Anonymous dead are rare, but still haunt investigators

In the back of Magnolia Cemetery lie the buried ashes of a man nobody knows. His body was found behind Golden Harvest Food Bank on a frigid February morning in 2000 -- a single gunshot wound in the head had ended his life.

He might not be known in death, but he's certainly not alone. Although police say new technology has made unidentified bodies increasingly rare, John and Jane Doe cases still baffle investigators.

The latest was in June, when a man's body was found in the back of a tractor trailer full of cardboard on Walker Street. He had been there for several months. Before that, the bones of a woman were discovered near railroad tracks on Laney Walker Boulevard in March 2007.

Both are now in Atlanta, where detectives at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab will extract DNA and begin the long process of comparing it to a database of missing people. That can take years.

But the process isn't foolproof. Sometimes the dead are left anonymous.

Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten said the discovery of the John Doe behind the Commerce Drive food bank still bothers him. The man was covered from head to toe in FUBU brand clothes and had one dollar in his pocket. Mr. Tuten said it seemed the young man -- believed to be in his mid-20s -- would be identified quickly. He wasn't.

"We didn't get any hits on it -- no inquiries or anything," Mr. Tuten said. "There's a mama and daddy out there somewhere that's missing a son, but they just haven't filed a report on him. Nobody seems to care."

Columbia County's last John Doe discovery was in 1997, according to Sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris. A group of land surveyors found the unidentified remains of a man while working near a creek in the 4900 block of Columbia Road. A handgun was found nearby. Capt. Morris said investigators now believe he is a Grovetown man named Kenneth Lee Hopson, reported missing near VFW Road in 1993.

"We have every reason to believe that it is Kenneth Hopson, and we have been in contact with family members in Virginia," he said. "We collected DNA from the brother and sent skeletal remains of the victim. That was done in April of this year, and we are currently awaiting those results."

Advances in forensic science, such as DNA testing, mean John and Jane Doe cases are increasingly rare, officials said. According to Aiken County Sheriff's Lt. Michael Frank, it has meant no recent unidentified deaths in Aiken County.

"With the advent of DNA and other techniques, we haven't seen too many cases where we haven't been able to make a positive ID," he said.

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.

LAID TO REST

The pauper section in West View Memorial Gardens is typically the final resting place for the unidentified dead.

Other individuals buried in the pauper section include people whose next of kin could not be located and those who cannot afford to bury a loved one, Coroner Grover Tuten said.

So far, 26 people have been buried in the pauper cemetery this year at a cost of about $23,000.