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Creativity in ID’ing the dead

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PROVO — Provo Police Lt. Greg Du Val has learned to pay attention to the smallest detail when he's called to assist with a fatality. The oddest bit of information can lead to a quicker identification.

He looks, of course, to see if there's a wallet or a purse nearby — but he's also scanning for a birthmark or a tattoo, a piece of jewelry that might be engraved.

He's checking to see if the victim is clean, or fit, or well-dressed.

If so, that would probably rule out a transient.

When Geoff Grove of Provo jogged into the path of a moving train earlier this summer, Du Val used the fact that Grove was fairly fit to determine the probable radius of his running path.

"We can learn a lot by looking at general appearance," Du Val said, "How old is the victim? How clean? If it's a jogger with no keys and no motel card in his pocket, then it's probably somebody who lives fairly close.

"It's a good idea to look at everything and start working through the information methodically," DuVal said.

"A lot is self-taught. There are no classes or training for this," said Du Val. "There's no manual. Sometimes you just come up with a new idea. Sometimes you go with a hunch. There are things I do where I just get a feeling."

Du Val said there are obvious steps to take, such as checking for paperwork in a car's glovebox, running a license plate check and searching for personal belongings. But there's usually some creative digging required, too.

Keith Livingston, a Salt Lake City police investigator, said many times a piece of jewelry or even a piece of clothing provides the key to unlocking the mystery of an identity.

"We really rely on the media in those cases," Livingston said. "And we need to convince people to always carry ID with them."

"Sometimes we just need a name and we can find neighbors or people who know a little bit more who can lead us to a next of kin," Du Val said.

Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Doug McCleve said most freeway accident victims are in a vehicle and that helps troopers determine a victim's identity.

"Usually you don't have total strangers in your car," he said. "You know who they are."

Police can easily gather the vehicle registration, plate and identification numbers.

"If not, you use any kind of resource that you can," McCleve said. "Sometimes it's very difficult."

The Utah Highway Patrol was stymied for a time in trying to track down the identity of a Tongan man killed in a recent accident in Tooele.

He carried no identification, and the driver of the car was in critical condition, unable to talk. Another passenger knew the Tongan only by a nickname and that they were going to a destination somewhere in West Valley City.

McCleve suggests people make it a habit to carry identification and do the same with children, especially if they're traveling.

If there are no obvious clues, police use resources available through the computer that match missing people with victims, Du Val said.

Fingerprints can be run, though Livingston said that's pretty much "hit and miss" unless someone's been in the military or in prison. Dental and X-ray records can be searched. Sometimes an X-ray will reveal pins or plates or even fractures that can help with identification.

A tattoo or scar is often helpful. So is a piercing. Bountiful Police Lt. Steve Gray said more people are clipping on their pagers for a run or carrying a cell phone and that can help as well. Police can call up stored numbers and often find a relative.

"One old gentleman involved in an automobile pedestrian accident had a key in his pocket from Glenwood Apartments. That's generally known as a student rental complex, so nobody thought much about it until Glenwood operators heard about it on the radio and called us. They remembered having one studio apartment they rented to an old man," Du Val said.

Gray said victims of crime are usually more difficult to identify simply because the perpetrator removes critical evidence.

"Then we look for some unusual feature, identifying marks or scars," Gray said.

All of the investigators take the task of finding a victim's family very seriously. "I know if someone's dead, somebody knows them," Du Val said.

"It's pretty much nonstop effort until we get that identity established," Livingston said, "There's a lot of pressure."

"Our task is to get word to the family as soon as possible," McCleve said. "We pull out every resource we can."

E-MAIL: haddoc@desnews.com