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Allegheny authorities use science, detective work to identify dead

| Sunday, Nov. 2, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

She had no identification in her pocket, no tattoos or piercings on her body. The police officers and firefighters who fished her out of an inlet in the Allegheny River in O'Hara did not recognize her. She didn't match any missing person reports in the area.

Authorities don't know how yet how the woman died. They only know that she had to have been dumped in the inlet -- a barrier would have kept her body from floating in from the river -- and that someone covered her carefully and tightly in a blue blanket, wrapped duct tape around her legs, waist and chest and put a plastic grocery bag over her head.

Each year, the county coroner's office is asked to establish a cause and manner of death for 2,000 people. Most of those cases involve natural deaths, and officials said they can match a name to the great majority of the faces because of the wide array of identification tools at their disposal. There are a few cases, however, that confound them. The unknown woman from the river is only the sixth body in the past seven years to go unidentified.

"These are worse than the unsolved," Allegheny County police assistant Superintendent James Morton said of unidentified bodies like the one found near the Fox Chapel Yacht Club on Oct. 24.

"We can't return her to her loved ones. We can't even start our investigation until we find out who this person is."

"Usually we can work closely with police to determine identification through their investigation, or through fingerprints," said Joseph Dominick, chief deputy coroner for the county. "But sometimes we need to take a lot of steps to get that I.D."

The easy ones

In most cases, identification is easy. People die in their own homes. Their driver's license is in their pocket. A relative can identify the body on the spot, or in the coroner's office.

Tattoos can help point police in the right direction. In addition to taking mugshots, the city-county Bureau of Criminal Identification photographs and indexes tattoos when someone is arrested.

When a man walking his dog in McBride Park in Lincoln Place this week stumbled upon the half-naked body of a dead woman in a picnic shelter, Pittsburgh homicide detectives noticed she had a tattoo of the word "Mad" written in Old English script on her belly. A check of the bureau's index showed Noreen Apjok had that tattoo when she was arrested on drug charges last year.

"It gave us a working identification until the prints came back," city police assistant Chief William Mullen said.

But if police can't immediately identify a body, investigators often alert area police departments of the body's discovery.

"We send out a (bulletin) to every department in a 100-mile radius so they can check their missing person reports," Morton said. "That works a lot."

In March, police found the naked body of a young woman, shot in the head along a deserted stairway in North Braddock. When the family of Dana Pliakas, 17, of Murrysville, went to their local police department to report her missing later that day, officers had a bulletin in their hands and quickly called county police. Her body was identified that night.

Confirmation is usually completed with fingerprints. The city police crime unit or the coroner's forensic laboratory can compare the prints on the dead person's hands to the bureau's database or the statewide Automated Fingerprint Identification System, called AFIS.

"There are millions of digital images of prints in there maintained by the state police," said Wayne Reutzel, the latent fingerprint examiner for the coroner's office. "It gives us a list of possibilities, and we then compare them by hand."

But there are limitations. Not everyone has a criminal record. Older fingerprints in the system may not have been inked or scanned properly, Reutzel said.

The fingerprints of the woman found in the Allegheny River do not match anyone in AFIS. On Monday, the coroner's office sent her prints to the FBI in Washington, which will compare them to a national database of criminals and federal employees.

"Otherwise we're back to square one," Dominick said.

The tough ones

Establishing identity gets progressively harder to determine when the body has been dumped in a river, burned or left to decompose. Fingerprints disappear with the skin. Faces become unrecognizable.

Science can help. The coroner's office often calls in a forensic anthropologist to examine skeletal remains and try to determine gender, race, height, weight and approximate age.

After 29 years of examining fingerprints, Reutzel has found ways to get a print from the most shriveled hand. He can soak the finger in special solutions or inject fluids into it to bring the skin and its ridges and swirls back into focus. Or the outer skin can be removed and slipped over a colleague's gloved finger and then rolled on the ink.

Dental and medical records can link a name to a body. If an autopsy shows the dead person broke his leg 10 years ago, investigators can compare X-rays taken at the hospital. But dental and medical records work only if investigators have someone in mind for comparison.

If they don't, the identity process goes back to the police.

"We check out everything we can, clothing, jewelry, old operations," Morton said. "We put the description out to the media to see if anyone recognizes them. If we can get a name, then the coroner's office can go from there."

Clothing can provide valuable clues. Dominick recalled a case from the Hill District when police found a skeleton wearing a Kordell Stewart Steelers jersey.

"Kordell had just finished his first season with the team, so we knew this man had died within the past year," he said. "That gave us a more narrow window for a search of missing person records and we were able to identify him."

While the FBI compares the fingerprints of the woman found in the Allegheny River to their database, county police hope the clothing she wore will lead them to her identity. Detectives have been checking local stores to see if they sell "Season Ticket" jeans, the brand worn by the woman.

So far, they haven't found any. An Internet search turned up a store in Louisiana that stocks them. The next step is to search missing person reports there for a blond-haired, white woman in her 30s, 5 feet 3 inches tall, weighing 97 pounds.

"I think we'll identify her eventually," Dominick said. "It wasn't overnight, like people see on the TV. It can take time. But eventually we or the police will learn who she is."

The Unknown

The Allegheny County Coroner's office has six unidentified bodies:

  • April 7,1996: A neighbor found the body of a newborn baby boy behind St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Hazelwood. The child, dubbed "Baby Joseph" by church members, died from exposure to cold temperatures.

  • June 19, 1997: The mummified remains of an elderly black woman were found rolled in a carpet and tossed over a hillside along Route 65 in Avalon. She died of natural causes.

  • April 11, 1999: Workers at a Neville Island plant discovered the body of a newborn baby boy in the Ohio River. An autopsy showed the child died from exposure.

  • June 28, 1999: Contractor working on an unoccupied house on North Avenue in Wilkinsburg found the decomposed remains of a woman in the basement. She had been strangled.

  • Oct. 3, 2000: The skeleton of a woman was found in a flooded tunnel near train tracks at the Waterfront development in Homestead. Her cause of death is unknown.

  • Oct. 24: Police pull the body of a woman from the Allegheny River near the Fox Chapel Yacht Club in O'Hara. She was wrapped in a blanket and duct tape.

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