Each of the seven souls whose bodies remain unidentified at the St. Louis Medical Examiner’s Office has a story.
Each one is a mystery—for now. Each one has clues.
In the case of the remains of a man barge workers discovered along the Mississippi River 16 months ago, it’s partial tattoos.
Together, the seven cases represent the highest number of unidentified bodies those from the St. Louis City Medical Examiner’s Office—including veteran Tara Rick—can ever remember having at one time.
“I’m unable to really say why the number has increased, but it has definitely increased over the past five years,” said Rick, a 22-year employee who is now the director of operations. “It’s very taxing on our staff because they are very passionate and they want these cases to have resolution.”
Rick is hoping help from the public, a local tattoo artist and the determination of her staff could solve at least one of the mysteries.
“And the longer time goes by, it can seem less likely that we’ll get these individuals identified. So that’s why I’m asking for the public’s help.”
About 4,400 unidentified bodies are found each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons database.
The issue is adding detective work to the long list of skills forensic scientists have at the morgue.
Kelly Nicholson is among the first to look for clues that could help identify remains, including those found along the riverbank that day in June 2020. She’s the Chief Investigator for the St. Louis Medical Examiner’s Office.
“It’s a lot,” she said. “It’s hard to know that they’re somebody’s, somebody.
“We try to take care of them and do the best that we can and find out who they are and find out what happened to them. We’re the voice for the decedents. We’re trying to figure out what happened, what’s their last story.”
Unidentified in St. Louis
On June 1, 2020, barge workers spotted something floating in the Mississippi River near Arsenal and Second streets.
It looked like it could be a body.
Police and firefighters responded and confirmed it was human remains. Ever since, the body rested inside the city’s morgue along with the remains of six other unidentified people, some of whom were recovered as far back as 2016.
Most were found in the Mississippi River. Others were found in abandoned properties. None of them have fingerprints which is the most common way to scientifically identify human remains.
Rick has combed through missing persons reports in the area but none match the description of the remains she has at the morgue.
And, she’s not even sure the man with the partial tattoos, or any of the remains found in the river, are from the area, given the Mississippi River’s thousands of miles of current that run through several Midwestern states.
Without an identity, she’s unable to compare X-rays or dental records.
Rick also sends samples of the remains to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, where forensic analysts work to develop a DNA profile.
The DNA profiles gleaned from those samples then get entered into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS as it’s more commonly known, along with the FBI’s National DNA Index System (NDIS). The profile of the unidentified person could hit on potential relatives within those databases.
Rick also enters information from the DNA of unidentified remains into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs as it’s commonly known.
DNA analysis takes time. Just getting a DNA profile can take a year or more. She submitted samples from the man with the tattoos in June 2020.
“And now we wait,” she said. But, sometimes, she or her investigators get lucky.
She recalled a case involving a young man whose remains were found outside in a burned garage.
“He was wearing pretty unique clothing,” she recalled. “And because I had been kind of having my finger on the pulse of these missing persons, this individual’s family had went to the media pleading for help trying to find him.”
In pictures the family gave reporters, the man was wearing the same skater type of sweatshirt.
“It was a lead, it was a name so that we could reach out to that law enforcement agency where that young man had been reported missing and we were able to have them act as a liaison between the medical examiner’s office and the family,” she said. “And we were able to have him fingerprinted and identified very quickly.”
It’s an experience Rick said she will never forget.
“Each case has its own individual challenges, but one that when the stars do align and we’re able to make identifications, it’s extremely rewarding for our staff that works tirelessly to get these individuals identified,” Rick said. “It’s very emotional.
“You make connections with the people that you’re working for.”
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“Classic bad-boy tattoo”:
Key to finding his family?
In the case of the man barge workers found, Rick keeps coming back to the tattoos.
“These types of tattoos are usually unique,” she said. “They usually pay honor to a loved one, a life event, a significant other or something along those lines.”
On the right lateral arm is the remnants of a pink bow with the word “Zachary” and the date written as 4-11-12. The word “Madd” is just below it, but some of the remaining letters attached to that name are illegible. Another date appears to have been written under it, but the number “5” is legible, followed by a dash. The day of the year is illegible, but the year on the end of it appears to be 18.
Another name appears to be written under that, but only the first letters, “Ha” are legible. On the right ventral forearm, are the partial remains of a tattoo that reads, “Death before Dishonor” written on a ribbon that winds through a dagger and a skull.
The left lateral arm’s tattoos are mostly illegible, but the word “Grandpa” appears on the man’s right dorsal forearm.
I-Team enlisted the help of local tattoo artist William Rahmberg to research the tattoos and create images that can be shared publicly of what the tattoos may have looked like in their entirety as well as whether they are custom enough to be traced to the original artist.
Until now, the Medical Examiner’s Office could not share the images publicly due to decomposition.
Under normal circumstances, Rahmberg said he meets with clients to talk through the image they want before drawing it.
“This project is kind of like figuring it out backwards,” he said.
Rahmberg said the Death Before Dishonor skull is one of the most common images he’s seen. With just a few Google searches of the phrase, he said dozens of images of the same tattoo appear on the arms of others across the country.
But the trained eye of an artist like Rahmberg can spot subtle differences among them: an extra shadow here, an extra crack in the skull there, a nuance in the handwriting.
“I definitely felt like a detective kind of looking through these,” he said.
“The quality of the linework and the just knowing the story of what that tattoo had been through and the fact that it was still pretty legible as a tattoo I could read and understand… tells me that it was done with someone with some training,” he said. “It held up really nice.”
Rahmberg suspects the man also found the image online and took it to a tattoo shop to have it drawn on his body.
“It’s a classic World War one World War II military-style tattoo,” he said. “This is a classic bad-boy tattoo.
“To a degree, it’s a tough tattoo, so someone wearing this in a way was trying to tell the world something.”
Rahmberg said there are clues within the tattoos that include just names as well.
“In tattooing when it comes to parents or grandparents, we don’t put their first names, so it’s definitely indicative of children,” he said. “So whoever this is, definitely had a boy and a girl and in my opinion.”
He has an interpretation of other portions of the tattoo near the names as well, and believes it could be a Catholic rosary.
“This is probably just a small clip of maybe an upper arm piece he might have had from his elbow to his shoulder,” Rahmberg said. “He definitely liked to get tattooed.
“He at least had two decent-sized tattoos that he went and endured…He was probably a fan of tattooing, a fan of his family that held some sort of moral standard of not dishonoring that family. Maybe. The mystery continues for sure.”
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Tips for families:
When a family member is missing
Rick said the most important thing families can do is report their loved ones missing to their local police departments and submit a DNA sample. That way, if their loved one died, investigators will have somewhere to start.
“Be as specific as possible when reporting a loved one missing, give a good physical description, height, weight, last known clothing, tattoos, do they have any scars or other marks? Have they ever had surgery before? Do they have any implantable devices? Where did they go to the dentist if they’ve ever gone to the dentist?” Rick said.
She said the phone at the morgue rings at least every week from a family searching for answers.
“Someone calls and says, ‘I can’t find my loved one. I’m looking for my loved one. Do you have any John Doe’s? Do you have any Jane Doe’s?’” Rick said. “And one of the first things that we ask those family members or friends or acquaintances is, ‘Have you reported your loved one missing?’ And more often than not, their response is, ‘No.’”
Not every identification ends with a family who is happy to have answers.
“Sometimes when we locate and notify a family member, they may not have the financial resources to move forward on the final arrangements,” she said. “Sometimes there’s other factors like estrangement or other personal reasons the family may have.”
Should a family decide not to claim the remains once they’re identified, the city buries them in unmarked graves in a portion of Calvary Cemetery where there are no markers and no flowers.
“At least it’s an answer,” Nicholson said. “It’s closure for the family, and I think that’s what we all are looking for here.”
Still, she hopes the man barge workers pulled from the river that day in June won’t be the next grave.
Help identify them:
Review the cases
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