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Coroner’s office gives life to the unidentified dead

The Clark County coroner’s office is in the death business, but it also has a hand in the business of life.

The office’s staff members quietly toil behind the scenes, running fingerprints through databases and processing data of unidentified dead people for a national website. The office was an early pioneer in posting online information about unidentified bodies found, work that spawned creation of a nationwide database.

Most important, they’re in the life business, Coroner John Fudenberg said. It’s more than autopsies, forensics and databases. It’s this office, not police, that delivers the news of a death to a family.

“We serve the living,” Fudenberg said. “We speak for the decedent. We’re there to help their loved ones, their family members.”

Their work doesn’t stop when the dead person’s family is unknown.

The county has tracked down the identities of 83 John Doe and Jane Doe cases since 2003. It has 209 unsolved cases.

The circumstances of those cases vary greatly.

Some of the people died a long time ago with little to go on in the way of clues. In 2013, construction workers in Jean digging to install solar panels stumbled across a full skeleton in a wood box.

Others died in the heart of Las Vegas. One man died of an apparent heart attack in 1979 at El Cortez, and a bicyclist was struck and killed by an SUV in a hit-and-run in 2006.

Busting Myths

To understand the office’s role in identifying people, it’s important to know what the coroner’s office does — and doesn’t do.

Coroner investigators aren’t cops. They investigate unnatural deaths regardless of whether the person’s identity is known or not. For example, if someone dies at home and isn’t under hospice care, the coroner’s office will investigate.

“We are independent from law enforcement, so therefore we do an independent investigation,” Fudenberg said. “Oftentimes, people might say we do the same type of investigation, but our investigation is into the cause of the death and the manner of death, not necessarily the who did it. So that’s the major difference.”

The cause is the medical reason someone stopped living. The manner of death is one of five findings: homicide, suicide, accidental, natural or undetermined.

It’s a multifaceted job. Those coroner’s staffers who respond when a body is found are also responsible for the identification and the notification of family.

Technically, they’re medicolegal death investigators. The job requires the skills of an investigator and a social worker, given the dual nature of responding to deaths and notifying people.

Fudenberg said that’s the most difficult part of the job. But it’s also rewarding because staff members get to help people who are going through one of the most difficult times in life, he said.

The office strives for a personal approach to serving the public, he said. When the telephone rings at the coroner’s office, the caller will get a live person, not a prerecorded list of options to dial.

Medicolegal investigators aren’t to be confused with the staff members who do the autopsies. Those are medical examiners, who are board-certified forensic pathologists.

They’re assisted by forensic pathology technicians who take fingerprint and DNA samples during the autopsy. Local dentists volunteer as forensic odontologists, comparing dental records in search of a match.

Getting There

Then-Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy decided in 2003 to put information about unidentified people on the county’s website, including pictures.

At the time, the Internet wasn’t as widely used as today, and Clark County was the first in the U.S. to do this. Murphy said the move helped spur development of NamUs, a national website. The idea came out of a round-table discussion he had with employees shortly after taking over the office.

“So the idea was pushed forward: ‘Why don’t we put their pictures on the Internet?’ ” Murphy said. He left the county earlier this year to become a program manager handling cold case work with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

The work, done by staff volunteers, progressed carefully. The office consulted with outsiders about photos to ensure they weren’t too graphic. In some instances, sketches were a substitute.

The effort didn’t catch on immediately. Coroners in other jurisdictions openly questioned the appropriateness of putting information online.

“I thought the reaction would have been, ‘Hey you’re doing something good to get these people identified,’ ” Murphy said.

But it worked. Shortly after the county site was launched, a corrections officer recognized a former inmate. Jail records led to an identification.

The idea caught on. Other jurisdictions sought help getting their websites up, and officials soon realized the need to centralize websites.

NamUs, operated by the Justice Department, was the result. The county now relies on it, rather than maintaining a separate website.

That website cross-references data from unidentified dead people with missing person cases for potential matches. It also houses DNA and fingerprint data.

Today, there are about 40,000 unidentified dead nationwide.

Tracking Down Identities

The coroner’s office uses a methodical process to track down identities. By the time a case is entered into NamUs, a lot of work has already been done.

Staffers check the decedent’s physical characteristics, such as ethnicity, gender and age with missing person cases on file with area police agencies, said Felicia Borla, an investigator with the office.

Fingerprints are widely used. The FBI has fingerprints from arrests nationwide, and there also are fingerprints of veterans in military records, while California keeps fingerprint records of everyone issued a driver’s license.

It’s not like television, where images of a fingerprint match pops up on computer screens. Instead, investigators are given a percentage of probability for further analysis.

“It still takes a human to pull it up and see where it is,” Borla said.

If those steps don’t yield results, the office turns to its forensic dentists and collects a swab of DNA. That way, it will have fingerprints, DNA, dental records and other case details for the national database.

There’s the future, too.

If a person’s identity is known, but the family cannot afford burial or cremation, Clark County Social Services provides cremation at an average cost of $525. Unclaimed cremains go to the county crypt.

Unidentified bodies are buried in a leased section of a cemetery. There, caskets and vaults are buried three deep in each plot to save space and money.

These bodies aren’t cremated — if new technology emerges in the future, the bodies can be exhumed for more tests.

That’s already happened, to a degree. In 2008, the county coroner’s office used a federal grant to exhume decades-old remains to get more advanced dental records and DNA profiles.

“In another 25 years, what else will we be able to do?” Borla said, noting the rapid advancements of DNA testing.

But the purpose behind the work will stay the same, regardless of technology.

Ten years ago, the coroner’s office got a letter from a mother thanking the staff for help in identifying her deceased son.

The mother enclosed photos with her letter, showing her son growing up. The pictures are a reminder of the coroner’s goal for each case.

“I’ll keep looking for you,” Borla said. “Let’s see who you are.”

Contact Ben Botkin at bbotkin@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2904. Find him on Twitter: @BenBotkin1

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