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

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin