The Retired Cops Who Identify Corpses the Old-Fashioned Way
Former cops Gene Sullivan and James Cardin have never had fancy computers or lab assistants to help with the grim work of identifying bodies.
Gene Sullivan and James Cardin have spent a lot of time looking at a dry-erase grid of anonymous dead people. In the squat Joliet, Illinois, building that houses the Will County Coroner's Office, investigators can't rely on touch-screen arrays, white-coated lab assistants, or reams of data accessible in seconds as one might find on a TV crime procedural. Instead, their workplace is adorned with two desktop computers, three archaic printers, and stacks of boxes marked simply: "To be scanned."
The board of the dead is divided into squares by blue painters tape, with details of unidentified dead bodies laid out in columns and rows. They include where the body was found, whose jurisdiction it fell in, what lab work has been done, where the remains are now, and what's next for the case. Each row starts on the left, with a nickname. Madame Butterfly, the duo's oldest unidentified body, was found after being strangled and beaten along highway I-55 in 1968. Glitter Man had gold in his teeth, and Crate Man was found—strewn with bullets—floating in a wooden box in a ship canal near Lockport.
"These are all people, and they all most likely have someone out there wondering where their brother, sister, aunt, uncle, mother, father is," Sullivan, a retired Romeoville detective, told VICE.
In 2008, then Will County coroner Patrick O'Neil hired the two men as a part-time cold-case squad to identify bodies. Cardin—a retired Cook County sheriff's investigator and SWAT hostage negotiator—and Sullivan built up a fledgling network, linking with experts and digging into what national databases they could get their hands on. The men have worked with forensic anthropologists at the University of Indianapolis and the University of North Texas, as well as stable isotope analysis experts at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, among others. It's slow, difficult work, though, and even as the true crime genre has enjoyed something of a cultural renaissance and criminal justice reform is increasingly mainstream, identifying dead bodies in America is an almost comically old-school affair.
"It's like taking the halves of a needle and putting them into two different haystacks in a nation of haystacks," Sullivan said. "We could get DNA, dental, forensics, anthropological studies, all the databases we can. But if someone isn't putting their other half in a missing person report, we have our work even more cut out."
Of course, forensic science has made serious headway in recent decades. Stable isotope analysis can help determine where in the world a person lived based on elements found in bone fragments and other body material. And the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System—known as NamUs—helps civilians and law enforcement collaborate on cases. According to the database's Director of Case Management and Communications J. Todd Matthews, it's also on the verge of an update, the first major refresh since launching nine years ago.
Plenty of obstacles remain when it comes to connecting the names of the missing with the bodies of the dead. But it's not impossible—even if it does sometimes require luck, as the case of the body Cardin and Sullivan originally called "Music Man" shows.
On May 20, 2009, the remains were found on a bank of the Des Plaines River, west of Interstate 55 near an Illinois town called Channahon. The corpse was seven pounds of bone—no head, no arms, no feet. Just a ribcage, spine, hipbone, and partial femurs. It was covered only with shredded underwear and jeans containing a $20 bill and a guitar pick.
For a few days, the entire country knew about the bones, as America wondered if they belonged to Stacy Cales, fourth wife of convicted murderer Drew Peterson. Cales had been missing since October 28, 2007, and the bones' location also meant they could belong to Lisa Stebic, who was last seen on April 30, 2007.
But on May 27, 2009, authorities announced the body belonged to a man. The hot-air balloon of media attention deflated in an instant. Vans and helicopters left, and the Stebics and Caleses kept searching.
As the country moved on, Cardin and Sullivan swung into action. One possibility was a man named John Spira, who disappeared on February 23, 2007, out of DuPage County, just north of Will. But there was also Scott Dudko, who also went missing from DuPage County in December 2008.
"The heights were similar, and both Spira and Dudko were musicians," Sullivan recalled. "Both also had similar teeth issues."
Check out the episode of 'VICE Does America' on identifying the bodies of border-crossers.
Then Cardin caught a break at the retirement party for his old friend Woodridge police sergeant Terrence Freeman, in May 2010. Freeman—who Cardin had worked with at the Palos Park Department back in the 70s—was ready to pack up and move with his wife to a cabin in Wisconsin. But one case was still bugging him: the disappearance of Scott Dudko.
"He said at the party that Dudko sometimes hung around Joliet and was in a band," Cardin told me. "The band thing connected. Our Music Man had a guitar pick on him."
About ten months before Freeman's retirement party, Scott Dudko's father, Michael, had been found dead when a cop arrived to check on him. During his autopsy, a blood sample was saved on a card that was entered into a national database.
Michael Dudko's DNA from his blood sample and the DNA profile for Music Man were compared, and the results suggested a 95 percent likelihood the men were related. The Music Man DNA was also compared to a sample taken from a cheek swab done on Dudko's sister, and that result, too, was a 95 percent match.
"The tests, along with the anthropology work, items in the jeans pockets like the guitar pick—and that he hasn't since reappeared—led us to the conclusion," Sullivan said.
Coroner O'Neil announced on July 27, 2010, that Music Man was Scott M. Dudko. He was 32.
Once a body is named, the case is returned to the relevant police department. In Scott Dudko's case, that was the Illinois State Police. ISP special agent Cornelius Monroe told me Dudko's case is considered a death investigation that is ongoing and wouldn't comment on its status.
Music Man was identified, but Cardin and Sullivan's board still has 11 other bodies without names. A few are marked to exhume. Others need more lab work done on remains or facial reconstruction. But every step costs money.
"With budget constraints, we just have to wait," Sullivan said.
Cardin and Sullivan have always known the chances of naming the bodies are low, but they've seen enough progress in forensic science to feel hopeful about what the future holds. Tests that are expensive now could be cheaper soon. New processes could better zoom in on where a person lived and what might have caused their death. More digitization of records could help investigators like them save time while accessing more information.
"We both thought if it was one of our family members missing we'd like to know someone was pushing hard as hard as Gene and I did," Cardin said, explaining why he took on the cold case job after serving his entire career in law enforcement. Cardin left the cold case team earlier in the year to fully retire. Mike Vanover, a retired Will County deputy coroner investigator, has since stepped in to take the role alongside Sullivan. "And even if we can't solve them, we might just dig up enough clues for the people who go after these cases when we're long gone."
Ben Feldheim has covered crime, politics, music, food, and culture for Chicago magazine and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter.