Crossville — Giving a name to the unknown dead is a tough job that the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System is working to achieve.
“When you start with a dead body it’s trying to piece back that to an individual, why they were here, truth is always stranger than fiction,” explained NamUs director Todd Matthews.
To solve many of the older cases in their system, their team is starting with bare bones.
“It’s a challenge because you can't Google a filing cabinet, written documents get lost and old and kind of disappear,” said Matthews.
NaMus online database is a living file. Their team is always looking to update it with new details to improve chances of finding a match.
In some circumstances, this means field research. Matthews and his team are looking into two John Does in Cumberland County, and to learn more about the case they dug through the archives at the local paper, the Crossville Chronicle.
“Both these cases are very young people,” said Matthews.
At the time, both were front page news.
The oldest unidentified body in Cumberland County is from August 26, 1983. Articles show it was a young African American male around 17-20 years old.
"There's very little known about this person, he was found along a highway,” said Matthews.
The article says a farmer feeding his cattle found the ‘badly decomposing’ body in a wooded area near Sycamore Lane in the Pleasant Hill community.
The article shows authorities even had a suspect in mind
“The news articles describe it was probably foul play,” said Matthews.
7 years later, another body is found dumped 30 miles away.
“This body was found September 10, 1990, another male,” said Matthews. “They think this one is Hispanic between 20-3- years old.”
The newspaper indicates there was foul play, revealing the body showed massive head injuries caused by unknown trauma. There were no efforts to conceal the body.
Matthews works at a national level, but these two cases are special.
“These two bodies are the physically closest to my home than in the states,” said Matthews. “When it’s in your own back yard it means something different.”
He and his team will take what they’ve learned, digitize it for their search database, and continue following up leads with local law enforcement or anyone who was involved at the time that is still alive.
“Alot of people say what does it matter now 34 years ago, the person who did it could be living in this community or a another and got away with something,” said Matthews.
In May, Tennessee became one of 3 states to pass a law, requiring law enforcement to enter all missing and unidentified persons into the national database.
Medical examiners must enter any DNA, fingerprints and dental info they have.
If you have information on the two john does in this story or any others you can contact NamUs at 855.626.7600.