Meet Jane Doe
Seven years ago, someone set fire to you in a dumpster and left you to burn. We still don’t know who you were.
Who were you?
We know what’s left of you intimately, or as intimately as one can know a corpse that’s been burned to a cinder. Investigators have combed through the smoldering evidence, the pathologist has examined the charred remains, your cause of death has been determined: acute thermal injury.
We’ve taken the pieces and put them together again. We know you were petite with long hair, possibly brown. We know you were in your late teens or early 20s. We know someone once loved and cared for you. We know that some time before 5 a.m. on June 29, 2001, someone placed you in a Dumpster just off Power Line Road and set you ablaze.
But who you were remains a mystery, along with the identities of 73 active John and Jane Doe cases that can be found on the Sacramento County Coroner’s Web site at http://coroner.saccounty.net. The cases run back more than 30 years, to the decomposed body of a young black woman found outside the entrance to Rancho Seco in 1975 to a 59-year-old white woman who died of lung cancer at UC Davis Medical Center in 2005.
They are the unknown victims of both random and calculated violence, the lonely and the unloved, the people who fall through life’s cracks. It is the charge of the Sacramento County Coroner to catch them on the other side.
Firefighters were the first personnel on the scene that summer morning seven years ago. They extinguished the flames and found what was left of you stuck to the bottom of the Dumpster, burned beyond recognition. The coroner and homicide investigators were summoned and the remains removed to the county morgue. Pathologist Dr. Donald Henrikson performed the medical examination.
“Received in an opaque, yellow, zippered plastic bag sealed with evidence tape and a plastic padlock,” Henrikson observed, “is a badly charred human being, apparently a Caucasian female, appearing an indeterminate age. The left foot is present in a red plastic biohazard bag that is present between the legs.”
Heat from the fire was so intense, it fractured four ribs and burned clean through the flesh and bone of the lower left leg, severing it. Even Henrikson, veteran of countless autopsies, seemed taken aback by the damage, so stark is his report.
“[E]xtensive thermal injury includes loss of the skin over the back and sides of the head with some sparing of skin over the face (which is, nevertheless, extensively charred),” he continued. “No identifiable scalp hair remains. The eyes are extensively cooked and cannot be further described. Both ears are burned away.”
Soot deposits throughout the upper and lower respiratory tract indicate you were burned alive.
Sitting across from me at his desk, Assistant Coroner Ed Smith leafs through the report and grimaces ever so slightly when he comes to the photos of the crime scene. Over the top of the folder, I glimpse a picture of a blackened human being from the shoulders up, tiny, white teeth shining through crispy, melted flesh. He doesn’t offer the photo. I don’t ask.
A deeply religious man, Smith has been around dead people since he was a kid. Close friends of the family owned a mortuary, where he mopped floors as a teenager. He worked in the funeral industry before crossing over to the coroner’s office, beginning as a field investigator and working his way up through the ranks. He thinks television and horror films have contributed to an exaggerated fear for the medium of his trade—the dead body.
“You lose the fear, you know, that the dead person is going to move and all that; you know that doesn’t happen,” he says. “Once you do that, you can focus on the science of investigation.”
Some 12,000 people die annually in Sacramento. Of those, 7,000 are reported to the coroner; the morgue processes approximately 2,500 bodies. Deaths are classified in five categories: homicide, suicide, accident, undetermined and natural. By their nature—when the victim remains unidentified, so does the killer—the homicides in the Jane and John Doe files provide riveting details.
There’s the case of the man in cowboy boots and wearing a wedding ring found shot to death, then wrapped in a tan comforter decorated with drawings of jungle cats in 1989. The surgically severed foot found floating in the Delta Cross Channel in 1991. A pair of severed legs found weighted down in the American River on separate days in spring, 2003.
Sacramento Police Department homicide detective Pat Keller refers to the latter as the “legs case.” It’s one of 250 unsolved homicides in the department’s cold-case files. As one of two detectives assigned to the cold-case unit, Keller actively works five cases at any given time. Two of the cases have unidentified victims from the coroner’s John and Jane Doe files: the woman burned alive in the Dumpster and the legs case.
The first leg was found by a man with an underwater camera mounted to his boat.
“I went out with the guy who found the leg, myself and an FBI agent,” Keller recalls in his office, located at police headquarters on Freeport Avenue. Divers found the second leg the next day. Both legs had been in the water not more than 48 hours. Chief forensic pathologist Mark Super performed the autopsies, one leg at a time.
“The subject consists of a single left-sided leg that extends from the upper thigh to and including the entire foot,” Super noted on the first report. “Attached to the lower leg by copper wire is a large square rusted iron railroad cleat. The iron cleat … weighs 22 lbs. and has four square holes near each end. The copper wire is twist-tied in two locations at one end and then just placed through one of the holes and bent over on the opposite side. … A spring of green seaweed is caught up within the copper wire.”
The description of the right leg, which has also been weighed down by a railroad cleat, was slightly more graphic, perhaps because UC Davis entomologist Dr. Lynn Kimsey was in attendance.
“Also adherent to the lateral surface of the leg, primarily the lateral thigh and lateral calf, are numerous thin short red worm-like insect larvae (bloodworms). Some are alive and some are motionless and apparently dead. … Brown-green algae is adherent in some places.”
DNA proved the legs belonged to the same white man, but beyond that, there wasn’t much information to go on. Not even his height is certain. He could be anywhere from 5 feet 9 inches to 6 feet 3 inches. The department’s fugitive unit had a suspect in the case, but he was cleared. There have been almost no leads or tips since then. Who the legs belonged to—and who hacked them off—remains a mystery.
“It’s hard to solve a case when you don’t even know who the victim is or the first place to look,” Keller says.
While unsolved homicides are the most dramatic cases in the coroner’s John and Jane Doe files, most involve deaths that are classified as undetermined and natural. Nevertheless, they provide a glimpse of a world in which people have become disposable, at least those who choose to live outside society.
There’s the tramp who lived in an abandoned oil storage tank near North A Street who got drunk, passed out and lit himself on fire back in 1983. The overdosed junkie found wrapped up in a piece of carpet and dumped along the Sacramento River near KVIE Channel 6 in 1986. The mummified corpse found in a wooded area near Steelhead Creek in 2003. A half-dozen discarded fetuses are among the unidentified. One child. More than a score of transients who died down by the river, most of them toothless. They didn’t fit in when they were alive, and out of the tens of thousands of bodies that have passed through the coroner’s office in the past three decades, they stubbornly persist to fit in after death, defying modern identification techniques.
Fingerprints are often nonexistent due to decay. DNA is only useful if there’s something to compare it to. Dental records are pointless if there are no teeth.
“There are a lot of different ways to die,” I comment to Smith.
“You can die from breaking your arm,” he assures me, relating the story of an overweight woman who fractured her elbow and later died from a pulmonary embolism. He chuckles when I bring up CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the popular CBS drama featuring forensic super sleuths who solve cases through scientific know-how and various feats of daring-do. It’s not that simple. Investigating death in Sacramento requires a coordinated effort between first-responders to the scene, investigators from the police department and the coroner, a pathologist and his assistants, an anthropologist, and in cases where physical identification is impossible, a forensic artist. One person couldn’t possibly tackle all those jobs.
Smith is not a fan of the show.
Because so many John and Jane Does are destitute and decomposed, often the only evidence to their identities consists of the clothes they may have had on their backs and a few meager belongings. T-shirts displaying logos such as “Atari,” or comic-book characters, “Batman and Joker: Arch Enemies,” or tourist destinations, “Bad Company: Johnston Island.” A deck of playing cards, a plastic folder containing religious photos and $1.60. A plastic box decorated with spaceships containing a stick pin.
Sometimes, the clues appear more telling. The body of a 60- to 70-year-old man found near the Sacramento River in 1989 had one prosthetic blue eye. The body of a 30- to 40-year-old white male found dead near the Bannon Street Mission in 1991 was tattooed from head to foot. Among the tattoos: longhaired females, flowers and parrots flowing down the left arm all the way to the wrist; medieval castles, dragons, skulls and tombstones swirling down the right arm; an Aztec eagle perched on the chest. The name “Yolanda” appears twice.
Yolanda has never turned up to claim the body.
More often, there’s almost nothing to go on. A yellow metal earring with a purple stone in the left ear. A double-edged razor, a piece of foam rubber, two pennies, a white and black letter “U” and a plastic toy part consisting of what appeared to be a bicycle wheel and fender. A body of a man found dead next to the Sacramento River in 1979 yielded few useful clues: “His teeth had virtually no wear. He was not circumcised. He had fairly long toes.”
As insignificant as the evidence seems, an obscure knickknack is sometimes all it takes to spark someone’s memory. Whenever she can, Sacramento Police Department forensic artist Barbara Anderson incorporates such minute details in the postmortem sketches and skeletal reconstructions she performs for the coroner’s office. For example, in her sketch of a man whose body was found at the intersection of 14th and X streets in 2002, she included his only known possession: a gold metal Mickey Mouse watch.
Anderson, 44, joined the force in 1989 as a crime-scene investigator; her interest in composite art and drawing led to her current assignment as forensic artist in 2000. She’s trained at the prestigious “Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee as well as the highly respected forensic program at the University of Manchester in England. Over morning coffee in Midtown, she explained the process she goes through when sketching and sculpting her subjects.
She describes her work as “reanimation,” because she must recreate what the person looked like when alive. People look different when they’re dead; friends and relatives might not recognize the body. Gravity weighs down the loose flesh, presenting cheekbones and other features that weren’t apparent when the subject was walking upright. In addition, the anthropologist’s report might contain evidence of disease, such as arthritis, that would have effected how the person might have walked—an element she had to take in consideration with the sketch of a middle-aged black man whose body was found near Bannon and B streets in 1993.
When they exist, Anderson works off photographs from such older cases, breathing life into Polaroids that aren’t always of the highest quality, such as her sketch of a homeless man whose body was found in a vacant lot near 16th and E streets in 1985. She filled out his cheeks and opened his eyes, combining her knowledge of the available evidence with artistic license to portray the look of a 40-year-old man who had lived hard and died relatively young. Through computerized fingerprint matching, the man was identified as Laurence Goodboo in 2006. A daughter in Florida had been looking for him since 1986, after he’d already been dead for a year.
When all the facial features have been obliterated, such as the smoking remains found in the Dumpster or the mummified corpse found near Steelhead Creek, sketching what the person looked like is virtually impossible. If the skull’s bone structure is strong enough, Anderson turns to skeletal reconstruction. There are two primary schools of skeletal reconstruction, European and American; she is familiar with both. The European method, which she learned at Manchester, uses sculpting implements and clay to build the tissue up layer by layer, from bone to muscle to skin, sort of a reversal of the popular Bodies Revealed exhibit. It produces slightly better results, but consumes more time and labor. She primarily uses the American method, spreading the clay on in several smooth layers.
Her most successful reconstruction to date is the mummified corpse found near Steelhead Creek. In 2006, when her sketch based on her reconstruction of the skull was placed on the coroner’s Web site, Keller immediately recognized it.
“In June 2006, I was working another unsolved homicide, Mary Scott, who was killed in the area of Northgate and Garden Highway,” Keller says. “We have DNA in the case, and we’ve been trying to discover who the contributor of that DNA was. There was a guy who had been frequenting the area by the name of Leon Danker, but the detectives had been unable to find him.”
Keller tracked down Danker’s few friends in the homeless community. They told the detective they thought Danker had been struck by a car and killed several years earlier.
“The next day, the coroner’s office had something on the news about how they’d come up with this new Web site on unidentified people,” Keller says. “So I was killing some time and just thought I’d look at it. I pulled it up and Leon Danker’s picture was right there. It was almost dead on to the booking photo we had.”
Keller tracked down family members, who provided police with a DNA sample that cleared Danker of any involvement in the Mary Scott case.
“I talked to a couple of his brothers, and they said he’d gone through a divorce and they’d just lost contact with him,” Keller says. “They were very appreciative and cooperative.”
Anderson felt validated by Danker’s positive identification; she’s aware that there are some among law enforcement who question the effectiveness of forensic art. It makes her even more determined to hone her skills. She’s currently pursuing a degree in anthropology. But before all the advanced training, before the success stories, there was the badly burned body found in the Dumpster.
You were her first case.
What was left of the bare, burned skull came to Anderson in a box, precisely sectioned by bone saw. It was missing a good portion of the cranium. The back was a charred hole, completely burned out, just gone. What remained was fragile, but the bone structure was strong, so Anderson elected to breathe life into its features via clay reconstruction.
She had little to go on. Like the back of the skull, most of the physical evidence had been incinerated. The pathologist’s final report yielded some clues. You were petite, 5 feet tall, 90 pounds. Your hair was long and probably brown. You were not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. You may have been stylish—there were remnants of what appeared to be Structure-brand jeans.
Most telling were your teeth, the only visible feature that defied your destruction. The prominent bumps on the top incisors indicate you were in your late teens or early 20s. You had no cavities and your molars were sealed, an elective procedure parents have performed on children to prevent decay. Several of your teeth had been removed for orthodontics. Braces for a prettier smile.
Someone loved you once. Someone cared enough to pay for that smile. Perhaps they’re still looking for you.
Anderson assembled the skull, slotting the mandible and maxilla into place like keys into a puzzle. While race can be determined by the shape of the skull, eye color cannot. Brown is considered the average normal. It’s also the most overlooked color. People remember someone with green eyes. Brown gets lost in the crowd. As near as Anderson can figure, you were a brown-eyed girl. She popped two brown prosthetic eyes into their sockets and set to work.
She traced the skull’s contours, placing tissue depth markers, rubber nubs shaped like pencil erasers set to precise millimeters in height, at regular intervals along the boney valleys and ridges. The placement of the markers is determined by charts compiled over decades of forensic work. When all the markers are set, the end result looks not unlike like a death’s-head pincushion. The reanimation process can begin.
Anderson smoothed clay over the skull one layer at a time, building the clay up to match the tissue markers. The facial features were burned beyond recognition, but based on the small hook on the bridge of the nose and the direction of the anterior nasal spine, Anderson determined the nose hooked slightly downward, a distinguishing characteristic someone might recognize if shown a picture. Being careful to maintain the proportion between features, she filled in the forehead, the cheeks and the jaw line. Gradually, your image, all that we may ever know of you, arose from the smoldering ashes.
Your chin was soft. Your lower lip full. Your smile beautiful.
Seven years ago this June, we found you in an industrial district Dumpster, and we still don’t know who you were. But we haven’t stopped trying to find out.
Your DNA is on file. Detective Keller has combed the hotels in the area, searching for a match to the diamond-patterned blanket you may have been bound in. The case has been added to the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program. Last month, Keller submitted the evidence, the blanket and the suspected binding material to the FBI, and they’ve sent it to their crime lab for more forensic testing.
“The chances of solving and arresting the person responsible is slim,” Keller says. “I still hold hope and think we’ll be able to solve both the Jane Doe and the legs case. Again, it’s hard to solve a case if you don’t know who the victim is or the first place to go look. On the Jane Doe case, when it initially came out that they didn’t know who she was, I thought, I don’t know if we’ll solve it, but we at least ought to be able to identify her in a relatively short period. But time went on, and continued to go on, and we’re still not able to identify her.”
Kim Gillis, Keller’s investigative counterpart at the coroner, says that a promising lead recently came in from ViCAP. “We were very excited,” Gillis says. “But it’s just not her. So it’s back to the drawing board.”
We may never know who you were. Dealing with such realities on a daily basis gives Anderson pause for caution. If she goes somewhere on the weekend or on vacation, she always tells someone where. If she doesn’t come back, they’ll know where to start looking. She holds her friends closer and tries not to let too much time go before giving them a call or sending an e-mail. The right words of encouragement might make the difference between a troubled friend or loved one living life happily ever after or winding up in a forensic artist’s sketchbook.
It’s not like CSI down at the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office, Ed Smith will tell you. You won’t find him rushing out to the crime scene then back to the laboratory then back out into the field to apprehend the suspect, à la Gil Grissom. Successes like the Danker and Goodboo cases are the result of teamwork that begins with the first responder and continues through ongoing investigations and outreach efforts such as the coroner’s Web site.
It’s safe to say that for many of the 73 John and Jane Does in the Sacramento coroner’s files, more attention is being paid to them now than when they were alive. For the most part, they are the sick and the toothless, the drifters and the homeless, the pieces that didn’t fit in during life and stubbornly persist to not fit in after death. The discarded. Why bother trying to put the pieces back together now?
Smith doesn’t hesitate to answer the question.
“The families are out there, wondering,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do.”