It's easier to give a man a face than a name, staff at the Charleston County Coroner's Office have found. But that hasn't stopped them from trying.
The Coroner's Office is on the hunt to identify a man found in the water off Remley's Point on Jan. 7. After exhausting their usual methods of identification, they're putting their hopes into a new color forensic sketch of the man by the State Law Enforcement Division. Their next, and likely final, recourse could be expensive genetic testing to find possible family members.
"At this point, we're kind of stuck," said Chief Deputy Coroner Bobbi Jo O'Neal. Out of all the cases they process, the Coroner's Office has a low number of still unidentified remains — just seven individuals, some of them juveniles, O'Neal said.
This current case involves a black man, between 25 and 35 years old, found floating in the water by a fisherman. O'Neal said it's unlikely he's homeless, since he was found wearing expensive Banana Republic pants and Dr. Martens boots.
The Coroner's Office quickly ran into problems as they tried to identify him. He wasn't found with any identification or identifying marks like a unique birthmark, tattoo or scar. His fingerprints weren't in any database. Although found with a cellphone, it was unrecoverable from being in the water for so long. His DNA didn't find a match in the database, and they have no dental records to match his X-rays against.
Now, the investigation, including his cause of death, is at a standstill until they learn more about him.
“Somewhere, this man has a family," said Coroner Rae Wooten. “Everyone deserves a final resting place.”
The Coroner's Office is convinced the man isn't local, but calls to cruise lines and shipping companies haven't turned up any leads. It's possible he was a stowaway, O'Neal said, but it's hard to be sure of anything.
Christina Harrison, the deputy coroner in charge of the case, has a thick folder full of possible leads that have yet to yield results. In her free time, she scrolls through missing persons forums, looking for anything that resembles their mystery man.
"I never stop looking," Harrison said. In order for SLED to make a new sketch of the man, she drove his skull to Columbia and back personally.
“We want to get his name back. Somebody is wondering what happened to him," O'Neal said.
Advancements in technology and DNA have allowed them to reopen other unidentified remains cases in recent years. The oldest case they have on record is from 1991. This 2019 case is their first unidentified remains case since 2007.
The Coroner's Office hasn't tried genetic testing yet, as it's an expensive technology. It's definitely a last resort, Wooten said, after they exhaust every other option.
It's easy to hit a wall at a certain point with these cases, especially if the victim isn't from the area. The older a case gets, the more likely it is that family members have died or stopped looking.
Wooten said they still get calls all the time from people searching for lost relatives or friends. To screen callers, they often hold back information on a unidentified victim from public releases, such as a tattoo or birthmark that only someone the victim knew would recognize.
With this case, they're worried that whoever is looking for the man could have no idea he was in Charleston. If he was an immigrant, he could be especially difficult to identify, and family members might be afraid to come forward if he, or they, were in the country illegally.
“Charleston is such a tourist draw. When someone dies in this area, they could be from anywhere," Harrison said.
The Coroner's Office asks that anyone with information on the unidentified man call their office at 843-746-4030 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
They also encourage anyone looking for a missing person to visit the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database (NamUs). The federal database estimates that in the United States 600,000 people go missing and 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered every year.