Newly found camera may help ID skeleton found 6 years ago

Monday , February 06, 2012 - 3:01 PM

Aam Foxman

OXNARD,Calif. -- Found partly sunken in leafy ground at a secluded makeshift camp near Oxnard, Calif., the unidentified man's skeleton was surrounded by what was likely everything he owned.

For six years, none of the roughly 50 found items led authorities to the man's identity. The mystery persisted as his dental X-rays and DNA profile provided no match.

Now, investigators at the Ventura County Medical Examiner-Coroner's Office are hoping that a long-forgotten disposable camera will give this John Doe his real name.

Found near the skeleton, the 35 mm Fuji had 13 of its 24 exposures taken, but the film was not developed until several weeks ago.

The camera and a few Bibles found in the area were discovered recently by a detective going through stored evidence, said Monica Munoz, an Oxnard police spokeswoman.

Oxnard police conducted the initial investigation six years ago, then left the follow-up to the medical examiner, she said. Police did not investigate further because there was no sign of trauma on the remains, which were largely bare except for some tissue, and the case was not deemed a homicide, she said.

The photos were finally developed after forensic pathology technician Janelle Payne got a call recently from an investigator who asked if the medical examiner wanted some old evidence in the case.

"When I brought the property back from the police department, I opened the bags and was excited to see there was a camera," Payne said.

Medical examiners currently at the office did not know the camera existed, she said. It was not noted in the report from the initial investigator, who has since left the agency, she said.

The photos show a man behind an Oxnard hair salon, the same man in a car, a different man walking from a Verizon building that appears to be in Oxnard, two men sitting together in a backyard, and groups of adults in a park.

There are images of workout equipment in a grassy yard, harbors, a bedroom and people in a kayak. The images of people in many of the pictures are so small that it's hard to make out their faces.

Investigators aren't sure whether the mysterious John Doe is in any of the photos, whether he took them, or whether he just found or stole the disposable camera. One of the men seen sitting in a backyard, however, is wearing a wide-brimmed hat similar to one found near the skeleton.

Investigators hope the public may be able to identify the people, places or things in the photos.

The skeleton was found on the afternoon of Jan. 11, 2006, just outside a tent pitched among bushes below a sand dune, Payne said.

A transient looking for a place to stay came across the camp, and he told authorities he saw a skull and some other bones there, according to the death investigation report from the Medical Examiner's Office. The transient came back with police to show them where he had found the skeleton.

Aside from the camera, three Bibles and some clothing, investigators found a red electric guitar, guitar picks and Steel Reserve beer bottles. Investigators believe the items belonged to the man, who was apparently homeless and living in the camp.

After examining the remains, then-assistant chief medical examiner Janice Frank determined the man was likely white, 20 to 40 years old, 6 feet to 6-foot-2 and with a slender build and short brown and gray hair, according to an autopsy report. Frank found no trauma on the bones, and she listed the cause and manner of the man's death as undetermined.

In addition to using tools such as DNA and dental records, medical examiners hit the streets to track down leads.

They asked liquor-store owners if they knew the person who might have bought the beers found with the skeleton, put up posters, had the guitar tested for fingerprints and tracked down people whose names were written in the Bibles, officials said.

Now, in addition to asking for the public's help, officials plan to post the photos in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Known as NamUs, the database is open to the public.

(Reach Adam Foxman of the Ventura County Star in California at AFoxman@vcstar.com.)

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