A Hymn for the Lost
March 31, 2009 § 6 Comments
Mysteries in the Washoe County Coroner’s Office
The first person on the list is a fisherman. Perhaps his name was Don, it was tattooed on his left arm. He was still wearing his waders when they pulled him out of the Truckee River thirty years ago this July. You think someone would have missed him. You know, at work, near the vending machines. “You know Don went fishing up near Reno, but he still isn’t back yet. I wonder what’s up with that.” You think that somewhere there would be a house where the newspapers were piling up, or a car found abandoned along the river, with the billfold locked in the glove compartment. You would think in all this time that someone would have come looking for Don.
Instead, as the oldest case, he heads the list of 42 sets of unidentified remains in the care of the Washoe County Coroner’s office in Reno, Nevada. Sometimes there isn’t much to a set of remains: the upper part of a skull, maybe a complete skull and tibia. Still, those were enough for a forensic anthropologist to determine that the former was a young man, somewhere between 16 and 24; and the latter a Caucasian man less than 35, who stood about five foot nine. Sometimes the remains are considerably more than a skeleton. Sometimes it’s the body of someone so recently deceased you can almost hear their soul departing. Sometimes there are plenty of answers, just not the most profound one: Who?
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.
Northern Nevada is God-forsaken. Interstate 80 arcs across the top half of the state, passing through one of the emptiest places there is. This is not to say there isn’t beauty there, because the Sierras can be breath-taking, and there is certain poetry to the wide, wide expanse of the great basin. But on the whole it is mile after mile after mile of nothing. Most of Nevada is owned by the Federal government (don’t ask why), and it has long been known as the state of easy divorce and even easier weddings. Gambling is legal throughout the state; and in half of the 16 counties, so is prostitution. There are 2.6 million residents, and all but fifteen percent of them live in Reno or Las Vegas. The rest of the state is the sort of place where someone might go to be lost.
Perhaps that’s what happened to the thin young man with long black hair who rode his bicycle to a quiet industrial neighborhood in Sparks, and died there of a morphine overdose sometime in September of 2001, while the rest of the country could not stop thinking about the World Trade Center, could not stop talking about their grief.
Or perhaps the middle-aged man, who a few days after Christmas shot himself out in the desolation of rural Washoe County, his 9mm pistol in the sand beside him. Or the little old man, “elderly,” the report says, whose bones were found a few miles outside of Goldfield, once a boom town, now just another tiny place in the desert, somewhere between Death Valley and the Nevada Test Site. Where was he going? Where did he come from?
The Washoe County Coroner’s office has examined each of these 42 sets of unidentified remains, but they didn’t all come from the one county. They came from all across the northern half of the state, and even across the border, over the Donner Pass and into Truckee, California. They are under the jurisdiction of 19 separate agencies, including county sheriffs, city police departments, the Nevada Department of Investigation, the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The remains have come from as far south as Tonopah, as far east as just this side of the Utah border. It would seem fair to say that if you die in Nevada, suddenly or mysteriously, and you are not in Las Vegas that you may well end up on the table of Dr. Ellen Clark, or Dr. Katherine Raven the Washoe County medical examiners.
Of the 42 unnamed decedents, 35 of them are male. Thirty-three are white. 15 died in a manner that has been undetermined, seven died accidentally, ten were murdered, nine killed themselves and two died of heart disease; one of those a 50-year old toothless white man crossing the street in Reno. The other was young man, in his twenties. Nearly six feet tall, he weighed only 111 pounds and wore his brown hair close cropped. His body was found near the railroad tracks outside of Wendover, where he’d been observed wandering the day before. When he was found, on September 4, 2001 he was wearing only soiled briefs. Somewhere, somebody is wondering what happened to him.
Some of the circumstances of these deaths are depressingly commonplace: the body of a newborn baby girl found in February 1982 at a dam at Lake Tahoe; young men murdered and buried in shallow graves; a black man near Floriston, CA (January 1984); a man of undetermined race one mile west of Gyser Ranch (July 1988); a white man two miles north of the Interstate 80 Jessup exit, Nevada (April 1996). In March 1992, the Nevada Highway Patrol got an anonymous tip that led them to a grave east of Highway 338 in Lyon County, Nevada. There they found the body of a man with reddish hair, somewhere between 35 and 50, six feet tall. Rural Lyon county is something beyond rural. Without the telephone call, the body never would have been found. If only the caller had thought to leave the victim’s name, too.
Three of the deaths involved cars. You’d think that authorities would be able to find out something by tracing the cars. Even without valid tags, there are VIN numbers. Even if the one on the dash is gone or melted or crushed, there is usually one on the engine block as well. (It’s also surprising that so little is said about the make and models of the cars involved.) Nevertheless, these three gentlemen remain unnamed.
In July 1980, a short black man in his late twenties held up the Nevada Savings and Loan in Sparks. He fled the scene pursued by the police, and while traveling eastbound on the interstate, lost control of his car and struck a “fixed object.” He died from blunt force trauma.
Another holiday-time suicide was revealed in January 1984, when the remains of a white man were found inside a parked automobile, 45 miles east of Ely. A hose ran from the exhaust into the car’s interior.
The sadly comic and strangest of the deaths involving cars is another suicide. On November 9, 1986, in Reno, a man was witnessed sitting in the rear seat of a white Ford Pinto, “fanning” flames as the car became engulfed. He made no attempt to exit the Pinto, and his body was consumed in the fire, leaving his size and race undetermined. He must have been so frustrated. Remember that the Pinto had real problems with leaking gas tanks and explosions. Surely he thought, “Well, this will explode and that will be that.” Then he could hardly get the thing to burn.
The suicides carry with them an extra sense of poignancy. Perhaps these people were right, perhaps they had no one who cared about them. Does someone miss the tall thin man who hanged himself in an abandoned building behind the Maverick Gas station in McGill, NV back in 1984? He was found wearing a blue Air Force jacket.
Or the middle-aged man who decided while sitting on the banks of the Truckee River one summer day in 1987 that he couldn’t take anymore? He had to go to some lengths, use some ingenuity to kill himself with a shotgun.
One February morning in 1992, the employees of Summit Envirosolutions came to work at their office in a light industrial complex in Carson City, and found an old man sitting against the wall of the building. Why there, one wonders, did he decide he could go on no more, and put a bullet in his head.
Pity the poor railroad engineer who was the unwitting accomplice in the death of a very short middle aged fat man whose last decision was to step in front of an eastbound passenger train. Or the housekeeper at the Colonial Motel in Reno, who one hot August morning, opened the door to one of the rooms, finding the guest had used an elaborate IV device to end his life.
He’d checked in under a false name, Carlos F. Otero, using an address in the Bronx that wasn’t his. He intended to slip away under the radar, perhaps to protect the person who aided him in sliding across that threshold.
“Carlos” died from a dose of Thiopental. The drug is used in small doses to help induce anesthesia, and in some instances as “truth serum.” It also is the drug of choice for euthanasia, and in 35 states is used for execution by lethal injection. Someone helped “Carlos,” and someone knows who he was.
Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; ’Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.
Out in the middle of the Black Desert is a little tiny town called Gerlach. It’s north of the interstate by 80 miles or so, train tracks run through there. In 1991 the desert outside of town became the site of the Burning Man festival, which brings upwards of 40,000 people into the desert the last week of every August.
The bodies found along the road to Gerlach predate the Burning Man, (with one exception, and he was actually found south of the interstate, near Wadsworth) but it is a strange thing that of 42 cases of unidentified remains, five of them would turn up, out of the vastness of northern Nevada, along the road to Gerlach. One was just a partial skull of a teenager, another the scattered skeleton of a young woman, possibly white or Native American. She had distinctive dental work. Another skeleton, this of a young man not yet 30 was found with a .22 caliber revolver nearby. The body of a petite young woman was found in a shallow grave 11 miles north of Gerlach. She was wearing an unusual gold bracelet.
It can be something as small as that left to distinguishes this human from another human. An unusual gold bracelet, or a pile of bones and a silver ring with stones, blue and red. Charred bones found after a range fire, indicate men dead long before the summer fires. The skull of a Native American man found on the road to the Winnemucca airport. Another skull, one with a hole, not from a bullet, but from a craniotomy.
The Homeless live among us virtually unseen, and die that way too. In Los Angeles County there are 800 unidentified remains. Many of them were homeless people; when you consider that the average homeless population in Los Angeles is around 60,000, a remarkable number come to the end of their earthly life with their identities firmly held.
In death, though, it isn’t so easy to tell whether or not someone was homeless. A man wandering the tracks in his underwear may well have been; who can say about a set of charred bones? Perhaps the older man with a full white beard found at the bottom of a ravine in his cowboy boots and fleece-lined jacket, perhaps he was homeless. Maybe he was just a rancher. In any case, no one has stepped forward in the last twenty years to claim him as one of their own. A man in his sixties found dead in a homeless encampment probably was indeed homeless, but what about the man found one summer morning under a mattress and sheet of metal roofing off an unpaved street in Sun Valley?
The police report notes that the area was known for “illegal dumping.” They describe the man as between 40 and 50, wearing full dentures (“Hang on a second, let me put my teeth in”) clad in brown corduroy trousers and a white t-shirt. He was barefoot. The report notes, wryly “No cause of death was determined. However the body and scene indicate the man did not walk there and cover himself with the mattress prior to his death.”
In Washoe County, “death by misadventure” often arrives via the Truckee River, which has given up three of the nameless dead. Each of them around 30, all men, one was said to be “fully clad in casual style clothing,” as opposed to, say, formal wear. The most recent, a decade ago, was a tall man (6’2”) with long brown hair, found wearing only white undershorts and black shoes, and described, curiously, as “found entwined in an orange traffic cone.”
Twenty years ago this week, a young man was found under five feet of snow near the Heavenly Valley Ski Resort. He was white, just shy of six feet tall, with a 30-inch waist, no more than 35 years old. He had all 32 teeth, in excellent condition. They don’t know how he died, perhaps exposure. Has someone been wondering for two decades what became of their adventurous son, their daredevil brother, their best friend from high school?
The women, though, six women and a baby girl, they all were murdered.
The baby left at the Lake Tahoe dam 27 years ago, does her mother still think of her? Is someone looking for the 60-year-old woman who was found in 1990, mummified in the sagebrush two miles south of Wendover? The woman with the distinctive dental work, her skeleton scattered in the desert on the road to Gerlach, surely someone wonders what happened to her.
Coming up out of the Truckee Meadows, the Mount Rose Highway comes up over the Carson Range of the Sierra Nevadas and summits at a beautiful alpine meadow the locals call Sheep Flats, before descending down to Incline Village on the north edge of Lake Tahoe. Sheep Flats is a favorite recreation spot for tourists and residents alike. On July 17, 1982, the body of a young woman was discovered there. She had been shot to death.
No doubt the Washoe County Sheriff’s office thought it wouldn’t be long before she was identified. She was in her late twenties, maybe thirty. The report reads, “The victim had not been there long and was clothed. She wore a bathing suit on under her clothing. She also wore a blue top, blue jeans and yellow tennis shoes . . . the victim is believe to be of European descent based upon an inoculation scar and unique dental work. Although many leads have been pursued, her identity and whereabouts prior to her death are still a mystery.”
The bulletin issued by the Sheriff’s office includes both a color photograph from the morgue and an artist’s interpretation of what she might have looked like imbued with life. Hazel eyes and sandy hair, a fair complexion, well-arched brow, the kind of forehead people used to call “intelligent.” Isn’t somebody looking for her? Was she so all alone in the world, in her blue jeans and yellow tennis shoes? Perhaps she is not just of European descent, but maybe a European tourist, her stuff left behind in a hotel room, or carried back to Europe by her killer with a story: she ran off, she married an American, she doesn’t want us anymore.
Eleven years later, another woman, this one found on the other side of the state, seventy miles east of Elko, on the north side of I-80, in a place described in the police report as “a vast and desolate desert bisected by one of the nation’s busiest highways.” She too, was white, between twenty and thirty, of average size and weight, blonde with brown eyes.
Under clothing the report reads: pink nail polish. She was naked in the desert, her arms extended to each side, legs slightly parted, posed as if crucified. They think perhaps she’d had a baby. There was a scar on her right calf, an assortment of moles and marks like most of us have. The medical examiner noted them with great care, measuring and describing each one. Her teeth were in excellent condition, though it was noted that she was midway through having a root canal. Did the dentist’s receptionist sigh with disgust when the girl didn’t turn up for her appointment? It is believed she was killed elsewhere and dumped at the site, toxicology reports show the use of alcohol and evidence of smoking pot. She was shot twice with a small caliber bullet, one bullet pierced her heart.
It seems so strange that no one would come looking for this particular young woman, so much so that she has her own MySpace page “JD 93 Elko Nevada”, and I CARE, a website devoted to missing person cold cases, carries scans of every newspaper story about her.
There’s not been so much attention paid to the woman whose body children found in a rock pile in Reno in June 1997. In her early to mid-thirties, she was white or maybe part Native American. She wasn’t very tall, about five-two and the most distinctive thing noted about her was a metal plate in her jaw. Her cause of death was not determined, but to borrow from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, it’s unlikely she buried herself in a pile of rocks.
She was certainly into western culture, found wearing dream catcher earrings, a black bolo tie with an arrowhead, a yellow metal and copper bracelet, a silver ring with a red stone. She was dressed in a western-style multi-colored shirt, blue jeans (size 10); white socks and gray tennis shoes, and wearing a black long sleeved jacket. Around her neck there was also a silver necklace with a silver whistle: many women have worn them for safety. It’s too bad it didn’t work for her.
The most recently found unidentified woman was black. She was dumped naked from a car along a dirt road off the interstate, near Mogul, Nevada, west of Reno. She was wearing just a silver ring on her right hand. About 30 years old, she’d seen some hard times. The medical examiner noted that the woman’s toenails were very long and were thickened and irregular. Her teeth were in poor condition and she was missing literally half of them. Her face showed healed fractures of the nose and jaw, on the right side. It may have caused her face to seem lopsided. Her body was found July 25, 2003.
When we mourn as a country, we often read out the names of the dead. We did this at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan; the names of the Vietnam War dead are poignantly carved into a field of black granite. We see these names and those people become more real to us. That these 42 people in Washoe County, these 800 people in Los Angeles county, these 4,797 people across the country, dead and unidentified and claimed by no one, that they are stripped of their names does not make them any less real.
The US Department of Justice has recently launched twin databases under the acronym NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons system.) One database is that of missing persons, the other is that of unidentified remains. They are working on developing the software that will cross-reference both sets of data in hopes of finding some matches. They are unwieldy and balky to use. Data hasn’t been entered in a very consistent manner, some records are excellent, some are so vague as to be rendered meaningless. You ought to be able to search via date or hair color or by distinctive gold bracelet, and you cannot. But it is a start.
Some of these people were truly lost. They were the last of their families; perhaps they were friendless in this world. But not all of them. Some of them are probably blamed angrily for their absences. Some of them might be missed every day, longed for by people who wonder whatever happened to their daughter, son, mother, father, brother, sister, friend. They need an answer, as do those who found the remains, whose startling discovery is etched forever in their mind, an endless mystery.
The last entry in the Washoe County Coroner’s list of unidentified remains is from May 8, 2005. A young man, white, slight of stature. He was wearing a black long-sleeved sweatshirt, gray-green slacks, a brown leather belt. His hair, black and wavy, was two centimeters long. He leapt from the roof of Reno parking garage. It was very early in the morning when he stepped out into thin air. Had he lost too much at the gambling table, was there a fight with a girlfriend? Did he have any idea when he was having his last hair cut that in a matter of days it would come to this? When he pulled on his trousers many hours before and fastened his brown leather belt, it probably never occurred to him that he would end up among the lost.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil, A life of joy and peace.