SANTA CLARITA/ANTELOPE VALLEY : Investigators Seek Corpses’ Identities : Forensics: California has more bodies without names than any other state. Information is released on three in hopes of learning who they are.
Investigators knew they had a homicide on their hands when they examined the human bones discovered wrapped in a tarp--five feet beneath a Newhall field.
Possibly buried more than a decade ago, the victim’s remains told a story.
He was a white male, about 30 years old, who was more than six feet tall, with red hair, a heavy brow and slightly gapped teeth. Coroner’s investigators even determined that on the day of the slaying, the man wore a heavy stubble on his face and was dressed in Levis and white tube socks with black-and-red stripes.
Yet there’s a key detail about the victim that continues to baffle investigators: his name.
Right now he’s simply known as John Doe 33, one of 153 men and 54 women so far this year whose unidentified bodies have passed through the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, about 90% of whom are typically identified by the end of the year.
Yet there are others, such as John Doe 33, whose identities remain unknown for any number of reasons. For example, by the time their bodies are exhumed, their flesh may have decomposed so their fingerprints can no longer be taken or they never were treated by a dentist, so X-rays of their teeth don’t exist.
“California has the biggest identification problem in the nation,” said Judy Suchey, a forensic anthropologist for the Los Angeles County coroner’s office. “We have more unidentified remains than any other state because California has large metropolitan areas, with high homicide rates and good places to hide victims in remote areas.”
In an effort to identify such victims, investigators from the county coroner’s office held a news conference Tuesday, where they released information on the skeletal remains of three men whose bodies were discovered in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys over the last three years.
Exacerbating the situation--and tripling Suchey’s caseload--are the heavy rains that have drenched the Southland over the last two winters, which subsequently unearthed skeletal remains at 50 different locations, many of which were later determined to be homicides.
“The weather conditions of the last two years have brought out thousands of bones . . . literally thousands,” Suchey said.
John Doe 33, for example, was accidentally exhumed when two kids looking for a site to build their fort spotted a sunken area in an empty lot near the Polynesian Mobile Home Park at San Fernando Road and Sierra Highway, homicide Detective Mary Bice said. The kids dug up the area and discovered the bones belonging to a man who is believed to have disappeared between 1981 and 1987.
In an unrelated incident, hikers discovered the skeletal remains of a male Latino scattered throughout more than 15 acres in Llano, about three miles west of San Bernardino County, said Detective Nash Reyes of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Based on an examination of his remains, the man is believed to have been more than 5 feet, 5 inches tall, between 18 and 25 years old and is estimated to have disappeared some time last year. He was discovered wearing black Levis 501 jeans, a multicolored shirt, brown boots and a square crucifix pendant hanging from an expensive gold chain.
In a third case, in October, 1990, hunters discovered the remains of a Latino man, about 25 years old, with short dark hair, who stood more than 5 feet, 4 inches tall, near Lake Hughes Road in Castaic. A tan shirt, a black elastic belt with an “R” buckle and a pair of blue shorts and blue and white Adidas shoes were found at the scene. Most unusual was the discovery of a large deformed toenail.
More than a year later, heavy rains unearthed a human skull in the same area. To match the skull with the bones found during the initial discovery, Dr. Gerald Vale, chief forensic dental consultant for the county coroner’s office, matched wear patterns from loose teeth found at the scene with those lodged in the skull.
Coroner’s investigators and sheriff’s homicide detectives hope that the descriptions will trigger a response from the public, since a victim must be identified before a killer can be caught.