young murder victims of serial killer Larry Eyler. They had never been identified. McCord later learned more: Two other Eyler victims also remained unnamed in the Indiana counties of Jasper and Hendricks.

“I’m like, ‘How can this be? How can it be that nobody knows these kids, nobody claimed these kids?’ ” McCord said.

While Eyler is largely forgotten today, his trial was highly publicized at the time. Convicted in 1986 for the murder of a 15-year-old boy, he eventually died on death row in 1994 of AIDS-related complications.

Based on Eyler’s own confessions, authorities today believe he killed at least 22 people. As many as six victims, two of whom are believed to be from Illinois, remain unidentified today.

“Larry didn’t know the names. He knew the cases, but he didn’t know the names,” said Dan Colin, who served as an investigator on an Eyler task force for the sheriff’s office in Lake County, Ill. “They were street kids or hitchhikers that he picked up.”

Investigators work at an abandoned barn in Lake Village, Indiana, where two of Larry Eyler’s unidentified victims were found in 1983. Credit: Courtesy of the Newton County Coroner’s Office Credit: Courtesy of the Newton County Coroner’s Office

The unknown boys and young men Eyler killed are part of a bleak national list of people found deceased without an identity.

More than 10,000 bodies remain unidentified in the United States, and the FBI estimates some 80,000 people populate the ranks of the reported missing. Details about them are contained in a growing but voluntary database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, housed at the Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Eyler cases eventually drifted from public attention until McCord became Newton County’s coroner seven years ago. Identifying Eyler’s victims since has become McCord’s life mission, and he has enlisted everyone imaginable for help. His personal dentist performed X-rays and charting on the remains at no charge. An artist in San Antonio sketched renderings of what their faces might have looked like. A University of Indianapolis professor conducted a complete anthropological study of the bones. The cases also were uploaded to NamUs.

“Every time I go to our state coroners’ conference, I’m pushing the other coroners to get their cases into (NamUs),” McCord said. “The major complaint that I get is, ‘We just don’t have time.’ I have even offered some of the smaller counties that … ‘I’ll come do it for you.’ ”

Of the 43 cases entered into NamUs from Indiana, 18 were labeled homicides as of June. Officials have not determined the manner of death or it is not listed for another 21 cases, according to an analysis of NamUs data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The Indiana State Police assigned an investigator to work with McCord in 2008 after he contacted them about the bones in the boxes, said spokesman Capt. Dave Bursten. That detective still is working with McCord today. Bone samples, taken for DNA testing, also were sent to a laboratory that works with NamUs at the University of North Texas, Bursten said, and to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. In 2013, state police issued a news release asking the public for help.

Cold cases are more than just pop culture novelty. They could mean a perpetrator is free to strike again, said Michael Murphy, the coroner in Las Vegas for 13 years until recently joining the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to run its unknown victims unit.

“There’s always a balancing act that you’re going to do between handling the cases that are immediate today and the cases from the past,” he said. “Every one of those cases is important, and every one of those cases deserves our attention.”

Among the unidentified homicide victims in Indiana not believed to be connected to Eyler are a woman in her late teens or early 20s found by deer hunters in the remote woods of Wayne County in 1982 and another woman believed to be around the same age discovered in 2007 burned and charred in the north section of Gary.

Indiana law doesn’t explicitly require that certain steps be taken to ensure identification, but McCord said coroners are urged during state-led training to exhaust all possible avenues.

Police first came in contact with Eyler on Aug. 3, 1978, when one of his victims, terrified and naked, turned up on the doorstep of a Terre Haute home begging for help, clutching a knife wound in his chest.

Authorities later would learn that the man had hitchhiked across town, but the driver had pulled off the road, bound his hands and ankles and sexually assaulted him before stabbing him.

Eyler, without explanation, turned himself in to police at the scene. Inside his truck were objects including knives, handcuffs and tear gas.

Before the man could testify against Eyler, however, he was offered a $2,500 check by Eyler and his attorney to forget about the whole thing. The man accepted and walked away. Astonishingly, Eyler walked away, too.

“His urges got to him. He wasn’t realizing what he was doing. He was fantasizing,” said Gera-Lind Kolarik, a former Chicago-area TV reporter who published a detailed account of the Eyler murders in a 1990 book, “Freed to Kill.” “He learned on that case not to let them be alive anymore, because then they can’t come back. He learned to kill them.”

Five years passed before police – under pressure from local media and the families of victims – determined that a growing number of bodies found in the area were connected to one another by the types of wounds they bore and how they were dumped. Investigators from several communities formed a task force in spring 1983.

The carefully laid out bodies of four males were found that fall in Lake Village, Indiana, near an abandoned barn just west of U.S. Highway 41, which stretches south from Chicago through Indiana and into western Kentucky. Authorities succeeded in identifying two of the victims at the time. The two others never were identified and wound up in the boxes McCord got in 2008.

An artist’s sketch shows an unidentified victim of serial killer Larry Eyler, nicknamed “Brad” by Newton County Coroner Scott McCord. He was found with three others in Lake Village, Indiana, in 1983. Credit: Betsy Cooper for the Newton County Coroner’s Office Credit: Betsy Cooper for the Newton County Coroner’s Office

McCord calls them “my kids.” He named each of them: “Adam” is black and believed to be between the ages of 15 and 20. He was found in Levi’s blue jeans, boots and a red-and-white belt with a gold buckle. “Brad,” who is white, is estimated to be about the same age and was found in button-pocket brown slacks. He had a homemade cross tattoo on his right forearm with two dots above the horizontal line. Both bodies were heavily decomposed when they were discovered.

Eyler emerged as a suspect soon after the task force got underway. But procedural bungling by the Indiana State Police enabled him to walk away from charges a second time after critical evidence obtained through a warrantless search had to be thrown out in court. The evidence included blood-stained boots that connected Eyler to the body of a young man found stabbed repeatedly in Illinois.

Back on the streets, Eyler killed again before he was stopped for the last time. On the morning of Aug. 21, 1984, a janitor in Chicago found the dismembered remains of 15-year-old Danny Bridges divided between two trash bags and stuffed into a dumpster behind an apartment building where Eyler was staying. Evidence found in Eyler’s apartment led to his arrest.

A receipt for hacksaw blades, blood underneath the threshold of a doorway, material plunged from the kitchen sink – “like pieces of chicken fat,” as a lover of Eyler’s, John Dobrovolskis, later testified – and other evidence turned up in the apartment, even though Eyler had mopped the floors and repainted the walls.

An artist’s sketch shows an unidentified victim of serial killer Larry Eyler, nicknamed “Adam” by Newton County Coroner Scott McCord. He was found with three others in Lake Village, Indiana, in 1983.Credit: Betsy Cooper for the Newton County Coroner’s Office Credit: Betsy Cooper for the Newton County Coroner’s Office

In later confession letters, Eyler described handcuffing, blindfolding and stabbing the two McCord calls Adam and Brad. He also insisted that an accomplice had helped him kill one of the two unidentified victims found near the barn. But authorities failed in an attempt to prosecute the alleged accomplice, Indiana State University professor Robert David Little, with whom Eyler frequently stayed.

After Kolarik’s “Freed to Kill” renewed interest in the Eyler murders, prosecutors decided to charge Little with joining Eyler in the 1982 stabbing death of Steven Agan, a 23-year-old car wash employee. A jury unanimously acquitted Little in 1991, following a trial hobbled from the beginning because the star witness for the prosecution against Little was Eyler himself.

Until there’s a new break in the case, four of Eyler’s Indiana victims – including Adam and Brad – await being reunited with their families.

Although he hasn’t yet solved the bankers box mystery, McCord maintains that getting all Jane and John Doe cases out of dusty filing cabinets and into electronic databases is a critical step – for all of the unidentified.

“There has to be a mother, a father, a brother, a sister – somebody out there looking for these kids,” he said. “These kids have families. I know if it was my kid, I would go to the end of the earth trying to find them.”

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.