Unidentified: More than 50 people’s identities still a mystery in Cuyahoga County, decades later
CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - What if one of your family members went missing decades ago and you never found out what happened to them?
In our new series, 19 Investigates is profiling several cases of unidentified people the medical examiner’s office is trying to solve.
It’s a plea for help to give a name to the nameless.
About 1,000 people found dead across the country are still unidentified one year later.
Their families are left wondering what happened to them.
19 Investigates found there are more than 50 cases of unidentified bodies in Cuyahoga County.
Monday night at 6 p.m., we brought you the story of a murder in Cleveland Heights from the 1980s that was solved by police. She was called Tanya Green, but the victim’s real identity is still unknown, 33 years later.
We have a look behind the scenes at how the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office is trying to bring families answers.
Anjie Fischer is like a detective, finding a voice for those who have passed.
She’s a parentage analyst for the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office.
“Evidence talks for the decedent,” she said.
Her department uses DNA relationship testing to confirm biological relationships, like maternity and paternity, between known and unknown persons.
“So it’s sad to me, and other people who work on these cases, that they don’t have names or someone is wondering where they are,” Fischer said.
These people are sometimes missing and forgotten.
Other times, they are murder victims in high profile cases, like convicted serial killer Anthony Sowell.
The bodies of nearly a dozen women were discovered at his Imperial Avenue home in Cleveland in 2009.
“Our department was able to identify those 11 victims in a relatively short period of time. We tested 60 people to get those 11 identifications done,” Fischer said.
But it often takes years to identify someone.
“The family members laugh and cry at the same time, they’re just so grateful, they don’t feel guilty anymore that they weren’t able to find their loved one,” she said.
But then it’s back to it, figuring out the next case.
Fischer is working to identify 55 people whose cases stretch back decades, all the way to 1968.
And there are more people to enter into their system.
“I’m hoping that if someone is missing someone, if they’ve already reported them missing, back to the 60s and 70s and nothing’s been done, re-report them missing,” she said.
19 Investigates found these unidentified people usually died tragically, from drownings, to falls and other accidents to suicide and murder.
If the medical examiner’s office can’t identify a body, they go to fingerprints, photographs, X-rays and dental records.
If that doesn’t work, the case comes to Fischer’s department.
She enters everything they find into NAMUS-- a national online search for missing persons and unidentified persons.
“We enter case demographics, we enter where the person was found, when they were found,” she said.
Clothing, belongings, autopsy results, including medical conditions, were all entered in too.
“Something that would standout that would be a helpful identifier. Six toes, or six fingers, or things like that,” Fischer said.
If they can, they build a DNA profile that goes into NAMUS too.
It’s compared to the 80-90,000 missing persons reported every year.
But their budget doesn’t include the latest technology making headlines-- genetic genealogy.
“It’s extremely costly. It costs around $5,000 a case to have a genetic genealogy family sample case run,” Fischer said.
Which is why they do everything else they can in the meantime to identify these people. But they need your help.
“Being willing to maybe submit your DNA,” Fischer said.
Even if one of these unidentified bodies is not your loved one, DNA can rule them out.
“All of our abilities are exhausted at this point. And it’s frustrating because these men are somebody’s sons or husbands and dads-- moms or daughters,” she said.
“And so it would be nice to give them a name regardless of how they passed,” she said.
If you have a missing family member and want to submit DNA, it does not go into an offender database.
Your DNA would be entered as the family member of a missing person.
If you have any questions, call the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office at 216-721-5610 and select 1, to talk to someone in the Investigations Department.
We’ll be profiling some of these cases in “Unidentified” starting this Friday.
Copyright 2020 WOIO. All rights reserved.