Each month the police log an average of 10 unidentified bodies. But a new review is beginning to put a name to the faces
They are the unknown and unmourned. Nearly 700 people whose identities have never come to light are recorded in police files as dead or missing and the list grows by an average of 10 each month.
Many of the bodies have washed up on beaches, unrecognisable as a result of being exposed to the elements, or have been discovered on railway lines.
An ad hoc international organisation called the North Sea Group, comprising Britain, Holland, Belgium and France, regularly swaps information about unidentified bodies found on their shores that may have been carried by the currents from other countries.
Some 250 people die on the UK’s railways every year, most as a result of suicide, according to British Transport police, and a significant number of these bodies are never identified.
The number of cases involving unidentified corpses is now 704, according to the police minister, Nick Herbert. He told parliament earlier this month that Hermes, the database of the missing persons bureau at the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), held records of “636 unidentified body cases, [including] 68 cases where the remains of bodies were found; or body parts were found”. In a further 94 cases, articles had been found “indicating a disappearance, for example, tents, bicycles, and articles of clothing”.
Many of the cases date back decades and the corpses have long since been disposed of. By law, local councils must cremate or bury unidentified corpses, to avoid the risk of disease, adding to the difficulties of making an identification: cremation destroys DNA, and in the case of a burial, a coroner must approve an exhumation for further investigation. The graves are often marked with wooden plaques stating “unknown male” or “unknown female”. Trying to find matches for the corpses against the list of the missing is time-consuming. Each year an estimated 250,000 people are reported missing, approximately 140,000 of whom are under the age of 18.
But a new review of cases led by the NPIA, known as Operation Kharon, is starting to yield results. In the summer the review, which is checking information about corpses and body parts against fingerprint and DNA databases and dental records, notched up its first success when it led to the identification of Lesley Anne Pickavance, who died in July 1990 after being hit by several vehicles while trying to cross the M25.
Four other corpses have been identified by the review, including that of Clive Brown, who was found dead in Paris in April after being listed as missing for 17 years, and Keith Miller, from Sussex, whose body was found in the Channel in May. Many of those still unidentified are believed to have led itinerant lifestyles.
In an attempt to solve more cases, the NPIA and British Transport police have commissioned an artist to sketch an impression of how 20 of the corpses found on railways may have looked in life. Given the nature of the injuries, photographs were considered to be too distressing to the public.
A spokesman for British Transport police said the review had led to a “really good” response from across the world, although most leads had now been followed up and ruled out. “However, we are relatively hopeful about one of them,” the spokesman said, adding that a confirmation of identity was expected within the next couple of months.
“It is one of the older cases, so we have no fingerprints, no DNA. We may be able to identify the person, but it is never going to be 100%.”
Small details are given with each sketch in the hope that they may help to jog someone’s memory. A middle-aged man who died of a heart attack at Euston station in 1989 had a tattoo on his lower left arm of two clasped hands under a union flag; a woman in her late 20s struck by a train at Victoria tube station in 1975 had a wart on her left cheek; and the man struck by a train last year in Cornwall was wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket and gloves and had a plastic wallet containing an old pound note, a postcard of New York, a multi-tool and a small key.
Establishing the identity of a corpse can be traumatic for families and friends, but can also help relatives to move on, say experts. “Disappearances can continue to significantly impact on families for years after a person goes missing,” an NPIA spokesman said. “The missing persons bureau is regularly contacted by families whose loved one has been missing for more than 10 years.”
Vicky, whose husband, Vinnie, went missing six and a half years ago, says: “It’s horrendous enough that you’re in the situation that you’re in, but I think a lot of people don’t realise what the implications are… I’m always up against a brick wall; people don’t understand. My mortgage company, I can explain the situation until I am blue in the face, but they still ring the house and ask for him. Until seven years is up and I have a death certificate or some kind of evidence then I can’t see it changing.”
The government is committed to phasing out the NPIA by 2012. It remains unclear which organisation will take responsibility for the missing persons bureau and its database.