At least once a year for the last decade, a dead body has been found in Hudson County that could not be identified.
Every effort is made to find information about these "John Does" or "Jane Does," but after approximately three weeks, local law enforcement officials begin making burial arrangements with a local cemetery.
Photos of the deceased person's face are placed on a state police website, and forensic pathologists and anthropologists inspect the body for clues.
Still, there are bodies more than 35 years old with unmarked graves in Hudson County's cemeteries, and even two months ago, a homeless woman's badly decomposed corpse was found in Jersey City and was not identified until a photo ran in the newspaper and a relative contacted police.
"Basically, we try to get the word out as much as possible," said Jersey City Police Chief Thomas Comey recently. "As soon as a body is found, we cross reference the descriptions with all of the missing persons reports that we have on file."
Comey added, "We had one case where a girl had been missing for about six months. Then we got a report that an unidentified girl was found [dead] near Liberty State Park. As soon as we got her description, we typed it in, and out came the missing persons."
That case occurred over nine years ago, and the woman was a Jersey City native who had died of a drug overdose.
Comey said that the girl's parents, though crying, thanked the Jersey City Police Department for finding her body.
"People just want closure, you know?" Comey said. "They just want the certainty of knowing exactly what happened."
Right now, there are over 700,000 missing persons cases in the United States that technically have not been closed, according to the Doe Network, a website designed for people throughout the country who are missing someone. However, sometimes the people return quickly and authorities are not notified.
Missing for years
Some cases linger for years with no new clues. On Feb. 9, 2005, a stout, attractive caucasian woman who was between 25 and 35 years old washed up in the Hudson River in Hoboken. She had brown hair with blonde streaks in it, short nails, and pink toenail polish. She was still wearing a black cowboy boot with a hole in the sole, and a Citizens quartz watch. A sketch of the woman accompanies this article.
The woman was estimated to have died three months earlier, according to investigators. Investigators said that she died from drowning, and there were no signs of a homicide. The case is still open.
Another man remains identified after he was found 23 years ago in Jersey City on New Year's Day, 1984.
At the time, that man was estimated to have been dead for about a year. He was African-American with brown eyes, and he was wearing three pairs of pants, leading investigators to believe he might have been homeless. Investigators estimated that he was 30 to 40 years old. His dental records are available, should anyone come up with a match.
Even though the man had two parents like everyone else, as well as at least 30 years of stories, he lies unidentified.
In another case, a white man who was only 5-foot-1 was found in North Bergen in 1989. He was believed to be between 50 and 60 years of age. He was wearing a tan dress shirt, gray tweed pants, a white undershirt, and a jogging jacket. He had a beard and mustache.
He remains buried with no identity.
Looking for clues
Last week, Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio said that usually, there are clues when a body is found. "Sometimes, a body will have a form of identification on them, or we'll at least have their prints on file," he said. "Other times, we're left in the dark."
DeFazio said that the procedures on popular TV shows like "CSI" or "The Forensic Files" are not always realistic.
"Those shows lead people to believe that there is always a way of finding out who a person is," said DeFazio. "And those shows begin with the assumption that the death was a result of a murder. In reality, we don't make any assumptions until after we get an autopsy. And if there is no one pressing the matter, like family, then that could take a while."
When a body is found
When a body is found and pronounced dead, it is taken to whichever morgue is closest at that time. Once there, forensic scientists try to determine the cause of death. They file a report with the missing/unidentified body database in Trenton, which is run by the State Police.
After that, the corpse will generally spend up to three weeks in the morgue while investigators wait for family or a knowing party to come forward.
After that, the body is moved to a nearby cemetery and placed in an unnamed grave.
"The county has worked out arrangements with a few of the cemeteries in the area," DeFazio said. "As long as the cemeteries say they have room, then we can provide a burial there."
Anthropology vs. pathology
Once a body is recovered, it is seen by two different groups of scientists.
A forensic pathologist is a medical doctor who determines the cause of death. Different causes of death can show different lifestyles, allowing police to narrow their search.
A forensic anthropologist focuses primarily on the bones of the victim. Should something be amiss in the skeletal structure, it is the anthropologist who "pieces" it back together.
If a disfigured body is found, an anthropologist will be called in to create a clay model of what they feel the person's face looked like, based on remaining facial bones as well as the size and shape of the other bones.
"The easiest way to tell us apart is that [pathologists] do tissue. We [anthropologists] do bones," said Dr. Albert Sloane, a professor at the College of New Jersey in Ewing.
Before turning to teaching, Sloane had been a forensic anthropologist in several counties throughout New Jersey.
"It's a very specialized field," he said. "Not every county is going to have their own anthropologist on call, so when a body is found, generally they send out for one of us [forensic anthropologists]."
Several hundred waiting for you
The New Jersey state police website has a roster of 241 unidentified bodies found in New Jersey dating back to 1981, most of whom have photos attached. Forty-seven of those are from Hudson County.
The website that links directly to the missing/unidentified persons is http://www.state.nj.us/njsp/miss/unident.html.
"Just because you don't think you would know anybody on there, doesn't mean you shouldn't check," said DeFazio. "Even if you see someone [who once] walked by you on your way to get a cup of coffee in the morning, that would help a lot."
Viewers are asked to take caution. Some of the images posted in the page may be too graphic for children, particularly those with facial reconstruction.
"All of these people deserve to be found," DeFazio said. "They all should have names."
If you recognize one of the people in the photos, contact the New Jersey State Police at 1-800-709-7090 or e-mail at email@example.com. For comments on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.