ID-ing the Dead : Bodies of John and Jane Does Trigger Special Concern Among 34 Members of Coroner's Office

Times Staff Writer

The skull rests in a brown cardboard box on the highest shelf in the room cooled to 40 degrees. The bones are around the corner in another box.

"Someone knows who she is," Bill Lystrup says softly, firmly. "Someone knows who she is."

But does anyone who knew her realize that she is dead and now known to Lystrup and his colleagues in the Orange County coroner's office as 87-4092 EL?

On a Sunday evening in August, 1987, a man stopped his car on Santa Ana Canyon Road near Gypsum Canyon Road in a rural section of Anaheim. He got out and started walking through heavy brush, only to stumble over a scattering of bones strewn across an area 50 yards by 50 yards. Searchers found handfuls of blond hair but no clothes, pocketbook, car keys--no clues to the identity of the skeletal remains.

The discovery started a process of sleuthing that continues to this day. Of the unidentified victims in the coroner's office in Santa Ana, the "John Does" and "Jane Does," No. 87-4092 EL has been there the longest.

Of the 14,000 people who die in Orange County each year, about 2,500 wind up in the coroner's office. State law requires the coroner to investigate deaths due to homicide, suicide or accident. Other deaths are reported to the coroner as well--people who die during surgery and those not seen by a physician in the past 30 days. But most are routine cases, and the bodies don't wind up in the refrigeration room. Unidentified corpses do.

The overwhelming majority enter with identities. In May, for instance, of the 39 bodies in the office, 29 had been identified. Over the course of a year, maybe 100 bodies will be "Does" for a time.

Most won't remain unknown for long. A fingerprint check will turn up a "hit." A parent who reports a son missing, with description of the clothing he was probably wearing and the distinctive tattoo on an arm, will be called and asked to identify a body matching the description.

Still, "I don't think a week or 10 days goes by that you don't have a John or Jane Doe in the office," says Jim Beisner, chief deputy coroner.

A body without a name triggers technology: X-ray machines are adjusted a tad more precisely; multimillion-dollar fingerprint systems begin to hum. A John Doe also ignites a special concern in the 34-person coroner's office. "We have a potential of someone . . . out there who doesn't know the loved one is dead," Beisner says.

"It's hard to perceive that someone could walk around on the face of the earth and then die and not be missed by someone."

When the body remains unidentified, fingerprints are taken, matched with those on file at the Orange County Sheriff's Department, then with those kept by the state Department of Justice and finally with the FBI in Washington.

X-rays are taken of the body and teeth. Teletypes chatter with descriptions of the body, asking law enforcement agencies in the region or throughout the state if they know of any matches.

In extreme cases, such as the Santa Ana Canyon Road bones, extraordinary measures are taken.

An autopsy on the woman's remains didn't turn up the cause of death. But a month later, examination by Judy Suchey, a Cal State Fullerton forensic anthropologist who has a contract with the coroner's office, helped show "defects" in two ribs, according to Cullen Ellingburgh, supervising deputy coroner assigned to the case.

In the careful language associated with events that can wind up in the courts, the marks were ruled "consistent with penetrating stab wounds." Ellingburgh ruled the death a homicide.

As time went by and the remains were still unidentified, Suchey decided to have Shannon Collis, a San Diego State graduate student in forensic anthropology, reconstruct a model of the victim's face. Collis is one of a handful of people in the country who do such work.

"I selected this for Shannon specifically because (the victim) was young . . . a teen-ager," Suchey says. "Younger females approximately that age will have more family connections than an older person. This means the chances of identification will rise. The purpose of the facial reconstruction is to jog relatives or a friend's family. When the picture appears in the paper, it will jog the memory and they will say, 'Yeah, I haven't seen her in a while.' And they'll call in. This will produce new leads that can be investigated."

Suchey said forensic anthropologists can study a skull and gauge skin depth and facial contours. They also can figure the age, sex, race.

Collis put clay atop the skull and worked for more than 40 hours to reconstruct the face. "We knew she had long blond hair and a chipped tooth in front, so that allowed us to individualize the features," Suchey says.

Still, no luck.

The keepers of the bodies at the coroner's office hope they'll get lucky with 87-4092 EL as they did with 84-3271 MZ.

On Aug. 3, 1984, a man driving a car that had been reported stolen hours earlier in San Diego County crashed into two cars on MacArthur Boulevard in Newport Beach. The occupants of the other two cars were treated at hospitals and then released; the driver of the stolen car died at the scene.

The man was 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed about 150 pounds. Deputy coroner Lystrup remembers that the victim's short hair made some people wonder if he was in the military, but "he did not have the 'Marine tan,' " the line across the arms showing where the fatigues are rolled. Nearby military installations checked their records against the victim's description, turning up nothing. Fingerprint checks proved unsuccessful.

One year went by. Two. Three. The victim's fingerprints were shipped off periodically to see if anyone had overlooked them. Nothing.

Finally, three years after the crash, coroner's investigators shipped the fingerprints of nine unidentified bodies to a new computerized identification system at the state Department of Justice. There was a match: Stephen J. Ivers.

Ivers, 19, was the son of a former assemblyman from La Canada who had been reported missing by his family earlier in 1984. But when he returned, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department closed its file. When he disappeared a second time, the family thought the file was still open so they did not report him missing again. As a result, investigators trying to match missing people with the body did not have a report on Ivers. Computerizing the fingerprints in the state made identification much easier, officials said. What would have taken weeks could be done in minutes, and there was less chance of a person's prints slipping through the cracks.

"The family is relieved," Ivers' father, Walter, said when the body was returned. "We've given him a good Christian burial."

The Ivers case illustrates the lengths the coroner's office goes to identify John Does and Jane Does, Beisner says. "We don't just say, 'Gee, nobody's called us and we can't identify the guy; let's get rid of him.' "We do exhaustive research into who this person may possibly be and try to locate relatives because psychologically that's important for relatives. If they suddenly found out that this person had been here and the remains had been disposed of, it could be a difficult thing for the families."

Still, each unidentified cadaver is treated in its own way. The younger a victim, the more likely the body will be kept in one of the 35 trays in the refrigeration room. Otherwise, after bones that can help in identification are removed, a body is usually turned over to a local mortician for cremation, with the county paying the tab of about $450. The ashes are kept for a year or two, but if there is still no luck in turning up a relative, they are scattered at sea. If a body is found with a crucifix or Star of David, indicating belief in a religion that specifies burial rather than cremation, the corpse is buried.

Pathologists, who are medical doctors, determine the cause of death. Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates is also the coroner, but he leaves it to his deputy coroners to certify the reason for a death: homicide, suicide, accident. It was Deputy Coroner Ellingburgh who determined that 87-4457 EL was a suicide.

The case involved a woman who was about 20 years old when early morning joggers on the beach at Dana Point found her body at the base of a cliff on Sept. 20, 1987. Investigators searching the top of the cliff found a pack of cigarettes, a soda can and phone numbers that were traced to a nearby hotel.

A hotel desk clerk told sheriff's investigators the woman had come in and asked if any tall buildings were in the area. She telephoned for a taxi and asked to be taken to the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dana Point, even though it isn't a high-rise. Part way there, she realized that she didn't have enough money to pay for the ride and got out, apparently south of the hotel.

No one saw the woman climb the fence near the edge of the cliff and no one saw her jump, but investigators found marks on the side of the cliff where her body hit on the way down to the beach. It was "very much a suicide," Ellingburgh says.

Near the fence, sheriff's deputies found a purse with a name embossed in gold. What looked like an easy case turned to mystery, however, when a trace of the name turned up the owner of the purse, very much alive in San Diego County. The woman "was surprised she was contacted," Ellingburgh says, and reported that the purse had been stolen about 10 years earlier by a person unknown.

Near the purse was a California road map, with a marker detailing freeways through San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles counties, down into Orange County. Officials were unsure but thought the woman had been hitchhiking into the county.

The woman remains unidentified, another puzzle in the land of the dead.

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