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Investigators work hard to identify the nameless

Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office, with case files for the 24 unidentified persons the office is handling. The head is a reconstruction of a person found in 1988 in the Gulf of Mexico with a gunshot wound to the head and 60 pounds of chains wrapped around his body. 

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office, with case files for the 24 unidentified persons the office is handling. The head is a reconstruction of a person found in 1988 in the Gulf of Mexico with a gunshot wound to the head and 60 pounds of chains wrapped around his body. 

Sally was found on Halloween 1969.

Her 5-foot, 9-inch frame was stuffed into a new black steamer trunk near a St. Petersburg restaurant. She wore a short green nightgown. Her brown hair was still set in pin curls.

Sally, as the lead detective called her, was strangled.

Investigators never found her killer. They also never learned her real name.

Sally is one of 24 bodies the Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's Office has not been able to identify, despite advances in modern technology.

• • •

Case No. 1990402: black male, 25 to 35 years old. 5-foot-5, 132 lbs. Witnesses watched the man jump from the Pier, yelling and fully dressed on April 2, 1999.

"Death is a very uncertain thing," said Bill Pellan, the office's investigations director. "It's a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week job that you always have to be ready for the unknown."

Pellan's six investigators tackled more than 1,900 cases last year.

The bodies arrive in various states of identification. They work with police to give victims a name. Most are identified easily by police, he said.

But for some, like the man who jumped from the Pier, answers are hard to find.

When a body starts out without a name, one of the first tasks is to enter the deceased's description into a database to be cross-checked with the national missing persons database.

Investigators have an array of methods they use to identify someone, from fingerprints and dental records to scars, tattoos and surgical pin serial numbers.

For skeletal remains, investigators turn to sketch artists to make facial models. An artist made three depictions of a man from a skeleton found in Tarpon Springs in 2005. One shows him clean shaven, another with a beard, the third shows him wearing a knit hat found at the scene.

Still, no one has come forward to claim him.

• • •

Case No. 20020945: sawed-off femur bone. Found in canal by fisherman near 4201 38th Ave. S in 2002.

This case didn't look good from the start.

Investigators sent the thigh bone to forensic anthropologists at the University of Florida's C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory.

A bone's length can help determine a person's height and gender, said lab director Michael Warren. The amount of curve in the bone also can help guess the person's race. African populations tend to have a slight curve; Asian and Native American populations have more.

"It's amazing what a forensic anthropologist can do," said Pellan, 40, who has been with the office since 2000.

Anthropologists determined the femur belonged to an older white man.

Investigators then turned to DNA, which they generally use as a last resort. It can take up to 12 weeks to get results from the state lab because there is such a backlog, said Robyn Ragsdale of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Investigators compare results against the national Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which contains samples taken from people who are arrested or convicted of crimes. Different states have different rules for when a person must surrender a sample.

In Florida, only convicted violent or sexual offenders must give a DNA sample. In Virginia, anyone convicted of a felony must provide a sample.

On June 26, 2007, Case No. 20020945 — the femur bone — got a real name.

Bryan E. Bailey, a Missouri native convicted of murder in Florida in 1989, was in the national DNA database. Police suspect someone murdered him after he was released from prison, then cut up his body and dumped it.

Police notified his family, who still lived in the St. Louis area.

• • •

Case No. 5080370: white male, 50 to 65 years old. Found near a bank at 600 Cleveland St., Clearwater, hours after death, on March 8, 2008. Jeans, blue sweater, Size 13 loafers and blue ball cap. Possibly homeless.

The case seemed relatively simple. The body was intact; rigor mortis had just set in. A homeless man noticed the body hadn't moved in more than four hours, so he called police.

Pellan was sure they would identify him.

Fingerprints are the easiest and most efficient way to identify bodies.

In 2003, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office gained access to AFIS, the national FBI fingerprint database.

That helped investigators clear four cases right away. One was Aaron Israel Jones, 25, who was found floating in Tampa Bay at the Vinoy Basin on Jan. 26, 1998. His death was ruled a drowning, but police don't know if it was murder, suicide or an accident.

But the national database didn't help with the man in the baseball cap. A medical examiner determined he died of a prescription drug overdose. But they still don't know his name.

Investigators tried DNA and dental records. No hits.

His file remains on a shelf in the forensic science office.

"I'm just so surprised that no one has claimed him," Pellan said. "It's kind of frustrating because with some exposure, someone has to know him."

The man was buried at Sunnyside Cemetery. Bodies are released and buried by the county's health department. Skeletal remains are kept at the medical examiner's office.

"There's nothing else I can do for this individual but hope someone recognizes him," Pellan said.

• • •

Case No. 03733 is the office's oldest. No DNA or fingerprints exist in the file.

Sally would be about 70 now. Her parents are probably dead.

"DNA is a wonderful thing, but unfortunately we didn't have it," said retired St. Petersburg police Sgt. Bill Carlisle. "We didn't even know how to spell it back then."

Although he retired in 1993, Carlisle said he can't forget Sally.

"Nobody's proud of a case they didn't solve," Carlisle said.

The databases Pellan routinely uses now to identify bodies also didn't exist then.

Pellan knows there is little he can do to help Sally.

But when a match is made and someone is identified, there's a sense of closure for both the families and the investigators.

All that's left to do is put a name on the file.

Jackie Alexander can be reached at jdalexander@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Investigators work hard to identify the nameless 06/12/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 1:52pm]

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