Nowhere Man

Eight months ago, a man jumped from a Mall of America parking ramp. Medical examiners still don't know who he was.

Despite the glamorous aura cast by TV's CSI, when it comes to identifying a corpse, the most powerful real-life tool is the computer. Within hours of his death, Mall Man's fingerprints had been entered into two different computer networks containing more than 45 million sets of prints. Dennis Randall, a latent print examiner at the Hennepin County Crime Lab, checked the prints against both a regional database and the FBI's national system, to no avail. The regional database contains one million sets of prints submitted by law enforcement agencies in Minnesota and the Dakotas. The FBI system's 44 million sets include those of anyone arrested since the 1960s, anyone who served in the U.S. armed forces, and certain federal employees.

The remaining steps to establishing an identity are considerably more complicated. On March 14, a clerk at the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department entered the details of Mall Man's case into an FBI computer database that contains files on missing and unidentified people. Placing records in the 25-year-old database, known as the National Crime Information Center, is such a time-consuming practice that investigators typically wait about three weeks--the length of time by which most John or Jane Does are identified--before they make an entry. (Exceptions include cases involving missing children or where circumstances warrant quicker action.)

NCIC files contain a person's estimated age, sex, race, height, weight, features, deformities, scars and/or tattoos, jewelry, blood type, dental characteristics, and the estimated date of disappearance, death, or, in the case of someone living but unable to remember his or her identity, discovery. All new records must indicate whether an unidentified body is intact--if it isn't, the computer will attempt to match, say, limbs to a torso. Medical conditions are entered, as are any medications found in the body. The computer continually compares the records, and prompts all relevant law enforcement agencies to investigate likely "hits."

Pamela Valfer

Creating the record for Mall Man took two and a half hours. Roberta Geiselhart, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's supervisor of investigations and the person leading the hunt for Mall Man's identity, bought a box of chocolates for the staffer at the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department who completed the tedious process.

The effort drew three possible "hits" from the NCIC, but none panned out. There likely would have been more matches if Mall Man had had a few more distinguishing characteristics. As it was, the features that set his body apart from everybody else's were a couple of teeny scars at his hairline and a 5/8-inch-long scar on his right cheek. Maybe his hair was beginning to recede a little. But he had no tattoos and no fillings or other dental restorations. There were no drugs, illicit or prescription, in his bloodstream to signal anything about his health or lifestyle.

The fact that the man's body didn't give the NCIC's computers much to chew on does suggest that he wasn't a member of the groups that most John or Jane Does turn out to belong to: transients, undocumented immigrants, and mentally ill people who ended up homeless as a result of the deinstitutionalization of the last three decades. For example, consider the man's filling-free mouth. Minneapolis dentist Ann Norrlander is the state's only board-certified forensic odontologist. She examined Mall Man's teeth for the ME's office. Because of a process called sealing, it's not unheard of these days for someone, particularly someone as young as Mall Man, to have had no restorative dental work. Mall Man's teeth weren't sealed, however, leading Norrlander to conclude that he'd enjoyed good preventative dental care. He "was probably of a socioeconomic group that was middle class or upper middle class," she says.

The man's clothing supports her hunch. He wore Birkenstock boots, which retail for somewhere around $240.

 

He might have been a father or a husband or a lover. He was probably someone's friend or brother. He was certainly somebody's son. And at this point, his best--and maybe only--hope of being identified is if someone starts looking for him. Every year, the FBI receives reports of approximately 850,000 people who have gone missing in the United States. Some 75 percent of them are teen runaways, three-fourths of whom are found within 24 hours. Locating the large number of adults reported missing each year can be considerably more difficult.

That's mainly a problem of reporting. Before the NCIC database can cough up potential matches for Mall Man, for example, someone has to have alerted authorities that he's missing. And sometimes, local law enforcement offices--which place a low priority on adult cases--are lackadaisical even when such a report does get made. They might neglect to suggest that families submit dental records or, in some states, DNA to help in the search.

With its large immigrant population, California contends with extraordinary numbers of missing persons cases and unidentified bodies. Los Angeles County alone winds up with several hundred John and Jane Does each year; Orange County gets about 200. Coroners in those counties employ deputies who do nothing but research the identities of corpses. Their success rates hover between 85 and 90 percent. "Sometimes it just takes time," says Kurt Murine, Orange County's senior deputy coroner. "Sometimes the family is not in real frequent contact with [someone] and it takes them some time to notice he's missing. Law enforcement often doesn't report a person missing into NCIC in a timely fashion. Sometimes they will try to fob it off on another jurisdiction, saying, 'He last lived in Tennessee? Best to report it there, then.'"

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