Lifelong rancher Warren Read and his wife, Diane Amatore, were driving their ranch east of Las Vegas to check on their cattle when they spotted about 20 crows circling in the December sky above the property’s western fence line. Read knew the spiraling black wings often signal death below, so they headed toward the site to see if the previous week’s cold weather had cost them a calf.
Instead, they found the prone and naked form of a dead man.
“There wasn’t anything to it. I go out and check my cattle every day and when we see crows and stuff like that pawing around, we go out and see what it is, and that’s when we found him,” Read says. “That’s all I know to tell you.”
Wherever he’d been before, the man’s death—alone and in the cold—highlights the vagaries of naming some of the nation’s dead and matching them up to unsolved missing persons cases that have left families without answers and resolution.
In New Mexico, there are an estimated 265 open missing persons cases, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, known as NamUs. Nationally, that number reaches to more than 12,700.
The National Institute of Justice, run by the US Department of Justice, and the Unidentified Decedents Database launched NamUs in May 2006 to address what was then seen as an epidemic: these many unsolved missing persons cases. The goal was to expand access to information previously restricted to law enforcement agencies, and provide a tool for those most motivated to find a missing person, namely that person’s family, who can then search for clues and reports on unidentifiable remains.
"NamUs can be used by essentially anyone, which is kind of the beauty of it."
-Melissa Gregory, regional administrator for NamUs
“NamUs can be used by essentially anyone, which is kind of the beauty of it,” says Melissa Gregory, regional administrator for NamUs.
So far, NamUs has aided in closing 1,500 of the 11,900 closed cases nationwide.
The database has three components, two for public use and one just for medical examiners and coroners dealing with individuals who are deceased and identified but no next of kin has been located. The two for public use provide case details for people who are missing and remains that have been found but not identified.
Anyone can enter a missing person into the database, though that listing doesn’t go live until someone with NamUs reviews and verifies it. Only medical examiners and coroners can enter listings for people who are unidentified, but that information becomes publicly viewable on the website.
“We’ve got a lot of people who deem themselves to be web sleuths, and so somebody like them or even a family member of a missing person can always go on the unidentified side and run searches based on specific demographics or circumstances or a time frame, location, et cetera, and see if any of those unidentified remains might match up to the missing person,” Gregory says.“We’ll get an email from the individual saying, ‘Hey, I think this is a possible match.’”
Following an investigation into the thousands of unidentified deceased people in the country by Reveal, an investigative news website and podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting, the 47-year-old mystery of “Mountain Jane Doe,” a 21-year-old woman found stabbed to death on a trail in Kentucky, was finally resolved and the woman identified. Reveal also created an app that allows for simultaneously searching records for those found and those missing in hopes of increasing matches.
Investigators review suggestions from the public and look for a way to use biometric data—something like DNA or dental records—to make exclusions or identifications. While the main goal would be to bring a missing person home, Gregory says, identification can at least bring families answers and some closure.
But there are a lot of hitches to this system. Take the well-known local case of Robbie Romero. A 7-year-old boy who was last seen walking between his friend’s house and his own home in June 2000 could turn up as a 7-year-old body found 16 years ago, or as a 23-year-old found this year. He’s in the NamUs database. As is Wayland Johle, a 43-year-old Native American man last seen in July in a park in Farmington and thought to perhaps be on his way to the Salt Lake City area. And Edward Hoag, a 55-year-old white male, long homeless by choice but consistent in his calls to his family, who traveled to Oregon looking for work and last called home on June 10 with word he was headed “back south,” which was interpreted as back to Truth or Consequences, and has not been heard from since. And Holly Alcott White, a 49-year-old woman last seen in Taos on May 5, who did not turn up for plans to walk with a friend two days later, and whose car was found near the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.
Those records are generous in their detail around the circumstances of the person’s disappearance. Some are so spare they include little more than the date and town last seen, and only hints at the family’s lingering questions. “It is unknown if her disappearance is a result of foul play or if she is missing voluntarily,” reads the record for Eva Serna-Barela, a 52-year-old Hispanic woman last known to reside in Las Cruces.
Scars, tattoos, and skeletal details like a previously broken collarbone can all be listed as part of the identifying information, but basic descriptors can also derail a search of the system. A person’s family may not know about a tattoo, or eye color may not be distinguishable by the time a body is recovered.
“Those are just some of the challenges that the general public might face because they might not even realize something like that when they’re running searches for a possible match,” Gregory says.
So, forensic efforts often focus on what doesn’t change, like DNA, dental records and fingerprints. DNA from family members of a missing person and from unidentified remains will be entered into a database that constantly checks each of those sides against one another, searching for possible matches. Dental records can also produce identifications without needing DNA—and that’s good, because DNA runs into its own limitations. It can be collected in two forms, short tandem repeats (STRs) and mitochondrial, and if investigators collected one type from the body found and a different type from relatives reporting a missing person, they’ll never hit on one another. Most labs only have the capability to handle STRs, and only a handful of labs do mitochondrial profiles. The University of North Texas, where remains from New Mexico are sent for processing, is one of the mitochondrial labs, meaning both samples, if available, will be collected from bodies sent there.
Mitochondrial DNA can only come from a maternal relative of a missing person, but at times, depending on how degraded remains have become, may be the only option for collection from the body found. But that means if a son is searching for his father, the two samples won’t hit on one another in the DNA database.
“Because of those types of nuances, the biometrics isn’t a be-all end-all,” Gregory says. “On top of that, we don’t have all of these biometrics. … Some [law enforcement] agencies are more receptive than others. There’s agencies that are way busier than others, so they might not get back to us as quickly as possible. … How NamUs can really assist is it might prompt the gathering of biometrics a little more, or it might encourage investigators on either the unidentified or missing side to participate a little more because they have a potential match or a suggested match, and we get information to compare between the two.”
The NamUs listings for New Mexico include a bevy of cases that offer few, if any, hints to their identities and little hope of being solved.
“It’s tough—there’s really no percentage we can really give of the odds,” Gregory says.
Landscapers cutting weeds at an abandoned property in Las Cruces in October ran over a shirt, then saw another shirt, some trash and a tarp. Among the belongings found were some thoroughly rusted keys with a still legible Walgreens/Duane Reade key fob. When they went to move the tarp, they found a human skull.
In May, a couple stopped near an arroyo in Lordsburg to let their dog urinate, and it found a body. Local police officers said they had contact with the decedent six months previous, and that he was “waiting for a bike tube he had ordered from Western Auto,” the NamUs report reads. “Once he received the tube, he would be on his way. Officers also stated that decedent was positioned in the same position as when they spoke to him in December.” Photos of his belongings include a couple coins and some folded dollar bills, a screwdriver, a watch and a shirt embroidered with the name Jason and “The Rockville Valley Fertilizer Company.”As if just to prove the point of how many cases like this exist, SFR’s initial inquiry to the Office of the Medical Examiner about the body on the ranch returned reports for a different set of remains, also located in December 2015. In that case, three arm bones were found by a bridge near Gallup, a few hundred yards from where a partial skeleton that was missing its arms had been found a year before. That skeleton had been identified; whether the arm bones belonged to it had not been confirmed when the report was completed.
The NamUs database also includes listings for a skull given to the Salvation Army after a storage locker was cleaned out. Bones a hunter spotted scattered across a ranch near Wagon Mound. Skeletal remains a camper located under a large rock near Aztec. After a trailer fire in Edgewood, a white male in his 70s was discovered charred on his bed with a .38 caliber revolver with one spent casing in the cylinder. That report promises “more investigation when snow clears.” Skeletal remains were found in a shallow grave near Rio Puerco with fibers and pieces of ceramic. The report notes no obvious signs of modern origin. That’s the other snag—sometimes the bones that surface are from burials that have been dug up or flooded out, and no one is searching for that person. The chance of identification, in those cases, is slim.
“If nobody has submitted the DNA or reported a person missing or anything along those lines, yet we have unidentified remains—if nobody in the scientific aspect of missing persons is aware of that missing person—it’s never going to be identified,” Gregory says. “There’s nothing to compare it to.”
What people most often seem to misunderstand, other than the intricacies of how DNA collection and comparison works, is the speed at which these things move forward.
“People think that things move a lot quicker than is actually possible,” Gregory says. “Resources are, of course, a big issue, just like they are for anybody in the criminal justice arena.”
The other presumption, she says, is that if people searching through NamUs don’t see a photo or don’t see that DNA or prints have been collected, they’ll assume law enforcement isn’t working the case. Sometimes, photos just aren’t available, or there’s no known family, so DNA isn’t an option. If the person had no criminal record and never applied for a concealed carry permit, their fingerprints may not be on file. Maybe no one knows who someone’s dentist was, making it impossible to get dental information.
“Those are the types of challenges from the biometrics side of things or for finishing out a case that investigators face,” Gregory says. “I think the public might make assumptions when those things are missing from a case that somebody’s just not working on it or not doing their jobs, when there’s usually a lot more behind why that information might not be there.”
Thirteen months after Read found a body on his ranch, that man is still listed on the NamUs database.
The law enforcement investigation and subsequent autopsy failed to provide any answers as to who this man had been, where he came from or how he died.
Read’s initial call to police at 10:48 am on Dec. 6, 2015, went to Patrolman Gene Pretlow Jr., who was sent by dispatch in Las Vegas to respond to what was then characterized as an unattended death off State Road 104. Half an hour later, he met Read and Amatore at the entrance to their property. They led him to the body, just over a mile north from the gate off the state road, past a red barn.
Read told responding officers he’d been nearby three weeks prior and the body wasn’t there. Both he and Amatore said they didn’t have any idea who the man was, nor did they know of anyone missing in the area.
The remains had, by then, been severely preyed upon by animals. Pretlow reported he thought the body appeared to be that of a middle-aged male, though decomposition and scavenging by “the numerous birds on scene” and “unknown carnivore(s)” impeded definitive statements.
He radioed back to dispatch by 11:30 am that this was an active crime scene, and that he was “unable to determine if foul play was involved.”
At 12:41 pm, the investigations bureau asked Agent Ryan Boone to join Pretlow and NMSP Investigations Bureau Agent William Mora, who was the case agent for the investigation and by that time was already on scene. (Repeated requests for an interview with the New Mexico State Police officers involved were met only with word from Sgt. Chad Pierce, the State Police spokesman, that the request had been forwarded along. As of press time, months later, approval was still pending.)
Boone’s report describes the man’s body lying on a diagonal line, his head toward the southwest, his chest covered with what appeared to be bird feces. Pieces of bone were exposed where organs and skin had been scavenged, and his eyes and other distinguishing features were missing.
Among the items collected from the scene were three pieces of white cloth, possibly a t-shirt or underpants, stained with what was suspected to be blood and bird feces. All evidence was sent to a temporary locker in Las Vegas.
The Office of the Medical Investigator sent Lloyd Ellis, who pronounced time of death at 6:50 pm, and rolled the man’s body over to reveal a tattoo on his right shoulder blade: a by-then mottled rendition of an iconic Led Zeppelin image, the angel wings and upstretched arms still distinguishable.
By 7:45 pm, nine hours after the call went in to state police, the body was removed from the scene by a local mortuary. The man’s remains then traveled to Albuquerque, to the Office of the Medical Investigator at the University of New Mexico. The OMI did not respond to requests for an interview. The medical examiner’s report describes a well-developed male, roughly 5 feet 9 inches tall. After extensive animal depredation removed much of the organ and body tissue, the corpse weighed just 85 pounds. What damage was left to be observed could have been attributed to a number of causes: a heart attack, environmental exposure, drug overdose or lethal injury among them. A toxicology screening for a bevy of drugs detected none.
“Because the examination is limited by postmortem changes, the cause and manner of death are best certified as undetermined,” Dr. Veena Singh, a medical investigator and certified forensic pathologist, wrote in the autopsy report.
The 24-page death investigation report describes a thin man with short, blond hair, a blond beard and mustache, eyes a color that could not be determined, and missing teeth. In addition to the Led Zeppelin image, his tattoos included an “Oriental character” on his left upper back, and the letters B and C and a dolphin on his right shoulder.
Mora, who attended the autopsy, reported Singh told him that while there wasn’t anything overtly suspicious on the body, by then, that evidence could have been obscured.
He made a note of checking for missing persons in the area, and that none matched the individual found. He also called the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute to ask about recent releases, and was denied that information on the basis of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Adult Protective Services similarly did not have any information on clients missing in the area, nor did they know of anyone who matched the man’s description.
The reality is that without someone actively searching for him from the other end, without someone to notice that he’s gone, it’s unlikely those who found and retrieved him will ever know who he was. Perhaps more disconcerting is how unsurprised Read—one rancher, running his cows through his own small corner of the state—was to find a body amid the circling birds and frozen ground at the edge of his property.
“That’s not the first time that’s happened,” he says. “Down through the years we’ve had several of them.”
He couldn’t say for sure exactly where they’d come from or whether anyone had ever figured out who they were.