Todd Matthews and The Doe Network: Naming the Nameless Dead

Oct 13, 2009 - by Lona Manning - 0 Comments

unidentified victims profiled on The Doe Network

Who are they? These images are a sampling of unidentified victims profiled on The Doe Network.

There are thousands of unnamed corpses in the United States, so-called John and Jane Does who have turned up over the last few decades in woods, rivers, alleys and dumpsters without any identification. An Internet-based group of volunteers who call themselves The Doe Network is working to name the nameless.

by Lona Manning

Todd Matthews has always known where he belongs. His home is in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, where the soft-spoken 33-year-old lives with his wife and two young sons. Home is where the ties to his past are as close as the quiet graveyard where his ancestors are buried. "I was born, live and work in a three-mile radius," Matthews explains. This may be why, he surmises, he is obsessed with helping people who are lost. Specifically, dead people who are lost.

Matthews's consuming passion is to investigate and identify "John Does," the anonymous corpses that are found in woods, rivers, by riverbanks, in alleys, and dumpsters throughout the country. There are over 5,400 John or Jane Does registered with the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), an FBI clearinghouse in West Virginia. There are thousands more cases -- nobody is sure how many -- reduced to a thin file folder, a box of bones in the evidence room, a nagging memory in the back of a retired detective's mind. Often, but not always, Does are the victims of foul play. Sometimes they took a wrong turn in life, becoming involved in drugs and crime. But, says Matthews, "No matter who they are, even no matter what they've done in life, you've got to think they're all God's children."

Matthews's obsession with naming the nameless dead started with a Jane Doe known as the "Tent Girl." The story of the Tent Girl began two years before Matthews was born, when a man named Wilbur Riddle found a young woman's body in Scott County, Ky., in 1968. The partially decomposed corpse was found in a heavy burlap sack, like the kind used to store tents, and dumped near a highway. Despite extensive efforts by Kentucky police and the FBI, her identity was never discovered. Twenty years later, Matthews began dating Riddle's daughter Lori and learned about the day his girlfriend's father found a Jane Doe. Her anonymous death haunted Matthews. He knew that somewhere she had relatives and friends who missed her and didn't know how to find her. He took it as his personal mission to find the Tent Girl's true identity and locate her family.

For the next 10 years, Matthews devoted his spare time to researching the case and looking for reports of missing women. Even without any law enforcement training or experience, Matthews saw that the greatest obstacle to solving this mystery was lack of communication between police departments. A detective in one part of the country, looking for a missing person, may not necessarily know about the unidentified body found thousands of miles away. When the Internet came along, Matthews was quick to understand the potential of e-mail, chat groups and websites, for his Tent Girl quest.

Matthews used email directories to search for people who lived in the area where Tent Girl was found. He also searched public forums and discussion groups for any references to missing women. One night, while surfing the Internet, he came across a posting from an Arkansas woman named Rosemary Westbrook. She was looking for her older sister Barbara Ann, who had disappeared in 1968. For 30 years no one in the family knew what happened to Barbara Ann, who had grown estranged from her family because of her marriage, and it seemed to Westbrook that no one cared. When she posted messages about Barbara Ann on the Internet, she got no response: "No one ever wrote," she remembers, "no one ever answered, no one ever replied," until she heard from Matthews about the Tent Girl. Their chance encounter in cyberspace turned out to be the breakthrough both were looking for. With Matthews acting as a liaison, Westbrook sent photographs of her sister, a petite, brown-haired woman with a small gap in her front teeth, to Dr. Emily Craig, the forensic medical examiner for the State of Kentucky.

"I could see enough similarity in tooth structure and bone form," Craig recalls, to authorize DNA testing. The Tent Girl's remains were exhumed in 1998 and samples were taken from her teeth and bone. Her DNA was compared with Westbrook's DNA, a process that took six weeks. During that time, Westbrook recalls, she wore out her carpet pacing the floor while she wondered if she had done the right thing in disturbing the final resting place of the Tent Girl. Her husband reassured her that even if the unidentified woman was not her sister, the DNA information obtained from the Tent Girl's teeth and bones might help some other family searching for its missing loved one.

On April 22, 1998, Matthews and Westbrook learned that the Tent Girl was indeed Barbara Ann. The authorities hadn't made the connection between the Tent Girl and the missing woman in 1968 because Barbara Ann's husband had never filed a missing persons report on her. He died in 1987, before her body was identified, and is the chief suspect in her murder. But thanks to the Internet and his own tenacity, Matthews had solved the 30-year-old mystery of Barbara Ann's disappearance.

The Tent Girl experience taught Matthews how to improve the odds for identifying John Does. How can a missing person in part of the country be matched to a body discovered elsewhere? How can accurate and complete descriptions of John Does be preserved and publicized? What about forgotten old cases that have never been entered into a computer database? "I looked around," Matthews recalls, "and there were so many other bodies just scattered around." That's when Matthews joined forces with The Doe Network.

The Doe Network began as a cyber-bulletin board, a site where a handful of volunteers collected reports of unidentified remains from newspaper articles and police websites. It has since grown into a true network of over 200 members, organized into geographical districts coordinated by area directors.

The Doe Network's website publishes computer-enhanced photographs, forensic sketches and sometimes clay reconstructions to put a face on each anonymous Doe. Behind the scenes, the Doe Network volunteers discuss case profiles via e-mail and look for potential matches. As of December 2003, the Doe Network has posted over one thousand Doe case files and assisted with 17 positive identifications; sometimes matching a Doe found at one end of the country with a missing person's report filed thousands of miles away. A Kentucky man, missing for 18 years, was located as a John Doe in Vermont. A Jane Doe in Texas was matched to a missing Michigan woman. (This is not to say that all missing persons end up as corpses. On the contrary, the vast majority of missing persons disappears briefly and turns up alive and well.)

Some volunteers find their way to the Doe Network because they are looking for a missing friend or loved one. Matthews explains that the Internet and the Doe Network "allows a person to get involved in the case and not wait on a phone call. Everybody can't jump in a squad car and start interrogating people. If you've got your own life mystery, missing person, the Internet gives you a form of communication that allows you to take some action."

Other volunteers join because of the empathy they feel for the John and Jane Does. Diana Gettys, the Doe Network Area Director for Georgia, believes that her turbulent adolescence gives her a "kinship" with them. "Outwardly, some of these Jane and John Does may be labeled 'transient,' 'known prostitute,' 'known drug-user,' or 'runaway,' but to me they are simply people who lost their way in their own lives. I am haunted by that last moment: that last instant from which they never had a chance to turn back. And I feel anger that they never had the time they needed. That is why I do what I do: if ever anyone needed a friend, it is our nation of unnamed dead."

The impetus to fully use the capabilities of computers and the Internet has come from the relatives of missing people, not from law enforcement. There was no requirement that all law enforcement agencies register John Does with the FBI until 1999, with the passage of "Jennifer's Law." The law, which Matthews helped lobby for, was named in honor of 21-year-old Jennifer Wilmer, who disappeared in 1993. Kristen Modafferi, an 18-year-old student who disappeared in San Francisco in 1997, is the inspiration for "Kristen's Law," which provides federal funding for a national registry of adults who have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The Center for Missing Adults database went online in June of 2002.

When Matthews began searching for the Tent Girl's identity, he often got the brush-off from law enforcement personnel. Now, he notes, law enforcement agencies are coming to The Doe Network to learn about how to enlist the public's help in solving Doe cases. Dr. Emily Craig, the medical examiner who identified the Tent Girl, says that "Todd's success and his groundbreaking work with the [Internet] is what encouraged the Kentucky Medical Examiner's office to develop its own website." []

Although the FBI and law enforcement agencies around the country are working on ways to improve the accuracy of match-ups between unidentified Does and missing persons, the NCIC database is only as good as the data entered into it. Errors or misleading information, Matthews believes, are often the reason why potential matches are missed. "You have to have something who can think," Matthews explains, "and the computer cannot think. Our [Doe Network] people can think." The Tent Girl case provides an illustration of this point: -- the doctors who had autopsied the Tent Girl thought she was a teenager, but in fact she was a petite 24-year-old. A computer search based on the incorrect age might have missed the connection entirely. More recently, the Doe Network matched a missing man named Christophe Fainard with a John Doe in New York City. Although the corpse had a number of distinctive tattoos and the missing person's report and unidentified person's report were filed in the same city, it took the Doe Network to make the connection, three years after Fainard's body was found.

Although families of the missing sometimes contact the Doe Network directly, the Doe Network's policy is to not contact families about potential matches. Instead, they contact the law enforcement agencies involved. "The potential match database is closed to the public," Matthews explains. "Nobody [who is not a member] can view it, and there's a reason. If you had a missing daughter would you want to see her mixed up in four or five different Doe cases? That would be painful for you." Connie Marstiller, a spokesman for the FBI's NCIC, calls the Doe volunteers "guardian angels" for John and Jane Does. Their civilian status makes them more approachable, she believes. "Sometimes families are more comfortable talking to them than they are to law enforcement, for whatever reason."

There is a story behind every case, and sometimes finding the name of an unidentified person only awakens a new and deeper mystery. Take, for example the tragic case of Sean Cutler. In 1995, in Vermont, a black Labrador carried a human skull to his horrified owner, who promptly called the police. More remains were found in nearby woods. The bones went unidentified for eight years until a woman named Carol Cielecki, using the Doe Network to search for her missing ex-husband, read about the find. She matched the description of the remains to an Internet posting about a handicapped man who went missing in New Jersey in 1994. Sean Cutler was blind and confined to a wheelchair as a result of a 1975 carbon monoxide accident that had killed his mother and left him brain-injured. He had been awarded a $1 million settlement for the accident and was in the care of his father. Sean's father, Lewis Cutler, told his in-laws that Sean was in a group home in Canada. In 1997, Lewis Cutler and a companion died in a mysterious house fire, leaving no answer to the question of what happened to the million dollars, or to Sean.

For five years, his relatives had nowhere to turn until the Vermont remains were identified as being Sean Cutler's in the fall of 2003. Thanks to the Doe Network, Sean's family was at last able to claim him and lay him to rest, even though the manner of his death probably will never be known. Bringing killers to justice is beyond the Doe Network's mandate, Matthews explains, adding firmly, "We are not private detectives."

A Doe case solved is always a bittersweet experience for the relatives of the missing person. Finding their remains ends any hope, however feeble, that a loved one is alive. Making a match is exciting, says Tracie Fleischhut, one of two New York area directors, "but you're also thrown back a little because you know someone is getting bad news."

Rosemary Westbrook says she feels tremendous gratitude to Matthews for finding her long-lost sister Barbara Ann. Westbrook was 10 when she last saw Barbara Ann, whom the family knew as "Bobbie." Now Westbrook uses the investigative techniques she learned during the search for her sister, to help others look for long-lost relatives. "There's a whole lot of [missing person] cases -- more than you even imagine. Todd touched our lives, so I try to touch other peoples lives, to let them know there are people out there who care."

The Doe Network is not for those with a morbid fascination with death and murder, Matthews says. "The one real fear in life is not death -- the greatest monster of all is the unknown. Particularly when the location of a loved one is the unknown. I see folks with missing loved ones literally writhing in pain."

Matthews has a build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy about the Doe Network, and his faith in the network's ability to attract people seems to be justified. In the fall of 2003 he began reorganizing the network's database, and out of nowhere, two new volunteers with computer and website skills offered to help. In 2001, Matthews proposed that the Doe Network provide free forensic artist services to law enforcement agencies that couldn't afford it. Project EDAN, or "Everyone Deserves A Name," was born after four forensic artists responded to the Matthews' call and volunteered their services.

Wesley Neville is one of the most active EDAN forensic artists. Neville sketches faces of the unidentified based on remains and autopsy reports, and has also created clay sculptures using skeletal remains. Of his work for Project EDAN, he says, "If a family member of mine, or someone I was close to suddenly went missing, the pain and suffering would be unbearable. I would feel lost, helpless. God gave me a talent, which I consistently attempt to hone and improve on. Assisting families of missing persons with my art is a way for me to do my part -- to add closure to their situation." In August of 2003, Neville found the Doe Network's 16th case file match.

There are still thousands of John and Jane Does, going back decades, who haven't been entered into the national registries. Depending on how far back you go, Matthews says, the estimates are that only 50 percent to as little as 10 percent of the unknown dead are registered in the national FBI database. These unreported Does can't be checked against missing persons' reports because nobody knows about them. The special mission of The Doe Network, Matthews says, is to find and work on the "the oldest and the forgotten-est" cases. They eschew the high-profile missing-person cases "that every mind in the country is working on" in favor of the forlorn Does.

Television programs may show crime scene investigators using unlimited manpower and resources to investigate crimes, but in reality, Matthews points out, "they're not going to spend a million dollars of technology to identify a bum in a dumpster."

"There's no way to know how many cases are forgotten unless people get involved," he adds, "and we don't assume someone else will take care of things. We need people to look for old stories, and make sure they aren't forgotten. Police should file NCIC reports on [these] cases." And if the police don't file an NCIC report on any Doe case that comes to Matthews' attention, he politely nags them until they do, and encourages families with missing loved ones to ensure that their cases are registered as well.

Matthews also sees The Doe Network as the guardian of information for future law enforcement efforts. Even though thousands of Does remain to be identified, Matthews says "I like to think we help all of them by preserving the data… preserving the data is one of our most important functions. We might not have all the weapons we need to fight the battles today, as yesterday did not have DNA. Tomorrow will bring more tools -- they might discover the secrets to the mysteries that elude us. Until then we leave cases in time capsules in the indexes and archives, for the next generation."

Matthews's commitment to the unnamed John and Jane Does has grown over the years since he first encountered the Tent Girl case. At times, his obsession has interfered with his family life: "I have spent a lot of time over the years...not doing what I should be doing. There's a bathroom remodel project that has taken a year now," he adds ruefully. But he is comfortable in the belief that, somehow, he has been called upon to do this work and he has found an on-line community of kindred spirits in the Doe Network. He calls his fellow volunteers "some of the most interesting and amazing people I have ever encountered... I can't find anyone who cares more than they do."

"We can't bring the Does back to life," Matthews concludes, "but we can bring them back home."

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