Reveal – Left for dead: Inside America’s coldest cases

There are more than 10,000 known Jane and John Does in the U.S. – unidentified and unclaimed bodies languishing in limbo for years, sometimes for decades. In this episode of Reveal, we crisscross the nation tracing Jane and John Doe cases, showing why so many bodies remain unidentified despite new and powerful forensic tools. Often, the job of solving these cases is taken up by amateur Web sleuths. (By Julia B. Chan, Reveal)

She never left Harlan alive

Around Thanksgiving last year, authorities gathered near the grave of Mountain Jane Doe, hoping to exhume her and end the mystery of who she was. (Scott Anger for Reveal)

In 1969, a young woman was stabbed to death in Harlan, Kentucky, and buried without a name. To many locals, she’s known as “Mountain Jane Doe.” To Darla Jackson and Todd Matthews, her case deserved a little extra digging. We follow Darla and Todd into the wooded hills of Harlan to exhume the body of Mountain Jane Doe. What they end up finding is unexpected.



Unidentified migrants reach undignified end

Personal artifacts discovered with the remains of an unidentified migrant in Brooks County, Texas. (Al Letson/Reveal)

Out of the thousands of unidentified bodies scattered across the country, many are found in South Texas, where migrants are crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. Crossing the border is treacherous – it’s hot and there’s a lot of ground to cover. Dehydration and heatstroke claim many who try to make the trek. And dying in Brooks County means that sometimes, their bodies aren’t found, let alone identified.

So what happens to these remains? Host Al Letson and producer Delaney Hall travel to the border to find out, and they interview The Investigative Fund’s John Carlos Frey about what he learned while reporting this story.


Buried in Blue Earth

Jane Doe
An artist’s rendering of “Blue Earth Jane Doe,” who was discovered to be Michelle Busha. (Courtesy of Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension)

In 1980, 18-year-old Michelle Busha left home and never returned. It’s every family’s worst nightmare and it’s a circumstance so tragic that it touched a complete stranger thousands of miles away. Reporter Michael Montgomery meets two women who didn’t know each other, but each had a deep connection to the young woman who disappeared 35 years ago. Solving the case was bittersweet. Both women found the answers they were seeking, but one had to face the reality of her sister’s chilling death.


Matching the lost and the found

lost and found web tool
This is a screenshot of Reveal’s “The Lost and The Found” web tool that can be used to view details about America’s missing people and unidentified dead. (Allison McCartney, Michael Corey, Emmanuel Martinez, Julia Smith and G.W. Schulz/Reveal)

Throughout this episode, we’ve heard about NamUs, a federal database of missing and unidentified persons. This system allows law enforcement agencies and amateur sleuths to search and gather information about active cases. Networks and communities of volunteer detectives have grown online – sleuthing on their own time.

In an effort to make matching those lost and found easier, Reveal’s data team created a new tool using data from NamUs.



Left4Dead app state
Click on graphic to view Colorado’s cases

Listen as senior data editor Jennifer LaFleur walks us through how the tool works and how users can help solve some of America’s coldest cases.

For more, check out our website to delve deeper into these stories, and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes so you never miss a beat. More of a social type? Follow Reveal on Twitter and Facebook.

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