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Edited by Noah Shachtman | Contact | RSS


After months and months of work, my first feature story for Wired magazine is now online. Here's how it starts:

A water-well digger found the body. It was 1968, and Wilbur Riddle was tromping around Eagle Creek, off Route 25 in backwoods Kentucky, scavenging for bell-shaped glass insulators fallen from overhead power lines. A buddy of his could resell them as paperweights, $5 a pop.

As Riddle kicked through the leaves and brush, his foot caught on something solid. It was a green burlap sack, the kind carnies use for carrying big-top tents, tied with a tan cord. Inside was a woman's body. She was naked except for a shred of cloth diaper draped over her shoulder. Her eyes had rotted away. She had three broken fingernails - part of a futile attempt, apparently, to claw out of her shroud.

The local cops had an idea of how she died -- "rendered unconscious by a blow to the head, then tied up in the bag to die a slow death by asphyxiation," one of them told reporters at the time. But, after six months of searching, they still couldn't figure out who she was. They gave her an epitaph of approximations: Tent girl. Died about April 26 - May 3, 1968. Age about 16 - 19 years.

Over time, her death became less of a tragedy and more of a ghost story. Riddle told everyone he encountered how he found her. Everyone. Waitresses asking what he wanted for breakfast heard about the Tent Girl instead. Riddle would show a yellowing copy of Master Detective magazine, with a cover story on his gruesome discovery, to kids who came to play with his 16 children. Those same kids rubbed the Tent Girl's rose-colored headstone as they ran through the town cemetery in joy and terror every Halloween.

The Tent Girl could have been like so many of the 5,400 John and Jane Does taking up space in morgue freezers and potter's fields around the US - nameless forever. Attaching identities to those bodies from the pool of 100,000 known missing persons would be an overwhelming task, even if it were a priority for every cop in every city and town. Without families, without live leads, the Does often end up in the arctic interiors of the cold case files.

Twenty years after he found the Tent Girl, Riddle told his story to a teenager named Todd Matthews. And Matthews, driven by tragedies of his own, would become compelled to connect a life to her death. By figuring out who she was - and it's not giving the end away to say that he did - Matthews sparked a movement that is redefining how Does are identified. The methods are painstaking but simple: By trawling idiosyncratic combinations of Google, Yahoo! Groups, and personal as well as official Web sites, a loose coalition of online sleuths, the Doe Network, has helped crack more than 20 long-unsolved cases. Their success has changed the way law enforcement and desperate families come to grips with these mysteries.

THERE'S MORE: For all the faces the Doe Network has put to the faceless dead, there's one case the group can't seem to crack: # 1UFNY, nicknamed "Cali" by Network members.

Cali killed by a gunshot to the head, and found in a Caledonia, NY cornfield in 1979. She was button-nosed, smallish at 5' 2" and 120 pounds, and had her curly brown hair lightly frosted. On the belt of her jeans were two chains. One held a key. The other was shaped like a heart, and read:

He who holds the Key can open my heart.

More than one serial killer had claimed credit for her murder. They were all eventually disproven. And so Cali's identity continues to be debated time after time on the Network's invite-only Yahoo discussion group. There, every day, many times a day, members suggested and shoot down potential matches between Does and missing persons. After years of failed attempts, Cali's case still comes up, often.

One Networker suggests Deborah Ann Quimby (case # 274DFMA) as a possible Cali. But she doesn’t seem to have quite the distinctive nose of the Doe, and teeth are off, somehow. Same goes for Sandra Kaye Butler (951DFNV). However, Angela Mae Meeker (1351DFWA) strikes many as a more plausible match. Missing since 1979 from Tacoma, Washington, the dates seem to line up right. The nose looks a lot more like Cali's. The height and weight are only off by a bit. And while the hair color's wrong – Meeker is listed as blonde – it’s a fairly dark shade, and could have been confused with Cali frosted 'do. So the Network's liaison to the authorities in New York, sends the information to the state police.

The Network keeps a set of lists on Yahoo's servers of potential matches and ones that have been ruled out. So far, there have been 22 dead-ends for Cali. And, with so many misses already, just about everyone in the Network expects Angela Mae Meeker to become number 23.

AND MORE: I first wrote about the Doe Network late last year, for the New York Times. The story focuses on Carol Cielecki, a former paralegal who became an online detective after he ex-husband went missing. She's responsible for one of the Network's most spectacular finds: a blind, mentally retarded young man who had vanished from a burning building. Here is a copy of that story.