Hancock County puts focus on missing persons

NEW CUMBERLAND – A national online database for missing and unidentified persons lists three open cases in Hancock County that local authorities want to give renewed attention to.

All three cases of unidentified persons – one in 2011 and two in 2008 – originated with decomposed remains found in the Ohio River in the jurisdiction of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department or the New Cumberland Police Department, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, which goes by the acronym NamUs.

The most recent case, dating from Feb. 23, 2011, involves an African-American man whose remains were discovered by the crew of a passing barge below the New Cumberland Locks and Dam, according to a NamUs report.

The man was described as having gray dreadlocks and a gray mustache and goatee. He was wearing a navy blue pullover with “Buffalo” in the upper left chest area, a zipped hooded navy blue jacket, a camouflage thermal shirt, tan pants, a black belt, black thermal pants, two pairs of white socks, and blue-and-white Air Jordan athletic shoes, the report said.

The 50- to 70-year-old man, estimated to be 5 feet 8 inches tall and weigh 188 pounds, had been dead for several months, the report said.

“I was on the boat that brought him in,” New Cumberland police Chief Lester Skinner said.

Skinner said such cases are difficult because “until you can identify the person, you don’t know what you’ve got. Once we identify the person, we can call the local police and see if he was reported missing.”

The 2008 cases – known officially as “John Does” – involve a Latino male who was found May 31, 2008, about 25 feet north of the Jennings Randolph Bridge in Chester and a white male who was discovered March 7, 2008, by a New Cumberland Locks and Dam operator, according to NamUs.

The Latino man was estimated to be 40 to 50 years old and 5 feet 7 inches tall, the report said. No other details were available. He had been dead several months.

The white male was described as having straight gray hair and brown eyes. He was wearing khaki pants, a brown belt with a yellow metal buckle, and red-blue plaid boxer shorts, the report said.

Believed to be between 50 and 70 years old, he was estimated to be 5 feet 11 inches tall and weigh 219 pounds, the report said. He had been dead several weeks.

The remains of all three men were taken to the West Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Charleston, which participates in the NamUs network.

Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher said whenever unidentified remains are found, the sheriff’s department opens a case and begins an investigation. Such investigations are heavily dependent on missing person reports and databases such as NamUs and the Doe Network.

“If you don’t have a lot of leads, it makes it extremely difficult. You do what you can and try to bring it back to the public again,” Fletcher said.

That’s what the sheriff’s department wants to do with the 2008 cases, he said.

“We consider these cases still open. We have not cleared them, and we have not identified the bodies,” Fletcher said.

Chief Deputy Art Watson has a binder full of information about the 2008 cases, although he’s quick to add that there are no pending missing person cases in Hancock County.

Watson said the sheriff’s department works closely with the chief medical examiner’s office and is dependent on autopsy information for more clues.

“There is no indication of trauma to the bodies (found in 2008) that would suggest … a cause of death that would raise suspicion for us,” he said.

When unidentified remains are found, the relevant information is entered into the National Crime Information Center database. “We put it out that we have someone here that we have been unable to identify. You’re hoping for some sort of link,” Fletcher said.

In cases involving heavily decomposed remains, every bit of information helps, Fletcher said. Investigators especially rely on physical evidence found at the scene and autopsy information from the medical examiner, he said.

“It’s important to preserve all the evidence,” Fletcher said.

But because there is precious little information to go on, matches obtained through NCIC often are misleading or unrelated to the local cases, Watson said.

Sheriff’s investigators have successfully closed two unidentified person cases in the last four years – both of them originating from Pittsburgh. One involved a woman who died in April 2008 but who was not identified until November 2012, and the other involved a teenage boy who was last seen in November 2008 and whose body was recovered in February 2009.

“It’s a tough job. It’s things you don’t want to see,” Watson said.

The river that marks Hancock County’s western border complicates such investigations because of factors such as water temperature, underwater structures, barge traffic and fish activity, Fletcher said.

Fletcher said there have been no new developments in the case of a couple who reportedly jumped from the Newell Bridge on Sept. 29.