800 unidentified dead in L.A. County

The number is part of a Justice Department report looking at similar statistics around the country.
By Ari B. Bloomekatz
Times Staff Writer

June 26, 2007

At least 800 bodies examined by the Los Angeles County coroner since 1968 remain unidentified, according to a federal report released this week.

New York, with 3,612 such cases since 1996, led the nation.

The Justice Department report was the first of its kind, synthesizing 2004 data from about 2,000 medical examiners’ and coroners’ offices around the nation.

Among the major findings: About 13,500 bodies were unidentified across the country, and fewer than half the reporting agencies had a standardized procedure for dealing with such cases.

Los Angeles County had the nation’s third-highest number of unidentified bodies, and San Bernardino County ranked fifth with about 307, according to the study.

Kristen Hughes, a Justice Department statistician and coauthor of the report, said California had two counties in the top five because it is the only state that legally mandates coroners’ and medical examiners’ offices to report their unidentified deceased.

“It’s a matter of record-keeping for California. They’re keeping good records, and they’re required by law to keep good records,” Hughes said.

Some discrepancy exists in the data, however, because not all departments across the nation keep information for the same length of time. Cleveland, for example, has records dating to about 1900 and has the second-highest number of unidentified deceased, nearly 2,200.

Most departments don’t keep specific records about their unidentified deceased, Hughes said. “Overall, record retention policies were about 49%,” she said. “This was much lower than expected.

“It’s important [to keep track] for those families of missing persons,” Hughes said. “Chances are that this person who is unidentified belongs to somebody and that somebody is looking for them. If there is good record-keeping and good databases, then that family can catch up with the deceased.”

There is little incentive for law enforcement agencies to keep strict policies and good records regarding their deceased, said Gilbert Geis, emeritus professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine. This leads to “an enormous amount of variation,” he said.

Of roughly 20,000 to 23,000 bodies the Los Angeles County coroner’s office receives each year, 300 to 350 are unidentified on arrival, said Capt. Ed Winter. A team of about 40 investigators usually can shrink the number to about 30, he said.

Many of those who are unidentified may have been trying to stay under the radar while alive, Winter said. These include legal and illegal immigrants and people who have tried to sever ties with their families or social networks.

The data from the report will be cross-referenced with the FBI’s National Crime and Information Center database on missing persons to check for matches.

The FBI has been keeping a voluntary database since 1982 and lists about 6,200 unidentified bodies.

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