The Skeleton Crew

Book Review by Edward Jay Epstein in the Wall Street Journal: “…Even in an age when we are tracked electronically by our phone companies at every single moment, about 4,000 unidentified corpses turn up in the U.S. every year, of which about half have been murdered. In 2007 no fewer than 13,500 sets of unidentified human remains were languishing in the evidence rooms of medical examiners, according to an analysis published in the National Institute of Justice Journal.

In her brilliant book “The Skeleton Crew,” Deborah Halber explains why local law enforcement often fails to investigate such deaths:”Unidentified corpses are like obtuse, financially strapped houseguests: they turn up uninvited, take up space reserved for more obliging visitors, require care and attention, and then, when you are ready for them to move on, they don’t have anywhere to go.” The result is that many of these remains are consigned to oblivion.

While the population of the anonymous dead receives only scant attention from the police or the media, it has given rise to a macabre subculture of Internet sleuthing. Ms. Halber chronicles with lucidity and wit how amateur investigators troll websites, such as the Doe Network, Official Cold Case Investigations and Websleuths Crime Sleuthing Community, and check online databases looking for matches between the reported missing and the unidentified dead. It is a grisly pursuit involving linking the images of dead bodies to the descriptions posted by people trying to find someone.

Ms. Halber devotes most of “The Skeleton Crew” to describing a handful of cases that have given rise to this bizarre avocation….”

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