The River Lady

For two and a half years she’s been waiting for someone to give her a name. And she’s not alone.

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She dressed carefully, as if looking nice still mattered to her on that autumn day two and a half years ago.

She got up and put on her outfit: underwear and hosiery, then a black skirt and a black blouse. She applied makeup and clasped two necklaces around her neck: one, a string of black pearls separated by small gold-colored beads; the other, a set of white pearls. They weren’t real pearls, just decent-looking fakes, but they carried out the black-and-white theme of her attire so nicely that you can almost imagine her thoughtfully selecting them from the tangle of a jewelry box. And then there were her shoes—Easy Spirit walkers. Comfortable favorites of countless sixtysomething women like her, and nice quality, but worn and certainly not chic.

What she did after she dabbed on her makeup and tied her Easy Spirits is a cipher. Her narrative disappears for a while, until the moment her body smacked into the Ohio River so hard purple bruises spread across the porcelain skin of her chest and her lungs slapped against her ribs like ripe fruit in a runaway grocery cart.

And that’s where her story ended, or at least the part of it that she controlled. What’s left now is a mystery—who she was, how she died, and with whom she belongs. Ever since that cold day in late autumn when she was fished out of the Ohio River, this woman’s body—dubbed “the River Lady” by some—has been kept at the Hamilton County morgue in the hope that she can be returned to family and friends for burial, restoring to her some scrap of dignity.

This has proved to be surprisingly difficult. The River Lady must have been someone in life; must have had relatives, no matter how distant, or neighbors, no matter how unfriendly, who will realize they haven’t seen or heard from her in ages, who might see her picture in the newspaper and gasp, “Isn’t that…?” But for now, the only thing that’s kept her from becoming Nobody are the efforts of the people around her: Total strangers who are treating her like someone, who are trying to give her a name.

Around 1 p.m. on November 29, 2006, a driver making a delivery in North Bend spotted something in the Ohio River: the backside of a woman floating just off shore.

The fire department assisted in the recovery, laying planks in the shallow water and walking out on the sand bar where her body was stuck. They brought her back in a rescue basket dripping with the river’s detritus and set her on the bank, where Hamilton County Detective Ken Schweinefus; Hamilton County’s then–deputy coroner Michael Kenny; and Nancy Woolum, an investigator from the coroner’s office, got their first look at her. She was about five-foot-two and perhaps 60 years old. Her teeth, crooked and chipped, implied a certain amount of personal neglect. But she was wearing makeup, her short gray hair was highlighted, and her clothes and jewelry suggested that she took care of herself—or that someone looked after her.

There are several ways you can end up deceased in the river. You can jump in, you can fall in, or you can be shoved in, dead or alive. An on-the-spot examination suggested to investigators that foul play was unlikely, and eventually the sheriff’s office released information about the body of a white female, aged 55-65, found in the river in the vicinity of North Bend. Typically, on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the mother of all forensic cop shows, who a decedent was and how they came to be dead is sorted out by the second commercial break. In real life, it takes time. The next morning, Ken Schweinefus joined Michael Kenny at the morgue, looking for clues to the who and the how.

“Part of my job when I go to the autopsy is to observe if there are certain characteristics—tattoos, scars, anything that may help us get this female identified,” Schweinefus explains. He and Kenny searched the landscape of her body before the first cut was made. “We found nothing,” the detective says.

The rest of the procedure was only slightly more revealing. Most bodies that go into the river sink then reemerge days later, bloated and buoyed by the gases of decomposition. And often, by the time they’re recovered, they’ve been knocked around by barges and gnawed by turtles. But the River Lady was spared those indignities; she wasn’t particularly bloated or battered, so she hadn’t been in the water too long—less than two days, maybe less than one. The bruises on her chest and her lungs indicated trauma; so did her broken ribs—injuries consistent with a fall from a high structure, Kenny told the detective. But none of these were sufficient to end her life, and ultimately Kenny listed drowning as the cause of death.

Suicide, is that what you’re thinking? A horrifying swan dive off a bridge upriver? That’s a possible scenario, but not a scientific finding. The coroner’s report lists Manner of Death as “undetermined.” Her demise might be suicide, homicide, or accidental. It certainly wasn’t natural.

Schweinefus notified law enforcement agencies in the area as well as NCIC—the National Crime Information Center, a database maintained by the Federal Bureau of Information. Her fingerprints went into IAFIS—the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Information System—but there was no match. Whatever the River Lady had done in life, it hadn’t caused her to be entered into that electronic warehouse of miscreants.

The coroner’s office stored her DNA, a forensic dentist charted her teeth and dental work, and Woolum began her own investigation, sharing information with Schweinefus. There were two local leads that seemed like real possibilities, but both women were found alive. “That makes it good for the families,” says Woolum. But it didn’t help the River Lady. The two investigators puzzled over the scant clues they had, trying to construct a window into the woman’s life. With the black clothes and the comfy shoes, Woolum thought she might be a waitress; Schweinefus speculated she was an office worker who put on Easy Spirits to walk to lunch. But if either of those things were the case, wouldn’t her boss have looked around and said, “Hey, where’s…?” That simply didn’t happen.

Here’s what it looks like, says Woolum: “No one is missing her.”

Since he started trying to unravel the mystery of the River Lady, Schweinefus has gotten inquiries from police jurisdictions searching for aging white females from as far away as Alabama and Texas. “It just amazes me how many missing people there are out there,” he says.

In January 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice Journal estimated that, on any given day, there are as many as 100,000 active missing person cases in the country. Presumably, some of them would correspond with the 40,000 sets of anonymous human remains the journal estimates are held in the nation’s medical examiners’ evidence rooms.

Many states have official Web site clearinghouses to publicize “missings” and “unidentifieds” online, but there are also an abundance of independent Web sites, blogs, and forums put together by ordinary citizens interested in—some would say obsessed with—solving such cases. One of the most well-regarded citizen-run sites is the Doe Network (www.doenetwork.org), which keeps the stories of unidentified deceased adults in the public eye. The site provides a place where those who’ve lost someone can pore over information from all over North America, and where amateur sleuths can look for clues. Although the phrase “amateur sleuth” is misleading. Since the Doe Network’s inception in the late 1990s, 40 bodies have been identified with its assistance. As I worked on this story, investigators talked about using it almost as often as they referred to the FBI’s NCIC database.

“We’ve had to build relationships with law enforcement,” says Todd Matthews, a Doe Network administrator, “and we’ve done really well with that.” The 38-year-old automotive quality auditor from Livingston, Tennessee, is one of the network’s founders. Shortly after he got married, at 18, he became fascinated with the story of a woman his father-in-law had discovered near Georgetown, Kentucky, in 1968. Known as the Tent Girl (her partially-decomposed body had been wrapped in a canvas tarp), she was buried in the Georgetown Cemetery.

Matthews was moved by the story; a small-town guy who valued family and friends, he could only imagine the torment of the people who’d been this nameless girl’s relatives. With the help of the Internet, Matthews’s interest turned to a major preoccupation. He scoured bulletin boards, chat rooms, public forums—anyplace people were discussing lost individuals. In 1998, he surfed his way to an Arkansas woman named Rosemary Westbrook who was looking for an older sister who hadn’t been heard from in 30 years. Matthews gathered information from the family and took his suspicions to Emily Craig, Kentucky’s highly regarded forensic anthropologist and author of Teasing Secrets from the Dead, who ordered the Tent Girl’s body be exhumed. DNA confirmed that the Tent Girl was Westbrook’s lost sister, Barbara Ann Hackman-Taylor; Barbara Ann’s deceased husband is now suspected to have been her killer.

Some of the people who helped develop the  Doe Network were self-taught detectives like Matthews, and some were people in a desperate search to find lost loved ones. What they all recognized was that there needed to be a way to make accurate information about cases available—not just to law enforcement, but to the public as well.

“I could never explain the relationship I had with the Tent Girl,” Matthews says. In his compulsion to solve her mystery, the anonymous woman became family to him—which means he also projected a not-entirely-helpful fanaticism when he was trying to convince police that he’d figured out her identity. “I became ‘that screwball,’” he says. Today, his feet firmly planted on the ground, he often speaks to college classes about his work and handles sensitive information that comes into the network—crime tips that police will ask him to hold in confidence. Sometimes he finds himself working with a young officer who has never used a DNA collection kit, or a sheriff in a rural district who has never issued a disinter order, and he can steer them through the process. “Experience takes you a long way in lieu of education,” he says.

Last year, two half-century-old cold cases heated up with the possibility that a body in Georgia and a long-lost Miami University student were the same. In 2005, Butler County Sheriff’s commander of cold case homicide, Frank Smith, was going over the slim file on Ronald Tammen Jr., a 19-year-old Miami sophomore who had vanished from his Oxford dorm in April 1953. Smith realized the information was so old it had never been put online. “By the time the NCIC system and the Doe Network came about,” Smith says, “Tammen was forgotten.” So Smith entered Tammen into the world of electronic sleuthing.

Fast forward to 2008: Mike Freeman, a sheriff’s detective in Walker County, Georgia, was doing a routine case review when he pulled out a file for an unidentified decedent—a young man found in the woods near LaFayette, Georgia, in July 1953. “I’m not an Internet guru,” Freeman says, but it didn’t take too many keystrokes to arrive at the story of Ron Tammen.

Freeman called Smith and they swapped details: Tammen was five-foot-ten and weighed 175; athletic, talented, and popular, he was enrolled in the Navy ROTC Program at Miami. The LaFayette body was badly decomposed when it was found, but according to records, the man was five-foot-nine, weighed 155 to 160, and was wearing military-issue socks, shorts, and T-shirt. Granted, Oxford and northeast Georgia are distant, but as Freeman points out, “our body was 200 yards off of Highway 27”—a main thoroughfare that runs through southwest Ohio, too.

Fortunately the LaFayette body had been buried, not cremated. Smith located Tammen’s sister Marcia and obtained a DNA sample from her. Then last February, Freeman and Smith watched as a rickety, rotting wooden casket was lifted from a 55-year-old Georgia grave.

There wasn’t much left of the body—just some teeth and bits of femur—but the FBI’s Quantico crime lab succeeded in extracting DNA, and the results were compared to Marcia Tammen’s. And that’s where the lucky breaks ended: the two weren’t a match. Wherever Ron Tammen went that night in 1953, he did not end up in the Georgia woods. It sounds like a failure on two fronts, but neither detective seems to feel that way. Freeman now has a DNA profile that can be used with other possible matches; if he hadn’t followed the Tammen red herring, that wouldn’t exist.

“It really did start the ball rolling,” agrees Smith, who is now actively working on the case. He’s tracked down and interviewed men—now in their mid-70s—who were in the dorm that night. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Smith has also pried loose from the FBI a 1954 report investigating whether Tammen was a draft evader.

And Tammen’s DNA—that is, the DNA from his sister—is filed with NCIC and the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a database of convicted offenders. If Tammen is still alive and if he does something to land his genetic material there, “sooner or later we’ll find out,” Smith says. DNA is a police tool that wasn’t even a blip on the science fiction radar screen when Tammen went missing. “If there’s a way of ever solving this,” says Smith, “that’s the way I think it will be solved.”

There are laws about reporting and investigating missing children and a well-developed national system for doing so. But here’s the complicated thing about lost adults such as the River Lady. As Hamilton County Coroner O’dell Owens points out, sometimes they don’t want to be found, and sometimes no one knows to look for them. It may be irresponsible when a young man hitchhikes across the country without calling his mother, but it’s not illegal. Or perhaps a relative is involved in drugs or prostitution. “[Families may] assume they’re alive, but they have no desire to track them down,” Owens says. A woman running from an abusive spouse might leave without telling her friends; an Alzheimer’s patient living alone might wander off in a fog of dementia. And if any of them turn up in a morgue without identification, “They’re individuals no one is looking for,” Owens says. “That’s the sad part.”

“TV shows give such a false idea,” he adds. In a television drama, every human being seems to be in some sort of databank; a coroner simply has to put in a DNA sample and “it pops up a picture,” he says. Setting aside the fact that extracting DNA from tissue is a complex process and that genetic analysis, as Owens says, “doesn’t give you a picture; it gives you graphs to start with,” there’s the matter of that magical repository where every missing person and every unidentified body are on file. That doesn’t exist, at least not at this point. But it’s closer to being a reality— thanks, in part, to Debbie Culberson.

I visited with Culberson earlier this year. It was the second time I’d been inside her pleasant  home in Blanchester, about 35 miles east of Cincinnati. The first time was 13 years ago, after her 22-year-old daughter, Carrie, disappeared.

Since then, an extraordinary trial sent Vincent Doan, Carrie’s boyfriend, to jail for her murder; the Culberson family won a wrongful death suit against the village of Blanchester for the police chief’s handling of the investigation; and Carrie’s story has been featured from Court TV to A&E. But what did not change in Culberson’s life is this: No one called to say, “We have found Carrie’s body.” So she set out to do that herself.

In her conversations with police and coroners, Culberson learned that an unidentified body might be cremated instead of buried, or bones might simply be stored in an evidence room. “I said, ‘You mean to tell me you don’t have to test these remains or anything?’” she recalls. “I realized my daughter could be sitting in a box on a shelf someplace and I’ll never know it.”

Eight years ago, she took her frustration to then-Rep. Steve Chabot. Chabot, a veteran of the House Judiciary Committee, understood what she was talking about because he’d worked with groups such as the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children on similar issues. “Her idea was, there are thousands of missing people and thousands of unidentified remains,” Chabot recalls. “Why not a national database and regulations about using new technology to help I.D. remains and match them with the missing?”

In 2006, Culberson and the Doe Network’s Todd Matthews found themselves in the middle of an effort to do just that when the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs began developing NamUs—the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (www.namus.gov). Both have been advisors in planning the system, which went live in December, and remain involved with it now.

Two searchable databases make up NamUs—one for missing persons, one for unidentified decedents. Each entry contains as much information as is available about the case, from dental records to date of birth to snapshots of class rings and moles. If fingerprints are available, they’ll be on file; so will DNA information. But the big advantage of NamUs over existing government systems is that anyone can use it. From the very beginning, says Kevin Lothridge, executive director of the National Forensic Science Technology Center, which developed NamUs for the government, “that was the tenet that drove this.” Police and FBI can access the system; so can a frantic Manhattan mother whose son has disappeared in Alaska. “Thousands of eyes can help everyone,” Lothridge says. The system is set up to restrict the general public from certain kinds of information (grisly photos, for example). But beyond that, it’s as user-friendly as possible, because the users are essential to its success.

You’re trying to find out what happened to your mom’s hippie sister who vanished during the Summer of Love? You can add her to the system. You found a picture of the backpack your brother used when he vanished in the Rockies? You can have it posted. You want to put together a flyer to publicize his disappearance? With a click, NamUs can do that, too.

It’s still early days for the program. Unidentifieds have to be added by medical examiners and coroners (there were only about 3,700 of them available in the system as this article was being written). The missing persons’ section lists about 1,300, but many more are in the process of being vetted before being placed online. It will take time, and it may take some cajoling, too, because law enforcement is not mandated to use the site.

Later this year, the Web site will launch a new feature: the “lost” and “found” databases will automatically search one another to pair corresponding details—fingerprints, dental records, hair color, location, circumstances, et cetera. Which means that somewhere in cyberspace, the missing and the dead could meet their matches.

“Here it is,” says Debbie Culberson. “Found December 29, 1996. St. Joseph County, Indiana. Partial skeleton. Height and weight estimated.” She’s showing me a NamUs listing for a white female. “Brown hair. Dental record.”

She has seen this entry before; she says Emily Craig, Kentucky’s forensic anthropologist, compared this woman’s dental record with Carrie’s. The teeth didn’t match. “But I don’t know the last dentist that Carrie saw,” she says. And since this Jane Doe has a DNA profile on file at CHI—the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas—and so does Carrie, she has asked for a comparison.

About the same time that Culberson began rattling cages in Washington, D.C., in her search for Carrie, the government was realizing that the nation’s law enforcement agencies had a huge backlog of unanalyzed DNA samples and biological evidence—a problem made clear when the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center overwhelmed America’s forensic resources. To address that—and to maximize the use of DNA in crime-solving—the federal government funded the $1 billion DNA Initiative to pay for, among other things, DNA tests for any law enforcement agency that needs them. The highly regarded CHI is one of the programs supported by the DNA Initiative. The staff there, Culberson says, is “awesome.”

Plenty of people involved in NamUs would probably say the same about her. Today she’s a regional case manager for NamUs, checking data about other people’s lost loved ones, gently prodding cops and coroners to update records, posting pictures and fingerprints. Thirteen years ago, when she started looking for her daughter, she consulted psychics; now she believes in the cosmic power of the Internet and has faith in scientists’ ability to unlock the secrets of desiccated bones. These things, she says, “may be the only way I can find Carrie.”

This winter, the Hamilton County Coroner’s office was preparing to add the River Lady to the NamUs system. Details about her—race, height, weight, the sad scenario of her discovery—will be put in, along with her DNA profile, her fingerprints, dental records, photos of her belongings, and a sketch of what she could have looked like in life: a pleasant women who might have poured your coffee, sat next to you in church, shared your seat on the bus. Once she’s there and the whole world can look, maybe someone will see her and gasp, “Look, it’s…”

Or maybe a computer will.

Originally published in the March 2009 issue.

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