Suzi Dodts on a mission to return the nameless dead to their loved ones
Suzi Dodt, who sees dead people, is speed-talking about one of her "unidentifieds."
"99-305 has a name, a family, a story, but we just don't know it yet," says Dodt, a death investigator with the Office of the Maricopa County Medical Examiner. "It's amazing and sad to me that no one has gotten a hold of us or the police to ask if we've got her down here."
Dodt is speaking of a young woman (pictured above) who died on January 27, 1999, the day after she jumped, fell, or was pushed out of the Cadillac in which she was riding on Interstate 10 with a man and another woman.
It happened during the afternoon hours at milepost 173, heading east from Phoenix on a desolate, straight stretch of road near Casa Grande.
An assistant medical examiner estimated the dead girl's age at between 13 and 18.
Police pulled the Cadillac over about 20 miles down I-10, near Eloy. The other two people claimed not to know the girl's name.
The man who was driving, Phoenix resident Alonzo Fernandez, claimed to have just met her outside a convenience store on East Van Buren Street.
Authorities never found anything that would enable them to identify the girl, who died without regaining consciousness.
Going on a decade since her disturbing demise, 99-305 still is just a case number, one of Suzi Dodt's 200 or so still-unidentified people.
Dodt is the Unidentified Persons Bureau at the M. E.'s Office, an assignment she created for herself about four years ago (in her "spare time" and for no extra pay) when she proposed Arizona's first governmental Web page devoted to the subject. Her page is available to the public inside the medical examiner's site, www.maricopa.gov/medex.
The project has been bittersweet for the survivors of 31 decedents whose identities have been uncovered since Dodt opened her page for "business" in late August 2006. At least seven of the 31 were identified solely because of the site.
In several cases, family members opened Dodt's page and saw their long-missing loved one in a postmortem photo or in an artist's sketch.
Dodt often refers to her cases by their numbers, because that's all she has. But, in her heart, she knows that the anonymous souls were real people who once walked among us, with families, friends, dreams, lives.
They include immigrating Mexicans whose bones are found in the unforgiving desert south and west of Phoenix, homeless who die alone in alleyways, murder victims, small children, and that teenage girl who tumbled from a moving vehicle to her death.
"Cases can go into the black hole just because there's so much to do, and there are so many people who die," she says. "We just had to make our unidentified bodies more visible to the public. That's where the Web site comes in."
About a dozen times a year in Maricopa County, someone comes upon human remains with no known name, no ID, no fingerprints or DNA on file. No nothing.
Dodt's Web page currently lists 168 males and 29 females whose remains have been taken to the Medical Examiner's Office since 1970, but whose identities still are unknown.
The brief accounts written by Dodt for each case are evocative.
"He appeared to be homeless and a heavy drinker," reads the summary of case 07-4973, a middle-aged man found in an abandoned Phoenix building. "He was wearing a gold-colored necklace with a cross pendant and silver-colored ring on his pinkie with a sideways crucifix on it . . . He carried a red harmonica, as well."
Dodt includes the date that the unidentified person's body was found and where, a physical description of the deceased (many are skeletons), and information such as the availability of DNA and dental X-rays.
In many of the cases, viewers are able to call up photos only after reading the warning that "some of the content of this site may not be suitable for everyone."
Some of those photos are graphic close-ups of dead people, such as the two of dead teenager 99-305's swollen face, her bleached blond hair pushed back, eyes swollen shut, and her bloody lower lip jutting.
"Our mission with this thing is to try to get people identified," she says. "If we catch a break through one of those photos, that's what it's all about."
Other, less disturbing photos show items found with a decedent, maybe a crucifix, unique ball cap, pair of sneakers.
Dodt also includes artists' sketches of how the person might have appeared while alive or, in the case of unidentified small children, age-progression sketches.
The idea is that someone, somewhere, might see a family resemblance and call in.
One of the small children is 79-583, Little Jane Doe as someone dubbed her long ago. Rock hunters in March 1979 found the 3- to 5-year-old's skull in the dry Salt River bed under the Mill Avenue Bridge.
Local newspapers with publication dates dating back to 1966 were tucked into a makeshift grave with the child's remains. The papers' dates led Tempe investigators to suspect that she might have died back then.
79-583 is still unidentified.
"But you never, never, never know what or who is going to turn up," Suzi Dodt says.
Without Dodt's Web page, the family of Jocelyn Marie Pururwag, case 99-1024, probably never would have known of her tragic fate.
A mother of three, the troubled Phoenix woman vanished in March 1999.
Around that time, the unidentified remains of a Phoenix woman, probably in her 30s, lay in a body bag at the county morgue.
Someone had found the woman's body under a tree in a west Phoenix neighborhood. Postmortem testing revealed she had fatally overdosed on alcohol and drugs.
Phoenix detectives never drew the connection between a missing-persons report filed by Jocelyn Pururwag's family and the unidentified body that had reached the morgue around the same time.
Medical examiner's personnel collected DNA from 99-1024's body, took her fingerprints, dental X-rays, and photos and retained other potential identifiers.
Then they released the body for burial at the county's White Tanks Cemetery at 159th Avenue and Camelback Road.
Eight years passed.
Then, last year, one of Pururwag's sisters visited Suzi Dodt's Web page. She went to the index of unidentified females from 1999 — there were two — and opened 99-1024.
A dreadful mystery was about to end.
The sister contacted Dodt, who turned her over to Phoenix police detective Jared D'Addabbo, who works the missing-persons detail.
Two of Pururwag's sisters provided DNA samples to the Phoenix Police Department, which compared the samples with the DNA extracted from the dead woman in 1999.
It was a match.
Authorities then were able to say for sure that 99-1024 was the late Jocelyn Pururwag.
Maricopa County contains barren desert landscapes and densely populated urban areas within its sprawling 9,224 square miles, larger in size than seven states.
Its population of almost 4 million makes Maricopa the nation's fourth-most-populous county.
The Medical Examiner's Office handled about 7,500 death cases in 2007, and the sheer number keeps everyone at the agency running hard.
The county's pathologists usually stay put at the morgue, conducting autopsies in the mornings and catching up with paperwork the rest of the time.
So, Suzi Dodt and the agency's 11 other investigators serve as eyes and ears for the doctors. They travel to all death scenes and later document their observations in reports that become part of a case file.
Dodt and her colleagues also often have the grim task of contacting next of kin with the bad news, of making arrangements with local mortuaries, speaking with the Donor Network of Arizona, when necessary, and touching base with the state's Office of Vital Records.
It's rigorous duty by any criteria.
Dodt gets to don her Unidentified Persons Bureau hat only after her daily duties are done, which usually means she works on her Web page after hours and on weekends.
But she makes a point of keeping in close touch with sources cultivated at various police agencies, especially Jill DeBenedetto, a savvy assistant inside the Phoenix PD's homicide unit.
The pair e-mail each other about ongoing cases regularly, communicating in a code that only they fully understand.
Dodt misses little, says DeBenedetto, in her quest to "see that everyone gets identified and buried with a name."
Last year, DeBenedetto says, Dodt learned that a deceased John Doe had left behind a veteran's card with a bar code on it, but no name.
Dodt called her contacts at the Veterans Administration, where someone told her that the bar code could be scanned for information at the VA hospital.
"They scanned it," DeBenedetto says, "and were able to positively identify the John Doe, and found the family."
Dodt says that being vigilant is essential because "we do get people identified with our connections. Still, it's very random, even lucky at times. The flukiest things happen."
A perfect example is the case known to the Medical Examiner's Office as 98-1033.
On April 9, 1998, passersby found a partial human skeleton near a desert wash outside Fountain Hills.
County sheriff's deputies delivered the remains to the Medical Examiner's Office.
Dr. Laura Fulginiti, a forensic anthropologist who does work for the agency, examined the skeleton. She concluded it belonged to a male, age 18 to 23, who had died up to six months before the bones were found.
Fulginiti also noted an injury to a bone that looked like a knife wound. But she couldn't say for sure, so the medical examiner listed the manner of death as "undetermined," not murder.
Four years passed.
Then, in 2002, Phoenix detective Don Newcomer, who investigates unsolved sexual assault cases, asked the state crime laboratory to examine a rape kit from an October 1995 case for presence of DNA evidence.
Then 20 years old, the alleged victim in that case had gone to the county hospital after two young men allegedly assaulted her in her bedroom.
The two suspects at the time were 15-year-old Jonathan Soto and his 17-year-old pal Alfredo Rivera, both of whom denied wrongdoing.
The woman insisted that she wouldn't cooperate in a police investigation, and the case died.
The rape kit sat inside a frozen police storage room for years, until Newcomer decided to revisit the case.
But because of a backlog at the state crime lab, Newcomer's request for examination of the kit wasn't completed until late 2004.
The lab then reported it had found sperm from both vaginal and rectal swabs taken from the woman, but no names associated with the samples immediately emerged from the police computer.
Then, in late 2006, according to Newcomer's police report, the lab matched DNA taken from a prisoner with the vaginal swabs of the alleged rape victim back in 1995.
The prisoner's name was Alfredo Rivera, one of the original investigative leads in the long-forgotten case.
In July 2005, a county judge had sentenced Rivera to 17 years for armed robbery. By law, he had been forced to give a DNA sample to authorities after his conviction.
Rivera's sample had been entered into CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), an FBI-funded computer system that holds and searches millions of genetic profiles submitted by crime labs around the nation.
Rivera's DNA did not turn up on the rectal swabs taken from the woman, but those of an unknown male did.
In November 2006, the state lab contacted Newcomer with some more unexpected news: It now had matched DNA taken from a femur bone of that skeleton found near Fountain Hills in 1998 to the rectal DNA swab taken from the woman in 1995.
"I was just following the leads, and it backtracked to the rape situation," says the veteran detective. "It was just wild."
Suzi Dodt knew all about the Fountain Hills case, which she referred to as 98-1033. It was one of the cases she had put on the new Web page she started in August 2006.
Newcomer soon noted that a Jonathan Soto had been the other investigative lead in the 1995 assault case. He also learned that Soto's mother had filed a missing-persons report in 1998, before the remains had been found near Fountain Hills.
Newcomer contacted the victim, now married with children, about the decade-old assaults. She told him she wanted to be left alone.
Authorities located Soto's biological parents, and his mother provided her DNA as a means of verifying his identity by way of comparing their genetic material.
In March 2007, the testing revealed that the skeleton out in Fountain Hills was Jonathan Soto, onetime rape suspect and possible murder victim.
Suzi Dodt soon went on her Web page and marked 98-1033 in big, red letters: SOLVED.
Most violent-crimes and missing-persons detectives devote their time to recent cases, and investigations of older crimes often fall by the wayside.
"Some agencies, like Phoenix's, are way into it," Suzi Dodt says. "But others don't even have a missing-persons unit, and that makes things so much harder."
Mike Thorley, a Phoenix police detective who worked the missing-persons detail for years, says Dodt is providing an invaluable service.
"Sometimes, we literally have to start from nowhere," he says. "We have nothing at all to work with. That's where Suzi and her site come in."
One of Detective Thorley's cases concerned Jack Myrick, a 20-year-old Phoenix man whose mother reported him missing in 2003.
Nothing of substance concerning Myrick's whereabouts surfaced until last year. Then, Thorley went to Dodt's site and compared a photo of his missing subject with an artist's sketch of a young man, medical examiner's file 03-2838.
That case involved an unidentified murder victim whose body had been found in the desert, also in 2003.
The detective asked Myrick's mother to provide a DNA sample, which a crime lab successfully matched last November to DNA from 03-2838's body.
Another person identified.
Then there's the exceedingly sad case of 15-year-old Victor Rodriguez.
The talented young artist died in April 1999, after getting crushed by a drunken hit-and-run driver whose car jumped a curb near a west Phoenix bus stop.
The driver fled on foot, but police soon found and arrested him.
Not knowing anything about the accident, Victor's mother and stepfather filed a missing-persons report with Phoenix police within a day after their son went missing.
His disappearance followed a verbal spat with his folks about a girl with whom he was spending a lot of time.
Phoenix police never linked the missing-persons/runaway report filed by Victor's parents to the pedestrian victim, even though the young man lived only a mile away from the scene.
Efforts to identify the dead youth through his fingerprints and DNA profile failed. Prosecutors went ahead with their case against the driver, who was convicted and received a 10½-year prison sentence.
The medical examiner held 99-1297's body at the morgue for a few months after his death.
Then, the agency took the corpse to White Tanks, where it was lowered into the ground by members of one of the sheriff's faceless chain gangs.
A small marker atop the grave said "Unidentified Male," and listed the date of death. That was it.
Last year, stepfather Andy Rodriguez learned about the medical examiner's new Web page.
He checked it out last October 11, and was startled to see a death photo of a young man who appeared to be his stepson.
The page also included an artist's sketch, deliberately drawn with the victim's eyes open.
The site listed the decedent's age as 20 to 45, not 15, but that didn't daunt Rodriguez. He soon showed up at the M.E.'s Office and introduced himself.
Rodriguez told Suzi Dodt that he was quite sure 99-1297 was his stepson.
After he left, Dodt marked the case closed on her Web page and removed the upsetting photograph.
"I just didn't want that boy's mother to see the photo, in case she went on the site," she says.
Within a few days, authorities analyzed a thumbprint that Victor's mom had saved of her son's from years earlier. That led to the confirmation of Victor Rodriguez's identity.
It had been just six days since Andy Rodriguez had opened the Web page and seen his stepson's photo.
Victor Rodriguez's body was exhumed from White Tanks after the state of Arizona issued a death certificate. His parents, family and friends later held a Mass in his honor, and re-interred him in another cemetery.
Suzi Dodt is a tall and fit woman in her mid-30s, soulfully attractive even in the unflattering dark-blue pants, baggy blue polo shirt and black boots she wears on the job.
Dodt's boss, Dr. Mark Fischione, describes her disposition as "allowing her to be relentless at doing her job superbly, [including always being] gracious and compassionate with families."
Like most of her colleagues, Dodt goes about her grim business with a necessary mix of dispassion, dark humor, and respect for the dead.
Though she's mostly all business at work, Dodt does have a life, and a good one, outside the office.
She dotes on her son, now a teenager, and raves about her husband of five years, Dennis, a retired division chief for the Phoenix Fire Department who teaches fire sciences.
Her cubicle inside the Medical Examiner's Office reveals a bit of her personality.
A computer screensaver shows a beautiful seascape — Dodt loves the beach. Photographs of her son dot the partitions. Goofy notes and wisecracks from friends are tacked here and there.
A sticker atop her computer says, "Dead Animals Need Love Too."
On the job, she usually wears her long dark hair in a ponytail, a tidbit that leads to this anecdote from a few years ago:
Dodt kneels down next to the body of a murder victim at yet another crime scene.
Unspeakable fluids and other substances are oozing from a fatal wound to the victim's head.
As Dodt bends down, her long hair dips slightly into the muck. Most people in a similar situation, including the homicide detectives on hand, would make a beeline to the nearest shower or water hose, but not Suzi Dodt.
She just sweeps a hand through her hair and goes about her business.
The detectives at the scene fall in love with her.
Dodt later swears she doesn't recall any of this.
She says the idea of making a career in, of all things, death investigation, never crossed her mind until she hit her mid-20s.
An Ohio native, the Greenway High graduate gave birth to her son in 1993 and concentrated on being a mom, taking on office work to pay the bills.
But by 1999, Dodt really wanted to do "something different" with her life.
She started taking criminal-justice classes at a local community college (she eventually earned her associate's degree) but didn't know exactly what direction to take.
Along the way, Dodt says, she started to hear tales about the Medical Examiner's Office.
"I had never even seen a body," she says. "Never had been to a funeral, and I was 27 or so. It intrigued me for some strange reason."
For the heck of it, she sent her résumé to the M.E. but didn't hear back. She tried again, to no avail.
Undaunted, she volunteered at the agency in June 2000. One question officials had for her was, would she be able to handle the blood and gore that is the way of life, so to speak, at the morgue.
"I just knew I could deal with it," Dodt says. "A dead lady on a toilet; what's so hard about that? Sometimes it's gross, sometimes you're out all night, sometimes it's really hot out, sometimes it's cold. But I would go out on calls to assist, and I loved it. Still do."
The agency hired her as a part-time investigator (no benefits). She signed on full-time as an investigator six months after that, and never has looked back.
By 2004, Dodt had been working on death's front lines for about four years.
She resolved to try to do something about the growing number of unidentified bodies stacking up in the freezer down the hall from her cubicle.
In June 2004, she proposed the Web page dedicated to identifying human remains.
She pointed out to then-Medical Examiner Dr. Philip Keen that the new page would cost the county nothing, nor would it be the nation's first such site (she modeled her page after one out of Clark County, Nevada).
Keen endorsed the project, which took a little more than two years to get off the ground. During that time, Dodt pored over all of the relevant files to get things rolling. It was an enormous task.
All the while, she worked her usual 40-hour week, picking up bodies, writing reports, speaking endlessly to people.
The Web page was an instant winner.
In the month before the new portal opened, the medical examiner's site averaged about 3,500 hits a week.
Since then, it's averaged about 50,000 hits weekly, with more than 90 percent of the traffic directed to Dodt's creation.
"Our original goal was to ID one person. Just one," Dodt says. "We have done a lot better than that."
One early visitor to the site was Diana Trekow, a forensic artist from the Toronto area who has provided sketches to police agencies in Canada and the United States.
She says she was touched by Dodt's efforts. "My heart just melted. You're born one day — it's such a joyful time, your parents are happy, you're a new baby — and this is how you end up: dead and unidentified? But someone knows who all of them are."
Trekow contacted Dodt and volunteered to do a series of sketches for the site, at no charge.
Trekow has produced more than 25 drawings, including sketches of murder victim Jack Myrick (03-2838) and teenage artist Victor Rodriguez (99-1297).
"Each of these stories, these people, is something special to me and to Suzi," she says.
To Trekow, one of the most special is case 99-305.
Dale Buehner, a long-distance trucker based in Michigan, remembers the moment vividly, even though it happened almost a decade ago.
"My partner was driving, coming out of Phoenix," Buehner tells New Times from the road somewhere in Pennsylvania.
"We were going to stop in Eloy — get a shower and a bite to eat. It's daytime. As we passed this Cadillac, we noticed that there was a man in the front seat, a woman in the passenger seat, and somebody in the back seat. Stuff was going on. It looked like an argument, or something, but I didn't think much of it."
The Caddy then passed Buehner's semi, got about a half-mile ahead of it, and then slowed down.
"When we pass it on the left lane for the second time, I see the driver's got one hand on the wheel and he's looking in the back seat trying to do something with his free hand."
"As we get ahead of them and pull into the right lane, I look into my rear-view mirror, and this girl comes right out of the car. Just bounces off the road!
"My first thought process was that she was pushed out, but thinking about it, she had to roll down the window, and she went out like a diver with her hands outstretched.
"She hit the asphalt and rolled into a clump in the ditch. People behind her stopped right away, but the Cadillac kept going and speeded up. We were trying to block it and call the cops. He was passing us on the right-hand side, and speeded up."
This was before cell phones were commonplace, so Buehner jotted down the license-plate number, got off at the next exit, and dialed 911.
Then they got back into their truck and continued down the road.
"Just before the Eloy exit, we saw that the police had pulled the car over. We stopped, and I went over and asked about the girl.
"All the cop told me was that the girl in the car was extremely nervous. I didn't think [the other] girl we saw rolling into the ditch could have lived. That's the only time I spoke to the cops. Twenty minutes and we were gone."
Buehner asks New Times, "Exactly what is this all about?"
That's a hard one to answer.
Back at milepost 173, another eyewitness had stopped and rendered aid to the young girl, who was unconscious and seriously injured.
She was airlifted to Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, suffering from massive head trauma and several broken bones.
The deputies took the two people in the Cadillac, Alonzo Fernandez and Lindsey DeJong, both in their 20s, to the Casa Grande substation for questioning.
According to a Pinal County sheriff's report, DeJong said she didn't know the girl and that she'd jumped out of the moving vehicle for no apparent reason.
She said that Fernandez had met the girl earlier that day, and that the trio planned to spend a few days in Tucson before driving to Miami.
DeJong told police that the girl had been riding in the middle of the front seat, which differs from what trucker Dale Buehner says he saw. She said the girl suddenly asked to be let out because she feared her boyfriend would beat her up if she went to Florida.
Fernandez told her to wait until the next exit, and he would let her out. The girl said she was going to vomit, so DeJong rolled down the window.
DeJong said the girl then lifted herself over DeJong toward the passenger-side window, stuck her head out, and somehow propelled herself out onto the freeway.
Fernandez's story was that he had met the nameless girl outside a liquor store on 24th and Van Buren streets. He said the girl had told him that she, too, was going to Miami and could use a lift.
He also said she had jumped out of the Caddy for no reason, which had confused and frightened him enough that he continued to drive without rendering aid.
Fernandez claimed that he had stopped near Eloy because he saw police behind him "and wanted to find out what was going on."
Not surprisingly, the cops didn't buy it.
(Neither Fernandez, DeJong, nor a Valley woman named Kim Senegal, whom Fernandez later listed in court documents as his girlfriend, could be located for this story.)
On February 4, 1999, a Pinal County grand jury indicted Alonzo Fernandez on charges of manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident, and possession of marijuana.
Lindsey DeJong wasn't charged, and police re-interviewed her the following month at a Motel 6 back on Van Buren.
Her account changed somewhat: She said Fernandez hadn't wanted to let the girl out of the car. The girl started crying when he wouldn't stop, seemed to panic, and leapt to her death.
DeJong again swore that she never knew the girl's name.
Fernandez spent almost four months in the Pinal County Jail before he was sentenced to time served after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, a felony.
He told a probation officer that "all three of us were on the freeway smoking marijuana. She started freaking, saying her boyfriend would get mad if she left, and she jumped out of the car. I saw her in the rear-view mirror, and people were stopping to help her. I was scared and kept going. I never knew her name. I'm still haunted by this 'til this day."
In September 1999, a county judge issued a bench warrant after Fernandez failed to report to his probation officer repeatedly.
Authorities still haven't found him.
The dead girl's body ended up at the Medical Examiner's Office, where it became known as 99-305.
Among possible clues to her identity was a small tattoo of a blue heart near her chest.
Another clue was a gold-colored ring with the initials DMA engraved inside of it.
Sometime after an autopsy, authorities released the body for burial.
The advent of Dodt's Unidentified Persons Bureau two years ago brought attention to the unsolved case.
99-305 has become a cause célèbre on sites devoted to unidentified and missing persons. So far, no luck.
This is how an investigator at the Medical Examiner's Office summarized what happened on the early evening of February 18, 2007:
"A resident was barbecuing in his backyard in an open rural area near Gila Bend when his dog was found chewing on an unidentified object.
"The owner of the dog pulled the object from the dog's mouth and suspected it looked like a decomposed human hand missing multiple digits."
The man contacted sheriff's deputies, who searched without success in the desert near the man's home for the rest of the body. The deputies then took the hand to the M.E's Office.
One afternoon not long ago, Suzi Dodt stepped into one of the freezers at the morgue, lifted a bowl from a shelf and carried it into a room normally used for autopsies.
She carefully set the bowl down on a towel she had placed on a stainless-steel slab and turned on a bright light.
Then Dodt put on a pair of latex gloves and dipped her hand into a bluish liquid.
From out of the liquid came what she referrred to as "Mr. Hand, Mr. Finger, The Thing, whatever you want to call it."
It was surreal, seeing part of someone's hand, with the skin still on and two fingers and a thumb, resting on a white towel with the light shining starkly down on it.
Dodt stared at the hand, lost in thought, before speaking.
"That mummified hand belongs to somebody," she says. "He may be dead or alive, though I'm not going with alive at the moment."
Dodt gently lifted the hand and placed it back in its bowl.
"I would just love," she said, "to find out whose hand this is!"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.