by Deborah Halber
Reviewed by Larry Cox
In her debut book, journalist Deborah Halber reveals the curious world of Internet detectives, ordinary people who spend their spare time combing the web to match unidentified human remains with profiles of missing persons. Some of the cases are decades old.
The statistics are shocking. More than 40,000 unidentified remains are stowed in freezers and evidence rooms throughout the United States. Some are eventually cremated, and others buried in potter’s fields, but as Halber points out, these anonymous dead have become law enforcement’s version of wards of the state. They’re like financially strapped house guests who turn up uninvited, take up space reserved for more obliging visitors, require care and attention, and then when it’s time for them to move on, don’t have anywhere to go. To help ease this burden, amateur Internet detectives have stepped in to assist, even though they sometimes face resistance from officials.
Dr. Marcella Fierro, Virginia’s chief medical examiner and the real-life model for Patricia Cornwell’s fictional character Kay Scarpetta, has worked on some of the nation’s most notorious cases and has written a handbook for pathologists on conducting postmortem examinations of unidentified remains. She and other dedicated people, such as web sleuth Todd Matthews, a former Tennessee factory worker, piece together clues in an effort identify America’s unnamed dead.
Most of the featured sleuths have day jobs, yet spend much of their free time poring over facial reconstructions on websites that are much like a Facebook for the dead. They sift through newspaper archives, missing-person listings and other databases to try and match the unidentified with photos and other details of the missing. In fact, some of these sleuths have come to see their work as a sort of competitive sport. But in this game everyone wins, as some cold cases thought to be unsolvable have been solved thanks to these amateur detectives.