Sandra Boyd IDs the Dead

Hundreds of bodies need names. The contessa of the dead finds them.

A cop spotted the carjacking and gave chase. The kid sped up to more than 100 miles per hour, swerved onto the shoulder, and then careened into a semi, causing a fireball. Both in the Toyota were incinerated. Said the truck driver, Oliver Alls: "Fire all around. All you can do is stay alive."

For a month after the killing, cops couldn't identify the carjacker. Fingers were gone. Teeth were but cinders. "Extensive thermal burns cover the entire body," the autopsy report read. Then on February 11, a Miami-Dade detective called Boyd to say others arrested in the carjacking had confessed. Her John Doe might be a 15-year-old boy named Willie Cade, the detective told her.

The coroner needed proof. Cops took DNA from Willie's mom, Wilene, and matched it with the burnt body. Wilene frantically called Boyd for a month, seeking the results of the DNA test or any other information about her son. Finally, on June 5, six months after the collision, there was an answer. The charred remains were that of Wilene's son. "She calls me now sometimes just to talk," Boyd says. "The last call was to get signs put up where people have died."

Of course, IDs are sometimes impossible. After the body of a bald man was found floating in a canal behind some townhouses near SW 102nd Avenue and 76th Street this past August 8, Boyd circulated a sketch of him. On December 11, Apopka Police called saying an elderly gent who looked very similar had walked away from a retirement home in May. Dental records were sent and compared. The retirement home escapee had fewer teeth. "It seemed likely when you looked at the driver's license photo," Boyd says. "It didn't happen."

For some reason, hopes are often dashed in December. "At the end of every year, we get calls: 'We've looked everywhere. You're our last resort,'" Boyd says.

Perhaps the most hopeless area in the coroner's office is a dark room marked "Restricted Area" in yellow and orange letters. Located in the medical examiner's basement, the space is better known as "the bone room" and is filled with cardboard boxes, some scribbled "partially mummified" in black marker. Skulls sit in one area. All told, there are 300 to 400 sets of remains — most unidentified — dating back to September 10, 1956.

As Boyd leaves the room and walks down the hallway toward her sunny office filled with snapshots of family and friends, she says she's relieved to leave the desolate basement. But just then, workers roll in a body with a tag on the toe. She looks closely. It might be one for her.

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