This story is part of an ongoing series, Left for Dead: Inside America’s Coldest Cases.
Philip Bianchi knew something had gone wrong.
Bianchi, a second-generation funeral director and Harlan County’s elected coroner, set out last November with a team that included the Kentucky State Police to exhume the remains of a young woman found murdered in 1969.
“Mountain Jane Doe,” as some locals know her, was stabbed to death and left naked in the woods near Harlan. She was buried quickly without a name in a cemetery surrounded by slender oak and poplar trees at the edge of a steep, rutted trail called Red Dog Road.
Authorities hoped that by digging up the woman’s remains, they could solve the 45-year mystery. Their plan was to compare her DNA with samples from families who’d reported their loved ones missing in hopes of establishing an identification. Investigators even thought they might be able to locate her killer.
But the exhumation unearthed several clues that indicated they had dug up the wrong body.
“It was always a possibility in the back of my mind that may not be the right grave, simply because of the manner in which the graves were marked with just a temporary grave marker that sticks into the ground,” Bianchi said. “Over the years, I’ve seen where those things have gotten misplaced, got knocked over. Probably in this case, it had gotten knocked over and put back at the wrong spot.”
The first warning sign Bianchi spotted in the grave was a so-called trocar button used by embalmers to seal the injection site when special fluids are pumped into a set of remains in preparation for funeral services. Mountain Jane Doe had never been embalmed – she was too badly decomposed and had been autopsied.
There were other clues. He had expected a body bag, or least the remnants of one, but none appeared. And once the remains were taken back to his funeral home, before being shipped to Texas for further analysis, he found what appeared to be part of a clip-on tie and a man’s sock.
“It was disappointing,” he said. “(It’s) an investigative speed bump. It slowed us down some. It certainly wasn’t the result we wanted.”
Authorities now suspect they dug up an unidentified male who previously was thought to have been buried near Mountain Jane Doe. Little information is available for him, however.
They won’t know more until another exhumation takes place and a new set of remains are compared alongside the male’s bones. For now, his DNA is in the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, managed by the FBI. Bianchi said there are plans to conduct a second exhumation in the future. They may have to even dig up two graves to make certain Mountain Jane Doe is retrieved.
Mountain Jane Doe and more than 10,000 others like her make up a bleak national list of people found deceased without an identity. The FBI estimates there are some 80,000 people missing on any given day.
The toll goes beyond the missing and the unnamed. Their mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters have no idea what happened to them. Killers could still be on the loose.
“They’re living a tragedy, and it just never goes away,” said Todd Matthews, director of case management at the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. “In a missing persons case, it’s like a funeral that goes on for years, sometimes decades, and I don’t know how these people do it.”
Launched in 2007 with help from the Justice Department, NamUs operates similar to a dating site, suggesting compatibility among cases. Medical examiners and coroners upload information about a person who is dead and unknown, and a list of possible matches to missing persons reports appears based on a number of criteria – hair color, height and date the individual went missing, for example.
“The system is capable of flagging cases that are possible matches,” said Matthews, who attended the November exhumation in Harlan. “It’s just a process of elimination. … The answers are in the system for a lot of these cases.”
NamUs is a tremendous resource for law enforcement and families of the missing, but its potential often is wasted. Reveal found that neglect, indifference and a lack of will by many state and local authorities – police, medical examiners and others – hinder the identification of Jane and John Does. Law enforcement agencies across the country have let solvable cold cases languish, only to have public citizens piece together answers on their own.
NamUs also presents its own challenges. Some complain that the public Web interface is not intuitive and that it’s difficult to directly compare the missing with the unidentified dead. Reveal built a tool that streamlines searches of NamUs information and allows side-by-side comparisons.
Experts have said the actual number of these cases is larger because there are no federal rules requiring that state and local governments report unidentified remains to a centralized system like NamUs. Repeated attempts to reform the system have failed in Congress.
Unsolved cases are more than just pop culture novelty. They could mean a perpetrator is free to strike again, said Michael Murphy, a former coroner of Las Vegas who recently joined the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to run its unknown victims unit.
“This is something that needs attention and it’s finally getting the attention that it deserves,” he said. “But it is something that’s going to need our attention forever. It’s not something we can just throw a little bit of resources at and think it’s going to go away.”
There were 52 unidentified Kentucky cases in NamUs as of June – 20 were homicides, while manner of death was marked “undetermined” or not listed for another 31, according to an analysis of data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Three times, Congress has ignored opportunities to do more for the unnamed dead, such as ensure NamUs is funded into the future and that its contents are combined with the FBI’s own case information on Jane and John Does. The latest proposed measure received almost no attention after it was introduced in September 2014. If passed, the legislation would have required that unidentified remains be reported to the FBI and NamUs within 72 hours as a condition of certain federal dollars.
But the law still wouldn’t unequivocally mandate that Jane and John Does be submitted to federal databases, as experts called for in a landmark 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences. The report found that more than 2,300 separate jurisdictions in the United States have widely varying qualifications, staffing and budgets for conducting competent death investigations. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said his office nonetheless intends to reintroduce the bill a fourth time this month.
State statutes in Kentucky, on the other hand, say only that coroners may commence with an exhumation if “a person who is dead and buried died from poisoning or other illegal cause.” They say nothing about the need for establishing identification.
Meanwhile, Mountain Jane Doe’s secrets remain buried. Darla Jackson, a local historian and another mortuary owner in Harlan, wrote a book about ghost stories and unusual tales from the town’s past that included Mountain Jane Doe. She was disappointed to learn that the wrong body had been exhumed. Despite the setback, Jackson believes the unknown victim still can claim her name.
“She’s in the cemetery and she’s in that area, so now we just have to find her,” she said. “This is just another step. … Now we got to do it again. It’s time to exhume again.”
Reporter Emmanuel Martinez contributed data analysis. This story was edited by Fernando Diaz and Amy Pyle. It was copy edited by Sheela Kamath.