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'They're like puzzles:' Inside NC's effort to identify nameless dead

Posted October 7, 2013

Clyde Gibbs Jr. is a medical examiner specialist who specializes in unidentified persons cases.

— For nearly four months, cars screamed down the interstate in Orange County, the drivers unaware of the gruesome scene yet to be discovered just yards away. Dumped beneath a billboard in Mebane, a boy lay buried in the brush – his decomposing body waiting to be found.

A skeleton, some clothing and $50 in cash were all that remained when a worker stumbled upon the boy on Sept. 25, 1998, while mowing beneath the billboard. Fifteen years later, little is known about the child, who was believed to be 10 to 12 years old.

Without a name, he is simply known as 98-6796 – his case number at the North Carolina medical examiner's office. There, his skeleton is stored in a cardboard box, stacked amongst the other remains of North Carolina's unknown dead – all of whom are cataloged and cared for by one man, medical examiner specialist Clyde Gibbs Jr.

"They're basically like puzzles," Gibbs said. "You’re looking at each individual bone to try and tell you what has happened to that individual."

North Carolina's unidentified people Unidentified people: Map & searchable database

North Carolina has 115 puzzles waiting to be solved – 115 people found dead in this state since 1975 whose identities are still unknown. Each case is unique – the infant swaddled in newspaper and left in a Durham crawlspace, the man wrapped in burlap and dumped in the Brunswick River, the woman buried beneath an old mattress in Newton Grove, just to name a few.

Gibbs knows them all – not by name, of course – but by the pieces of their puzzles and the stories they tell.

Dealing with death on a daily basis

Inside the state medical examiner's office in Raleigh, next to the autopsy rooms, is a small space called the Osteology Room, also known as "the bone room," where Gibbs spends most of his time.

Medical examiner specialist Clyde Gibbs Jr. Inside the medical examiner's bone room

There, the unidentified remains – both skeletal and ashes – are stored in boxes and stacked on metal shelves that line the walls. In the center of the room, a light blue sheet covers a medical examiner's table on wheels, where Gibbs works on the cases and lays out the remains of North Carolina's nameless.

"This is the Mebane boy," he said, grabbing a cardboard box from a shelf and placing it on the table. Gently opening it, he lifted the boy's skull out first and placed it on the table, followed by the vertebral column, arm and leg bones and ribs until he built what's left of the boy.

"We've got skeletons going back to the 70s," Gibbs said. "Those are kept simply because they can be used for teaching purposes, as well as just for the fact that if they are identified, we have something to return to the family."

NC counties with most unidentified
Wake – 9 people
Cumberland – 8 people
Johnston – 8 people
Sampson – 7 people
Wayne – 6 people

Full bodies are kept for up to a month and then cremated due to space constraints. Advanced decomposition cases are dealt with differently.

"I will actually go ahead and clean them up to full skeleton," Gibbs said. "I have this big cauldron back there that I can boil down the bones to clean them up completely so I can physically take the skeleton out and do age, sex, race (and) height determinations."

Morbid sights are nothing new to Gibbs, who has spent 16 years at the medical examiner's office and whose parents worked in the funeral business in Dare County. As a child, he remembers his mother and father waking him in the middle of the night and loading him into a hearse so they could pick up bodies. Gibbs slept in the back as they drove.

3-D facial reconstruction Medical examiner works to ID state's nameless dead

"I grew up being around that all the time," he said. "Having that training also helps dealing with death on a daily basis, because you know how to deal with the families."

Finding those families is the difficult part. Since he began at the medical examiner's office in 1997, Gibbs says three unknown people have been identified with the help of DNA and fingerprints. One of those people was 27-year-old Priscilla Blevins.

Connecting missing, unidentified persons' cases

Blevins was reported missing in Charlotte in 1975. Her skeletal remains were discovered 10 years later in western North Carolina, but authorities and the state medical examiner's office were not able to identify her until last October – 37 years after she went missing – when her sister provided a DNA sample that closed the case.

"When she was identified, we still had her skeleton, and we returned that to her sister," Gibbs said. "I think it's definitely closure for the family."

NC's unidentified in pictures NC's unidentified in pictures

While Blevins' cause of death has not been determined, the fact that her skeleton sat in the state medical examiner's office for 27 years while her family searched for her, not knowing she was dead, shows the importance DNA can play in connecting missing and unidentified persons' cases.

"Mothers are always the primary DNA collection that we wish to get ... because that gives a fairly 99 percent accuracy that you are related to that person," Gibbs said. "Everyone else – father, brother and sister – the numbers go down, but you can still be matched up."

Monica Caison tries to make those matches every Wednesday at the CUE Center for Missing Persons, which she founded in 1994.

"(That's) what we call our Jane and John Doe Day," said Caison, whose non-profit is based in Wilmington but helps families across the country. "We've got coroners that email us information, law enforcement (and) families."

Although her non-profit organization focuses on missing people, Caison says she wonders if some of the people she's searching for could be dead and marked "unidentified" at a medical examiner's office somewhere.

NC's unidentified by race
White – 69 people
Black – 34 people
Unsure – 9 people
Asian – 1 person
Native American – 1 person
Other – 1 person

"I think the main problem is that a lot of cold cases are lost or archived," Caison said. "There are so many cases out there that people just give up ... We're trying to bring them back to life and say, 'Hey, there's so much more we can do to find your loved one.'"

Finding a loved one is what got Betty Brown interested in missing and unidentified persons cases. The Winston-Salem woman has spent a lifetime searching for a brother she has never met. In 1957, before Brown was born, her mother's first husband took the couple's 5-month-old son and fled to another country.

"(My mother) went to law enforcement, and they said, 'We can't do anything,'" Brown said. "When I was older, I was like, you know, I want to do something. I want to find him."

She believes she has found her brother, who is living in Yemen, but says she has yet to get his DNA to prove they are siblings.

In the meantime, Brown, who works as a beauty adviser at Walgreens, spends much of her free time working on other people's cases. She volunteers as a victim advocate with NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, hoping to give others the same closure she seeks.

"I love doing the older cases, the ones that are forgotten," Brown said. "When I get my teeth into a (cold case), I don't let up."

'You have to be willing to work together'

NamUs records show North Carolina ranks 15th in the nation for the most unidentified dead people. California has the most cases – 1,668 – and Rhode Island has the least – zero.

Once an unidentified body is found in North Carolina, Gibbs enters what information he has about the person – DNA, dental charting, fingerprints, height, weight, hair color and clothing – into NamUs' national database, which anyone can access.

(Viewer discretion: Some of NamUs' unidentified cases include autopsy photos.)

"That's what I've tried to implement, that we photograph every little thing that we have on anyone that's considered unidentified and photograph all the clothing ourselves before we give it to police ... to make sure we have our own documentation, so that if it does get lost or destroyed, it's there," Gibbs said.

States with most unidentified
California – 1,668 people
New York – 1,309 people
Arizona – 1,164 people
Texas – 1,102 people
Florida – 777 people

That kind of attention to detail is what makes Gibbs a "NamUs superstar," according to Todd Matthews, NamUs' director of communications.

"Not as many people are as in tune with it as he is. He got it. He gets it. He's amazing," Matthews said. "I'd like to see more law enforcement officers take advantage. Come to the table and work with us. We invite them to join us, if they will."

One law enforcement officer who does take advantage of the NamUs database is Raleigh police homicide Detective Zeke Morse, who heard about the program from Gibbs and attended a NamUs conference in Florida.

"It's fascinating. I tell people all the time, if had to do another career, I would be an anthropologist," he said. "I am very passionate about our missing people and the unidentified remains that we have ... every single one of them means something to me."

As part of his job, Morse often observes autopsies at the state medical examiner's office and talks with Gibbs about missing people to see if they match any of his unidentified cases.

"I'll send Clyde a list of a dozen missing persons cases, and he responds within a day or two," Morse said, adding that he never closes a case, no matter how old it is. "It's a team. It's not just Clyde's responsibility. You have to be willing to work together."

It's that teamwork, Gibbs says, that he relies on as he tries to name North Carolina's 115 unidentified people, including the boy dumped below a Mebane billboard more than 15 years ago.

"The Mebane kid would be a very closing case for me," Gibbs said. "I've lived with (him) for all this time."

If you have information about one of North Carolina's unidentified cases, please call Clyde Gibbs at 919-743-9077 or email him at clyde.gibbs@dhhs.nc.gov.


The map shows approximate locations where the remains of North Carolina's 115 unidentified people were found. Click the icons to learn about each person's case.

Identification potential:
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  • JAT Oct 8, 2013

    RU - they probably told by bone structure and teeth. My child wears a size 3 but friends of hers wear a 8 or 9.

  • edtomjr Oct 8, 2013

    I work in he same building as this guy! Cool story!

  • diana123 Oct 8, 2013

    what a creepy article

  • RUforREAL Oct 8, 2013

    I have boys, and at 10 or 12 they were wearing a much larger shoe size. Is there a possibility that they have the age wrong (?)

  • JAT Oct 8, 2013

    I don't think he was Hispanic. You really don't hear of Hispanic kids being treated like this. He has what appeared to be pretty new shoes so he wasn't mistreated in that regard; and if I remember correctly, he had very good dental care and had received floride treatments in his back teeth.

    Could he have been handicapped and the family just snapped? Coudl it be another case like Zahra Baker? Maybe a family was passing through and he got sick and died and they put him there as an easy marker to come back and get his body and they just never came back? That would have been an easy explantation of why he was where he was: put the body under a sign as a marker.

    Plus, he had $50 on him. What poor immigrant family would leave $50 behind? Definitely not the sign of a poor child.

    Could someone have left the boy there for someone else to pick him up and he just stayed there and died?

  • anneonymousone Oct 7, 2013

    Con Amor, the tone of your writing was kind---such a rarity when referring to people who come to the US without papers!

    There are also many white, non-Hispanic people who come to the US without documentation. If the boy was not born in the US, he could have originally been from Ireland or Romania or Finland or any number of other places.

  • Billy the Kid Oct 7, 2013

    Very interesting article. The clay models are a little freaky though.

  • Con Amor brings luv and laughter Oct 7, 2013

    My honest opinion, and theory about the Mebane Boy. I could be totally wrong. He is listed as 'white' but I believe he was hispanic. And, Well, I know that many many immigrants come to this country and work, and save money to better the lives of their children & families. When they see how much better the quality of life is here, they often opt to send for their children, instead of sending money to the home countries. And Because the so called 'legal paths' that our goverment provide are designed and set up to take thousands of dollars worth of aplications and dozens of years waiting, to be told "No", the easiest thing is to have loved ones smuggled across.I've always felt that this child was smuggled in, and maybe something went wrong and he died being "smuggled" so the coyotes dumped his body, or maybe his parents couldnt come up with all of the money (often hiked up at delivery time),and was killed by the coyotes. No one could go to the police.Very sad reality. Happens everyday

  • anneonymousone Oct 7, 2013

    Some might see this as gruesome work; I see it as being profoundly respectful of the person who was here and all the people who care(d) about her or him.

  • JAT Oct 7, 2013

    the doe network has had all this information for years and years. it's really sad that there are so many people that either no one misses or no one reports as missing. someone knew the mebane boy, and knew that the next time they saw his parents, he wasn't with them and they were given an excuse that was obviously a lie. wonder if this DNA is ever compared with criminal DNA to see if any connections can be found?