A grim expression lingers on the face of Alameda Sheriff's Detective Ed Chicoine as he ponders a forensic artist's rendering of a teenage girl. The walls of the station where he works are littered with versions of the sketch, ranging in size from full posters to 8x10 flyers, each bearing nothing more than an educated guess at the girl's appearance. Chicoine covers the version in front of him -- a profile view -- with an outstretched palm and wonders aloud if releasing the image to the public was a mistake.
"This might have hurt us," he confesses.
Chicoine is plagued with doubts these days. It's been more than six months since a Carrows employee in Castro Valley found a green canvas bag in the bushes behind the chain restaurant's parking lot. Inside were the remains of the girl in the sketch, a Latina in her mid-teens. Forensic experts estimated she'd been dead almost two weeks, suffocated by a rag shoved down her throat. Half a year later, Chicoine has yet to identify her, much less catch her killer. With his leads diminishing and public interest in the case waning, the 39-year-old detective has begun the second-guessing. Today he is focused on the drawing. Was it a poor likeness? Could it have dissuaded someone from coming forward?
"If I ever thought I'd be sitting here in November saying not only can I not tell you who killed her, but I don't even know who she is, I would've said, 'No way,'" laments Chicoine's boss and co-investigator, Sergeant Scott Dudek. "It's pathetic."
Most such IDs are made within twelve hours, the sergeant points out. Seventy-two is a lifetime in a homicide case. "Everybody has a family," Chicoine recalls telling himself shortly after the body was found. "Some mom out there is going to say, 'Hey, my daughter is missing.'"
But no one has. That's another disturbing part of the puzzle for those familiar with Castro Valley's Jane Doe (the name authorities give an unidentified female). How could a teenage girl who was apparently well-looked-after; whose blood tests showed she was free of alcohol and drugs; who wore colorful socks, a knockoff designer shirt, and gold hoop earrings; and who was healthy with perfect teeth, turn up murdered and have nobody come forward to claim her?
Chicoine handles most of the gumshoe work. In his daily quest for clues, he has spent hours with an ear glued to the phone, interviewing parents of missing teens, following up with local police agencies, and tracking down dental records. He has mowed through Web databases, scrutinized scores of paper files, and sometimes visited towns like Salinas and Modesto to follow up on leads. While the answers he and Dudek have uncovered are neither comforting nor complete, along the way they've discovered a world of missing persons and mysterious corpses far bigger and more chaotic than either man had ever imagined.
As of last week, according to the California Department of Justice, there were at least 25,994 active missing persons cases and 2,431 unidentified corpses known to state authorities. Nationally, there are only about 4,500 unidentified bodies officially on record, but that figure is considered woefully low. The real tab may be ten times that, says Todd Matthews, spokesman for a nonprofit tracking resource known as the Doe Network. Getting an accurate national missing-persons count is even more slippery: Runaways often go unreported, for example, and reports involving marginalized populations such as drug addicts and prostitutes are frequently disregarded by authorities. In their quest to find Jane Doe, Chicoine and Dudek have encountered all of the above on numerous occasions.
But many cases fall through the cracks in part because none of the dozens of systems that exist for listing, tracking, and linking missing people with unidentified bodies is capable of connecting all the dots. The first one the detectives tapped was the national TRAK flyer network, a private fax-based system run by a Burlingame nonprofit called SocialTech. But TRAK, Dudek points out, only includes those reports a subscriber deems worthy: A habitual runaway, for example, may not make the cut.
The state Department of Justice has its Missing and Unidentified Persons System, but like TRAK, MUPS only includes cases reported to it directly, and only California cases -- even though the state is a magnet for transients. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also maintains a database, but its semiprivate system also is not considered comprehensive.
The one logical hub for investigators trying to match the missing with the dead would be the FBI's National Crime Information Center database, but the NCIC is widely regarded as the worst system out there. The results of a yearlong investigation published this past February in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer concluded that the database simply doesn't help in solving such crimes. After grilling officials who ran the system, the newspaper was able to find only one government employee who could recall a single instance in the last twenty years -- a period involving tens of thousands of searches -- in which the database tied a corpse to a missing person report. A spokesman for the US Department of Justice declined to comment for this story.
"The frustrating thing is that all the technology that you would need to have in place to do this sort of matching is all out there, but there is no one single database that anyone can go to at this moment," says Jerry Nance, who tracks long-term missing and unidentified victim cases for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
As a result, Chicoine has to scour dozens of public and private systems for missing-persons reports, a process he says currently gobbles up most of the time he spends working on the case. Neither he nor Dudek share Nance's optimism that an effective solution could be developed, short of mandatory fingerprinting or DNA sampling at birth. "You're never going to get that perfect system," Dudek says. "You can't really blame the system, you have to blame [people] ... Why are there kids out there that aren't in the National Missing and Exploited Children's database? Why haven't the parents decided to say, 'My kid's been missing for two months, I'm going to search this other network and see if they could be in there'? I think it's too quick of a solution to blame the NCIC."
The problem, as Dudek views it, is human failings -- officers not following up on cases, parents giving up on their teenagers, and neighbors ignoring each other when they notice something's wrong. The fractured nature of the tracking system, he believes, is just one piece of the puzzle. Chicoine adds that even the most robust national system would stop at the border. The detectives' current theory is that Jane Doe may be from Mexico or another Latin-American country, where their law-enforcement counterparts have even fewer resources.
In their exhaustive search, Chicoine and Dudek have ruled out more than three hundred missing girls of similar age, race, height, and weight, and in the process have managed to solve more than 25 unrelated missing-persons cases. In one, things had gotten so hot for a pimp that he'd returned a girl to her parents' home. In another, a young woman contacted the detectives to say she'd heard they were looking for her, and that she'd left home without telling her parents, and was living with her boyfriend.
Still, no luck on the Castro Valley case. In September, the girl was finally laid to rest in Hayward with a funeral paid for by community donations. Her headstone reads "Unknown Child of God." Dudek and Chicoine are still flummoxed as to why they've been unable to give Ms. Doe a name. After all, she had to get to Castro Valley somehow, and somebody should still be able to recognize her.
In Dudek's office, directly in front of his desk, stands a mannequin wearing a replica of her clothing -- plaid pajama bottoms and a red, white, and blue "Tommy Sport" shirt. Off to the side hangs a giant poster of the forensic sketch. These are daily reminders of a girl's tragedy, the detectives' failures, and their need to press on, but he hardly needs reminding. Jane Doe is a case neither man will ever forget. "It's the most frustrating, difficult thing I've ever dealt with," Dudek says.
And out there somewhere, he and Chicoine realize in the back of their minds, a family is still missing a daughter, and a killer is on the loose.
If you have think you may have any information on the identity of the murdered girl, please call the Alameda County Sheriff's Office at 510-667-7721.
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