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The nameless dead

The body arrived at the Hillsborough Medical Examiner's Office with no identification, no next of kin to claim it. But in the dead man's pants pocket, investigators found a piece of paper with a name scribbled on it.

That name led investigators to a minister in Alabama. The minister told them he remembered a dark-eyed man who had come to him for help, saying he wanted to find his family. The man thought his sister was living in Florida, so the minister bought him a bus ticket.

Did the man find his sister? What happened to him along the way?

Authorities know only this: Weeks after his encounter with the minister, the man went behind a business in Lutz, tied an electrical cord around his neck and hanged himself from a tree.

Authorities do not know whether anyone is looking for the unidentified man. It has been more than two months. No one has come forward.

"You wonder who's out there, who's missing someone, who even knows they have a family member dead, lying in a morgue somewhere with no name," said Pete Bihorel, a senior investigator for the Medical Examiner's Office. "To me, that's the saddest way to go."

The dark-eyed man isn't Bihorel's only mystery. In Hillsborough County, there are 19 unidentified bodies buried in graves and 16 sets of unidentified bones stored in cardboard boxes at the Medical Examiner's Office.

Some of those cases have gone unsolved for more than three decades. But now, because of a push by the FBI to collect bone specimens in one central nationwide bank, those unidentified bones and bodies will have a new chance of being identified.

Hillsborough officials, along with coroners across the country, are in the process of submitting collections from their cold cases to be stored by federal law enforcement agencies. That way, local missing persons cases can be cross-referenced with a nationwide pool of evidence. Officials hope technology that didn't exist years ago, including DNA sampling, will assist in identifying the lonely dead and revealing more about their lives.

Hillsborough's unidentified dead are men and women, different races and ages. Ten are victims of homicides; others died in accidents. They died trying to dash across busy traffic or during a night of drinking or in ways investigators might never know.

Their bones were unearthed by wild pigs, discovered by construction workers, found by crab trappers or passers-by.

The clues their bodies bear are as tantalizing as they are frustrating: scars from years of living, jewelry, tattoos. One man's arm bears the name Pat above a heart, a sweetheart with no last name. Another man's leg had been fractured and bound by a metal plate.

Among them is the man who hanged himself from a tree. Officials believe his name might be Esteban Jimenez, the name of the man the minister recalled helping.

If in fact it is Jimenez, then a sister lives or has lived in Plant City and his father lives in Mexico. The sister's name is Concepcion Jimenez. But Bihorel said that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's search for the father was "a bust" and that the search for the sister was exhausted.

And if it isn't Jimenez, it's still somebody's son, Bihorel said.

"Our feeling is, someone out there is missing someone," he said. "We like to put a name on everybody that we could, but reality says otherwise."

After the body was discovered in Lutz, it was taken to the morgue, where the Medical Examiner's Office went through its checklist to try to identify the man.

They took fingerprints and dental and body X-rays. They sent paperwork to all local agencies containing a description of the body and location of discovery.

If after 90 days no one claims the body, it will be shipped to one of four funeral homes around the county that contract to bury the indigent. He will be buried at Rest Haven Memorial Park in Tampa.

Graves of unidentified bodies are unmarked. Their case numbers are logged in a book, naming the garden, section and row where they were put to rest.

When the remains are no more than bones, they are stored in boxes at the Medical Examiner's Office at 401 S Morgan St. downtown. The white cardboard boxes line a long shelf on a wall of the morgue, watching over dead bodies on gurneys awaiting autopsies. The boxes are marked by case number just in case someone comes forward someday.

There are stories in each box and in each grave. Bihorel can only imagine.

A married father of four and grandfather to three, he was a paramedic for 18 years. He became an emergency room nurse before joining the Medical Examiner's Office almost 10 years ago.

He has to keep a sense of humor about his job. He passes out small packets of LifeSavers "to distract you from the smell" in the morgue, he says.

He can't help but wonder about each unidentified person, how somebody's child ended up without a name.

"You can create all sorts of scenarios," Bihorel said. "I do that all the time."

Like the man who was partially eaten by an alligator. How did he end up in a water pit in Plant City?

Phosphate miners found the body March 10. Trappers captured the critter. It was killed and its stomach slit open, where they found the man's left hand. But authorities believe the man, who had been drinking, fell into the water and drowned before the alligator got to him. Authorities have ordered a clay reconstruction of the man's face so they can disseminate it to the public in hopes that someone might recognize him.

Sometimes, there are clear identifiers that should make it easy for officials. They just need to find the match.

Take the skeletal remains found in October 2002 near Interstate 75 and Hillsborough Avenue, which included a metal plate that once held the left leg together. The plate contains a serial number.

Officials sifted through records of all area surgical hospitals.

"Oh, they hated us," Bihorel said of the agency's persistence in seeking information from the hospitals. "But they worked with us."

Even with all that, no luck.

It's the same with the case of the man with a metal plate in the orbit of his right eye, the kind that doctors might put in after an injury. It's one of those relatively obscure characteristics that should make positive identification quick.

"If we had a person who would call and say, "Hey, he had an injury to the eye years ago and had a plate put in there,' . . . that's on track, anyway," Bihorel said.

But with nothing to go on, no matching fingerprints in the state's criminal database, the bodies remain nameless.

Some come in with all kinds of identifiers, such as graphic tattoos. A man who was hit by a car while trying to cross Interstate 275 at Ashley Street had a body marked with tattoos of a skull and crossbones, bleeding tombstones, marijuana leaves and the words "Eat Me" on his right thigh.

Identification becomes even more difficult when the person was homeless, a migrant worker or an illegal alien.

A man believed to have been homeless appears to have met his demise in the underbrush near the ninth green of Caloosa Country Club in Sun City Center. When wild hogs unearthed his skeleton Feb. 15, 2002, there were signs of a vagrant camp nearby.

An anthropology report was able to identify the remains as those of a white male, between 55 to 65 years old.

Sometimes, there are endings. The most recent one involved a man who was hit by a car near Nebraska and Sligh avenues more than two years ago.

His elderly parents, who live in Georgia, recently filed a missing persons report, and authorities were able to make a positive identification through fingerprints from an old misdemeanor arrest in another city.

He was 50-year-old Michael Douglas Browning. He had taken a carpentry job in Tampa. He went drinking with a friend into the early morning hours of Oct. 4, 2001. The friend was arrested by police, but authorities told Browning to keep walking.

About 5 a.m., he stumbled into the path of a car on Nebraska Avenue and was killed. He didn't have any identification.

His mother, Marian Sasser, urged families of people with missing loved ones to file missing persons reports.

"Don't give up," she said. "Just don't give up."

Sasser said she doesn't like the idea of her son being buried among other unidentified bodies. But they don't want to desecrate his grave to bring him home.

Sasser, her husband and Browning's two children will travel to Tampa before Christmas to visit him.

"We are going to leave him where he is," Sasser said. "But at least he is going to have a name on his grave."

Some cases, Bihorel said, just stick with you.

About seven years ago, a Hispanic man was found behind a Tampa grocery store. Confused and disoriented, he was taken to a hospital, where he died a few days later, before he was able to to tell anyone his name. He died of AIDS.

"I remember thinking, "This guy belongs to somebody,' " Bihorel said. "Was he married? Did he have kids? Somebody needs to know he's no longer alive."

Society is so mobile, it's not surprising people die without family or friends knowing, Bihorel said.

"I know it doesn't just happen here," he said. "It happens around the globe."

_ Times staff writer Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at 226-3403 or nguyensptimes.com.

Some of Hillsborough's unidentified

DATE FOUND: Aug. 29.

DESCRIPTION: Hispanic male, 25-45 years old, 5 feet 7 inches, 159 pounds. Black mustache, black hair, brown eyes. A tattoo of "EJ" on his upper left arm, rounded scar on right chest, two scars on left hand. Front incisor and canine teeth are covered with white-colored metal caps.

LOCATION: 9113 Lazy Lane, Lutz.

DETAILS: The man committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree. The name of an Alabama minister was found in his pocket. The minister recalls giving a young man a bus ticket to Tampa to search for relatives. The minister said he believed the man is named Esteban Jimenez. Investigators in Mexico were not able to locate a father, and all efforts have been exhausted in a search for a sister believed to have lived in Plant City.

COMMENT FROM PETE BIHOREL, SENIOR MEDICAL EXAMINER INVESTIGATOR: "If we could have someone report a missing person and tell us who his dentist is . . . this is just ideal for a comparison. If you don't know where to search, it's a moot point."

DATE FOUND: March 10.

DESCRIPTION: White male, 5 feet 6 inches, 143 pounds. Dark, curly to wavy hair up to 4 inches long. Dark, short-sleeved shirt with the words "ALWAYS NIGHT and Day." One pair of red or wine-colored Fruit of the Loom briefs, medium, 34-36. No scars or tattoos.

LOCATION: Water pit east of Henry George Road in Plant City.

DETAILS: Partially eaten by an alligator. Found by phosphate miners. Had several bite marks on body. Left hand recovered from the alligator's stomach.

COMMENT FROM BIHOREL: "In this case, the alligator ate the man. But we determined it to be a drowning death. There was alcohol in the body. He fell in the water, and of course, nature being what it is . . ."

DATE FOUND: Oct. 8, 2002.

DESCRIPTION: Incomplete skeletal remains of a white male, 5 feet 4 to 6 feet, 30-60 years old. Fracture to left leg (femur) held together by an L-shaped compression device or plate with four screws. Lower mandible with five teeth. Black T-shirt. Indeterminate color golf shirt, jacket and pants.

LOCATION: Construction site near Hillsborough Avenue and Interstate 75.

DETAILS: Found by construction workers. Bones kept together by brace in his leg with serial number 240.44 A3DP 473.

COMMENT FROM BIHOREL: "We contacted every surgical hospital in the area. We made ourselves a nuisance. We searched all their surgical cases. We were not able to compare it with anyone."

DATE FOUND: Feb. 15, 2002.

DESCRIPTION: Skeletal remains of a white male, 55-65 years old, brown hair. Evidence of old, healed facial trauma near right eye. All teeth missing well before death. Tattered white plastic pants with elastic waistband, dark pin-stripped men's suit jacket, Faded Glory brand T-shirt, tattered.

LOCATION: Underbrush near the ninth green of the Caloosa Country Club, Highway 301 in Sun City Center.

DETAILS: Wild hogs rooted up the greens and uncovered the bones. Cause of death is undetermined. A vagrant camp was nearby.

COMMENT FROM BIHOREL: "He could have been just traveling through the area and spent some time in that clearing and meant to move on, who knows? He could have died of disease, of alcohol. Who knows?"

DATE FOUND: June 10, 1998.

DESCRIPTION: White male, 5 feet 9 inches, 123 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes, probably more than 40 years old, full beard. Tattoo on right shoulder reads "Billy" and on left shoulder "Pat" over a heart and the word "love." No clothing.

LOCATION: Palm River bypass canal.

DETAILS: The body was found by a person setting crab traps. It was face-down in the water. There were no obvious signs of foul play. The body had a metal plate in the orbit of the right eye.

COMMENT FROM BIHOREL: "If Pat . . . would call us, that would help out."

DATE FOUND: Jan. 31, 1996.

DESCRIPTION: White male, 5 feet 10 inches, 153 pounds, 35-40 years old, wavy brown hair with moderate balding, brown-gray eyes. Blue jeans, white T-shirt, dark socks, Nike jogging shoes. Tattoos: on his right shoulder, a skull in a Civil War kepi; on his left forearm, a complex form of skull, bleeding tombstone, RIP, a head and battle ax; on his right thigh "Eat Me"; and on web between left thumb and index finger, a stem with seven leaves resembling a marijuana plant.

LOCATION: Interstate 275 at Ashley Street.

DETAILS: He was struck while trying to cross the interstate.

COMMENT FROM BIHOREL: "The tattoos were professionally executed. This was no jailhouse job."

_ Source: Hillsborough Medical Examiner's Office

ARTICLES OF CLOTHING: The type of clothing, such as this shoe that belonged to one of the unidentified dead, can point toward a name.

DENTAL RECORDS: Medical examiners can use X-rays, like these of an unidentified person's front teeth, and dental work to help identify people.

MEDICAL DEVICES: Officials hoped the serial number on this metal compression brace found on a leg bone might identify the person.

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