As uncovered in our Left for Dead series, there are more than 10,000 known Jane and John Does in the U.S. – unidentified and unclaimed bodies languishing in limbo for years, sometimes for decades.
In this episode of Reveal, we crisscross the nation tracing these cold cases, showing why so many bodies remain unidentified despite new and powerful forensic tools. In some cases, amateur Web sleuths end up cracking cases that stymied law enforcement.
Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.
Al: From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
A cold case from the past is pried open.
Todd: [inaudible 00:00:09] of the casket. That’s it.
Al: A mass grave in rural Texas is uncovered.
Lori: I was angry. This is just appalling and we’ve seen a lot of things in a lot of cemeteries, but I couldn’t believe that anyone would think it’s okay to bury someone in a garbage bag.
Al: A murder victim without a name is nearly forgotten.
Deb: If we don’t have a name, we just discard them. Everybody should have a name.
Al: Today on Reveal, left for dead. Why thousands of Jane and John Does are never identified, when clues are within reach.
Gerald: To the living we owe respect. To the dead we owe the truth, and we’re not living up to that.
Al: That’s coming up on Reveal.
From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
The community faith church outside downtown Houston stands out. It’s geodesic dome gleams in the sunlight, surrounded by a large campus, dotted with trees. Everything about this place feels peaceful. People come here to worship, to be closer to their god, and on this Saturday, the hallways of the church are filled with people looking for answers.
Al: Gloria Esparza sits across the table from a worker who’s asking the questions. This room in the church is utilitarian. Off-white walls, tile floors, and filled with families and volunteers. The mood is light and heavy all at the same time. Both Gloria and the rest of her family are standing nearby, wearing orange shirts with the picture of Gloria’s son, Ryan.
Gloria: When this event was planned, I said, “Okay, we’re going to do this. We’re going to go as a family, we’re going to wear our t-shirts, and we’re going to let everybody know that this mamma has not given up.”
Al: Ryan went missing when he was 17. That was 8 years ago. And since then, she hasn’t heard anything about where he is, or what happened to him.
Gloria: I am on a roller coaster. My world has been turned upside down, up and down. And I want off. I want off of this roller coaster.
Al: Today she’s here, attending a gathering of families of the missing. Hundred of people walked into the church with hope that someone could help them find answers. Gloria sits at a table patiently answering questions about her son’s disappearance, and afterwards she and the other families give their DNA samples. This may be the most vital part. Because it’s possible that Ryan is no longer alive. In fact, there are more than 10,000 unidentified bodies. Jane or John Does that authorities are struggling to match with missing person’s reports.
Gloria: The difference between missing and dying is that when they die, you have your memorial service, and you’re able to cope with it a little bit faster. I don’t have that because Ryan is missing, and he’s been missing for 8 years. Maybe when I did find him then I could finally deal with this whole nightmare.
Al: There’s a lot of work to be done, and it’s not like what we see on TV. All those cold case shows make forensic work look easy because, at the end of the show, you’ve got to have an answer. Despite DNA analysis and other new science, solving cases in the real world is difficult, and that’s what this hour is about.
We begin deep in coal country, eastern Kentucky, where investigators are hoping that the tools of today will help them solve a 45 year old cold case that’s become a local legend. Reveal’s Michael Schiller has our story.
Michael S: It’s early in the morning in Harlan, Kentucky. 4 police officers wearing gloves and heavy workbooks are pulling out dirt and rocks from a grave at the Harlan Gas Cemetery. It’s just a small cluster of headstones and grave markers scattered on a forested hillside. A group of investigators watches as debris is placed on a plastic tarp. The only way to reach this spot is along a winding dirt trail that is too narrow for a vehicle, so they’re digging the old-fashioned way, with shovels and pickaxes.
Todd: Looks like you might even need that other tarp.
Michael S: The team is searching for the remains of a young woman stabbed to death in 1969 and buried without a name. Folks in Harlan call her mountain Jane Doe. The case has haunted Darla Jackson for years. She’s a local writer, historian, and funeral home owner. And is at the exhumation today.
Darla: I was born May 25th, 1969. She was found June 1st 1969. It’s possible she was murdered on the day I was born.
Michael S: Darla grew up surrounded by the legend of mountain Jane Doe. As a kid, she picked berries not far from where the body was found. And there were lots of stories about the mysterious young woman passed down from her family. Darla’s uncle even told her he once saw the ghost of mountain Jane Doe. A girl with strawberry blonde hair.
Darla: I thought it was a great story, but what it also did, it just simply brought this crime back into my life. She was a legend, she was a ghost, she was a memory. The more I learned of this girl and her tragic ending, I just really felt for her. And I was so saddened because she had nobody fighting for her.
Michael S: The shovels crack against shards from a casket that collapsed long ago.
Darla: I would love to see a beautiful intact skull.
Todd: That would be awesome.
Michael S: Standing next to Darla and wearing an orange windbreaker and camouflage baseball cap, is Todd Matthews. It’s his job to solve cases just like this one. He works for NAMUS. That’s the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. It’s a federally funded organization that gathers information on missing people and unidentified remains in the hope of making matches and solving cases.
Todd: Here’s a piece of the casket.
Michael S: Todd used to solve cases on his own as a hobby. Before he got a job with NAMUS. And he knows how hard it is to make a match. In the case of mountain Jane Doe, they’re not even sure they’re digging in the right spot. The only thing marking her grave is a small metal stake.
Todd: What’s that under there?
Male 3: It looks like a rock.
Todd: It is, isn’t it?
It’s not your normal cemetery. It’s not laid out very specifically. Even the charts that we have that lay out where the graves are, it’s not perfect. These are legends that people have handed down. You know, “So and so is buried here.”
That’s skull’s been collapsed a little bit, but you could probably rinse that off easily.
Michael S: After a few hours of digging, they find a skull tightly packed in dirt and clay. They carefully remove it, take photos, and place it in a cardboard evidence box.
Todd: Good job.
Michael S: The remains will now be shipped to the University of North Texas in Forth Worth. That’s where NAMUS is based, together with the center for human identification. Darla says this could lead to a huge break in the case.
Darla: I’m very optimistic that this is going to be solved.
Michael S: Later, we met up with Todd in Fort Worth. He showed us how remains like mountain Jane Doe are dealt with at a sophisticated forensic laboratory.
Todd: And this is the area where they do some of the bone cut, the DNA lab. And you’ll see it through these windows. Most of them are closed most of the time.
Michael S: It’s bone cut Tuesday. And behind sealed glass we can see technicians extracting DNA from human bones.
Todd: It’s quite a complicated process. It’s nothing like you see on CSI. It’s nothing that’s fast and instantaneous. The genetic code is not a barcode. It takes time to go through this process.
Michael S: Once the genetic code is retrieved, it’s put into a federal database that contains in formation on more than 11,000 missing persons. Todd Matthews is keeping his fingers crossed that one of those cases will match with mountain Jane Doe, and she’ll be identified.
Todd: It will be either a cold hit, a direct comparison, or nothing. Maybe we don’t have a missing person that matches this person in the system yet.
Michael S: Todd says he wouldn’t have known about the case had it not been for Darla Jackson. Over the years, she began to feel connected to mountain Jane Doe, so she wrote about her, in a book of local ghost stories.
Todd: Okay, here we go. 5 4 3 2 1.
Michael S: After the book was published, Todd invited Darla onto a radio show he used to host about America’s missing.
Todd: Welcome Darla.
Darla: Thank you.
Todd: How are you doing?
Darla: I’m doing great.
Todd: I remember the day I first laid eyes on Darla Jackson. She was just a true southern belle. A lovely woman, very compassionate.
Darla: It’s such an injustice. You know, an unidentified girl, killer never brought to justice. And just simply forgotten on the side of a hill in Harlan County.
Todd: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
And I saw a lot of the same feelings that I’ve had myself for the cases that I’ve worked on.
Michael S: Todd joined NAMUS soon after it’s launch in 2007, and since then, it’s hleped identify the remains of more than 500 people. Todd says more cases could be solved, but NAMUS is voluntary, and some authorities don’t put vital information into the system.
Todd: I can say there are agencies, medical examiners, coroners, law enforcement that still today don’t know about NAMUS. As much as we’ve done to get the word out, free tools, free science, and still there are still people that don’t know about it.
Michael S: So we have all this new technology, which isn’t always getting used. That means some cases that could be solved, aren’t. It’s been 7 months since investigators dug up the remains from the hillside grave. Back in Harlan, Darla finally gets the call she’s been waiting for.
Todd: Hello, Darla. How are you?
Darla: Hey. I’m good, how are you?
Todd: We do have some news.
Todd: The remains that were exhumed that day in Harlan County were not the remains of our Harlan County Jane Doe.
Darla: Oh, no. This is quite a shock. I’m terribly disappointed, but … I just don’t know what to say. How did it happen, and where is she?
Michael S: Todd explains that investigators thought they were exhuming mountain Jane Doe, but they dug up a different body. The remains of a young man buried in the cemetery at about the same time. Also without a name.
Todd: And I know that you’ve sat by that grave many times.
Todd: I think we’ve shared a glass of wine and poured it into the grave, and I know that.
Todd: And I want to apologize because I couldn’t tell you anything sooner.
Michael S: It turns out that even during the exhumation, authorities had doubts about whether they were digging up the right grave, but they didn’t tell anyone because it was an ongoing investigation.
Philip: We didn’t lie. We just withheld information.
Michael S: That’s Harlan County Coroner, Philip Biacci.
Philip: We started seeing things that day that I questioned. There were a few things that were present, some embalming artifacts that were present, that really should not have been there in her case. It was disappointing. I kind of consider it an investigative speed bump. It slowed us down some, it certainly wasn’t the results we wanted.
Michael S: I asked Darla how she was taking the news.
Darla: It’s never been easy, but it’s never been boring. I’ve got to hand that to the case.
Right now what I’m thinking is to get the right grave, we had to dig up the wrong grave. I know she’s there. She’s in that cemetery and she’s in that area. So, now we just have to find her. This is just another step. Now we’ve got to do it again. It’s time to exhume again. She’s there.
Al: That was Reveal’s Michael Schiller. Joining me now is our reporter GW Schulz. He’s been leading our investigation into America’s Jane and John Does, and he’s my buddy. GW. Welcome to the show.
GW: How’s it going, Al?
Al: Good, man. So, you decided to follow one Doe case wherever it goes. Now, that’s the case in Harlan, Kentucky. A lot of people came together to try to solve it. They dig the body out of the mountainside, and discover it’s the wrong one. So what’s next?
GW: So authorities tell us they are going to go back and attempt a second exhumation. They think they know where she is in the cemetery, they’re pretty sure. The local coroner thought there was a chance this might even happen, because a lot of pauper cemeteries like this one don’t have good documentation around them.
Al: This is a pretty old case. Is this happening a lot where we’re digging back and looking at old cases to try to figure out who these people are? Is that what NAMUS is doing?
GW: Yeah, and NAMUS contains information as a database on a lot of old cases, some of which go back as far as 1969. But there’s a lot of cases we looked at that aren’t that old at all. They’re 5 years old, 10 years old. We spoke to a woman in Houston whose father disappeared for 12 years and it turned out he was a John Doe the whole time in Houston and he wasn’t identified until last year.
Al: So, Gdub, there are people dying and they go without identification. Become this Jane or John Doe. And basically they’re ghosts. We don’t know who they are, where they come from. How often does this actually happen?
GW: I think people would be surprised how often it does happen. With a lot of these cases, as soon as they become cold, what often happens is authorities will have new cases coming in and they’ll make those the priority. And the more the time passes without investigators revisiting material from the cases, the harder it can become to solve them.
Al: Now, just to be clear, we’re talking about bodies that might be at a local morgue or buried in a local cemetery, but bodies that local authorities know something about, they’re just not reporting them up the line.
GW: That’s right, there’s no federal mandate, no national level of requirement that anybody report their Jane and John Does to a centralized repository. So aside from NAMUS, we just don’t really have good concrete numbers on how many of these folks there are in the US.
Al: And what kind of cases are these? I think most people assume that most of them are homicides.
GW: They’re not. One thing that we learned over time reporting on Jane and John Does is there are about 1900 or so in the NAMUS system that are homicide cases. That leaves a lot of cases that are ruled not homicides. But what they are is undetermined. Thousands of cases where forensic pathologists, medical examiners, coroners doing autopsies couldn’t figure out what happened to the individual. And one reason that question is open for a lot of these individuals is because we don’t know who they are.
Al: Going back to Harlan Kentucky, what do you think the chances are that they’ll actually be able to identify mountain Jane Doe?
GW: Even though it’s been so long, I think the chances are really good. They just need to find her first. Find her grave plot. Get her DNA into the system, and there are some candidates, some families that might be good matches for mountain Jane Doe is what we’ve been told by authorities. Forensic science has improved enough now that there are fewer excuses for not conducting exhumations like what happened in mountain Jane Doe’s case. Once her DNA is in the system, her and other cases, there are really good chances that these people can get identified.
Al: Gdub, thanks so much, I know you’re going to follow the story wherever it leads. We definitely want to hear back from you.
GW: Absolutely. Thank you, Al.
Al: GW Schulz is a reporter for Reveal. And there’s another side to America’s Jane and John Doe problem: mass graves in Texas, near the border with Mexico. That story is next.
I’m Al Letson, and you’re listening to Reveal. Today, we’re looking at Jane and John Does. The thousands of bodies scattered across the country that remain unidentified. It turns out, many of them are found in South Texas, where migrants are crossing illegally into the country. A migrant leaves their home in Guatemala, or Honduras, or El Salvador, she heads through Mexico to the US border where a smuggler helps her cross the Rio Grande into Texas. But her journey isn’t over. In fact, the biggest obstacle is just up ahead. A checkpoint about 70 miles inside the US border, run by the border patrol. To avoid getting caught, she has to walk 40 miles around it.
911 Operator: 911 state your emergency?
911 Callers: Does somebody speak Spanish?
911 Operator: Si.
Al: These are 911 calls. They’re from undocumented migrants, lost in the dense brush country of Brooks County, Texas. People asking for help, for water
911 Callers: [inaudible 00:17:06]
911 Operator: Si. [inaudible 00:17:09]
911 Callers: [inaudible 00:17:12] agua
911 Operator: [inaudible 00:17:12] por favor. [inaudible 00:17:14] okay?
Al: The air is thick and hot here. Soil is sandy and hard to walk through. Migrants can get very desperate, very fast. In this call, a woman is travelling with a man who’s stopped breathing:
911 Callers: (Foreign Language)
911 Operator: (Foreign Language)
Al: A lot of these people don’t make it. Dying of dehydration and heat stroke. Sometimes their bodies aren’t even found on the huge ranches out here. And even when they are, the bodies are almost never identified. Hundreds of families in Latin America know someone who crossed the border and then, somewhere in Brooks County, seemed to vanish.
911 Callers: Gracias, senior. [inaudible 00:17:52]
911 Operator: De nada, gracias.
Al: Chief Deputy Benny Martinez works at the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department. He looks about how you’d expect a law enforcement guy from South Texas to look: cowboy hat, Wranglers, boots. He says that 2012 was the worst year for migrant deaths he can remember. His tiny team of 4 deputies handled all the body recoveries. Sometimes they were going out 3 times a day to pick up the dead.
Benny: We weren’t doing anything else but that. I didn’t have time to think that it was a crisis.
This is one of them …
Al: The chief heads over to a storage closet in the corner of his office. It’s full of these thick binders.
Benny: 2013. Yes, I got it. Thank you.
Al: Each one has pages and pages of pictures of the dead.
Benny: From each recover we do, it’s just it’s hard. You just can’t get used to it. I mean, every single one of these persons had a story.
Al: Chief Martinez and his team picked up 129 bodies in 2012. Brooks County is poor, and rural, and doesn’t have many resources. So everyone was overwhelmed. And even though the chief didn’t know it at the time, the system for identifying these migrants was breaking down.
John Carlos: Migrant death has always been a part of border life in Texas. You can go back to drownings in the Rio Grande which is the actual border barrier itself. People have crossed it for probably hundreds of years.
Al: This is John Carlos Frey, he is a report with a New York based investigative fund. He’s been covering the deaths in Brooks County for a couple years now. He’s tried to figure out the complicated system for identifying these bodies.
What happens when a migrant does die out there? I mean, who picks up the body? Who handles burying the body?
John Carlos: It’s sort of a 3 or 4 step process. Starting with law enforcement, followed by a funeral service company that picks up the body, followed by a justice of the peace that declares time of death and cause of death, and then ending up with some sort of a medical examination to determine whether or not there was foul play.
Al: That’s how it’s supposed to work. Also, by state law, DNA has to be taken and sent to a national database in North Texas, so that there’s a chance the body can be identified in the future. After all that, the funeral home would bring the body here, to the Brooks County cemetery, and bury it in a corner set aside for the unidentified dead.
Benny: The little tin markers say “Unknown Remains” and a number. Unknown female, 1175285. And there’s a lot of faded plastic flowers here. It’s really sad when you contrast it to the rest of the graveyard that’s cared for and loved. Nobody’s been out here to visit these graves in a while.
Al: 2 summers ago, word got out that something was wrong at this cemetery. A lot of the migrants hadn’t been buried properly. The process we just described hadn’t been followed. A researcher at Baylor University heard what was going on.
Lori: I got on the phone and called the sheriff and said, “Hey, I hear you guys have a problem, would you like our help?” And they were like, “Yes, please.”
Al: This is Dr. Lori Baker. She’s a forensic anthropologist and a specialist in border cemeteries. She and a team of her students carefully dug up the Brooks County graves, and they were shocked by what they found. Bodies buried in milk crates and garbage bags. Multiple bodies stuffed in the same container, many with no identifying information.
Lori: I was angry at the end of last summer. I’ve never been so angry. I’ve been frustrated and sad, but this was just appalling. I couldn’t believe that anyone would think it’s okay to bury someone in a garbage bag.
Al: Over 2 summers, the team dug up more than 120 bodies. What happened in this little cemetery in Texas made international news.
Newcaster 1: The Sacred Heart cemetery in [inaudible 00:21:50] is supposed to be a place for dignified burials, but what researchers …
Newscaster 2: The Texas Rangers could soon conduct a preliminary inquiry into the handling of unidentified bodies that were exhumed by anthropologists …
Al: Eventually, the state noticed what was going on, and the Texas Rangers were assigned to look into whether any laws had been broken. The guy who handled the investigation spent just 2 days on it. Then, he issued his report. Here’s John Carlos Frey, of the investigative fund again:
John Carlos: He found no need to go any further. He found no need to initiate a criminal investigation, and the case was closed.
Al: And so it seemed like that was that. The media packed up their cameras and went home. But John kept asking questions, and he found all kinds of problems. For one thing, a lot of the bodies never had DNA collected. Autopsies were handled by a private family doctor who wasn’t a licensed pathologist. Some of the remains were actually buried in unmarked graves, another violation. And John had to wonder if bodies were treated this way because they were undocumented migrants.
John Carlos: So, if we dump a whole bunch of bodies into a hole in the ground, and we just bury it up and forget about it, no one’s going to come searching, no one’s going to come looking, no one’s going to come asking questions.
Al: Now it’s up to Dr. Lori Baker and her team to try and identify the bodies with help from researchers at Texas State University. But that process has been made a lot harder because of the illegal way the bodies were handled.
Lori: I think it’s hard for some people to understand that you’re processing human remains. It can feel like it’s very a gross idea. But when you start doing it, you start realizing how powerful this can be to a family member down the road.
Al: One of Dr. Baker’s students, Brook Morris, is scraping tissue from bone, and beginning the process of reassembling a skeleton. It’s painstaking work.
Lori: You know, you’re working very intimately with every single bone. As you’re working through the process. So it’s not until you step back and see everything that it really comes together that this is a person who could have been standing right next to you at some point in their life and in your life.
Al: We go into the next room, where Dr. Baker shows us some of the clothing found with the remains of another migrant.
Lori: Yeah, that looks like a sock, and then a pair of pants with some kind of fancy stuff on the pocket, so … That’s interesting. Mickey Mouse. That seems really sad.
Al: I mean, you can definitely sort of get a sense of what her style was and who she was a little bit.
Lori: Absolutely. I look at this and I see all these people walking around Disney with Mickey Mouse shirts on. You just kind of thing, “Oh, that’s fun.” And then we look …
Al: Dr. Baker’s job is to look for clues. Bone structure, dental work, and personal belongings thatmight help solve the mystery of where that person came from.
Todd: All right, we’ll go in here and make a right.
Al: Once Dr. Baker has taken DNA from the remains, she sends it here, to the headquarters of NAMUS. That’s short for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. You heard about them in our last story.
Todd: Okay, we’re going to the fingerprint room.
Al: If someone you know disappears, this is where you turn. NAMUS is the country’s most comprehensive database of the missing and unidentified. Here’s Todd Matthews again. He’s a case manager here.
Todd: We’re going to try to get as much information on that body as we can. We want to know are there fingerprints? Are there dental records? Can we take an x-ray of the skull?
Al: But for families of migrants, NAMUS is a limited tool. Most are Spanish speakers who live in other countries, and they might be scared about reporting a person who crossed into the country illegally. On top of that, NAMUS policy says that missing person reports have to be submitted through US law enforcement, and they don’t often allow for family DNA samples to be collected internationally. That means that a mother from say the highlands of Guatemala who may not even have a telephone would need to reach law enforcement officials here in the US in order to get information into NAMUS. It’s a huge hurdle. The database wasn’t built with migrants in mind.
Todd: It was developed for people here, and it’s already a big problem here. Before we take on the world, we’ve got to take care of our own house. Do the migrant people, do they concern us? Absolutely. Absolutely they concern us. And something has to be done. I just don’t know exactly what that is, sometimes.
Al: But Dr. Baker says the fix is pretty simple. The National Institute of Justice, the federal agency that funds NAMUS, should make it easier for law enforcement and organizations outside the US to submit information. Dr. Baker says hundreds of identifications could be made.
Lori: Families deserve to know what happened. Especially in a country where we have the resources, the technology, and the expertise to do it. And if we don’t do it, it’s just wrong. It’s absolutely wrong for us not to do this.
Al: Back in the vast borderlands of Brooks County, 29 bodies have been recovered so far this year. All migrants who lost their way in this tangled landscape.
Eddie: It’s pretty dense.
Al: Just like Dr. Baker, Eddie Canalez has put himself on the front lines of this crisis. Eddie’s got a giant machete, and he’s hacking through thick mesquite brush out here. He’s showing us some of the trails that migrants follow as they head north.
Eddie: Look at these thorns right here. I mean, you get caught in there going through that brush, you’re going to get ripped.
Al: Today he’s leaving out gallon jugs of water along the trail, hoping fewer people will die of dehydration.
Eddie: My nickname is Waterboy. I like that title.
Al: Other days he spends on the phone talking with parents and siblings of people who’ve gone missing. He tried to figure out where their loved ones last were, and then he passes the details to Chief Deputy Martinez, and other law enforcement officials.
Eddie: I’m interviewing somebody that they have a missing persons. I’m trying to figure out, “Well, where did you leave that person?” “Well, I left them in the woods by …” “Where?” Just think of this, trying to describe this.
Al: Yeah. By the yellow flowers.
Eddie: By the yellow flowers.
Al: There’s yellow flowers all over here.
Eddie: There was a fence there, there was a little shack that I saw. A lean-to.
Al: Eddie works in the area that spans almost 950 square miles, trying to keep hope alive for desperate families spread across half a dozen countries. And for the anonymous migrants who die out here, the efforts of Eddie and Dr. Baker have increased the chances that someday their names will be known. Their bodies aren’t buried in the corner of the Brooks County Cemetery anymore. Instead, they’re transported to the medical examiner’s office in Laredo, where they’re properly analyzed and stored. DNA samples are now gathered.
Lori: I tell my students, “Virtually every mother that you talk to says about the same thing. ‘Now I have a place to go and pray. Now I have a place to lay flowers. Now I have the ability to go and be with my son or daughter.’”
Al: But still, there were more than 120 bodies exhumed from Brooks county. Only 3 have been identified.
That story was produced by Delaney Hall. Thanks to John Carlos Frey, Esther Caplan, and the investigative fund for working with us. To read more, visit RevealNews.org.
When we come back, the story of a teenage girl who goes missing, and how her disappearance brings 2 strangers 1000 miles apart together. That’s next on Reveal.
From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. In our next story we hear from 2 women who were complete strangers, yet had deep connections to the same person: a teenage girl who disappeared 35 years ago.
Marla: I think Michelle hurt deeply, and I think Michelle loved deeply.
Al: Marla Busha grew up in Texas. Her 17 year old sister Michelle left home in 1980 and never returned.
Marla: We always thought, or I always thought, that Michelle was going to come home.
Al: In rural minnesota, and woman named Deb Anderson was haunted by the story of an unidentified woman buried in a local cemetery 35 years ago.
Deb: I often would hear a song or something and think, “I wonder if she heard that. I wonder if she heard that song. I wonder if she liked that song.”
Al: Deb started thinking of the woman as someone she knew, even though she knew almost nothing about her.
Deb: Did she have a first date? Did she have a boyfriend? Did she know love?
Al: Deb Anderson and Marla Busha agonized over the same young woman, but they never met, until earlier this year when a major break in the case brought them together. And we should say, this story is about a murder and it gets graphic. Reveal’s Michael Montgomery picks up the story with Deb Anderson in southern Minnesota.
Deb: We are at Riverside Cemetery in Blue Earth, standing in the spot where Jane Doe was buried.
Michael M: I’m with Deb Anderson on a narrow lane that crisscrosses the cemetery. Deb has been visiting this place for years, not because anyone from her family is buried here. She started coming when she heard about a young woman buried beneath a simple stone grave marker.
Deb: It said, “Unidentified woman found May 30th, 1980 off Interstate 90, east of Blue Earth.”
Michael M: Deb moved to Blue Earth about 20 years after the murder. Old timers were still talking about it. And that’s how she heard the story. A farmer discovered a body floating in a drainage ditch just outside town. There had been heavy rains and scorching heat, so the corpse was in bad shape. Authorities could tell it was a woman who had been strangled. They tried to identify her, but failed. Deb just couldn’t stop thinking, “Who was she?”
Deb: I know that we go to this effort to bury them and to mark the grave, and to do all these things. And yet, if we don’t have a name, we just discard them. That doesn’t make sense to me. Everybody should have a name.
Michael M: A man later confessed to the crime, but he said he never knew the woman’s name. The police had their murdered, they eventually filed the case away, and it was nearly forgotten. Until Deb came along. After visiting the cemetery, she started asking questions at the sheriff’s office, but couldn’t get much information.
She remembers one investigator telling her …
Deb: “She was a hitchhiker, she had callouses on her feet, so we figured she was a hippie and we didn’t worry about it.” In an odd way, it’s probably good that that’s what he said, because when he said that, I was completely appalled. And that was the beginning of my drive to make sure that this got taken care of the way it should have been.
Here’s all the stuff I had, emails and things that I sent …
Michael M: At her home in Blue Earth, Deb shows me this huge rubber tub she’s pulled from the closet. It’s filled with x-rays, dental records, police reports, investigative files, copies of emails, and public records requests. It took her years to gather all this evidence from state and local agencies.
Deb: Initially, I didn’t know anything about any of this. I didn’t know how it worked. I didn’t know about missing persons or nothing. So it was all just winging it on my part.
Michael M: But she found help. An online community of volunteer detectives called the Doe Network. They work together to solve missing persons cases. They post documents, photos, depositions, anything they can find about a case. Deb joined. She built her own website where she shared everything she knew about Jane Doe, and she started getting calls from families who were searching for missing loved ones.
Deb: Was usually siblings or the children of the missing. They had hopes and depression and it cycled and it destroyed families. It was just an incredible emotional roller coaster for them.
Michael M: One family came all the way to Blue Earth, hoping that Jane Doe was their daughter. But the 2 cases didn’t line up.
Marla: All right, let’s see. One of the few times it snowed in Dallas, Michelle and I are out in front of our house.
Michael M: Marla Busha still sounds like a Texan. But years ago, she moved to Salt Lake City where she runs a small interior design company. She’s showing me photos of her sister, Michelle, when they were kids.
Marla: Michelle is right here.
Michael M: The family moved around a lot, and there were a lot of arguments. One day the family came home and Michelle was gone.
Marla: For a while we just thought she had wanderlust and was sick of us. Sick of the restraints, because she didn’t like restraints, you know? She was a rebellious girl.
Michael M: Michelle called a few times from the road, said she was planning to visit their grandmother. Then, nothing. The family filed a missing persons report, but the police didn’t seem to be doing much to find Michelle.
Years passed. Marla grew up. She got married, had a son. Sometimes the police would call about a lead, but it never went anywhere.
Marla: That was all that we had.
Michael M: Do you remember a specific point in time when you just said to yourself, “I don’t think she’s still alive”?
Marla: I just felt like Michelle would always go and see my grandmother. My grandmother was such a Michelle champion, and Michelle never did that. And then after 7 years I guess, then I realized … I think it was around 5/7 years that I began realized that there was a good chance she wasn’t coming back.
It crushed my grandmother. She went to her grave crying about Michelle.
Michael M: Back in Blue Earth, Deb Anderson was trying to get the Sheriff’s office to dig up Jane Doe’s body for forensic analysis. In addition to collecting documents, she’d been talking with experts on human identification. One idea was to use Jane Doe’s skull to create a 3D image of the woman’s face. Maybe someone would recognize her. But the sheriff’s office wouldn’t go for it. And when a local newspaper picked up the story about Deb’s investigation, the police actually accused her of posing as a law enforcement agent to get documents on the case.
Marla: They were not going to have any part of it.
Michael M: So they said you were sort of meddling in their business?
Marla: Oh, yes. Absolutely. It’s a small town. It’s pretty clear that I had opened an old wound or something and had stepped on toes of some folks that didn’t want to deal with it.
Jerry: She was just trying to be helpful, and being an advocate for the Jane Doe and trying to get her identified.
Michael M: This is Jerry Kay. He’s 75 years old now. He started with the Fairbough county sheriff’s department in the early 1960s and was chief deputy when Jane Doe’s body was found. By the time Deb Anderson came on the scene, he and his boss had both retired.
Jerry: This could have been resolved if the sheriff at that time would have exhumed her. All he would have had to say is, “Let’s do it.” It would have cost the county probably $500, and the state would have probably paid for that.
Michael M: You might think this is just a problem for small, understaffed police departments. But it also happens in big cities. Law enforcement agencies, medical examiners, and coroners fail to collect and share even those most basic information about missing persons cases.
Gerald: To the living we owe respect, and to the dead we owe the truth. And we’re not living up to that.
Michael M: Gerald Nance directed the cold case unit at the national center for missing and exploited children until his retirement 3 years ago. He offered to help Deb Anderson, but he warned her, for some police departments the unidentified are at the bottom of the food chain. Gerald says this neglect is all the more troubling since DNA technology is revolutionizing cold case investigations.
Gerald: We can identify people this way, and those people that hold on to the old, “It’s too expensive, it’s too much trouble, it’s not my job,” they’re holding up the wagon.
Michael M: The Riverside Cemetery is on the banks of the Blue Earth River. It’s just a few blocks from Deb Anderson’s home.
Deb: Once in a while, as corny as it sounds, I would drive out here and I’d be like, “What should I do now? Nobody’s listening.” And I would just kind of sit here once in a while, not often. Not obsessively, but like, “Nobody’s paying attention. I’m running out of ideas. I don’t know how this works.”
Michael M: Then, in 2007, 7 years after Deb began working on the case, 2 big things happened. In Texas, authorities asked the Busha family to submit DNA samples to a new federal database of missing persons. And in Minnesota there was a new sheriff in Fairbough County, and he asked Deb for help.
Still, she had to wait another 7 years before Jane Doe’s remains were exhumed. And that came after Deb offered to get the work done for free. Last summer, on a warm sunny morning, officials dug up Jane Doe’s remains.
Deb: It was truly like a scene out of Law and Order. There were people with black windbreakers on that said “Agent” on the back and “Medical Examiner” on the back. And there was probably 30 people.
Newscaster 3: Thank you for joining us here today …
Michael M: This March, authorities from Minnesota’s bureau of criminal apprehension called a press conference.
Newscaster 3: We’re here today to announce that a murder victim has been identified as a result of the BCA’s effort to learn the identities of Minnesota’s unidentified human remains.
Michael M: DNA samples extracted from Jane Doe’s remains found a match in a federal database. She had a name: Michelle Busha.
Deb: Oh, it was wonderful. It was emotional.
Michael M: Deb says it was actually a mix of emotions. She was grateful to the forensic scientists for solving the case. She was angry at authorities for taking so long. And she was also worried about how the news would affect the Busha family.
Deb: I still think it’s the right thing and it had to be done. But it opens a lot of old wounds for people. Nobody wants to be that messenger. I felt very bad, and I’d never expected that feeling. But I took hope away from them, and I don’t like that I did that.
Michael M: But Marla Busha says that when her family got the news, and when they learned of Deb’s role in solving the case, she was the first person they wanted to call.
Marla: I just said, “You’re a sister.” I mean, I have like a sisterly love for her, because she has loved Michelle. She loves Michelle. Like, she loves my sister.
Michael M: Now that Michelle was identified, Marla would finally discover what happened to her sister. She found out that Michelle’s killer was a Minnesota state trooper named Robert Leroy Nelson. He’s still in prison for this and other crimes. And it turns out that his confession is posted online.
Marla: It’s a heartbreaking thing, what Michelle went through.
Michael M: Late one night, Marla found the confession and started reading.
Nelson said he picked up Michelle along the highway in a squad car. He drove her around town, then he took her down a dirt road, where he handcuffed and raped her. And this is the part of the confession that Marla almost couldn’t get through, because it’s so graphic:
Nelson said that when Michelle fought back, he tortured her. He ripped out her fingernails with pliers, then he strangle Michelle with the drawstring from her jacket.
Marla: For me, when I read that and I think about that, I just … I don’t know how someone could be so cruel. I don’t know how that can be. But that was a very cruel man.
Michael M: After learning about what happened to her sister, Marla traveled to Blue Earth. She wanted to meet Deb Anderson and the authorities who helped identify her sister.
Marla: I had thought about it actually before we went up there. Did I want to see what Michelle would have seen? What her last journey was. I though, “You know, 34 years, no one knew Michelle’s story for 34 years. It’s like abandonment.”
Michael M: So Marla decided to retrace her sister’s journey. Together with Fairbough County Sheriff Mike Gormley, and Deputy Scott Adams. 2 months later I took the same trip.
Officer: We’re just east of Blue Earth on the north side of I-90 on Township Road or Gravel Road. And we’re basically taking the path that Trooper Nelson had taken Michelle Busha on the night that he killed her.
Marla: When a tragedy happens, we just want to look the other way and we want to run from it, when really to honor the person that suffered it, you should find out exactly what they went through.
Michael M: About 5 miles from Blue Earth, down the dirt road, lies the drainage ditch where Michelle Busha’s body was found. Marla remembers coming here and looking across the vase cornfields at the last flecks of color her sister saw before she was killed.
Marla: She was tossed away like a piece of trash. It was very tearful, it couldn’t be more of an unhappy ending, right? I wanted to know, and I’m glad I know because Michelle would want that known. Michelle would want someone to say, “Hey, this is what happened to me. This is where it started, this is where it’s ended. This happened to me. And I want you to know it.”
Al: Reveal’s Michael Montgomery brought us that story. Michelle Busha’s remains were cremated. After her trip to Blue Earth, Marla Busha took them home with her. She told us after all these years, she and her sister are now together.
So as we’ve been putting this show together, a lot of us here at Reveal have been wondering, could we solve a cold case? Or at least help someone else solve one? So we reached out to this community of amateur web sleuths. People spread out across the country who spend their spare time online trying to match missing people with unidentified bodies.
Jennifer: Hi, Polly. I don’t know if you remember me. I had a call with you a few weeks ago.
Polly: Yeah, absolutely.
Al: That’s Polly Penwell of Travers City, Michigan. Polly spends hours a day slogging through websites set up by the national missing and unidentified person system, or NAMUS, trying to put together clues to solve cases. She’s talking to Jennifer LeFluer, head of our data team.
Jennifer: One thing my team is doing here is we’re trying to build some tools to help people better use the data that’s within the NAMUS system. So we’ve had lots of conversations with folks like you just to try to figure out how you use the site and what sorts of things would make it better.
Al: NAMUS has a ton of information. Photos, case files, descriptions of crimes, you name it on more than 11,000 people who’ve got missing, and another 10,000 bodies that haven’t been identified.
But the problem is …
Polly: It’s actually 2 different databases, one holds all of the information about missing persons, and another one holds all of the information about known bodies that have been found.
Al: So, 2 databases, but they don’t talk to each other. Jennifer LeFluer is here with us to tell us what they did next. Hi Jen.
Jennifer: Hi Al.
Al: Also with us is Allison McCartney who worked on the project. Hey Allison.
Allison: Hi Al.
Al: So you all built a site called The Lost and the Found. And Allison, can you tell us how it works? How does it make searching through these cases easier?
Allison: Right, so what’s different about our app from the NAMUS website is that you can actually enter search terms and filter terms and search through both databases at once. So if you’re looking for a woman who’s white who went missing in 2006, you can enter those parameters, and it not only searches the missing database, but it also searches the unidentified database for people of that same profile who may match up with that missing person.
Al: So Jennifer, when you first enter the site, a warning pops up telling you that there’s going to be some graphic pictures here. How else did you navigate that territory with all of these crime scene photos there, pictures of dead bodies? How do you do that?
Jennifer: Yeah, we actually had a lot of discussions about this because some of the pictures are so graphic, they often are of faces of individuals in a coroner’s office or in the morgue, and other photos that go along with those records might be tattered clothing, a piece of jewelry, but those all can help identify a person.
Because those photos can be so disturbing, we added that warning before you even enter the site. And then, after talking with Polly Penwell, the team decided to add an option so that the photos are blurred on the unidentified site so you’re not immediately going in there and seeing pictures of dead people. Then you have the option of unchecking that blurred photos option so that you can clearly see the photos of the unidentified if you choose to do so.
Al: So Allison, what do you hope that people do with this site?
Allison: Well I really hope that it lowers the barrier to entry for people who may be interested in solving a case. Or perhaps people who are looking to find out what happened to their loved one. Right now the barrier to finding out what happened on using the current application or the current resources is so high. So maybe with a much easier interface people will be able to solve these cases in a much more timely fashion.
Al: Have you guys been able to solve a cold case? I know Jennifer laid down the gauntlet to the entire data team and said you’re looking for who can solve the cold case, right? So, did anyone solve it?
Allison: So, I am here for the summer, and Jen said that as part of my fellowship, I had to solve a cold case. I thought I had one a few weeks ago, but when I went onto the NAMUS site to double check all of the details, I noticed that the unidentified body was no longer in the database, which in and of itself is a problem because there’s no explanation given. I don’t know if that case was pulled down because they were updating the details, or if somebody actually solved the case. There’s just no way to know.
Al: Jennifer, do we know why that kind of thing happens?
Jennifer: Well, what we know so far is that we thought cases that got solved were removed from the database. But since then, we’ve found out that they often will remove a record temporarily to update the information, and then it will go back up. But we have no way of knowing whether it’s been removed permanently. Or just removed temporarily. So Allison will just have to stay until she figures that out.
Al: Allison, you’re stuck with us. You’re not going anywhere. Allison McCartney is a data fellow from Stanford. Good luck with that case, Allison.
Al: Jennifer LeFleur is the head of our data team. Thanks for joining us.
Jennifer: Thanks for having us, Al.
Al: And if you want to try your hand at solving these cases, go to our website RevealNews.org. Click on the link for The Lost and the Found. If you think you can’t do it, remember what Polly Penwell has to say:
Polly: Give it a try. Don’t think that you can’t do it. It’s not something that you have to have special training in. Just use your head. And use your heart.
Al: That was web slouth Polly Penwell. She solved a 30 year old cold case without our website. Imagine what you can do with it.
That story was produced by Ike Sriskandarajah.
Today’s show was recorded by GW Schulz and edited by Fernando Diaz and Taki Telonidis, with production help from Michael Schiller, Rachael de Leon, Scott Anger, and Katie McMurran. Our lead producer was Michael Montgomery. The rest of the Reveal team includes: Stan Alcorn, Julia B. Chan, Delaney Hall, Peter Haden, Laura Starecheski, Neena Satija, and Amy Walters. Our sound designer and engineer is my man, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, who scored much of the music you heard on today’s show. Our editorial director is Robert Salladay, and our managing director is Christa Scharfenberg. Deb George is our senior editor, Suzanne Reber is our executive editor, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan.
Our theme music today was from Camerado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur foundation.
Reveal is a co-production of the center for investigative reporting and PRX.
I’m Al Letson, and remember: there is always more to the story.