In 2021, an unidentified Black woman died by suicide after jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. She was wearing hot pink nail polish, had a pink left eyebrow piercing and several tattoos—all distinguishing features that should have made it easier to identify her. Two years later, her identity is still unknown.
The tragedy of unidentified cadavers is something that Rionna Lee had been thinking about for years. Her mother used to transport human remains for New York’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and would bring home morbid stories. One, Lee remembers, was of a man who had been hit by an MTA train. “One of the things that stuck out to me was the condition of his remains, which were scattered across the train tracks,” says Lee, 24, who now lives in Kingston, Pennsylvania. It distressed her to think of the families who would have to identify their loved ones; even more so, later, when she learned that some human remains would never be identified.
There are an average of 4,400 unidentified new cadavers per year in the US, and a total of 600,000 missing people across the country. Some of these cases are collected on databases, such as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), which helps medical examiners, coroners, law enforcement officers, and members of the public solve missing, unidentified, and unclaimed cases across the country. The true scale of the problem is unknown, as the data available for the average number of unidentified cadavers comes from a 2004 census. Just 10 states have laws requiring that cases be entered into NamUs, meaning that many reports are voluntary.
As she looked into cases—including the woman with the pink nail polish—Lee noticed a pattern in which were solved and which weren’t. The decisive factor was often money. Funding from private donors, sponsorship, and public support meant that law enforcement agencies were able to access cutting-edge technology, such as Othram, a forensic genetics company, which has been pivotal in cracking several high-profile cases. Those that weren’t solved didn’t have resources behind them. Often, they were from marginalized groups. Lee, who identifies as Black and LGBTQ+, felt the need to raise awareness among overlooked members of society, those whose deaths often go unnoticed: transient individuals, racial minorities, substance users, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Lee set up a TikTok to try to raise awareness. After a few false starts, she went viral, attracting a following of 128,000. She set up a Facebook group—Thee Unidentified & Unsolved—which now has 39,000 members, many of whom work together to solve unidentified and unsolved cases. Thee Unidentified & Unsolved is one of several volunteer social media communities that are filling a gap left by the US state, which is getting worse due to the overlapping crises of poverty, fentanyl, and shortfalls in public funding. Now, with AI image recognition more readily available, volunteers have new tools to help them identify the deceased. This brings with it new issues around privacy and consent, but those in the communities say their work brings closure to families. “I believe everyone starts off with a name,” says Lee. “I believe everyone should be able to leave this Earth peacefully with their name.”
Lee started her TikTok campaign in October 2021. There were already several popular accounts that focused on locating missing people, but few, if any, were working to identify the deceased. She created her own page, but TikTok doesn’t allow graphic content such as morgue photos, and she struggled for traction.
She focused on cases where the decedent had been found with items that might help their friends and relatives identify them. “One of the videos I posted that gained exposure was a man with an undetermined race. He was found with a Salvatore Ferragamo gold buckle belt,” says Lee. Her audience was curious how a person with such an expensive piece of clothing could go unidentified. Her engagement grew, and finally, on November 9, 2022, one of her TikTok videos—the case of a 2022 Union County Jane Doe, a Black woman who died after being struck by multiple vehicles on US Route 22 in Hillside, New Jersey—went viral, racking up 652,000 views. A couple of days later, another video hit a million views. She created the Facebook group later that month, because the platform allows graphic content, like morgue pictures, which TikTok doesn’t. The Facebook group now has more than 39,000 members.
There are around a dozen posts each day in the group, often unsolved cases from NamUs with pictures. Members scour the internet, looking for other images, comparing images with missing person sketches or social media profiles.
Some of the identification groups work globally, others are region or country specific or dedicated to unique circumstances, such as missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Online detective groups often tread a delicate line between altruistic investigation and mob obsession.
Thee Unidentified has had to tread that line carefully. Earlier this year, the group helped identify Adonis Beck, a TikTok star also known as Pope the Barber. Beck was found dead on August 10. The news spread quickly, causing an influx of new members to the Facebook group. Kenyetta Burks, one of the group’s admins who had first posted Beck’s image on the group, removed the morgue photos as they were posted, but was inundated with requests from people trying to see them, many from fake accounts pretending to be relatives. Sometimes, the admins will notice comments from members who seem more intrigued by the circumstances of death than those who are empathetic to the topic of unidentified cases. In situations that appear voyeuristic, the person is suspended, and if the behavior is repeated, they are banned, Lee says.
These social media groups have helped some families find closure. In 2022, a teenage boy stumbled upon Lee’s TikTok page and identified his mother, a 2017 Jane Doe case, via her tattoos. She was hit by a vehicle while crossing a street in Pasadena, California and succumbed to her injuries in hospital. In May 2023, Burks posted a sketch, images, and information from NamUs in the Facebook group, which led to the identification of Dytavious Sanders, an MMA fighter from South Carolina, whose body was discovered earlier that month on May 9. Sander’s aunt identified him in the group and his mother asked for assistance in claiming his body.
One member of Thee Unidentified has recently began using a new tool, PimEyes, a controversial facial recognition search engine, as a means to identify the deceased via morgue photos. A quick upload produces search results in a matter of seconds. Photos from across the internet are organized in a single view, mugshots frequently among them. While this technology can accelerate the process of identifying the dead, it brings with it serious privacy concerns. In many cases, informed consent is neither obtained for the image uploaded nor the results that the technology returns, which can include the biometric data of private individuals. Thus far, a few members of the group have utilized this tool.
“While some individuals might be well-meaning, online sleuths are using dangerous surveillance tools,” says Madeleine Stone, senior advocacy officer at Big Brother Watch, a privacy campaign group. “By selling this technology, facial recognition companies risk violating the dignity of deceased individuals, but moreover are violating the privacy rights of the billions of people whose photos they have taken, processed and exploited without consent.”
PimEyes has been criticized by privacy advocates for scraping the internet for images, and giving users access to highly personal information about private individuals. PimEyes CEO Giorgi Gobronidze says that these threats are exaggerated, and that PimEyes doesn’t hold images, but just directs users to the URLs where images are hosted. “The tool is designed to help people to find the sources that publish photos, and if they shouldn’t be there, apply to the website and initiate takedown.” Gobronidze says that PimEyes has many use cases, such as searching for missing people, including women and children in conflict areas, and actively cooperates with human rights organizations.
Lee says that the Thee Unidentified & Unsolved Facebook group “is not focused on the use of PimEyes…But I respect those who do use the tool and actually have successful outcomes.”
In other social media groups, PimEyes is slowly being introduced as an investigative tool for cases related to missing persons, cold cases, and human trafficking.
Experts also worry that this technology is not necessarily accurate, meaning that amateur sleuths could make mistakes with heartbreaking consequences. “This a noble goal, but a terrible approach,” says Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, an organization that litigates and advocates for privacy, fighting excessive local and state-level surveillance. “This technology is biased and error prone, and I worry that a lot of worried families will be wrongly told their missing loved one is dead.”
For all of the challenges presented by volunteer online communities, the reality is that they exist in a vacuum left by the authorities.
In 2021, 106,699 Americans died of an overdose. In Seattle, the fentanyl crisis is so bad that the number of overdose deaths has doubled in the last three years, causing the morgues to overflow. The “fourth wave” of the crisis recently descended upon the US, an ongoing mass-overdose event that has consumed law enforcement agencies, stretching the resources necessary for identifying the dead. For medical examiners, the “tsunami” of bodies has resulted in staff burnout, exhausted resources, and jeopardized many offices’ accreditation due to the necessity to conduct more autopsies than industry guidelines permit .
“Unfortunately, the opioid crisis has meant more individuals are coming into the Medical Examiner’s Office for examination,” says Dr. Constance DiAngelo, Philadelphia’s Chief Medical Examiner. “Many of these folks are not initially identified.”
The authorities just don’t have the resources to investigate every case thoroughly. “Our challenges are related to funding,” DiAngelo says. “Exhumations, reinterment, DNA extraction and processing, and genealogy comparisons are expensive. A case could cost between $2,500 to $10,000, and that doesn’t include the need for staff who can be dedicated to this type of work.”
In King County, where Seattle is located, there are currently 57 unidentified people that the Medical Examiner’s Office is working to identify. This dire situation is a reality across major American metropolitan areas. In situations where people are found without identification, it can take weeks, if not months, to locate next of kin.
That waiting, and not knowing, can be agony for people whose loved ones have disappeared—like the family of Kallie Catron. Catron’s mother, Crystal Newman, last spoke with her on October 14, 2022. Catron said she missed her two children and wanted to come home. “When Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s passed, my sister knew something was wrong and called to report a missing person,” says Sarah Forister, Catron’s aunt. “I guess you can say a mother knows when something is wrong with her baby.”
On January 22, 2023, Newman was sent a link to a post on Thee Unidentified’s TikTok page. Morgue photos, and images of her tattoos, confirmed it was Catron. “At first, we were so mad that’s how we found out,” says Forister. “But Kallie’s mom, me, and her cousins watched the video showing her morgue photo and all her identifying tattoos multiple times a day.”
Eventually, Lee asked the family if she could take down the video, as Catron had been identified. “I said yes, but please send me the video so I can watch it whenever I want to,” says Forister. Lee obliged. The community shared the family’s GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for Catron’s funeral and to support her children. “We realized that if it wasn’t for Thee Unidentified community and Rionna, we could still be looking for Kallie,” Forister says.