Three years ago this week, a man believed to be in his 50s was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell in a north Aurora apartment complex. He was likely Latino, weighed 191 pounds and stood 5 feet, 6 inches tall. When he died, he was wearing five layers of shirts and jackets, three pairs of socks and two pairs of pants. The low temperature at Buckley Air Force Base the morning John Doe’s body was found, Dec. 13, 2016, was reported to be 19 degrees.
Doe was last seen alive — snoring — at about 2 a.m., but found dead on a landing in the Town Square Apartments about five and a half hours later, according to an autopsy report from the Adams County Coroner’s Office. A doctor determined he died from a “massive gastrointestinal hemorrhage” due to complications from advanced liver disease, which may have been caused by chronic alcohol abuse. His blood-alcohol level was .229 grams per 100 milliliters when he died, according to a toxicology report. The legal limit to drive is .08.
Officials are still seeking to officially identify the man, who was believed to homeless and may have at one point used the name Oscar Montoya.
The unidentified Aurora man is one of 13,102 currently unidentified dead persons across the continental U.S. and its territories listed on a national database intended to track and solve cases of unidentified, unclaimed and missing people. Each year across the U.S., more than 4,000 unidentified bodies are discovered, and about a quarter of those people remain unidentified after one year.
There are currently 79 unidentified corpses and body parts across Colorado, ranging from mummified cadavers, to partially decomposed remains, to bone fragments found while contractors turn dirt for new development projects, according to the most recent calculations from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. The oldest listed case of unidentified remains in Colorado is tied to the charred corpse of a young woman found under a log, along highway 119 in Gilpin County in 1952. The most recent case stems from a partial human skeleton discovered Oct. 2 in Ouray.
But disparate databases and incongruous record keeping renders tracking the official number of unidentified bodies across the state and country a constantly moving target.
The FBI has two different systems for tracking unidentified persons: The National Crime Information Center and the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or ViCAP. As of 2018, there were 8,135 records of unidentified people listed in the NCIC file, with 801 entries added last year. But only 74 percent of the records entered in 2018 were tied to cases of unidentified human remains, with about 1 percent pertaining to unidentified victims of “catastrophes” and the remaining quarter relating to living people who cannot officially ascertain their own identity.
There are 159 cases currently entered into the ViCAP database, which tabulates unsolved murders, unidentified remains and missing persons to help identify patterns across state lines and pin possible serial killers. Two of the current ViCAP entries have Aurora ties. Both center on unsolved homicides from the 2000s.
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation also maintains its own cold case repository. It lists only 32 unidentified persons cases in the state, compared to nearly seven dozen on NamUs.
Audrey Simkins, investigative analyst with CBI’s cold case team, said the agency is cognizant of the discrepancy among the databases and has been actively working for the past year to ensure Colorado’s unidentified persons system reflects national numbers.
“We’re aware of that, and we’re working through that,” she said of the discrepancies.
UNKNOWN NAMES, UNKNOWN NUMBERS
Part of the difficulty of maintaining any of the databases related to unidentified persons is that all information must be inputted manually, largely by coroners and medical professionals. County officials have only been doing so on NamUs since it was created via a federal grant in 2008, meaning all older cases must be sorted through as time allows.
“We’re definitely stumbling across files and cases that have been missed over the years,” said Dustin Driscoll, regional program specialist for NamUs. “It’s really up to (coroners and medical examiners) to put in those cases.”
Just in Arapahoe and Adams counties, pinning down the exact number of unidentified remains is slippery. The Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office currently lists five cases of unidentified remains in recent annual reports, though only four are listed on NamUs. The fifth case relates to a stillborn child found mummified in an Arapahoe County attic several years ago, according to Elizabeth Ortiz, medicolegal death investigator with the coroner’s office. She said that while the child remains unidentified, there is no way to formally identify the infant because it was likely never given a name or birth certificate.
“We think … she must have had a miscarriage and placed the stillborn in a box and placed it in the attic,” Ortiz said.
Following a query from The Sentinel, the coroner’s office acknowledged there are in fact seven cases of unidentified remains in the county, as one case on NamUs had not been included in the county’s recent annual reports, and another instance of an infant found dead in a box beside a church pre-dated modern record-keeping practices.
The former case omitted from recent county reports centers on a man found shot to death beside a Sheridan dumpster in August 1988.
Arapahoe County Coroner Dr. Kelly Lear said the case was likely not included in annual reports because the yearly count of unidentified persons in the county scours a digital database that only maintains records dating back to the mid 1990s. An additional case of an unidentified skeleton found in a field beside Interstate 70 and Peoria Street in the early 1980s was included in the past several reports thanks to the collective memory of staffers, Lear said.
“Through kind of the office folklore, we included the skeletal remains from east Aurora because that was one that was kind of on everybody’s radar — it was known by the office,” she said. “But the ‘80s homicide was not at the forefront of people’s minds. When it wasn’t on the database there was nobody to say, ‘Oh, what about this?’ It will be in the annual report now.”
It’s currently unclear where the skeletal remains found on April 15, 1982 are located, Ortiz said. The Sheridan Doe was buried in an unmarked grave — number four in subsection 235 of section 14a — at the Littleton Cemetery on Oct. 28, 1988.
The final unidentified Arapahoe County case mentioned in the coroner’s annual report but not listed on NamUs is linked to a skull found during a cemetery remodeling 12 years ago.
The coroner’s office for Adams and Broomfield Counties maintains custody of 12 unidentified remains, and all but those of the Aurora man found in 2016 are skeletons or partial skeletons, according to Chief Coroner Monica Broncucia-Jordan. Eleven Adams County cases are publicly viewable on NamUs. An additional Adams County case centered on the remains of a young woman found in a field near East 54th Avenue and Marion Street on Jan. 8, 1994 is listed on the CBI database, but not on NamUs.
Two cases previously tied to Adams County were recently edited on the NamUs database after The Sentinel questioned why remains found in Castle Rock and Durango were listed as having been discovered in Adams County. Driscoll said it may have been because Adams County is the first option on the alphabetical drop down menu when someone enters data into the “County” field, and whoever entered those cases selected the first choice.
Douglas County, which technically covers a small fraction of southeast Aurora, has one Jane Doe — the female version of the archaic term from English common law that’s used as an identity placeholder for law enforcement, medical examiners and courts — entered into the NamUs system. The case centers on a young woman who was found dead in the Pike San Isabel National Forest at the Rainbow Falls Campground in June 1993. She was found wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt, and a necklace with “wizard hands holding a round tiger-eye stone pendant,” according to a synopsis of the evidence. The case is also entered in the FBI’s ViCAP system.
There are currently two Aurora-based unidentified persons cases listed on the NamUs database, including that of the suspected homeless man found dead on East 16th Avenue in December 2016. The other local case stems from a partial male jawbone found along the shoreline of the Cherry Creek Reservoir on June 1, 2013. The Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office submitted the scant sample for DNA testing, but has yet to receive any positive matches. The mandible is currently in the custody of the NamUs lab in Texas, Ortiz said.
FRESH SOIL, LOOSE TOMES
Where exactly unidentified remains end up depends on the county in which they’re found, when and the quantity of the sample, according to local coroners. Arapahoe County currently only has the body of the mummified infant and the skull found in a local cemetery at the coroner’s facility in Centennial, Lear said. Most older remains have since been buried or cremated, according to Ortiz.
Among those is the body of a Glendale man found among “large amounts of cash” and drug paraphernalia in February 1998, according to a summary on NamUs. The man, who was found with several fake identification cards, was eventually cremated, which has proved problematic for Ortiz’s ongoing investigation of the fatal drug overdose, she said. Doe had 132 nanograms of heroin per milliliter of blood in his body when he died, according to an autopsy report.
“Knowing what we know now, he would have been buried and we would have exhumed him … I honestly don’t know why we cremated him,” she said. “Now, we would not cremate a John or Jane Doe just because of the advances in DNA.”
The case garnered attention shortly after Doe’s body was discovered because a Glendale police officer who investigated the scene was accused of stealing the cash on the premises, according to reporting from the time published in the Rocky Mountain News.
The final disposition of the county’s other Does, including the Sheridan man found several days after he had been fatally shot and the skeletal remains of the man found in the eastern portion of the county beside a hat bearing the words “Kicking Horse Job Corps” in April 1982, is largely up to the county’s Department of Human Services. The county contracts with a carousel of mortuaries to arrange and pay for indigent and unidentified people. Ortiz said funeral homes can place bodies in any cemetery they desire, though the county tracks the final resting place in case an exhumation is warranted in the future. Last year, the county’s public administrator handled eight cases of people who were identified, but either unclaimed or had family who were unable to pay for a final disposition, according to county documents.
Lear said if she had any Does as intact as the Aurora man found three years ago, she would keep them at her facility for “an extended period.” There are no statutory guidelines regarding how long an unidentified corpse must be kept at a county morgue, according to Lear.
“If I had an intact body that is unidentified, we would definitely keep that here for some period of time,” she said. “I honestly can’t speak to how long that might be before we decided burial was necessary, but it wouldn’t be something where we turn around and 10 days later they’re buried.”
Honoring a person’s final wishes for disposition can also become a cultural or moral quandary, according to Lear.
“You have to kind of put the moral and ethical and cultural issues first,” she said. “If someone is American Indian, they don’t want to be cremated … not everybody believes in the same disposition and processes for after death and what should happen to that vessel.”
Broncucia-Jordan said she has elected to keep all unidentified remains frozen on-site at the coroner’s office in Adams County. She said keeping the bones and bodies above ground improves ease of access to retrieve DNA samples or obtain pictures to create sketches or clay busts.
“As science evolves, it’s easier to have access to the remains rather than trying to go and exhume them,” she said.
And the science is improving. Driscoll with NamUs said advances in DNA testing allow researchers to extract DNA from older and dirtier samples every year.
“We’ll take anything from a mandible to a foot to an entire skeleton,” he said. “We’re getting profiles off of things we tested several years ago.”
Driscoll said new unidentified and unclaimed persons cases are entered and cleared to and from the database every day, and there’s no particular region in the Mountain West that elicits more identification successes. However, he said desert environments degrade DNA quicker, and snowier, colder climates preserve genetic material better.
“If it’s in the hot desert, it’s sometimes hard to get DNA off of that, or if it’s preserved in the snow, sometimes that’s easier,” he said. “But we’ve definitely been lucky with cases, even with some of the burned or charred remains.”
Arizona, where Driscoll is based, currently has 1,789 remains without identities, in part because of people dying while crossing the state’s southern border with Mexico and in part because the state’s arid climate rapidly decomposes flesh.
“I don’t know how they do it,” Ortiz said of Arizona’s caseload. “It takes about three days for a body to become skeletonized because of the heat, and it’s so dry.”
Lear, who previously worked in New Mexico, said the heat and dry environment can greatly accelerate the putrefaction and mummification processes. Animal predators feeding on corpses can speed up decomposition, too.
Members of the public, as well as law enforcement agencies, can use NamUs to request advanced DNA testing from the database’s academic hub, the University of North Texas. There, citizens can submit samples to be tested for mitochondrial DNA — which is not currently offered by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation — for free. Almost all unidentified remains from Colorado go to the University of North Texas for initial testing, according to Simkins with CBI.
But there is no legal requirement to add new Colorado cases to the NamUs system, and Driscoll’s team is constantly lobbying medical death professionals to continue to input older cases to the data mine. Members of the public and law enforcement agencies are welcome to add their own cases, too.
“We could get a case from 1987 entered tomorrow,” Driscoll said. “A lot of it is reviewing old cases and going back and requesting additional details on these cases that have been in the system for a while … Maybe we can find additional samples for DNA analysis or an old fingerprint card a law enforcement agency may have.”
A flurry of states in recent years have passed legislation to require county coroners to add new unidentified, unclaimed and certain missing persons cases to the national repository. Following passage of a New York state law in 2017, Tennessee, Illinois, Michigan, Oklahoma, Arkansas, West Virginia, New Mexico and North Carolina have all enacted statutes requiring NamUs inputs, according to Driscoll. He said he was not aware of any such legislation currently being floated in Colorado.
Broncucia-Jordan in Adams County said while she would like to audit her office’s NamUs entries with increased regularity and work the existing cases more, the mushrooming population in the metro area, and in turn deaths, has stretched resources thin.
“That is something I wish that I had the resources to do, but unfortunately with the level of volume that the office has and just with the people that are dying on a daily basis, there’s not someone I can fully dedicate to unidentified cases, which would be nice to go back and see what we could do on these,” Broncucia-Jordan said.
By law, most deaths that occur within any Colorado county are required to be reported to the coroner’s office, including any death that occurs suddenly, unexpectedly or under suspicious circumstances, any deaths related to drugs or alcohol, and any death that occurs within one day of admission to a hospital, among several other categories.
Last year, that translated to more than 85 percent of the 4,165 deaths reported in Arapahoe County to be forwarded to coroner’s office. Lear’s office accepted jurisdiction — meaning one of her physicians signed the death certificate — of 604 bodies last year, marking a 30 percent increase from 10 years prior.
The Adams County Coroner’s Office annual report is not publicly available.
The ballooning caseload means it’s probable there are additional unidentified cases from the past that are not included in current county tallies or listed on NamUs.
“There are likely cases that I am unaware of that have been buried from years and years ago,” Broncucia-Jordan said.
Ortiz, who is the official NamUs administrator for Arapahoe County, said she, too, hasn’t been able to thumb through the entire six and a half decades of case files her office maintains.
“I haven’t had the chance to go through all the files,” she said. “I would like to think we’ve kept a good record as to how many John and Jane Does we have, but I haven’t gone through all the files … We are getting busier and busier at our office and even the small tasks are getting difficult to complete … we’re just getting swamped.”
ONIONS, SUNGLASSES AND SILENCE
Even if officials could hire additional staffers to comb through old unidentified persons cases, tackling decades-old investigations with limited samples and dead sources is arduous work that seldom nets rewards, according to Simkins with CBI’s cold case team, which was formed via state statute in 2007.
“The older a case goes the more difficult it becomes,” Simkins said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be solved.”
Indeed, hope pervades the world of cold case investigations, which in Colorado technically covers any case opened since 1970 that has gone unresolved for at least three years.
“If it was easy they’d all be solved,” Simkins said. “Sometimes it’s investigative resources, sometimes it’s the state of the technology at the time, sometimes it’s the day and the time it occurred and what was going on that day and the weather conditions. All of that goes into it … But that’s not to say people should lose hope, because we see things solved all the time.”
In Colorado, 52 unidentified persons cases have been resolved since 2008, according to the NamUs database. More than 30 of those cases were solved with the help of the national catalogue.
“It’s important to continue to work them, to never give up on them and to never forget these cases,” Simkins said. “And to make sure you’re always going back and reviewing and seeing what’s available today to see if we can apply it to something from the past.”
Nearly 95 percent of the bodies that came through the Arapahoe County Coroner’s office last year were identified within 24 hours of death, according to the office’s 2018 annual report. But staffers like Ortiz sometimes work for months or years to identify older remains that persist without a legal identity. That includes combing federal databases, submitting new DNA samples and dredging the internet.
“We have access to a law enforcement database so we’ll run that individual that way and sometimes it comes up with associates, or a family emerges,” Ortiz said. “If we don’t have anybody there, and if they died at home for example, we look at mail, at like old Christmas cards, and we’ll start reaching out to possible family members that way … We have to do our due diligence.”
In the case of the John Doe from Aurora three years ago, an Aurora police officer knocked on eight doors and spoke to two residents who said they recognized the man as someone who drank and slept in the apartment complex’s hallways, but they didn’t know his name, according to police reports.
Doe died beside a pair of sunglasses, a small onion and an empty bottle of vodka.
Four months after he died, Aurora Police Detective Alton Reed wrote: “No ID was found on the decedent, and … neither I nor any of the Adams County Coroner’s investigators have been able to find a positive ID of the deceased.” The case was formally closed on April 17, 2017.
A NamUs file for Doe’s case has been posted to the public portion of the site since Jan. 17, 2017.
Broncucia-Jordan said the primary issue with identifying the Aurora Doe was his suspected status as a foreign national and an apparent affinity for aliases. Upon taking all 10 of Doe’s fingerprints and submitting them to CBI, investigators received an extensive list of matching names, though Oscar Montoya appeared most frequently, Broncucia-Jordan said. His apparent non-citizen status made searching by social security number moot, and the web of monikers used — possibly for previous medical or dental treatment — brought the search to multiple dead ends. Several attempts to contact possible family members, including physical visits to people’s homes in Aurora, also fizzled.
“In this case, because he had so many aliases and none of them panned out, we couldn’t for sure say who he is,” Broncucia-Jordan said. “We were stuck.”
The coroner’s office also attempted to contact several Honduran consulates to identify Doe, but struck out.
Broncucia-Jordan said she didn’t have enough evidence to formally identify the man, who was wearing a t-shirt bearing images of members of the band Kiss when he died, though other coroners may have run with one of the possible identities and wrapped the case.
“In a lot of offices, this may have not even been listed as unidentified,” she said. “I could have just taken his name as Oscar Montoya, put it in the system and moved on … But this is obviously somebody’s relative and I think there’s a better likelihood of figuring out who this person is and identifying the family by keeping him in here as unidentified because we don’t know which of those names is the correct one.”
She added that in February 2018, a woman contacted the coroner’s office after seeing Doe’s NamUs profile, suspecting he was her father. However, her DNA sample did not match Doe’s.
“She sent a picture and the resemblance was amazing, but the DNA didn’t match,” Broncucia-Jordan said. “Could it be that it is her so-called father that she knew and they’re just not biologically related and she wasn’t aware of it? Maybe, but the DNA did not match up.”
For now, the Aurora Doe remains in a dedicated freezer at the Adams County morgue, which is attached to the county coroner’s office in Brighton.
That could change following Broncucia-Jordan’s tenure as north Aurora’s coroner. She’s term-limited in 2022.
“I don’t know what will happen when I’m not in this position anymore,” she said.
Broncucia-Jordan, who was elected in 2010 and replaced former coroner Jim Hibberd, ordered a quote from Scottish poet Thomas Campbell to be painted on the wall in her office’s lobby shortly after she was elected.
She said the message scrawled in large, gold letters is a favorite of hers. It reads: “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
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