Technology seeks to solve mysteries of 2 bodies

Digital facial reconstruction gives hope to cold cases

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  • John Doe's bones were found along the Lake Erie shore in 2005.
    John Doe's bones were found along the Lake Erie shore in 2005.

    Someone knows who Lucas County’s “John Doe” is.

    Since the man’s bones were found along the Lake Erie shoreline more than seven years ago, the Lucas County Coroner’s Office has fielded inquiries from investigators with unsolved cases and anxious family members looking for loved ones.

    None has matched.

    “It makes me feel frustrated, you know? Because I know, if that was my family member and I was looking for them, I would want somebody to help me,” said Dr. Diane Scala-Barnett, Lucas County deputy coroner.

    A new digital facial reconstruction, done by a forensic artist from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, gives new hope that John Doe will, someday, be himself.

    Nationally, fewer than 2 percent of unidentified remains are ever identified, said Catyana Skory, the forensic artist. About 11 percent of the cases she’s helped with have had positive resolutions.

    “It’s important for them to know we’re still trying,” Ms. Skory said. “There are people out there trying to get these cases resolved, and this is something that does need support from the public.”

    More than 9,300 unidentified persons have been reported to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Of those, 740 have been resolved, according to the missing persons agency.

    Jane Doe was burned beyond recognition in an alley in 1987.
    Jane Doe was burned beyond recognition in an alley in 1987.

    There are 66 Ohio cases in the database; two — including John Doe and a Jane Doe — are from Lucas County.

    In 1987, Jane Doe’s burned body was found wrapped in a pink blanket. She was dumped in an alley near Collingwood Boulevard and Emmet Street and set on fire. Her body was so burned, it’s impossible to say what color her eyes were; taking fingerprints was impossible.

    Jane Doe is believed to be between 16 and 21 years old. She weighed 110 pounds and was 5 feet, 6 inches tall.

    Under her body, investigators found blue Jordache jeans. In each ear, Jane Doe had five small white pearl earrings.

    “I’ll never forget that,” Dr. Barnett said.

    The girl had fine, strawberry-blonde hair that reached her shoulders. Her death certificate lists the cause of death as undetermined.

    John Doe’s body was found early Nov. 4, 2005. Polaroid pictures taken by a coroner’s investigator show that it was a bright, beautiful day.

    From a boat in Lake Erie, behind Oregon’s wastewater treatment plant in Jerusalem Township, a duck-hunting father-son duo saw the man’s bones along the rocky shoreline.

    Nearby was a clump of clothing: Adventurer’s Club sweatpants, large, maybe blue, and Hanes undershorts, size 32.

    That was it. No wallet. No identification. No obvious clues.

    John Doe could have died there. He could have been dumped there. His body could have washed ashore.

    What’s known about John Doe isn’t much. At some point, the bridge of his nose was broken, and he has a healed shoulder blade injury, and he had, perhaps, been shot in his right leg.

    He was black and, when he died, was between 30 and 50 years old, according to an anthropological report compiled by Julie Mather, director of forensic anthropology for the Lucas County Coroner’s Office.

    Based on measurements of John Doe’s left tibia and femur, he was between 5 foot, 3 inches, and 5 feet, 8 inches. He had a thin build.

    At some time during his life, John Doe had access to good dental care, the report notes.

    Despite the dental care, John Doe had an abscess at the root of a maxillary left-central incisor, fillings, and gum disease.

    Dr. Barnett said the clothing that they recovered didn’t have any tears or holes to show John Doe was physically assaulted, although maybe he was and the wound was to his torso and only affected his soft tissue.

    John Doe had been dead for at least several months, Dr. Barnett said, basing the observation on a lack of soft tissue.

    John Doe’s information was eventually uploaded to databases, and that’s when the inquiries came in: missing boaters from Canada; a missing Bedford, Ohio, husband; another missing Canadian man, and a man missing from Columbus since 2002.

    The Columbus inquiry also came with a request for DNA, Dr. Barnett said. Parts of John Doe, including a vertebra, femur, and humerus, were sent to the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. Scientists there were able to extract DNA from the vertebra, Dr. Barnett said.

    Last year, John Doe’s information was uploaded to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. An offer from Ms. Skory to do the reconstruction, free of charge, followed.

    John Doe’s case file and skull were sent to Florida and, weeks later, a picture of what John Doe might look like was complete.

    The image might not be 100 percent accurate — there’s no way to know, for instance, how John Doe wore his hair or if he had a mustache — but the proportions should be about right, and that, Ms. Skory said, is crucial.

    “We can get the head shape and proportions of the eyes, nose, and mouth, and that’s very important,” said Ms. Skory, who has done reconstructions and composite sketches for more than 10 years. “Those are the most recognizable features for people.”

    Still, it won’t matter how spot-on the images are until the right person sees them, Ms. Skory said.

    Dr. Barnett is hopeful that is exactly what will happen.

    “It’s so exciting,” she said. “I feel like somebody has got to know him.”

    Anyone who may be able to identify John or Jane Doe should call the Lucas County Coroner’s Office, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 419-213-3900; any other time, call the Toledo Police Department at 419-245-3142.

    Contact Taylor Dungjen at:, or 419-724-6054, or on Twitter @taylordungjen.