Identifying and bringing unclaimed bodies to final resting place

Identifying and bringing unclaimed bodies to final resting place

Unclaimed and unidentified bodies are covered by white sheets in the Calcasieu Coroner's Office cooler as final burial plans remain in limbo. In this special investigative report, we take you inside the morgue to find out why these bodies are left alone and what is being done to find out who they are and who they belong to.

Looking over a skull with fully intact teeth, chief investigator Zeb Johnson says he can tell by the thin eye lines and mouth that it is the skull of a young man.  "He was found in Beauregard Parish 19 years ago," said Johnson, "shot to death, with nice clothes and probably in his young 20s."

Inside a thick file, Johnson pulls out a computer-generated image of a "Jane Doe," found dead in 1991. They are nameless people in a mysterious puzzle Johnson and fellow investigator, Charles Hunter, are piecing together.  "No family member has ever inquired anybody with any law enforcement agency about where these persons are...and that just amazes me," said Johnson.

In addition to these cold cases, 10 fresh bodies per year are typically added to the work load.  "The bodies that are with us for long term are actually put in a freezer," said Johnson.

On this day, two unclaimed bodies were being held in the refrigerator and two more in a freezer.  "We will do everything we possibly can to find the family member," said Johnson.

Phone calls are made and every news source is scoured.  "Our office staff dates it and they put it in the file so we have a record of everything that's going on with that case," said Johnson.  But still, identities - especially in homicides - are hard to nail down.  "People are cutting off arms, cutting off their legs, cutting out tattoos and things like that so we're not able to put all those clues together," said Johnson.

Interstate 10 is the major thoroughfare between California and Florida, running through Southwest Louisiana.  It plays a big role in the number of transients and homicide victims found along roadsides.  "We are in a prime part of the country to dispose of bodies," said Johnson.

As soon as a body is found, the investigation rolls out.  "We'll obtain hair samples and fingernail samples, we'll do fingerprinting," said Hunter.

Information is put into NaMUS, a public database for missing and unidentified people. When matches are made and families are contacted, some still refuse to claim the body to avoid funeral expenses.  "We're talking about mothers and fathers and children and they're just not claiming the bodies," said Johnson.

After 90 days, the Coroner's Office staff decides who is cremated and who is buried.  "There are several cremated remains that have stayed here in our office that we have accumulated over the years," said Hunter.

Most of the bodies are cremated, because it is most cost-effective, then stored in closets.  Homicide victims are often buried for investigative reasons, but all unclaimed and unidentified bodies are given a final prayer and dignified farewell.  "We're going give them what their families or perpetrators did not.  We're gonna give them a prayer and a religious service.  We're gonna do that, whatever it takes," said Johnson.

Consolata Cemetery in Lake Charles holds the remains of 250 people, either buried in a pauper's funeral or part of the unclaimed population.  There is no marker to identify their graves, just a grassy area that blends in with the other graves.  Of those 250 plots, 40 are unclaimed bodies from the Calcasieu Coroner's Office, either nameless or known, but with no family stepping forward.

Many days are like looking for a needle in a haystack for these investigators, but they say it is only right to bring the unclaimed dead to a final resting place.  "When I go home at the end of the day," said Johnson, "I want to feel like I made a difference for these people...whether they know it or not doesn't make any difference to me."

The Calcasieu Coroner's Office houses the only long-term refrigerated space in a nine parish area, which contributes to the higher body count.

Chief investigator Zeb Johnson is working with other coroner's offices and funeral home directors on statewide legislation to dictate how to handle unclaimed bodies.

Click here to access the NaMUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

Click here to access CODIS, the FBI system for comparing DNA.

You can read the first part of this investigative series, "Unclaimed bodies piling up in Calcasieu Parish morgue," by clicking here.

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