In the bowels of a boxy concrete monolith northwest of downtown Miami sits cooler number five. Use all of your weight to slide open the heavy polished metal door and a stench storms out. It belts you backward, pummels your senses, and makes you dizzy. It stings your eyes. It's death. Decomposing human flesh, actually.
You're in the basement of the Miami-Dade coroner's office. To your left on a shiny metal shelf is a pair of scuffed black shoes, a gray belt, and a raggedy brown sock. Nearby is a white plastic body bag bearing a tag with no name. It contains one of more than 300 never-identified corpses that have turned up in swimming pools, gutters, and canals over the past 53 years.
This is the cradle of Miami Vice, CSI: Miami, and the worldwide conception of the Magic City as a modern-day Casablanca. Bones from vodou ceremonies turn up here. Headless corpses too. After kids shattered a concrete crypt and rode bikes through Brownsville with a skull on a stick, it eventually ended up at the Joseph H. Davis Center for Forensic Pathology.
"More unidentified corpses come in now than ever before," says forensic investigator Sandra Boyd, contessa of the region's unidentified dead. "[Miami] is a melting pot; so many immigrants come here and die on the streets."
Boyd is a strikingly beautiful 50-year-old African-American woman with winsome brown eyes and a kind, faintly off-kilter smile. For about a decade, her mission has been to bring names to the 150 or so unidentified bodies that annually roll into this scrubbed, solemn place. Mostly she succeeds. If there's no driver's license, she and her compadres can usually get a name with DNA, dental records, and fingerprints.
It's a bizarre job — actually she calls it a "passion" — for anyone. But this bassoon player with an ability to shed mortality's psychic pain is unique. As a seven-year-old, she paraded by the corpse of family friend Dot Marie at the Gibbs Chapel AME Church, around the corner from her home in North Miami Beach's Washington Park. It was her first.
"Dot died young," Boyd recalls. "She was someone who came to our house, who ate with us, even babysat us. Some bodies I forget... but some you never forget."
Boyd began working at the coroner's office almost three decades ago, after graduating from Carol City High, where she played in the marching band. It was just a few months after the 1980 McDuffie riots delivered a passel of bodies to the place and the Mariel boatlift began a crime wave that washed through the decade.
She started at the morgue "just because I needed a job," she says, but soon began dealing with families and tragedies. Empathy could be excruciating, so she built walls in her head. "When I leave," she says, gesturing toward the foliage behind her desk, "I leave my work behind on the palm trees."
After three or four promotions, in 2001 she took the job of identifying the dead. There are lots. One hundred forty-one came in with no name this past year, which is typical. All but seven had been identified by year's end. Many are homeless without relatives. "We're a lot more successful than we were 20 years ago," she says. "But sometimes it's not easy."
Take for example the case that began at 6:45 a.m. May 8, 2000, when security guard Jerry Nydan came upon a young man's corpse beside a 200-foot construction crane on Brickell Key. The right arm was shattered, and his legs and head bore small cuts.
Soon the body was delivered to the coroner's office, where an autopsy confirmed the kid had jumped to his death. But he had no ID, and the fingerprints weren't matched in public records, meaning he likely didn't have a criminal record. The remains were stored in the downstairs freezers for more than a year until they were finally buried in an unnamed grave at Miami's Potter's Field, near Galloway Road, on August 27, 2001.
Boyd took up the mantle of finding the kids' identity. Relatively new to her job at the time, she uploaded a sketch of the young man — resembling a wide-eyed Dutch Boy — to a statewide coroners' website, fluiddb.com.
Nothing happened for the next three years. Then some Georgia Tech students discovered the sketch on a website called the Doe Network. Phone calls were made, the corpse was disinterred, and on July 20, 2004, the coroner's office matched the teeth to an x-ray provided by an Ohio woman named Debbie Morse, whose 18-year-old honor-student son, Joe, had disappeared from Georgia Tech two days before the body turned up on Brickell.
"I spoke with the mother," Boyd explains. "She said his grades had started to decline and he was depressed." Soon the body was returned and buried at home. "Closure," Boyd says.
A more spectacular case involved a young punk who jabbed a pistol in the chest of an unnamed male driver at a Florida City Shell gas station around 11:30 p.m. December 7, 2007. The youngster lit out in the man's new Toyota, apparently unaware a 27-year-old mother of two girls, Missi Holderman, was in back.
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.