Suzi Dodt’s 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.