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In Falls, the unceasing struggle to identify bodies found in the river

On a warm, sunny Sunday in late July of 1994, the body of a man was found floating in the Niagara River near Joseph Davis State Park. He appeared to be between 35 and 45, and had brown eyes, a full brown beard and mustache, and a chipped front tooth.

"We did everything we could to identify him," said Maj. Patrick Moriarty of the New York State Park Police, who worked the case at the time as a sergeant. The time his body had spent in the water affected his fingerprints, which "didn't come back to anybody, nothing," said Moriarty.

A sketch was drawn of the man, but nobody came forward to identify him. He became "John Doe."

The John Doe from July 24, 1994, joined dozens of unknown people whose bodies have been discovered in Niagara County. The vast majority of them appear to have gone over Niagara Falls, with no foul play suspected. Many have come from long distances away; some might have intentionally concealed their identities.

The unidentified, sometimes just skeletal remains or parts of bodies, are a vexing problem for local law enforcement agencies, coroners and medical examiners. The mystery they present is haunting: Who is this person? What happened to them? Is somebody looking for them, and if not, why not?

Today, there are at least 26 open cases of unidentified bodies in Niagara County. Two were murder victims, one found on the Tuscarora Reservation and the other in Niagara Falls, but the others were all found in or on the shores of Lake Ontario or the Lower Niagara River.

Two murder victims among the 26 nameless dead found in Niagara County since 1989

Because the plunge over the falls and time in the water destroys clothing, most are found without clothing or partially clothed, sometimes in just a sock or shoe. If any clothing or jewelry remains, it is carefully documented, along with the person's estimated height and weight, distinguishing features, scars or indications of surgery or dental work.

Computer generated sketches were done of the man found in the Lower Niagara River in 1994, but he remained nameless for 23 years.

The man from 1994 was different because he was found soon enough to be recognizable and to be fingerprinted. In 2009, soon after he took his current job, Parks Police Det. Sgt. Brian Nisbet reopened the case. "I said, this man is possibly identifiable," he said.

Nisbet made a report to the FBI's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP), made sure the details were uploaded to NamUs (pronounced Name Us), the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. There were a few tips, but nothing panned out.

This spring, Nisbet got an email from the FBI, who had again run the man's fingerprints using a new method of analysis. This time, they got a match.

The man, fingerprinted for his military service, had left his home in Ohio decades ago. Police in Ohio went to the home, where they were able to break the news of his fate to his elderly mother and to his sister.

After his military service, the man, who was 40 when he died, struggled with mental illness. His family, thinking he was just traveling around, never reported him missing, so there was no match on any database. "They thought he went out to California or to Texas, and they just lost touch with him," Moriarty said.

When they heard of his fate, the man's mother and sister traveled to Niagara Falls to see where their loved one had spent the last moments of his life. "We walked around the falls for a little bit," said Nisbet. Their sadness was mixed with relief, he said. "They are pleased that they have closure now; they know what happened and they can move forward."

"This is a mother that, every night, she had no idea where her son was," said Moriarty. "At least this gives her some closure, she doesn't have to worry about him: Does he even know who he is? Is he wandering the streets? Is he homeless, is he suffering? The whole time, he was actually gone."

"He was in NamUs, and this is one of the good news stories."

NamUs, which went online with listings of unidentified people in 2007 and soon added missing persons, is funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The NamUs website has three lists – unidentified people, missing people and unclaimed people, whose identity is known but whose families have not been located.

NamUs lists just less than 14,500 unidentified persons, with about 3,000 identified. Of those, the NamUs listing assisted in identifying more than 41 percent.

NamUs contains records that once were only shared among law enforcement agencies, and is open to the public for a reason, said J. Todd Matthews, director of Case Management and Communications for NamUs.

"We do get a lot of hits," said Matthews. "We have literally had a family member who said, 'That's my sister, because that's the tattoo she had.' That's why it's so important that the public have access to it."

For NamUs, "Awareness, and help from the media, is just as important as some of the DNA testing," he said.

On the other hand, Matthews is wary of making a broad appeal for public assistance. "I think it's good to be very specific when we reach out to the public for their help. We have to say, 'We need this,' or you are going to be overwhelmed."

In this photo from 2015, law enforcement officials recover a body from Lake Ontario near the U.S. Coast Guard Station. Most bodies are identified, but 24 pulled from the lake and river since 1989 remain unnamed. (Buffalo News file photo)

Niagara Falls is unique because it draws people from all over the world, investigators said.

"Say you've got a guy from Texas who took a bus up here and went over the falls," said Investigator John Wick of the Niagara County Sheriff's Department. "He goes into the system as an unidentified male. Or you can get somebody who is under the radar altogether, maybe doesn't have family. A couple we are working on we think are Canadians, so we are working with Canadians to get them identified."

In Niagara County, said Nisbet, "When we have a recovery there are many times that we have an idea who we might be recovering, because we know who has gone in the water. But there are times you make a recovery and you don't have any idea, that's when you have to look at the clues."

The park police, who are known for their diligent work in identifying unknown persons, "start small and locally," said Nisbet, "and I'm also including Canada. You make all your checks, and if there isn't a match, then we will expand out. First locally, then New York State."

"We partner up with all the agencies that have accessibility to data banks, including Border Patrol, Niagara County Sheriffs, Niagara Falls Police, State Police and Lewiston Police," said Nisbet.

The park police have close ties with their counterparts across the river. With the Niagara Regional Police, they are developing a local databank of missing persons with known connections to Niagara Falls. The park police in Ontario, said Nisbet, "notify us anytime they have anybody go into the water, and anytime we have somebody go into the water, I notify them and send them the report, so we are sharing the information."

The Canadian website "Canada's Missing" catalogs missing persons and unidentified bodies.

Joseph Mantione, the longest-serving Niagara County coroner, has been involved in many of the cases of unidentified people whose bodies were found in Niagara County in recent decades. "You always wonder how come they weren't identified, how come nobody asked where they were?" said Mantione. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Joseph Mantione, Niagara County's longest-tenured coroner, has been called to many of the still-unidentified cases through the years. On Oct. 9, 1998, he responded to a call about a man found in the river near the Power Authority. "We assumed that he was from another country because he had silver teeth," said Mantione. "This guy was hard to miss," he said. At 40 to 50 years old, 6 foot 6 and more than 260 pounds, "he was a very big man."

DNA samples were taken and other possibly identifying features were noted and "sent to the FBI in case in the future somebody comes forward and says they are missing this person," said Mantione. But he remains unnamed and on the NamUs list nearly two decades after he was found.

"Each case, individually, can be very difficult," said Nisbet. "We made a couple recoveries in June where the person had been in the water for eight months. You have to take the clues that are presented to you and work with the clues and make identification. Hopefully it's been reported, and you can use the clues that you have to make the identification."

One man found in June who had gone into the water in November of 2016, was identified by a necklace he was wearing, said Nisbet. Both people were eventually identified, through a combination of hard work and good luck, said Nisbet.

The FBI plays a vital role in analyzing evidence through its laboratory division, where the Ohio man's fingerprints were identified, and its Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which collects and shares criminal justice DNA databases, said local FBI spokesman Maureen Dempsey.

"For many years, the laboratory division has assisted other federal, local and state agencies in any kind of laboratory exams that are necessary," said Dempsey. "We often will send human remains to the laboratory division, and they will extract DNA and create a profile, and then later they can compare that profile either through databases or through family members, to determine if there is mitochondrial or nuclear DNA matches, to identify the remains."

The Erie County Medical Examiner's Office, which carries out autopsies for Niagara County, uploads cases to NamUs after a period of time. Right now, Wick said, a body that was found on June 13 remains unidentified and may be placed in the NamUs database soon.

"We want the delay," said Matthews of NamUs. "If I go missing this morning, I shouldn't be listed on NamUs tonight. Many of these cases are resolved fairly quickly."

Wick said the Sheriff's Department has recently worked with the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office at Erie County Medical Center to re-examine old samples and other evidence for possible extraction of new DNA.

"We went back three years ago to pull all these cases and go through all our evidence to see what could possibly be DNA today, which years ago we didn't know we could do," said Wick. "The problem is that a lot of the tissue samples that are saved at ECMC are saved in formaldehyde, which breaks down the composition of DNA. There are scientific advancements in that, but we're not there yet.

"Once we figure out what we have at ECMC, dental records and things like that, we can get that into NamUs, and the hope that if John Q. Citizen has a missing person, they can put DNA into the system, and it will get uploaded to CODIS, and if we put something in, it may hit."

If nothing hits, and samples have been collected and every detail about the body recorded, the county treasurer appoints one of several funeral homes to handle the remains, said Mantione. "Years ago they used to bury all the bodies, but now they are doing more cremation because of the cost of the burials," he said.

Although they are long deceased, the mysteries of the end of these people's lives live on.

"You always wonder how come they weren't identified, how come nobody asked where they were?" said Mantione. "Obviously they must have been from somewhere else, that they weren't looked for in this area."

He understands that many people who end their lives at the falls may have suffered from mental illness, been homeless and wandering or estranged from their loved ones. "There have to be some sort of issues going on, whether it's mental issues or something else," Mantione said. "Still, you wonder how they fell through the cracks, how come nobody is looking for them?"

Dempsey looks ahead, to the scientific advances that may yet put names to these now nameless bodies. "I don't think law enforcement is recognized enough for the way they preserve evidence and remains, hoping that somewhere down the line experts can use future technology to identify these individuals," she said.

"They don't give up and say, 'Well, we can't do it, let's move on,' they actually preserve it, and then they go back to it, hoping that they can find the story behind that person that they found. What happened might not have been criminal in nature, but they still want to find the people connected to that unidentified person and let them understand what happened."

"Humans have buried our dead since time began, and you know, being missing can be worse than dead," said Matthews of NamUs. "I've seen families that are destroyed by it. It's like the funeral that never ends."

"Our goal is to get them identified," said Wick. "That's our goal, with today's technology, let's do everything we can to show that in 2017 we have done everything we possibly can."

In his department, he said, "That starts with Sheriff [James] Voutour. His mission is to identify as many of these people as we can."

Even if their names are not known, he said, "They are not forgotten."


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