Bringing closure to cold cases
In an effort to clear cold cases, some stretching back 40 years or more, the Milwaukee County, Wis., Medical Examiner’s Office is taking a bold step.
To try to find out the name of unidentified corpses, police have traditionally posted clay models or artist drawings — and more recently, digital reconstructions — of unidentified persons. The police hoped that a friend, relative or loved one might recognize the deceased and help police identify them.
Milwaukee County has gone a step further and is displaying actual and retouched photos and digitally enhanced images of the deceased on a website. More than a dozen cold cases are outlined and displayed on the site, which went live in Dec. 2011. Caution: some of the images are quite graphic.
The cold cases on the Milwaukee medical examiner’s site date back to 1970, says Michael Simley, a forensic investigator at the medical examiner’s office who designed the site for unidentified corpses. “We are trying to bring new life to these cases by putting them online, because at this point, we are desperate to get the people identified. It doesn’t do them justice to bury them without a name. And regarding their families, to leave them wondering what happened to their friends or loved ones—it just doesn’t sit right with me,” Simley told Govpro.com
Simley has reached out to national resources, such as the federal NamUs National Missing and Unidentified Persons database for help in solving some of the Milwaukee cold cases. “I entered all of these cases into the federal government website, and once you do that, you are eligible for free DNA testing which we have done on some of the cases now,” said Simley.
The NamUs database, which contains more than 8,000 cases, is searchable by sex, race, body features, dental information and other characteristics. The site is funded through a grant from the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
Simley says the public’s response to the site has been positive. “I’ve been getting e-mails from the public saying this is a great idea, that this information should be out there for people—I’ve not gotten negative feedback from the public. Other coroners and medical examiners have given the site rave reviews.”
Cold-case information has been flowing into the medical examiner’s office as a result of the deceased victims’ site, says Simley. “As of right now the Milwaukee County Unidentified Persons website has not produced a positive identification on anybody at this time. I have received numerous tips and leads that I have followed up on, but with no results yet.” Techniques learned through the website, added Simley, have helped the medical examiner’s office determine the identity of the remains of at least one recently deceased individual.