Website helps Medical Examiner's Office identify bodies

MILWAUKEE -- Remembering the dead is about honoring life and showing love and respect, but sometimes people pass on without an identity - nothing to connect them with a life once lived.

It's a fact of life - one day, each person will have to face death. "Once you die, the decomposition process starts right away. The cellular breakdown - you can't stop that," Michael Simley said.

Simley works for the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office as a forensic investigator. It's his job to figure out who a person is after they've passed away. Simley was called into action recently when a body was found in Milwaukee's McGovern Park. It had laid there for four years, and nothing but bones remained.

"We can have the best information, the most identifyable features of that person, but if we don't have a clue as to who that person actually is, we don't know what anti-morteum records to get, or the records from when they were still alive to compare them to. It's like trying to find a needle in a haystack," Simley said.

Every time someone dies, investigators take similar steps to identify the person. Usually it's fairly easy. Often, they're in a hospital or care facility with well-kept records. However, like the McGovern Park situation, that's not always the case.

"Let's say we do find a body that's heavily decomposed, skeletonized, in whatever location, in the city here, in a home, in a field. The main thing we do is try to find identification right off the bat to see if we can get this someone positively identified. We'll look in their pockets to see if there's any IDs, any other type of papers to give them a name," Simley said.

When that doesn't work, everything around the body is taken into account. "Clothing, jewelry this person may have on. We use everything to try to get an identification on these people," Simley said.

If their identity remains a mystery, the information is eventually passed on to the public. Investigators hope the items will catch someone's eye.

Luckily, the day after FOX6 News shared photos of items found with the body located at McGovern Park, the man's family came forward, and the body was identified as Jeffrey Avery. His memory now carries on with his loved ones, but not everyone is so lucky.

About four months ago, Simley set up a website for more than a dozen unidentified bodies. Most Medical Examiners have something similar, but this site is different -- it gives the public actual pictures of the deceased to view.

The unidentified people are more than just pictures on a web page. The bodies are first brought to the County autopsy site to determine the cause of death and identification. If that is unsuccessful, the bodies are sent to the County morgue, where they wait for someone to claim them. "That's the whole reason we're doing this, is to bring someone their identity back and to bring closure to family, friends and loved ones of this individual," Simley said.

17 adults and children are listed on the county's site. Along with the at times, gruesome pictures, are news clippings and other information listed alongside the cases. Whenever an unidentified body is found, traffic picks up on the site and Simley gets a few more possible leads.

Simley says thanks to tips resulting from the website, he is close to solving one case. Simley says the same methods may not work in every case. "You can have a template for any type of case, but every case is unique, and it can throw you one way or another," Simley said.

The Medical Examiner can only fight decomposition for so long. Eventually, the long-term unidentified end up buried at a cemetery in the county with no name, no family and not even a marker to show where they lay. However, they're not forgotten. The Medical Examiner's office says they will continue as long as it takes to search for their identities.

CLICK HERE to see the "Unidentified People in Milwaukee County" website. WARNING -- Images are graphic and may be disturbing.

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