Boxes of Bones: Medical Examiner’s office trying to solve oldest, coldest cases

Answers wanted for seven decades-old unidentified bodies found in Kansas City

The Jackson County Medical Examiner's office recently began trying to identify seven decades-old bodies found in the Kansas City area. Here's where the bodies were found and what they looked like.
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The Jackson County Medical Examiner's office recently began trying to identify seven decades-old bodies found in the Kansas City area. Here's where the bodies were found and what they looked like.

A skeleton wearing a Doobie Brothers T-shirt found behind a West Bottoms warehouse in 1989.

The body of a man in his 40s, tangled in the branches of a tree in 1995.

A man’s bones discovered in the sewer by city workers in 1998.

These are just a few of the 22 unidentified bodies that the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s office recently began trying to identify as part of a new undertaking with the Kansas City Police Department Missing Persons Unit.

They’re the oldest, coldest cases in Jackson County. No one knows who they were or, in some cases, how they died.

Spurred by a determined investigator’s unexpected break in one local case last year, the Jackson County medical examiner and the police are now pulling boxes of bones out of the basement and going over decades-old files, searching for any missed clues.

But the chances of solving these decades-old mysteries are slim.

The dead met their end by suicide, accident, and in at least one case, homicide. For some, the cause of death remains unknown. Until they are named, they remain open cases for the chief medical examiner, Diane Peterson.

Peterson said her office has a duty to the dead person — and that person’s family — to find an answer.

It hasn’t been easy. When Peterson and her team began meeting twice a month with the Police Department’s missing persons supervisor, Sgt. Ben Caldwell, they started with the oldest cases, which dated back to the early 1980s.

“That got a little bit frustrating in the beginning,” Peterson said. “The files are very thin from the ’80s and ’90s.”

The files don’t have many photographs from the scenes. And most of the investigators who worked on them at the time have since retired or moved on.

Still, the group is pressing ahead, taking one case at a time and asking: What do we know? What still needs to be done? Were all the leads followed?

More than 40,000 unidentified human remains are stored in medical examiners’ offices nationwide. Every year, those offices handle about 4,400 unidentified cases, 1,000 of which remain unidentified after a year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

So far, Peterson’s office has eliminated at least a half-dozen of the unidentified cases as being anatomical specimens or historical artifacts of no investigative significance.

For instance, one was a skeleton a doctor had purchased in India for his son, a medical student. That skeleton was found in a Nike gym bag in the crawl space of a house. Another was an old skull found in an attic. But no foul play is suspected there.

The team has focused on seven bodies, found over the years by hikers, mushroom hunters, city workers and fishermen, whose stories have yet to be told.

Skeleton in the closet

A skull with a metal plate attached to the jaw was part of set of human remains that sat unidentified for years until an investigator with the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s office cracked the case. Ian Cummings

The new effort to identify the bodies was inspired by the mystery of a skeleton in a closet — a mystery solved after four years by a particularly dogged investigator in the medical examiner’s office.

The charred bones had been found 10 weeks after a fire gutted a vacant house on Wabash Avenue on Jan. 2, 2012. Investigators concluded the bones belonged to a homeless man who had taken shelter in the house and started a fire for warmth.

Investigators think that when the fire got out of control, the man took refuge in the closet but died, likely from smoke inhalation. No identification was found with the body. An anthropologist consulted on the case concluded the man had been African-American, close to 5 feet, 9 inches tall, and between 54 and 65 years old.

He remained unidentified for four years, the oldest active case at the medical examiner’s office until a new investigator with a background in anthropology, Adam Wilcoxen, got bored on a graveyard shift and started asking questions.

“Skeletal Remains, Unidentified.” had topped the morgue status board for four years, and Wilcoxen wanted to change that.

“The fact that it was a skeleton was enough to pique my interest,” Wilcoxen said. “Once I started learning the details of the case, I was even more interested.”

The key to the mystery proved to be a metal surgical plate attached to the man’s jawbone.

The initial investigation showed two of those plates had been shipped from the manufacturer to Truman Medical Center.

Following up on the case in 2016, Wilcoxen called Truman but was told the plate couldn’t be matched to a patient in their records — it didn’t bear a unique serial number.

He put the case on the back burner but didn’t give up. One day, when he was at Truman picking up dental records for another case, he took the opportunity to ask around, face-to-face, about the skeleton with the jawbone plate. Eventually, Truman’s chairman of oral maxillofacial surgery took a look at the information and gave Wilcoxen a short list of names.

One by one, Wilcoxen eliminated the names — one patient had a plate on the wrong side, one had two plates, one man had died years earlier.

Then Wilcoxen came to the last man on the list: David J. Stevenson of Kansas City.

Medical records showed Stevenson had a plate implanted in his jaw in October 2003. The location matched, but the records included no X-rays or scans to make a firm identification.

Wilcoxen checked into Stevenson’s background: He had been homeless and had struggled with drugs and alcohol. His jaw had been broken for months before he went to the hospital, and he refused to tell doctors how he suffered the injury.

Knowing that most homeless people seek treatment at Truman or at Research Medical Center, Wilcoxen called Research.

The hospital told him they had treated Stevenson on another occasion, just months before his death, and still had his C-T scans. The scans showed the plate, the missing teeth, the cap on an upper tooth — all matching the skeleton in the closet. A forensic dentist in Nebraska made the identification official.

“It was just the final piece to the puzzle,” Wilcoxen said.

With some more detective work, Wilcoxen and another investigator tracked down Stevenson’s brother.

The family gave the medical examiner permission to keep Stevenson’s skeleton for use in educating future investigators.

Now, Wilcoxen is part of the team working to put names to the other unidentified human remains in the medical examiner’s office.

“We need to go back and ensure that we did everything in our power, everything possible to try to get them identified,” he said.

“There are family members out there that we know of, that are still to this day, even 20, 30 years later, wondering what happened to their loved one.”

Unsolved mysteries

Peterson is hoping that releasing new details to the public on some of the cases will help solve who they were and give closure to the families.

The oldest of the cases being reviewed by her office is the skeleton in the Doobie Brothers T-shirt. He was found behind a West Bottoms warehouse near the railroad tracks in July 1989, and is believed to have been a white man at least 40 years old.

At the time, investigators were told he may have been from Chicago and arrived in Kansas City by train hopping.

“That is one that is going to be difficult,” Peterson said.

At 25th and Vine in September 1993, cable installers found the skeleton of a black woman in her 20s, with a partial wig and false fingernails, nearby. It’s unclear how she died. Peterson said her office has received several tips in that case.

“There are people out there who think this lady is their loved one,” Peterson said.

But none of the calls from the public have panned out.

One of the stranger mysteries was a body found caught in the branches of a tree in 1995 near 7th Street and Myrtle Avenue. Investigators believe the 40- to 50-year-old white man had climbed the tree and accidentally died after falling partway down.

The man was wearing a black “Sailing Club, Kansas City” T-shirt, which Peterson hopes someone will recognize since there isn’t much sailing in the middle of the country.

In May 2000, fishermen pulled a decomposed body from the Missouri River at the Chouteau Bridge that may have floated down from Kansas, Peterson said. Investigators believe the man was a homicide victim. He was between 45 and 55 years old and had two crude tattoos: A pachuco cross on the right hand, between the thumb and forefinger, and “GG” on the left hand, in the same position.

Investigators searched for people with matching tattoos, but the only person they found was alive and well in another state, Peterson said.

Elsewhere in the country, other medical examiners have launched new efforts to put names to unidentified remains.

Earlier this year in Illinois, the Cook County medical examiner’s office announced plans to host a “Missing Persons Day” event where family members with lost loved ones could provide dental and medical records and X-rays for a possible match.

In 2012, the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office started posting online some photos of unidentified remains. The photos, sometimes showing a bloated face or a tattoo, are accessed after the viewer passes through several warnings about the graphic nature of the images.

In Kansas City, the Police Department missing persons supervisor Caldwell said the new effort with the medical examiner’s office has not yet shed any light on any of his cold cases.

His role is primarily to help Peterson, he said, and they’ll keep working until they’ve exhausted all leads.

“We’re here to help them out as best we can,” he said.

“As long as it takes.”

Kelsey Ryan: 816-234-4852, @kelsey_ryan

Recognize a case?

If you have knowledge of any of the unidentified remains mentioned in this story, contact the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s office at 816-881-6604.