'They're like puzzles:' Inside NC's effort to identify nameless dead
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, and each is cataloged and cared for by one man, medical examiner specialist Clyde Gibbs Jr.Posted — Updated
"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."
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
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."
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.
"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."
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.
"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.
"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.
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."
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