MIAMI – Twenty-five years ago, a man feeding ducks with his nephew spotted a cardboard box wrapped in rope and duct tape floating on a canal in Miami’s lakes. Thinking that it might be something valuable, they locked the box, opened it, and immediately encountered the smell of rotting flesh.
It was not a treasure. Instead, the October 29, 1996 find was the body of a petite young woman with shoulder-length dark hair. And she had been murdered.
For a quarter of a century, its identity has remained a mystery. Investigators believe she could be of Colombian origin. Now, according to police, they are hoping that further DNA testing and investigating family genetic trees can finally help resolve the case.
“Someone needs to know who she is,” said Miami-Dade Police Detective David Denmark of the Homicide Investigation Team. “If we can identify him, we can begin to track his final days and it will bring us much closer to the search for his killer.”
The woman in the box is not alone.
Across Miami-Dade, more than 300 cases of unidentified bodies are still waiting to be identified, of which 233 are considered “active” cases with a good chance of being resolved. Some of the dead were murdered. Others have succumbed to natural causes. Some were skeletal remains, with no way of knowing exactly how they died.
The first active case dates back to April 27, 1957, when the bones of a woman were found in a vacant lot after a bushfire in what is now the Palmetto Bay area. Most recent: An older black woman, dressed in a cream-colored cheetah-print shirt and ripped jeans, was found unconscious on a bus bench at Northwest Ninth Avenue and 17th Street on September 12.
Duties fall to the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office, where investigator Brittney McLaurin goes through historical records, interviews the families of the missing and publishes unresolved cases in the hopes that it may jog someone’s memory. . She is aided by police detectives and forensic artists, as well as an army of online detectives who volunteer their time, scouring internet databases trying to match bodies with names.
McLaurin started in the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office in 2012, and four years later took over from Sandra Boyd, a longtime investigator of the unidentified remains. Among McLaurin’s efforts: ordering the re-execution of fingerprints in national databases and increasing public awareness – including the creation of an Instagram page – to highlight cases. She also hopes genealogical tracing of family DNA will increasingly help put names to the unidentified.
“It is important for us to show that we are still working on these cases,” McLaurin said.
Each case poses its own challenges.
Sometimes, investigators hope, ink on the skin of the dead may be what solves the mystery.
Clues in tattoos, clothing
Consider the case of a white woman found on Interstate 95 near Miami Gardens Drive on February 7, 2020. She was hit by a car. The woman was 5 feet 5 inches, 137 pounds, with short reddish brown hair.
Her tattoos were distinct: two skulls on her right chest, a unicorn, and the name “Paula” on her left chest. She had a dove and a heart inked on her left arm, a snake on her left thigh. A flower tattoo circled her left wrist. On his right ankle: the name “Ray”.
Perhaps it is a garment that can spark a memory.
On January 24, 2021, an older black man was discovered hit by a car on West Okeechobee Road and Northwest 170th Street. He was between 60 and 80 years old, partially bald with a grayish beard. “He seemed in very good physical shape for his age,” McLaurin said.
The man’s distinction: he wore a cap with the word “Florida” on it.
Renderings of forensic artists are also essential, especially in cases where the bodies were poorly decomposed or mostly bones.
This is what happened with a woman found murdered on November 22, 2004. Construction workers – alerted by surrounding buzzards – found her body in the brush off Southwest 88th Street and avenue Krome. The woman, who is believed to be between 40 and 65, was the victim of a homicide, the medical examiner’s office said.
Analyzing the woman’s bone structure, Miami-Dade Police forensic artist Samantha Steinberg painted a portrait of what she might have looked like: chubby, with shoulder-length dark hair and thin eyebrows. And more importantly, the woman wore separate teardrop earrings in gold color.
Many cases resolved
There have been many successes.
Since McLaurin began investigating cases of unidentified bodies, investigators have successfully identified the deaths in 23 cold cases dating back to 1957.
She was instrumental in identifying the body of Mary Brosley, of Massachusetts, who was murdered near the Everglades by serial killer Samuel Little in 1976.
Another case was that of Eva Marie Murphy, a mother of two who went missing on Halloween night 1988 in the Perrine neighborhood of South Miami-Dade. For years, her family wished Murphy had just grown bored of her life, but was alive – somewhere.
Family DNA tracing
“If we knew for sure that she was dead, maybe we could accept it and move on,” her father, Edmond Rogers, told the Herald in 1991. “But like that, two years without skin or hair is hard especially around Christmas time Eva always came and we had a big tree and the babies would be there while we were wrapping the presents.
Her case was revived two years ago by Miami-Dade Missing Persons Detective Suzanne Gowdie, who deals with unresolved cases. She and McLaurin compared their notes. Eventually, Murphy’s family donated DNA samples that matched the poorly decomposed remains of a woman found in a wooded area in the late 1980s.
Detectives may never know what happened to Murphy – an autopsy could not determine how she died, or even whether her death was suspicious.
DNA has also been essential in identifying skeletal remains hidden in the brush of a 22-acre nature reserve next to the Palmetto Bay Village Center on Old Cutler Road four years ago. Genetic tests revealed the remains were those of Christine Pascale, a troubled former pilot who rushed, without a parachute, from a small plane in an apparent suicide attempt over South Miami-Dade.
There are many more mysteries that, for now, are just out of reach.
Like the man found in the waves of Miami Beach. He was tall. Exceptionally large.
A couple found him face down on the beach on 17th Street on December 24, 2009. He was wearing a blue “Speedo” swimsuit and New Balance sneakers, with black socks. He was between 25 and 40 years old. And he was 6 feet 9 inches tall, weighing 335 pounds.
He had neither wallet nor identity document. It could be a visitor, from out of state or from abroad. Until named, he is only identified by his file number: 2009-3185.
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