- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - It’s the middle of the night at the morgue and forensic investigator Jessica McMurray has called up a file on her computer.

It’s an unidentified woman whose body was found in 2003 in the Allegheny River near Fox Chapel Yacht Club.

The woman’s body was wrapped in a blanket and bound with duct tape, a plastic bag over her head. She died of a drug overdose, likely heroin, and could have floated down the river for miles, possibly from New York. Allegheny County police are investigating the case as a homicide, as typically is done with such cases.

McMurray has looked at the file so often she has memorized the woman’s height - 5 feet, 3 inches - her weight - 97 pounds - the date she was found and the location. She matched the details of the file against hundreds of missing person cases in national databases.

“Process of elimination, basically,” McMurray said. “I come in every day, and I think, ‘What can I do today that I haven’t done yet to figure out who this person is?’ “

National databases of missing people and unidentified remains are indispensable yet underused tools. McMurray used the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, known as NamUs, to solve two cases within the past year:

. Michael Gaye, 18, of Arlington, Va., who went missing after Labor Day 2014, was found in the Allegheny River but not identified for more than a year;

. Aaron Dunlap, 41, of Mt. Lebanon, who went missing in May 2015, was found dead more than a month later along the Ohio River on Neville Island and wasn’t identified for six months.

Police don’t know how they died and both cases remain open investigations.

“Thank God for Jessica,” said Stefani Gooden-Pulido, Gaye’s aunt. “She’s the only one that did an investigation. She’s the one who said, ‘We gotta find who this man is.’ “

There are more than 12,000 missing person cases and nearly 11,000 unidentified body cases logged in NamUs, which is funded through a National Institute of Justice grant. Its basic, searchable databases are free and open to the public.

The database says it has helped solve 1,325 missing person cases since 2008 and 731 unidentified body cases since 2007, when the databases were launched.

Limited resources

Using databases to solve such cases is new in forensic science, said Dr. Karl Williams, the Allegheny County medical examiner.

“Medical examiner’s offices and coroner’s offices are all impoverished,” Williams said. “Some are still running separate databases and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.”

Allegheny County has seven unidentified body cases and several in which only bones were found. Five are logged into NamUs.

Westmoreland County has one case: The body of a 10- to 16-year-old girl found covered in dirt and trash in 1967 near the Colvan Sanitary Landfill, west of Slickville. Investigators exhumed her body in October to study the remains.

Beaver County’s only case in the database is one of an embalmed, severed head found in December 2014 along Mason Road near the Economy woods. Police released a three-dimensional model of the woman’s head a month later, but the case hasn’t been solved and the remains were buried in December with a headstone that says, “Jane Doe. Found Dec. 12, 2014.”

McMurray and other forensic investigators work on such cases during lulls at the morgue, between trips to crime scenes and phone calls to the families of the dead.

There’s no full-time cold case investigator.

“If we were Philadelphia, if we were Albuquerque, N.M., where they have hundreds of unidentified people coming across the border, we’d probably need someone to do that,” Williams said. “As a general rule, in Allegheny County, we don’t get an enormous number of completely unknown bodies.”

Philadelphia has 47 unidentified body cases in NamUs. Bernalillo County, N.M., home to Albuquerque, has 20.

Todd Matthews, director of case management and communications for NamUs, said agencies could use better database training.

“Most agencies lack a case management system,” Matthews said. “They are just applying their science and hoping that it works, and most of the time it does work.”

Mandy Tinkey, director of operations at the morgue, said the few unidentified cases are a priority. She has reached out to NamUs for more training.

Two years ago, Tinkey hung a dry erase board, dubbed the “Unknown Board,” with what’s known about the morgue’s unidentified bodies: date found, description, location.

The board caught McMurray’s eye when she started in May 2015.

McMurray, 25, of Ingomar Heights, knew since ninth grade she wanted to work in criminal justice. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2012 after interning at the morgue and spent three years applying for a job there.

She tended bar and coached high school soccer, second and third jobs she kept once the county hired her. Now, it’s common for McMurray to coach the girls at Ambridge High School in Beaver County, where she grew up, or serve drinks at the Cranberry Sports Grille, before she heads to the Strip District for a night shift at the morgue.

A trail of clues

Before a lunch at Millicent Gaye-Gooden’s apartment in Arlington, Va., her family joins hands and prays for her grandson, Michael Gaye. They don’t pray for Gaye to come home anymore. They pray for answers.

Gaye had spent most of his life trying to run away. He and three siblings were taken from their mother as children. She suffered from mental illness and was deemed unfit to care for them, said his sister, Asha.

He shuffled among about 10 foster and group homes.

In May 2014, Gaye was 17 and put into a group home in Baltimore. Supervision was “sketchy” there, said his aunt, Stefanie Gooden-Pulido. Gaye didn’t like it. He wanted to be out of the system. He liked science. He wanted to be a professor at Yale.

“He wanted to be free. He wanted to live a normal life,” Gooden-Pulido said.

Gaye ran away from his grandmother’s apartment while with his family for a Labor Day picnic in 2014.

“He was in the living room sitting on this same chair,” his grandmother said. “That was the last time I saw him.”

He showed up at his sister’s job. He went to his mother’s house. Then, he vanished.

At the end of September, a jogger spotted a body floating in the Allegheny River near the Clemente Bridge. Later that week, the Medical Examiner’s Office asked for help in identifying the body. Investigators released a photo of a dark-colored sweater with argyle patches.

The details of Gaye’s case were on the Unknown Board when McMurray started at the Medical Examiner’s Office in May 2015.

“He was just so young,” she said.

McMurray thought the body might not be from Western Pennsylvania because no one recognized the photo of the sweater. She pored over his report.

“Maybe there were hints and clues that could tell us where he came from,” she said.

She saw the remains twice; the body badly decomposed and bloated from being in the river. She studied a piece of paper in his pocket, a religious tract from a church in Florida. She called the church. They said they print literature and distribute it across the country.

She scoured databases of missing person reports. She narrowed the search by geography, the date someone was last seen. She stumbled across Michael Gaye’s case one night in December.

The estimated heights didn’t match. Photos of the remains and photos of Gaye looked nothing alike, McMurray said. But Gaye’s missing person file noted dental records were available. McMurray asked a forensic odontologist to take X-rays of the teeth on the body and compare.

“A long shot,” McMurray said.

They matched.

Fifteen months after Gaye went missing, he was found. McMurray notified Arlington police, who told Gaye’s family on New Year’s Eve.

“They had a lot of questions, some things I couldn’t answer,” McMurray said. “If I can’t answer a question, I always try to find it for them.”

They wanted to know how Gaye got from Washington to Pittsburgh. McMurray wanted to know, too. She called Amtrak, Greyhound and Megabus to see whether anyone named Michael Gaye bought a ticket.

She still doesn’t know how he made the 240-mile trip.

‘It was closure’

As McMurray erased Gaye’s case from the Unknown Board, a co-worker suggested she start on another.

Aaron Dunlap went missing at the end of April 2015. He was an alcoholic struggling to get sober, said his mother, Theresa Dunlap. He was in and out of rehab. He was in trouble with the police.

He wanted to go back to Duquesne University to become a doctor or a lawyer. He was smart, but alcohol destroyed him, his mother said.

“He was a wonderful guy. I mean, everyone will tell you that, kindhearted,” Theresa Dunlap said.

In late April, Aaron Dunlap got drunk after four or five months of sobriety, his mother said. He checked himself into St. Clair Hospital, and when he walked out a few days later, Theresa Dunlap never heard from him again.

She filed a missing person report May 12, 2015.

On June 24, 2015, a man cutting trees along the bank of the Ohio River on Neville Island found a body. The Ohio Township police chief said the body had been there for quite some time.

It was mostly skeletal remains, McMurray said. There was a little bit of hair, but not much else for the medical examiner’s office to use to ID the remains. The case went on the board.

McMurray started working on the case in early January, scrolling through missing person cases in NamUs.

Aaron Dunlap’s case popped up quickly. He went missing around the same time the body had been found. His hair was the same color: a salt-and-pepper gray. The autopsy of the body showed a hip surgery.

“I knew it was Aaron the day I looked it at,” McMurray said. “I was so sure of it at this time that I figured what the heck, I’m going to call her and see what she can tell me.”

Theresa Dunlap told McMurray her son had had hip surgery.

McMurray got Aaron Dunlap’s medical records and compared X-rays of his hip surgery with X-rays of the hip surgery from the unidentified body. They matched.

“Yes, it was closure, but closure after six months; it was awful. It was just awful,” Theresa Dunlap said. “The closure was good, but the time frame was horrific.”

McMurray doesn’t have any leads on her new case, the woman’s body found wrapped in a blanket in the river near the yacht club in 2003. She’s clicking through missing person files, searching, searching for a scrap of detail, for a name.

“Somebody out there somewhere misses and loves these people,” she said. “That is what drives me to figure it out.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/28YpxHp

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

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