There are some 100 unidentified dead in O.C., and the quest to identify them never ends

By Greg Hardesty

They have numbers, not names — the dead whose lives ended in a variety of unsettling ways, from traffic accidents to suicides to victims of foul play, but whose identities are a mystery.

For investigators at the Orange County Sheriff Coroner, identifying these Jane and John Does remains a top priority.

Investigators are driven not only to dignify the dead by attaching identities to them, but also to achieve some measure of closure for their loved ones.

Last week, the OCSD Coroner remembered the unidentified dead in honor of Dia de los Muertos, the three-day Mexican holiday (Oct. 31-Nov. 2) in which family members pray for and remember relatives who have died.

But the somber quest to identify the nearly 100 Jane and John Does in Orange County continues throughout the year.

“These families are in limbo,” says OCSD Coroner Investigator Assistant Allison O’Neal.

In August, the OCSD Coroner sent out a news release about a Jane Doe on the 30th anniversary of when she was found in Anaheim. The agency also released a new facial reconstruction of her based on a CT scan of her skull created by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

“We’re always looking for new ways to get people interested in what we’re doing,” says Supervising Deputy Coroner Kelly Keyes, a 21-year veteran of the OCSD Coroner who has been leading the effort to get answers on unidentified bodies for nearly two years.

“We are always working toward learning who our unidentified are,” Keyes says. “We never forget them and never give up on these cases.”

Under Keyes’ watch, there have been three John and Jane Does identified. But in the last decade, she says, there only have been a total of five.

She and her colleagues are working to get that number higher.

The Jane Doe whose image was released in August was found nearly skeletonized on Aug. 30, 1987 on the side of a roadway off Santa Ana Canyon Road in Anaheim.

She had been dead for one to two months, and an autopsy revealed she was the victim of a homicide.

She was Caucasian, 15-19 years of age with blonde hair. Her eye color is unknown. She had a chipped upper-left front tooth.

Because of advances in technology, the OCSD Coroner was able to obtain a DNA profile for her in 2005.

Still, her identity remains a mystery.

Keyes came up with the idea of highlighting five cases involving the unidentified dead during last week’s Dia de Los Muertos.

They are:

Jane Doe, who was found Jan. 31, 2006 off Ortega Highway in Trabuco Canyon. She is estimated to have been 25-35 years old.  She was 5 feet 1 inch tall and weighed 113 pounds. She is believed to be a Hispanic with medium-to-long black curly hair, dark complexion and brown eyes. She had a small scar underneath her belly button, and a tattoo of a rose with a web-like design on her left forearm. She was wearing jeans and a black shirt with a white floral design. She had acrylic French-tipped fingernails with a small heart on each nail tip. Findings at autopsy suggest she had a prior cesarean section. Case No. 06-00704-KI

Jane Doe, who was struck and killed by a vehicle in Stanton at about 9:05 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2005. She was taken to West Anaheim Medical Center, where she died. She is believed to be a Hispanic female, 19-30 years old, 5 foot 3 inches and 165 pounds. She had a dark complexion, long black curly hair with a reddish tint, and brown eyes. She had a faint scar on her left inner ankle and a single freckle or mole on her left wrist. She was wearing blue shorts, a black tank top with “Baby Girl” in sequins and gold leather flip-flops. She carried a small black purse that contained a CD of a Puerto Rican Reggae band, multiple receipts from the Buena Park Mall, and a one-day bus pass purchased in Norwalk. Case No. 05-06717-HO

John Doe, who was struck and killed by a vehicle Feb. 15, 2000 on W. 1st Street in Santa Ana. He was taken to a local hospital and died shortly after. He is believed to be Hispanic, 40-55 years old, with short dark-brown or black hair and brown eyes. He was 5 feet 4 inches and 151 pounds. He had a scar under his chin and there was a mass above his front teeth on his jawbone.  He had several missing teeth and those remaining showed heavy wear. He had prominent cheekbones and a wide nose. He was wearing navy-blue slacks, a black belt, a pair of black “Pro Wing” shoes, a light-gray Christian Dior button-down shirt and black socks. Case No. 00-1155-AO

John Doe, who was found dead on Aug. 28, 1993 on a bike trail in east Anaheim in an apparent suicide. He had been deceased only a short time before he was found. He was estimated to be 30-45 years old and possibly Hispanic or Middle Eastern. He was just over 5 feet and 146 pounds. He had curly black hair and a prominent nose with thick, dark eyebrows. He was wearing a short-sleeved golf-type shirt, tan pants, white athletic shoes, a tan belt with brown leather buckle, and a Casio watch with a silver band on his left wrist. Case No. 93-05228-EY

John Doe, who was found Dec. 5, 1986 at the 5 Freeway overpass at Harbor Boulevard in an apparent suicide. He was estimated to be a 25-35 year old Hispanic male, 5 feet 6 inches and 136 pounds. He had curly black hair and hazel eyes. He had a prominent nose with prior dental work. He had scars on his right shoulder and right nipple, and recent cuts to the left inner forearm. He was wearing a long-sleeved tan button-down shirt, brown corduroy pants, and white athletic shoes with red lettering and covered in red and white paint. He had a single key on a Smurf keychain. Case No. 86-05561-HA

INCREASED COLLABORATION

Orange County’s oldest unidentified death dates back to 1953. A man believed to be around 60 was found dead near the railroad tracks in San Juan Capistrano.

The decedent had been dead for some time and is believed to have been a transient based on the possessions he had with him. He had a heavy beard, was wearing glasses, and his teeth had fallen out. He was found “(lying) on a copy of the Los Angeles Herald & Express paper dated Dec. 8, 1952,” which is believe to be approximately his date of death, according to the coroner report.

On Oct. 3, 2015, the OCSD Coroner opened its doors to the public to come in and try and ID decedents.

That effort, Identify the Missing Day, was part of a push by several Southern California counties to solve some nagging missing persons cases. It yielded one successful identification, Keyes says.

Statewide, there are about 3,200 unidentified decedents, Keyes says.

“With advances in technology and more partner organizations involved, there’s more collaborative efforts being done,” O’Neal says.

State law allows coroners to bury unidentified decedents after 30 days, but the OCSD Coroner’s protocol is to give them at least a year.

The nearly 100 Jane and John Does in Orange County are buried in county and private cemeteries.

Keyes says the satisfaction of identifying a John or Jane Doe is immense.

She recalls a successful identification earlier this year.

Andrea Kuiper. Photo courtesy of OCSD

Andrea Kuiper, 26, was killed on April 1, 1990 in a traffic accident in Huntington Beach.

Two cars had accidentally struck her.

For nearly three decades, her parents in Virginia assumed Andrea had fled home to spare them from her battle with manic depression.

They never heard from her again, and until early this May, they had no idea what had happened to her.

Although coroner investigators had Andrea’s DNA, dental records, fingerprints and even a possible first name after the accident, they couldn’t ID her.

There was too much trauma to Kuiper’s face to release a photo after her death, Keyes says, and her parents never filed a missing person’s report.

Finally, thanks to fingerprint records in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a national searchable database established in 2010, there was a match in early May.

Turns out Kuiper had worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and fingerprints had been part of her job application in 1987. The prints finally had been put into a system that the FBI accessed and shared with NamUs, Keyes says.

Keyes made the call to her parents, who now are in their 80s.

She talked to Andrea’s father.

Recalls Keyes: “He told me that he and his wife had always just hoped that she would show up one day, pull up into the driveway with three kids in the car and say, ‘Hi, I’m home.’”

If you have any information on any of these decedents, please contact the Coroner Division at 714-647-7400 or email coroner@ocsd.org.  If you have any long-term missing relatives, you can file a report with the local police agency.

Additional unidentified decedents, dating back to the 1960s, can be viewed online at http://www.ocsd.org/gov/sheriff/divisions/prof/coroner/ud/default.asp