Investigators trying to identify hundreds of bodies in Miami

MIAMI – Twenty-five years ago, a man feeding ducks with his nephew spotted a cardboard box wrapped in rope and duct tape floating down a Miami Lakes canal. Thinking it might be something valuable, they corralled the box, opened it and were immediately met with the smell of rotting flesh.

It was no treasure. Instead, the discovery on Oct. 29, 1996, was the body of a short young woman with shoulder-length dark hair. And she’d been murdered.

For a quarter of a century, her identity has remained a mystery. Investigators believe she may be of Colombian descent. Now, police say, they are hoping new DNA testing and investigating familial genetic trees may finally help crack the case.

“Somebody has to know who she is,” said Miami-Dade Police Detective David Denmark, of the homicide cold-case squad. “If we can identify her, we can start tracking her final days and it’ll bring us that much closer to finding her murderer.”

The woman in the box isn’t alone.

Across Miami-Dade, there are over 300 cases of unidentified bodies still waiting to be identified, of which 233 are considered “active” cases with a good shot at being solved. Some of the dead have been murdered. Others succumbed to natural causes. Some were skeletal remains, with no way to know exactly how they died.

The earliest active case goes back to April 27, 1957, when the bones of a woman were found in a vacant lot after a brush fire in what is now the area of Palmetto Bay. The most recent: an older Black woman, wearing a cream-colored cheetah-print shirt and ripped jeans, found unresponsive on a bus bench at Northwest Ninth Avenue and 17th Street on Sept. 12.

The tasks fall to the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office, where investigator Brittney McLaurin scours historic files, interviews families of missing persons and publicizes cold cases with the hopes it may jog somebody’s distant memory. She’s helped by police detectives and forensic artists, as well as an army of online sleuths who volunteer their time, browsing internet databases trying to match bodies with names.

McLaurin started at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office in 2012, and four years later succeeded longtime unidentified-remains investigator Sandra Boyd. Among McLaurin’s efforts: ordering the re-running of fingerprints through national databases, and increasing outreach to the public — including starting an Instagram page — to highlight cases. She’s also hoping familial DNA genealogical tracing will increasingly help put names to the unidentified.

“It’s important for us to show we are still working these cases,” McLaurin said.

Every case poses its unique challenges.

Sometimes, investigators hope, the ink on the skin of the dead may be what solves the mystery.

Clues in tattoos, clothes

Take the case of a white woman found on Interstate 95 near Miami Gardens Drive on Feb. 7, 2020. She’d been hit by a car. The woman was 5-foot-5, 137 pounds, with short reddish-brown hair.

Her tattoos were distinct: two skulls on her right chest, a unicorn and the name “Paula” on her left chest. She had a dove and heart inked on her left arm, a snake on her left thigh. A tattoo of flowers encircled her left wrist. On her right ankle: the name “Ray.”

Maybe it’s a piece of clothing that may spark a memory.

On Jan 24, 2021, an older Black man was discovered hit by a car on West Okeechobee Road and Northwest 170th Street. He was between 60 and 80 years old, partially bald with a grayish beard. “He appeared very physically fit for his age,” McLaurin said.

The man’s distinction: He wore a cap emblazoned with the word “Florida.”

Forensic artist renderings are also key, especially for cases in which bodies were badly decomposed or mostly bones.

That’s what happened with a woman found murdered on Nov. 22, 2004. Construction workers — alerted by circling buzzards — found her body in the brush off Southwest 88th Street and Krome Avenue. The woman, believed to be between 40 and 65 years old, was the victim of a homicide, the Medical Examiner’s Office ruled.

Analyzing the woman’ s bone structure, Miami-Dade Police forensic artist Samantha Steinberg sketched a portrait of what she may have looked like: jowly, with shoulder-length dark hair and thin eyebrows. And most importantly, the woman sported distinct gold-colored tear-drop shaped earrings.

Many cases solved

There have been many successes.

Since McLaurin started investigating unidentified body cases, investigators have managed to identify the dead in 23 cold cases stretching back to 1957.

She was key in helping identify the body of Mary Brosley, of Massachusetts, who was murdered near the Everglades by serial killer Samuel Little in 1976.

Another case was that of Eva Marie Murphy, a mother of two who went missing on Halloween night 1988 in the Perrine area of South Miami-Dade. For years, her family held out hope that Murphy had just grown tired of her life, but was alive — somewhere.

Tracing family DNA

“If we knew for sure that she was dead, we could maybe accept it and move on,” her father, Edmond Rogers, told the Herald in 1991. “But this way, two years without hide nor hair, it’s hard, especially around Christmastime. Eva would always come over and we’d have a big tree and the babies would be there while we wrapped presents.”

Her case was revived two years ago by Miami-Dade missing persons detective Suzanne Gowdie, who handles cold cases. She and McLaurin compared notes. Eventually, Murphy’s family gave DNA samples that were matched to the badly decomposed remains of a woman who was found in a wooded area in the late 1980s.

Detectives may never know what happened to Murphy — an autopsy could not determine how she died, or even if her death was suspicious.

DNA was also key in identifying skeletal remains hidden in the brush of a 22-acre nature preserve next to the Palmetto Bay Village Center on Old Cutler Road four years ago. Genetic testing revealed the remains were those of Christine Pascale, a troubled one-time pilot who hurled herself, without a parachute, from a small plane in an apparent suicide attempt over South Miami-Dade.

There are many more mysteries that, for now, are just out of reach.

Like the man found in the surf of Miami Beach. He was large. Unusually large.

A couple found him face down on the beach at 17th Street on Dec. 24, 2009. He was wearing blue “Speedo” swim trunks and New Balance sneakers, with black socks. He was between 25 and 40 years old. And he measured 6-foot-9, weighing in at 335 pounds.

He carried no wallet, and no ID. He might have been a visitor, from out of state, or from overseas. Until he’s named, he’s identified only by his case number: 2009-3185.