Franklin County Coroner Never Gives Up Finding Names Of Unidentified Dead People

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UPDATED: Wednesday July 24, 2013 11:52 PM

In most cases, police work to immediately identify a dead person so that they can start to look for a cause.

But there are some cases in which the name of the person is not known.

In 1983, a woman was found strangled to death in bushes near Hoover Reservoir. Her body was partially decomposed when it was discovered.

"They've never even solved the crime, because they don't even know who she is to start with,” said Liz Weber, an investigator with the Franklin County Coroner’s Office.

She assists with the retrieval and autopsies of bodies.

But this "detective of the dead" says it's not just about determining the cause of death.

"This is a constant work in progress,” she explained.

There’s a file folder at the morgue that never goes away. It contains information on all of the John and Jane Does -- bodies that have never been identified since 1983.

Weber said that she was just 2 years old when the earliest case happened.

"They contain anthropology reports, their height, their estimated age, weight at the time of their death,” she added.

Weber and her colleagues look for any identifying clues - fingerprints, surgical implants, dental records, and tattoos. They try to exhaust every possible lead.

“The last unidentifiable person, a true John Doe, was 2007,” said Dr. Jan Gorniak, the Franklin County Coroner.

Gorniak performed the autopsy on the unidentified man found in the Scioto River in Columbus.

The staff uses pictures, sketches and even has made sculpted molds of what the person may have looked like to help find answers.

“When people aren't identified and there's no identifying information left behind with them, it's a real hard task to go after, to try to find somebody,” Gorniak said.”

Gorniak said on the day 10TV interviewed her; a dozen identified bodies were waiting to be claimed by loved ones in the morgue’s cooler.

But if a month passes and no one comes forward, the bodies are moved to the freezer, at a constant temperature of 20 degrees.
 
"What we know is a frozen body doesn't decompose,” explained Gorniak. "These four people that are in the freezer have been identified, but we just don't know next of kin, we haven't found the next of kin yet."

And finding a relative, even a friend of the deceased, can also be a never-ending challenge.

"Everybody is somebody. So, I think if their next of kin isn't found, they belong to somebody, and we want to treat them respectfully and bury them, because being in a freezer isn't proper,” added Gorniak.

Unidentified bodies are not cremated, just in case they are eventually identified and a family member comes forward to claim them, evidence is needed to solve a crime, or a tissue sample is needed by the coroner’s staff for a particular reason.

The bodies are kept in the morgue's freezer for about a year, and then they are buried at Greenlawn Cemetery in North Columbus.

The nameless headstones of about a dozen plots are lined up one after the other.

Currently, there’s only room for one more plot. Gorniak said the department will have to go to the county commissioners and come up with a plan once that plot is used.

In an act of dignity and respect, the coroner's office held a mass funeral 13 years ago. And since that time, some of the John Does have been identified.

While some are finally remembered, others still lie forgotten.

“It’s very sad. It’s sad when, I mean, we’re all connected to somebody. We’re all here, and it’s sad when we have people that aren’t missed,” she added. “It's frustrating, because you know they existed, and there's people that are attached to them, we just can't find them."

When bodies are identified, investigators use many resources to try to find a close relative or friend, even resorting to putting obituaries in the newspaper to get help from the public.

If there is no money, or the family wants nothing to do with the body, the coroner's office arranges for cremation or burial of the bodies with the help of a number of funeral homes.

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