COLLIER COUNTY, Fla.- There's an identity mystery at the medical examiner's office! Coroners across the state have hundreds of bodies but don't know who they are or where they came from.
A medical examiner right here in southwest Florida opened the information about these "anonymous" people to the public hoping to find out who they are.
Before 1990, only law enforcement had the tools to search for un-identifed bodies. The Collier County medical examiner thought that wasn't right and her idea for a Florida database of unidentified bodies paved the way for national databases now helping to identify people without a name.
Dr. Marta Coburn created the Florida Unidentified Decedents database in the 1990s.
At that time, Florida had no central system to keep track of bodies without names. The only way families could locate their loved ones was to write a letter to each and every medical examiner's office in the state of Florida.
"It was heartbreaking to me to see that family members would have to write to each individual medical examiners office or law enforcement agency," said Coburn about why she was inspired to create the database.
She says families then had to rely on a busy medical examiners office to search through dozens of unidentifed bodies. For just six thousand dollars, Coburn created a centralized database that is now priceless to victims' families.
"I knew that the attention that these cases was receiving was very minimal at best. One day a thought came to me if there could be a clearing house that could contain all pertinent information that could allow access to the public," said Coburn.
Dr. Coburn believed the people most dedicated to identifying these unnamed bodies are the people who loved them. Her searchable database contained information about the person: height, weight, approximate age, clothing, and when they were found. It left out details of the crime that might upset the family.
It also put the same information she had at the fingertips of the public.
"So it's really easy to search and it is not unlike how the police do their canvassing and follow up on their leads," said Coburn.
The Collier office became a clearing house for information from across the state and soon they were putting names to these unidentified faces.
The most identifications have come from Orange County in Dr. Jan Garavaglia's office. She says the database has been a huge help to medical examiners and even law enforcement.
"I think it's just sad to be buried unknown. I guess the person doesn't know but family members care and I care. It's just a lonely statement on humanity that you would die and nobody would know it," said Garavaglia.
With the help of the database, Dr. Garavaglia's office has made seven identifications.
Most have come from families like in the case of a man found on the sidewalk who died from a heroin overdose.
"We had his body. We knew what happened to him but we didn't know who he was," said Dr. Garavaglia. "We didn't know who he was from 1997 til 2006 where then FLUID DB helped us get him identified."
Dr. Coburn says she's glad to know she has helped bring closure to families.
"I want to be able to show the family over the years by documentation what we did every step of the way to work and continue working and keep it in the forefront rather than the back burner," said Coburn.
Dr. Coburns was called upon during the Bush administration by the National Institute of Health talk about her idea.
Those discussions eventually lead to medical examiners across the country creating the national NAMEUS database. You can search that database by clicking here.
Surprisingly, many of these cases have been solved by what they call "web sleuths." Those are people who for fun go online and compare news articles and missing person reports with the database.
You can find a link to the Florida database by clicking here.