Longform

Suzi Dodt’s on a mission to return the nameless dead to their loved ones

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin