In this week's metro, we describe how advances in DNA technology have allowed Miami-Dade medical investigators to solve at least 16 cold cases in the past couple of years. The murder of one woman, whose body parts were found all over town, haunted cops and coroners alike for nearly 30 years before genetics gave her back her name.
Despite scientific progress and investigators' sleuthing, however, many dead Miamians remain unidentified. Here are a few of the most vexing cases, from a giant found floating in the surf to a downtown suicide.
According to Miami-Dade medical examiners, they still have almost 200 unidentified bodies. Some are kept in coolers. Others have been stripped of their flesh and placed in the "bone room."
And one body a helluva lot bigger than the others.
On Christmas Eve 2009, a couple was walking along Miami Beach when they spotted a massive figure floating face down in the surf near the 17th Street lifeguard stand. The 6'9" 335 pound man was wearing nothing but swim trunks and New Balance sneakers.
An autopsy revealed alcohol and codeine in the man's system as well as nearly two liters of seawater in his lungs.
Medical investigator Sandra Boyd assumed it would be an open-and-shut case. "How can somebody not notice a man that big go missing?"she says.
Indeed, detectives from across the country were soon calling in with cases of missing big men. At first, Davie Police thought the John Doe might be Howard Gratteau, who disappeared back in 1986. But the eye colors didn't match.
Tattoos quickly ruled out another man from Indiana. Several others were simply too short.
Boyd crosschecked the beached body against dozens of other missing cases, including an Italian who had gone missing while working aboard a cruise ship. But none of them fit.
Victor Murgado was identified 15 years after he hung himself in Tamiami
Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Office
The best lead came from as far away as Halifax, Nova Scotia. A decade earlier, police had infiltrated a local group of Hells Angels and charged its leader, a huge man named Gregory Brushett, with drug trafficking. But Brushett disappeared before his date in court.
The John Doe was a dead ringer for Brushett: tall, handsome, and built like an NFL lineman.
Boyd sent off a sample of the man's DNA to compare against the biker, but the results came back negative. Body #2009-03185 remains unidentified.
"They say that everyone has a twin out there somewhere," Boyd says of the men's uncanny resemblance. "But DNA doesn't lie."
Boyd still holds out hope for the Christmas Eve floater, but others are likely lost to anonymity. One such unlucky soul was discovered by a homeless man in an empty downtown lot near the School Board building back on February 23, 2007.
The middle-aged white man with curly dark hair was dressed nicely in a blue plaid shirt, undershirt, blue denim trousers, belt, socks, and brown shoes.
An unregistered gun was found nearby. The man had shot himself in the head without leaving an ID, let alone a goodbye note.
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"With some cases you feel like it was not their time, like somebody should have saved this person," says Naomi Jacobs, another medical investigator.
"We constantly ask ourselves why, why did God let this happen?" she says. "But God doesn't make mistakes. We're all on loan. He just doesn't tell us when he's coming to get us."