Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office reopening unidentified persons cases

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The skeletal remains of 23 people at the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office remain a mystery.

Families waiting for closure for decades have new hope, thanks to a new effort by the Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Diane Peterson to identify them.

He office is reopening files and making sure every identifying piece of information possible is in a database called NAMUS, hoping to give a name to unidentified people whose cases have haunted them for years.

Family searching for missing Raymore woman Jessica Runions in January found decomposing remains of another person instead. It was their second discovery in as many weeks. Though disturbing, bodies showing up with few clues on who they are, or how they died, is nothing new for the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“She came in as only a partial skeleton so we don’t have everything,” Dr. Diane Peterson said Wednesday holding a skull found near 25th and Vine almost 25 years ago. She can tell it’s a young African-American woman.

“Women don’t have very prominent eyebrow ridges,” she pointed out.

But she has no idea who the skull belonged to, or the 22 other skeletal remains housed at the Jackson County Medical Examiner's Office.

Most of them were found long enough after death that fingerprints weren’t an option. Dr. Peterson says DNA doesn’t work like it does in movies to solve everything.

“It’s frequently the idea of having the idea of who the person might be, that’s the missing link that we don’t have,” Dr. Peterson said.

A skeleton found in the closet of this Wabash Avenue home in 2012 sat at her office until last year, when one of her investigators took it upon himself to try to track down surgical records at local hospitals for a broken jaw.

The records were enough to identify the man as David Stevenson. As a result Peterson recently decided her office will take a closer look at all of their unidentified person’s files dating back to 1988. She hopes a fresh set of eyes can make sure everything possible is in the National Missing Unidentified Persons System.

“It worked in that case, I think it can work again and even if it’s just one of them, that would be fabulous,” Peterson said.

The unidentified body found last month on South Brighton isn’t included in the office's 23 unidentified bodies right now. That's because it is still part of an open Kansas City Police investigation.

The latest unidentified person's case are remains found last spring by mushroom hunters near I-435 and the stadiums.