Forensic Investigator Creates Corpse Database

PHOTO: A Milwaukee medical examiner has built and launched an online database of unidentified people that have been in his morgue for up to 30 years without being claimed by family or friends. An unidentified corpses hand is shown in this screen grab fro
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A Milwaukee medical examiner is using new media to identify the old and forgotten on the web.

Mike Simley, a forensic investigator in Milwaukee County, Wisc., built and launched an online database of unidentified deceased bodies that have been in his morgue for up to 30 years, awaiting a family member or friend who can claim them as their own.

"I was just desperate to get people identified," Simley said. "Everyone is born with an identity and deserves to die and be put to rest with the same thing, rather than as a Jane or John Doe."

The database is filled with photos of the unnamed deceased-- bloated faces and all--that viewers can scroll through to see if they recognize any faces. The website even includes a section for unidentified infants and fetuses found abandoned and deceased. Many of the images, Simley acknowledged, are gruesome.

"I talked with the chief medical examiner here. We see this stuff on a daily basis, but people who don't have to deal with death all the time. Obviously it would not be an easy thing for people to see, deceased individuals," Simley said.

He created the website to have multiple warnings and disclaimers about the types of pictures featured.

"I structured this website so you have to jump through some hoops, and read a big warning about what types of pictures they are, and a description of why I'm doing this (before you see the photos)."

Simley said he doctored some photos, changing the color or fading some details, to make up for natural body decomposition and make it a little bit easier for the public to view.

Simley hopes that through his website and a national database of unidentified bodies and missing persons family members will recognize a defining characteristic of their relative and contact his office to arrange burial.

Simley said he knew of only one other jurisdiction that had a similar website- Clark County, Nevada- which had some success matching bodies with family members. The Milwaukee website has not yet had a match since its launch in mid-December, he said.

Typically, he said, medical examiners will use other means of trying to identify individuals, including DNA sampling and having people come in to view black and white profile photos in the examiner's office. But for cold cases dating back three decades, he said, the website may help reenergize efforts to identify them.

Some of the cases posted on the site date back to the 1970s, while others are as recent as the past decade, he said.

"Everybody has family. Even if they have been unidentified since 1970, everybody's got family. That's the main thing here. Everybody was a brother or a father or an uncle or somebody. These people were loved and I'm sure they're missed, and family members deserve to have this peace of mind and closure."

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