Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Skeleton Cruise

New book features missing persons sleuths in their fascinating subculture.

Last week, DNA analysis provided an identity for two girls who went missing from Philadelphia in 1968. Forty-six years ago, their bodies had turned up separately, about three miles apart, in nearby Berks County. They became Jane Does.

Finally, they have their names back.

Sandra Ann Stiver, 14, and Martha Evelyn Stiver, 17, were sisters-in-law. Someone saw them that summer of ’68 near Kensington and Frankford Avenues. Then they vanished. Investigators and some family members thought they might have run away. In any event, they didn't return.

One body, shot multiple times, was found that August and the skeletal remains of the other in April. Since they went unclaimed during a time when there were few resources for linking Jane Does with missing persons reports, the bodies were buried in a potter’s field in Cumru Township.

It took more than four decades to identify them. In part, this is because the missing persons networks have numerous cases and few resources, relying mainly on volunteers. Also, these networks have been running only since the Internet provided for multiple digital connections. In addition, coroners and other investigators have little time to post the information, so many reports are still in files. The Berks County Jane Does identification is a nice success story.

Information about these cases, with a few photos thought to be associated with them, was posted on Pennsylvaniamissing.com, which is part of the national Doe Network. Sandra’s sister, Hazel, was looking at the Doe Network when she spotted the photos. The image of a girl in one photo resembled Sandra. Hazel notified authorities and the process of identification went into motion.

This is the kind of story you’ll find in Deborah Halber’s soon-to-be-released book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases (July 1). She’s a Boston-based journalist with a background in science writing. I thought it sounded interesting, since I consult with death investigators, so I agreed to provide a blurb. I couldn't put it down. It's one of those books that gets under your skin.

Halber not only found an interesting subculture, much like I did for Piercing the Darkness, which took me into the 1990s vampire subculture, but she also structures this book with plenty of narrative hooks and character layers. Like me, Halber appreciates books like The Orchid Thief and Stiff, so she uses this compelling style of storytelling.

The Skeleton Crew features persistent, intrepid people who accepted the task of trying to link some of the 40,000 John and Jane Does with spare and scattered information about specific missing people. In other words, these sleuths care enough to commit themselves, sometimes for years, to try to idenify the unclaimed dead.

“We don’t like to think that public agencies would abandon cases that prove too challenging,” Halber writes, “but – confronted with more immediate concerns than a quietly decomposing body – they often do.”

Although it’s tedious, solitary work, there are opportunities for interaction among these people. There is, in fact, a subculture via websites, conferences and strangers aligned with a single purpose who become friends and partners.

Some are detective wannabes who want to show law enforcement how it should be done. A few hope to become the person who solved an infamous cold case. Others are deep wells of compassion who simply care about those who can no longer help themselves.

Readers will learn about such cases as the Tent Girl, the Head in the Bucket, and the Lady of the Dunes, and will meet some of the main players in this sleuthing arena. You’ll find out about Websleuths, Porchlight, NamUs, and the Doe Network, among others. You’ll also discover how philosophical differences have divided this effort into the mavericks (lone glory seekers) and the trust builders (teamwork).

The Holy Grail for both camps is a positive ID, but the process of getting there is what drives the contentious debates.  

“The forums reminded me of Alice in Wonderland,” says Halber. “It was perpetually teatime in the virtual worlds, and conversations were as out of synch as Alice’s and the Mad Hatter’s.” 

This book isn’t about cold case networks that solve old crimes, although this can be a result. It’s about the people who spend hours and hours looking for matches, sometimes with surprising success. “As I delved into the world of the missing and unidentified,” Halber writes, “her [the Tent Girl’s] story would transform the shopworn whodunit into something altogether different – the whowuzit, I’ll call it – in which the identity of the victim, not the culprit, is the conundrum.”

For me, this book was much more than a terrific read about a layered subculture in a field that crosses my own. It was an invitation to get involved. Every small town in America, it seems, has a missing person and/or Doe case that has yet to be resolved. Every small town in America also has limited resources. The missing persons networks have assisted the process in quite a few cases that once were considered long shots.

I hope a lot of people read this book. I hope they feel the urgency of the need to identify those who’ve been separated from their names and to reunite the missing with their loved ones. I hope this book inspires the addition of many more eyes and ears in this work.

To be sure, it’s no easy thing to jump in and start working on these puzzles. There are a lot of personalities to deal with and many deadends, not to mention heartache and frustration. Still, it’s fascinating, worthy, and potentially satisfying. I know of no better guide for navigating this multifaceted world than Halber’s book.
 

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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