Roxboro officer solves four of NC's nameless dead cold cases
Posted March 25, 2014
Updated March 27, 2014
Roxboro, N.C. — Roxboro police officer Jason Howe had a feeling he could solve at least one case. Using his fingerprint analysis expertise, he began combing through the 115 cases of unidentified people found dead in North Carolina since the 1970s. Maybe, he thought, he could help name one of them. Fifteen minutes later, he had a match, and he didn't stop there.
Howe is credited with identifying four men who died in North Carolina between 1998 and 2001 and whose names were unknown for more than a decade. What has shocked state medical examiner officials is that Howe took on the cases himself – none of which have ties to Roxboro – and was able to identify the men in two days during his time off from work.
"I was stunned," said Clyde Gibbs, a medical examiner specialist who handles the state's unidentified dead cases. "At first, I was kind of like, ‘Oh my, it’s not possible.'"
WRAL News profiled Gibbs last October and his work with North Carolina's unidentified dead. Before Howe's findings, only eight unknown dead people had been identified in North Carolina since 1997. Gibbs says that number does not take into account people who are identified within a few days or weeks.
Gibbs immediately sent Howe's findings to the State Bureau of Investigation, which confirmed Howe's discovery. Gibbs also alerted retired Chief Medical Examiner Dr. John Butts, who completed an autopsy on one of the unknown men.
"(Butts) was totally confused as to why a Roxboro guy was involved," Gibbs said, adding that he set up a call between the men to discuss the case.
Howe says he began looking at the cases in February after talking with a colleague at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, where he teaches forensic science. He wanted to show her the power of fingerprints and how they can be helpful in identifying people.
As an experiment, he logged into NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, and pulled up one of North Carolina's cases – a man found dead in Durham on Aug. 6, 2000 – and examined the unknown man's fingerprint card.
"I saw a discrepancy in the fingerprinting patterns. The fingerprints were backwards," Howe said. "I had a gut feeling there was going to be a result out of this."
Fifteen minutes later, he matched the man's prints to an arrest record in New York – Francis Richard Valent, a white man, age 46, whose last known address was Binghamton, N.Y. An autopsy report shows he was lying on sheets of cardboard between railroad tracks in Durham when a train struck him. His blood-alcohol level was 0.09.
At the time of Valent's death, police could only run fingerprints in a statewide database. New technology now allows Howe and others to search nationwide.
"I knew the technology we have here could be helpful," Howe said. "The integration of technology has improved over the last 10 years."
But even with the upgraded technology, human errors still prevent some cases from being solved. As in Valent's case, his fingerprints were processed incorrectly at the time of his death. Howe says he was able to spot the error through his training as a latent print examiner.
"I'm not trying to fault anybody for what they're doing," Howe said. "You would expect administrative errors to occur."
After successfully identifying Valent, Howe decided to keep going and spent an entire weekend searching through more unidentified cases that had fingerprint cards on file. After two days, he identified three more men through fingerprints from arrest records:
- Yovani Perez, a Hispanic man, age 28, was found dead on June 23, 2001, in Sampson County. He was struck by a motor vehicle. He had no last known address.
- Santiago Maros, a Hispanic man, age 30, was found dead on Oct. 27, 1998, in Richmond County. He was sitting on train tracks and failed to move after the train conductor blew the whistle. “He was definitely intoxicated,” according to Gibbs, who said Maros' blood-alcohol level was two to three times over the limit at which people are considered impaired under North Carolina law. He had no last known address.
- Bud Hubert Johnson, a black man, age 69, was found dead on Jan. 26, 2000, in an unheated cinder-block shed on University Drive in Durham. He died of hypothermia and had no last known address. "It appears he may have been homeless," Howe said.
The challenge now is finding the men's families to let them know what happened. Gibbs has reached out to the agencies that handled the cases, and Howe has been searching through public records, hoping to track down the men's families.
"That's almost as hard as identifying them," Howe said.
Even if their families are found, Gibbs won't have any remains to give them. The men's bodies were all cremated and their ashes scattered at sea. That's what was done with cases back then, Gibbs says. Now, he keeps all the unidentified remains at the State Medical Examiner's Office in Raleigh in case a family member is found.
Gibbs says he hopes Howe's fingerprint work will lead to more cases being solved.
"I’m almost wondering if I shouldn’t send out all my fingerprinting cards to (Howe) and let him get the job done faster," Gibbs said. "He’ll definitely be on my radar."
Howe says he was happy to help, even though it meant working on his days off.
"I think we have this duty to go in and help these families find their loved ones," he said. "If I met an unfortunate end, I would hope there would be someone out there trying to figure out who I am."
If you have information about one of North Carolina's unidentified dead cases, call Clyde Gibbs at 919-743-9077 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
MAP: UNIDENTIFIED REMAINS FOUND IN N.C.
The map shows approximate locations where the remains of North Carolina's unidentified people were found. Click the icons to learn about each person's case.