Unidentified, But Not Forgotten
It all started for me with the Jane Doe nicknamed the "Tent Girl," an unidentified body found in a canvas tent wrapper dumped along the side of the road in Kentucky in 1968. Nearly twenty years would pass before I learned of Tent Girl. In fact, I wasn't even born until two years after her remains were discovered. I would learn of her through my wife Lori. Her father had found the body. Tent Girl was murdered.
Why could I not forget Tent Girl, a woman whom I had never known? I think it had something to do with my own family. Unlike my wife, who has many siblings, I only have one surviving brother, Mark. He and I still bear the mental scars of the passing of our younger brother Greg and sister Sue Ann. They died as infants, but never left our hearts and minds. That's how Lori and I came to feel about Tent Girl, as we built our own family.
Mark and I visited the cemetery where our siblings were buried. Tent Girl made me sad because she had no known family to visit her grave. So whenever Lori and I went to Kentucky, we visited Tent Girl's grave. In a way, we made her part of our family.
But I had a longing to connect her with her own family. I searched area libraries and newspapers to comb through hard-copy archives, searching both for stories about the Tent Girl. This went on for a decade. At times I felt I was going nowhere, but I was learning.
Criminology in a Technical Age
The Yahoo-based "Cold Cases" group was one of the first of these such "virtual" gathering places, which led to the formation of others, such as the Doe Network. Over the past decade, an increasing number of Web sites devoted to particular cases of missing persons have been created. One of the first was my own for the Tent Girl. (The earliest page still exists, though crude by today's standards.)
Message boards dedicated to other subjects came to be used to post information about missing persons and lost loved ones.
Finally a Breakthrough
It was a night like a thousand nights before, the evening I found what I was looking for at last. I had discovered a message board with a posting by a woman looking for her sister last seen in Lexington, Kentucky. The description very closely matched the description etched onto the Tent Girl's headstone. The feeling in my heart was greater than anything concrete I was reading on the screen. I knew I had found them--the family of the Tent Girl.
An exhumation and DNA revealed Tent Girl was 24-year-old Barbara Taylor, a wife and mother who would have been a grandmother by that time.
Connecting Barbara with her family was a profound and fulfilling moment of my life. Tent Girl had a deep impact on others as well. In 1968, long before I knew of the case, the discovery of her remains had led to the establishment of the Kentucky State Medical Examiner's Office. Then three decades later, in 1998, her identification led to the creation of a state-based Web site by the Kentucky Medical Examiners office: UnidentifiedRemains.net.
Case files are in a constant state of review and are cross-referenced by researchers, law enforcement, and the public. The Doe Network alone has helped bring closure to more than forty cases of missing or unidentified people. That network continues to gather data on thousands of other similar cases to help keep them in the public eye.
Often people involved in using the Internet to help solve crimes are called "amateur sleuths." I prefer terms like "advocate" and "volunteer." The volunteer effort has progressed and has taken the shape of an actual science. Those of us who seek the technology of the Internet and other computerized resources to resolve cold cases have found a niche that truly deserves a name. I like the term "Technology Criminology."
Hundreds of e-mails a day from people searching for their missing loved ones are sent to advocates willing to help. This is a new age where the ordinary man can step up and make a difference. It doesn't matter your sex, age, race, or physical disability. When you think about it, we are all one big family.Tweet