Author Beverly S. Harless once said “every life is a story.” So is every death.
The task of finding the stories in death takes coroners through slow, winding, sometimes dark narratives. Death investigators need painstaking attention to detail, balanced with sensitivity for the dead and those they leave behind.
Before determining how someone died and, if necessary, helping law enforcement figure out why they died and who’s responsible, coroners first have to determine who that someone was.
Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said the first thing he and his deputies look for is some form of identification on the deceased.
But that could be merely a starting point. “It’s no guarantee that whatever that ID says is who they are.”
If the person died at home or in a residential area, neighbors can usually point authorities toward the person’s identity. But Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher said her staff often finds that the address on a person’s ID is old.
“When they move, they don’t change their address on their driver’s license,” she said. “So we spend a lot of time going to wrong addresses.”
If the person died in a car crash, a registration or vehicle identification number (VIN) could offer clues to their identity, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Watts recalled a crash he worked as a deputy coroner: He went to the home of the driver the truck was registered to and told the parents he believed their son had died in the crash.
“He came in while we were sitting there talking to his parents,” Watts said. “He had lent his car to a friend. So, although we had a car that came back to a certain location, that was not the individual that was driving.”
The process often goes back to square one.
“It is just like following a little trail,” Chester County Coroner Terry Tinker said. “You go back to that resource that you know you have. You have a car with a tag – you go back to that residence.”
Coroners can search a deceased person’s belongings, including their wallet or purse, vehicle, home or cellphone, to determine their identity, Fisher said. They even have subpoena power.
“There are so many other ways of identifying people now,” she said. “Facebook is huge for identification because everybody posts pictures of themselves on Facebook – pictures with their mom and pictures with their families and their children.” Facebook is helpful in locating a family member, she said.
Sometimes no form of ID is available, or the body is unidentifiable through normal means. Watts said that was the case in a fiery 2012 crash near Williams-Brice Stadium that killed four people.
“There were a number of false IDs in that vehicle that didn’t relate to any of those people,” Watts said. “That makes it worse, when you have an individual that you cannot identify because of trauma, fire or something else.”
In those cases, or if investigators have a general idea of someone’s identity but “need to go a step further,” Watts said coroners turn to fingerprints or dental records. Fingerprint scanners deliver instant results if the person had prints on file from a job application or has a criminal record.
Identification through dental records requires the coroner to have the records of a candidate to compare with the deceased, Watts said, so they have to have a general idea of who the person might be and request records from the person’s dentist.
Because a person might not have fingerprints on file, and DNA and dental records are longer processes, Fisher said identification in cases where there is decomposition can be made by checking for medical devices such as hip replacements or surgical implants, which are imprinted with serial numbers.
“We’re able to take those numbers and trace them back to the manufacturer, and they can tell us which doctor used those hips or those implants,” she said.
Bill Stevens is a forensic anthropologist with the Richland County Coroner’s Office. He investigates cases involving severe trauma, decomposition, even when only skeletal remains are all that’s left. With skeletal remains, he begins assembling a “biological profile” that includes the person’s sex, race and approximate age. With that profile, which usually takes a few hours to develop, the coroner’s office works with law enforcement to obtain information and records about missing persons in that area.
“When we have skeletal remains found, they usually have a candidate for who it might be,” Stevens said. “A lot of the methods are pretty old school. We’re trained also as archeologists, so we go out and map and recover the scene and look at the dispersion of the bones, bring them back to the lab and do that phase of it.”
While TV shows and movies often depict the identification process with a morgue attendant rolling someone’s remains out of a freezer, or pulling a sheet down to reveal the person’s face for a grief-stricken loved one to identify, Watts and Fisher say they rarely – if ever – allow people to view their loved one in the morgue.
“It’s not a situation where you want to take people in,” Watts said. “There are other people in there. You don’t want a family coming in while we’re in the middle of an autopsy.” Instead, coroners try to identify a person by asking their loved ones about tattoos, facial hair, birthmarks or other features on the body.
Fisher says identification can be difficult when people do not go the doctor or dentist regularly. Doing things like updating a driver’s license or personal records can help coroners notify family members quicker when someone dies, especially in car crashes or homicides that receive heavy news coverage.
“It is something to think about,” she said. “We never know when it’s our time.”