Advertisement
  1. News

In a potter's field, many thousands of bodies await identification

Published Aug. 31, 2012

NEW YORK

On a windswept island off New York City, the remains of 850,000 people rest in pine boxes in a grid of covered trenches — but many are not resting in peace.

They are the unidentified or unclaimed dead who have been found around the nation's largest city — often with little hope of a loved one ever knowing their fate. Now, with advances in DNA technology and anthropology and with new federal funding, the city medical examiner's office has exhumed dozens of the bodies in a new push to identify several decades' worth.

It's how Ben Maurer's family finally learned that the 17-year-old had jumped to his death from a Manhattan building on June 25, 2002.

His mother, Germaine, submitted his DNA to the medical examiner in 2009, when the first phase of the project began. The DNA was entered into a public database containing information on thousands of cases of missing and unidentified people — and matched a John Doe buried in the potter's field on 101-acre Hart Island on Long Island Sound.

He was given a funeral near the family's home in Piscataway, N.J., shortly after his remains were returned to them in 2009.

"It meant everything," said Jared Maurer, Ben's 28-year-old brother. "It finally gave us closure to what had happened to Ben."

Jared Maurer said he frequently visits his brother's graveside. "I tell him I miss him, I tell him I love him," he said.

At any given time, there are 40,000 active missing and unidentified persons cases in the United States. New York state accounts for 25 percent of those cases, most of them in New York City.

The identities of some in the potter's field are known, but their families are too poor to have them buried elsewhere.

DNA samples weren't regularly taken from all bodies until about 2006, so the only way to identify many bodies is to exhume them, once DNA samples can be matched up with a description of a corpse, like in Maurer's case.

Fifty-four bodies for which the medical examiner's office had no DNA samples have been disinterred from Hart Island. The exhumation, performed by city inmates, is part of a larger effort to gather data. So far, 50 have been identified, including some who were exhumed.

To date, the scientists have gathered data on more than 1,200 unidentified bodies and entered it into Namus, the public database that is run by the National Institute of Justice — the research arm of the Department of Justice — that helped identify Maurer.

DNA technology that was developed to identify remains from the 9/11 attacks and other disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, has contributed to a national push in recent years to identify unclaimed remains, said Benjamin Figura, a forensic anthropologist and director of identification at the medical examiner's office.

The first phase of the project began under a grant from the National Institute of Justice that allowed the medical examiner to review cases going back to 1998. Two subsequent grants expanded the project to include cases dating to 1988. The grants total more than $1.5 million.

The third grant has been extended through April 2013, and the medical examiner's office has applied for a fourth grant. Once the money runs out, Figura said, the identification work will continue, but with fewer resources.

Bodies in advanced states of decomposition get an anthropological workup; scientists determine age, ancestry, sex and height and identify features that could be helpful in identification such as tattoos, scars and prior surgeries.

"What we're building is a biological profile. . . . If we can say this is a 17-to 25-year-old male, we can narrow down the pool of potential matches," said Bradley Adams, who heads the team. "If I say the person is 6 foot 2, that will pin it down more."

Germaine Maurer called the New York City morgue to search for her son the day after he disappeared, but because he had dark features and looked older, he was labeled as a male Hispanic in his 20s, rather than a 17-year-old white male.

She counts herself lucky.

"There are many families out there missing loved ones who never know what has happened," she said. "We were very fortunate. We found out all the details."

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. social card for breaking news in crime, for web only
    The driver lost control and crashed into a an overpass wall.
  2. social card for breaking news in crime, for web only
    The woman called a second man for help, who shot the man, according to authorities.
  3. The Stewart Detention Center is seen through the front gate, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, in Lumpkin, Ga. The rural town is about 140 miles southwest of Atlanta and next to the Georgia-Alabama state line. The town’s 1,172 residents are outnumbered by the roughly 1,650 male detainees that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said were being held in the detention center in late November. (AP Photo/David Goldman) [DAVID GOLDMAN  |  AP]
    The Associated Press sent journalists throughout the country to immigration court.
  4. Mike Bishop joins Pasco EDC staff. [Pasco EDC]
    News and notes on Pasco businesses
  5. Hernando County community news [Tara McCarty]
    News and notes on Hernando businesses
  6. Ed Turanchik is a lawyer and former Hillsborough County commissioner. [Times (2016)]
    Politico Ed Turanchik is warned for lobbying about the MacDill ferry after his status as a consultant ended.
  7. Jack Pearcy, left, and James Dailey, right, as they appeared when they each entered Florida's prison system in 1987. Both men were convicted of taking part in the murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio in Pinellas County. Pearcy got a life sentence. Dailey got the death penalty. Dailey's lawyers have argued that Pearcy is solely responsible for the crime. [Florida Department of Corrections]
    The case of James Dailey, facing a death sentence for the 1985 Pinellas County murder of a 14-year-old girl, is full of contradiction, ambiguity and doubt. Court records tell the terrible story.
  8. A new report to the Florida Legislature details the investigation that led to the forced resignations of six Moffitt Cancer Center employees in December, including president and CEO Dr. Alan List. [Moffitt Cancer Center]
    The money came from the “Thousand Talents Program” and went to personal accounts set up in China.
  9. Sydney Holton, left, and her friend Jordan Lewis yell for beads along the Gasparilla parade route on Saturday. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    A week and a half after the boulevard’s latest high-profile traffic death, pedestrians got the whole road to themselves.
  10. The crash happened near St. Pete–Clearwater International Airport around 5:30 a.m. Saturday.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement