SEARCHING TO NAME THE UNKNOWN DEAD; Sometimes High-Tech Analysis Can Solve a Case. Other Times, It's Luck

By Treen, Dana | The Florida Times Union, October 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

SEARCHING TO NAME THE UNKNOWN DEAD; Sometimes High-Tech Analysis Can Solve a Case. Other Times, It's Luck


Treen, Dana, The Florida Times Union


Byline: DANA TREEN

Years after they died - some violently, many lonely and desolate - reminders of their lives lie in forensic file folders and on fingerprint cards.

They are the more than 500 people whose remains are still unidentified in Florida. Despite technological advances, solving their cases depends on small handfuls of clues.

Not to mention luck.

That was the way a Cleveland police sergeant uncovered the identity of a man killed nearly 20 years ago in Jacksonville.

Sgt. Susan Dennis was wandering online when she found a photo and used an identifying scar to pluck Cedrick Alonzo Harper from the list of unidentified people.

Harper, from Cleveland, was found dead in 1986 on Jacksonville's North Davis Street. No one knew where to turn to identify him.

Dennis, meanwhile, found out about a missing Cleveland man in the early 1990s and mulled over the case for years.

The killer had been arrested, convicted, imprisoned and released before Harper's parents even knew their son was dead.

Dennis broke the news to the couple and said she felt torn when she found their son, because the closure crushed any hope he might be found alive.

"Closing out a case like that is hard," she said.

He was 23 when he died.

Improvements in the science of identifying the deceased are helping, but for many cases there is just too little information.

When Harper died, large repositories of fingerprints were not what they are today. DNA was a fledgling science just getting its beginnings as an investigative tool, and online databases were unheard of, said Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Sgt. Jim Parker.

Parker is in charge of the city's cold case unit, which was started about four years ago to work on such in-limbo identities.

His group handles cases that sometimes go back decades, such as a newborn found wrapped in a yellow blanket behind Gateway Shopping Center in 1982 and a premature baby boy found in a Jacksonville International Airport restroom in 1987.

Some of the unidentified have poor teeth or come with tattoos, scars or both. Bits of clothing with a logo, a brand of car keys or a name scrawled on a pair of work boots are among the thin links between the dead and their earlier lives.

One man who washed ashore one day in 1974 after he was seen walking fully clothed into the surf at Ponte Vedra Beach is among the nearly 50 from the region who remain mysteries.

About six years ago, staffers at the District 20 Medical Examiner's Office in Collier County were fielding calls from family members and investigators about missing and unidentified people, all while getting a sense that average people were becoming more and more technologically savvy, said Michael Britt, now the office's chief investigator.

Britt started a network that now collects particulars on unidentified remains cases in the state and posts them online in a format that is searchable and accessible to the public. The network includes most of Florida's more than two dozen medical examiners' offices.

In three years, he said, the system has been responsible for 11 matches - three in the past year.

"The information needs to be online," he said.

People with an interest in a case, whether family members or others, will try to find out what happened to someone who is missing - or worse, he said.

"Obviously, if they were calling me, they would at least be thinking they were dead," he said.

But there are problems beyond a lack of information. Gaps in data exist or systems are not user-friendly, Britt contends. And law enforcement agencies that typically collect evidence can be reluctant to let it go.

"You are dealing with law enforcement that really wants to keep a handle on information," he said.

The problem is not simply a local one, Britt said. …

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