WIS Investigates: Dozens of unidentified remains leave investigators searching for leads

WIS Investigates: Dozens of unidentified remains leave investigators searching for leads

South Carolina (WIS) - There are more than 11,000 unidentified remains known only to law enforcement as John or Jane Doe. In South Carolina, the remains of more than 50 people have been found abandoned, sometimes hidden, with no clues about who they were in life.

"Everybody has a family. Everybody has people that love them, regardless of how they're found," said Richland County Coroner Gary Watts. "We want to make sure they get back to the family."

According to the Doe Network and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons database, there are 59 unidentified remains in South Carolina. Some were murdered and some died of an accident, while others are victims of unknown circumstances.

Two of those bodies were found just off Interstate 95 North in Sumter. Former Sheriff Tommy Mims said there was no accident to cause their deaths. Instead, he described them as two cold-blooded executions.

"The value of human life by some people is very low," Mims said.

What took place here in the summer of 1976 remains the state's oldest unidentified remains case. But, never mind finding the killer. Investigators still don't even know who their victims are.

"They were found face down in a kneeling position and shot in the back of the head," Mims said. "She would've been in her late teens to early 20s. The male was thought to be somewhere between 25-27 years."

But Mims said there was nothing on the bodies to identify them.

The items they left behind are in boxes in Sumter County and include a ring, a watch, and X-rays showing expensive dental work. Investigators say they could never find anyone who admitted to seeing the couple. For that reason, law enforcement thinks they may be from out of the country.

The few clues investigators do have didn't add up to much in 1976 or in 2007 when the remains were exhumed for DNA extraction.

"That was done with negative results," Mims said.

But early on, there was one break in the case.

"We even identified the gun based on the bullet that came out of it at the scene," Mims said.

Investigators have been able to piece together that the gun was stolen from Wadesboro, N.C., sometime in 1976, which was the same year as the murders. Investigators have no idea how the gun made its way to Sumter County.

"I-95 is well-known to be a drug corridor," Mims said. "God only knows what goes up and down that interstate. Since that time, several large seizures of drugs have been made. Marijuana mainly, some LCD, heroin. The possibilities themselves are endless. It could be they themselves were involved in some illegal activity."

Law enforcement told WIS convicted serial killer drifters Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole were interviewed by investigators as possible suspects in the murders, but they couldn't connect either of them to the case.

After spending a year in Plexiglas coffins at a local funeral home in hopes someone would be able to identify them, Sumter's Jane and John Doe were finally buried in a church cemetery. Mims hopes one day they'll be able to put names on the two grave markers.

"It would be great if it could happen," he said. "It would bring a lot of satisfaction to this sheriff's office and this community."

The Sumter double murder may be the oldest unidentified case on the books, and at this point, one of the hardest to solve.

The unidentified gets a name

For 10 years, a Lancaster County man's remains laid in a box in the Richland County coroner's evidence room. Nobody who loved him even knew he was dead. He was another set of unidentified remains in a room already crowded with them. But as it turns out, he was not completely forgotten. Among the rows and rows of cardboard coffins lie just some of South Carolina's John and Jane Does.

"The type of people who end up in these situations don't always start in this type of lifestyle," said Bill Stevens, forensics anthropologist at the Richland County Coroner's Office.

Some were murdered. Some were victims of accidents and others were found dead of natural causes with no identification.

"Often they're very distant with their families to begin with, so they're not reported missing," Stevens said. "They're people found in the woods or buried bodies that have turned up in homicide cases. Remains that were decomposed beyond recognition."

Stevens knows the deceased cases in the coroner's office inside and out. But he works every day to find what he doesn't know - their names. Until then, unidentified remains like this never leave the shelves in the evidence room of the Richland County Coroner's Office.

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said they have boxes of unidentified remains dating from 1979 to 2014 in their office. They'll be kept in boxes until they are identified.

Statewide, there are 59 unidentified people's cases and possibly more simply unreported. But just days ago, one of those John Does got off that list and got his name back.

In 2005, a middle-aged African American male was found off Interstate 20 in Richland County. He died alone in the woods with empty pockets. The cause of death was undetermined.

"He'd been there three to six months or more based on the condition of the soft tissue and the skeletonization of parts of his limb bone," Stevens said. "We compared his profile to half a dozen missing persons who fit his profile. After a while, we had the facial reconstruction done and that was put on SLED's website."

But for 10 long years, John Doe remained among the boxes in the coroner's office unclaimed. That is until his DNA was finally checked against criminal databases. Surprisingly to everyone, there was a hit less than 40 minutes from where he was found.

"Finally, there was a DNA sample available in an arrest record we were able to compare it to," Watts said. "The family had not reported him missing."

John Doe had been arrested in Lancaster County and his DNA kept on file. His name was just revealed this month to be Glen Douglas Clark. A brilliant, yet troubled man. A dark end to what could've been a bright future.

"He was a real smart person. He got his master's degree, and he, through the times, was having a little problem," said Sammie Clark, Glen's brother. "He was taking medicine."

Sammie still remembers the last time he saw Glen, which was shortly before his brother was arrested.

"He was outside buck naked in the yard, and cars were passing by and stuff," Sammie said. "He threw Momma down on the road in the highway. That was the last time I saw him."

Now, Stevens thinks running a deceased person's DNA through the criminal database should be one of the first things done to help identify remains.

"We try to go the other local ways of identifying somebody before we go national, too," Watts said.

The coroner's office says they are working to eventually send all its cold unidentified cases for DNA matching. The list of remains in Richland County alone is close to 15. The average wait time for DNA results is eight months.

"They never stop looking for these individuals," Watts said. "It's important for them, and it's important for the family to have closure. Everyone we deal with has a family. Everyone has someone who cares about them and loves them and wants to know what happened to them."

The Clark family is planning on cremating Glen's remains in the coming weeks. They believe Glen was murdered and say law enforcement is considering whether to open a murder investigation into his death.

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