A Mich. State Police unit's campaign to identify the unknown dead 

The closure crew

click to enlarge Michigan State Police Sgt. Sarah Krebs is part of a special unit that identifies unclaimed and unidentified bodies. - MICHAEL JACKMAN
  • Michael Jackman
  • Michigan State Police Sgt. Sarah Krebs is part of a special unit that identifies unclaimed and unidentified bodies.

A former public school on a quiet, residential Livonia street is the last place you'd expect to find a Michigan State Police unit hard at work trying to identify dead bodies. But in a small room near the back of the building, in the midst of this quiet neighborhood of well-trimmed lawns and shade trees, a forensic team is on the ultimate identity hunt.

In one nook of the office you'll find Sgt. Sarah Krebs, 37, a trooper whose shelf is lined with human skulls and whose drawer is filled with autopsy photos. Krebs here is as unlikely as the quaint suburban setting. She's upbeat and talkative, dressed less like a cop than a Mary Kay beauty consultant or suburban mom.

That's by design.

"I don't put my uniform on very often anymore. Just unfortunately, to a funeral," Krebs says. "I do carry a gun. I'm still a cop. But when we deal with civilians, we try to go in soft. You don't want to be in uniform."

That's partly because her Missing Persons Coordination Unit doesn't deliver good news, per se, and even when they have news for a family — an identification of a body, an answer to a loved one's fate — the news is usually bad. The four-person team (two full-time employees and two interns), which was officially organized two years ago, is an anomaly of sorts.

"We're almost unique, as far as I know," Krebs says. "We're one of the only agencies that houses a missing and unidentified persons unit and works on both sides of it. A lot of agencies don't even have a missing persons unit. It's actually pretty rare. Not a whole lot of state or local agencies can employ somebody to work that full-time."

For Krebs and her co-workers, that means half the job is compiling all they can on missing persons — an intimidating task, since roughly 4,000 to 5,000 Michiganders are listed as missing with open cases at a given time — and the other half is identifying them once they're found.

If Krebs has a certain delicacy with which she discusses dead bodies, it's because she needs it: Her case files are packed with amounts of death and gore that would give most people nightmares.

You name the grisly case of a dead body found in the city, and she's probably seen it. The 2005 case in which a stray dog was found with a human leg in its mouth on Detroit's east side? "Yeah," Krebs says, "I have that case. The dog was found carrying a limb. It prompted the Detroit Police Department to go out looking for the body. They knew they had one somewhere, and it was a couple blocks away. The dog was the catalyst. I can just imagine a homeowner being like, 'Get that out of your mouth' — and it had, like, a shoe on it."

Or the 2006 case of the body that was found at the shuttered Pope Funeral Home? Krebs doesn't hesitate: "That was Jimmy Adams. That's one where dental records would help us. He was never listed as a missing person. His family knew exactly where he went, they just didn't realize the funeral home had left him there and he decomposed in the coffin — it was never buried. We solved the case the same night because his family recognized that on Channel 7. They came forward and claimed the body of their uncle."

Or William Bracken, the elderly Highland Park man who left home around Thanksgiving of 2009 and never returned? Krebs encountered his remains. "His body was actually found scattered along railroad tracks. He was identified in 2013."

But the unsolved cases remain the most interesting to Krebs. Especially when the circumstances are unusual, such as a half-skeletal body that was discovered this summer. "The lower extremities were hanging in a basement and she was actually laying halfway out the basement window," Krebs says. "So the upper half of the body was exposed to the elements because it was outside. It had the sun beating down on it, so it was almost fully skeletal from the waist up, but below it was a full body hanging down, almost like she was trying to shimmy out when she was shot. There's so many of them. This is, like, weekly. You would be amazed at the number of unidentified remains coming in. It's pretty consistent."

Most of those are coming from the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office. The unit also works with Monroe County's morgue, which is staffed by the same medical examiner (especially effective for the unit, since many of the floaters that turn up in Monroe's waters come from what Krebs calls "our biggest client," Wayne County.)

Most county morgues are in the basement of a local hospital, with a few exceptions, including Oakland and Macomb counties' modest stand-alone morgues. But Wayne County's is the big kahuna of Michigan mortuaries, capable of storing more than 300 bodies in a massive cooler and a mammoth freezer, all with backup generators just in case the power goes out. On any given day, there are usually more than 150 bodies in repose there, some that have languished for years. At least one rested there as long as 15 years, longer than some bodies stay buried.

The end is just the beginning for Krebs.

It's not uncommon for Sgt. Krebs to pick up a skull and call it a him or her, a he or she.

For one, her background in forensic anthropology means she can look at a skull and see much more than the layperson can; she can see race, gender, age, clues to the sort of life that was led. She picks up two skulls off a shelf to demonstrate: "These are both African-American, male and female, and actually she's a lot older than he is and has a much smaller build. We look at sutures, the morphology of different bones, teeth. Teeth are very telling. Teeth tell you a lot about how a person lived. Whether or not they had a dental plan — or if they were smoking crack."

Krebs seems to have a genuine fondness for the people whose remains she's been entrusted with. Sure, she can spin a dozen good crime yarns without stopping after what she's seen, but she's far from callous when it comes to the dead and their afterlife.

"I do spend a lot of time with them and I care for the remains. I mean, they're people, you know?" she says. "And I've spent time trying to identify them, and when I do actually make the connection, sometimes it is very personal."

And those connections happen regularly. In the last two years, the unit has entered hundreds of unidentified bodies into its database, and made 45 identifications, many of them from the backlog at local medical examiners' offices, which can often do little more for the bodies than keep them cold.

"The families had been looking for them for years," Krebs says, "and they were at the medical examiner's office the whole time, but there was no way to connect those dots because the medical examiner's office doesn't have the funding to do DNA testing."

But Krebs can send samples to the University of North Texas, which does it for free thanks to a federal grant.

The DNA oftentimes comes from the cadavers, the first step being the morgue. A typical trip involves taking tissue samples.

"We'll usually cut into the thigh. But those are on the fresh cases that aren't super decomposed. Or I'll take one of the forearm bones, a radius or ulna. They're shorter and easier to ship, and easier to get out of the body — if you can imagine." She says she might also take something from the lower extremities, usually a kneecap, because it's a dense small bone. "We're talking shipping too," Krebs says, "so we're not going to take a femur."

But the DNA mustn't always come from cadavers. And in many cases it hasn't — Krebs and her crew have dusted off every possible avenue to get source material.

Even if a body is buried, case files sometimes yield small, obscure bits of human tissue, such as a medical examiner's slide stored under poor conditions that may still yield usable DNA. "I've seen everything," she says. "I've seen tissue samples, I've seen blood and tissue kept unrefrigerated in a test tube and they were still able to get a profile from it many years later, I've seen bone samples or hair, mummified tissue. Not that that's the greatest practice, to keep human remains in an evidence room for, like, 40 years, but it's great for us."

From there the unit might also work with medical professionals, employers, and families to assemble the forensic evidence to close those cases out: fingerprints, dental records, personal DNA, family DNA, even property records. Krebs' typical day might involve mailing human remains for DNA analysis, bringing in a forensic odontologist to match dental records, creating an artistic reconstruction of a face on one of the human skulls on her shelf, or combing through an alphabet soup of databases, including CODIS (the FBI's Combined DNA Index System), IAFIS (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System) and NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System).

It's one puzzle with one solution but any number of ways to get there.

The question: Who are you?

click to enlarge Bilal Berreni had traveled the world creating street art before he was murdered in Detroit in 2013. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Bilal Berreni had traveled the world creating street art before he was murdered in Detroit in 2013.

The Bilal Berreni case has probably been the highest-profile that Krebs has been involved with. Berreni was murdered in Detroit by a gang of four teenagers, his body dumped at the Brewster Projects in July 2013.

The case became a media sensation when Krebs' unit identified him as a globetrotting Parisian street artist whose father is a millionaire and whose brother is a French soap opera star. Berreni had traveled widely in Europe, into Russia and Tunisia, and even to a refugee camp on the Libyan border before coming to the United States, reportedly bumming around and hopping freight trains, finally landing in Detroit, where he squatted in Capitol Park downtown.

As soon as Krebs saw the body, she could tell something was unusual. Krebs laughs a bit now about her initial reaction then to seeing the body of the "fresh-faced kid."

"I thought he was from, like, West Bloomfield," she says. "We had all these theories. We always have theories of who these people are, you know. He was just this young, good-looking kid. He obviously didn't belong in the Brewster Projects. It was very odd to find this clean-cut-looking young white kid. I called him a 'frat boy,' in fact, because he had this frat-boy haircut."

But when months went by and nobody claimed the body, Krebs grew more concerned.

"It's not like when one of our homeless individuals comes in: We pretty much know that no one is probably looking for that guy," she says. "This kid, there was no doubt that somebody was looking for him. My theory was that he was a college kid. He had gone to college, and, as college kids do, they don't keep in real great contact with their family. Maybe his family didn't even know he was missing yet."

She says, "When he wasn't identified right away, it was troubling. But it wasn't till after the holidays that I really started to worry." That was when Krebs had the thought that he was international.

"I was thinking 'international' as in Canada," she clarifies.

The unit's investigators went back to the morgue to comb through the victim's clothing and made a significant observation.

"We looked at his boots, and I said, 'Man, his boots are weird. People around here just do not wear these. This is like kind of European-looking. Not something a frat kid in Michigan would wear,'" she says. "Our first thought was, OK, we need to check with ICE, Homeland Security. Maybe we need to go to Interpol."

That's when the unit discovered that somebody had tipped the wrong fingerprint card into the victim's case file, and the originals taken off the body in July couldn't be found. "We went, 'Uh-oh, there has been a huge mix-up," Krebs says. "At that point I knew we needed to get him reprinted ASAP. And they could not be taken by ink at that point. He was just too far gone. ... Picture something in your fridge for nine months. It's not pretty at that point."

Fortunately, a talented latent print expert was able to get a partial. In cases like Berreni's, Krebs' unit will routinely remove the hands from the body and take them to a laboratory where forensic scientists are able to capture images of the arches, loops, and whorls of a print on the bottom layers of the skin, even when the fingers are badly damaged and decomposed. The end product is a partial fingerprint that's searchable in the national fingerprint database. With this print, police were finally able to put a name to the fresh-faced kid with the unusual footwear: It matched prints taken when Berreni had been arrested and jailed while tramping around Ohio.

"Lucky for us, he had been arrested in the States," Krebs says, "because if it had been in Paris, we probably would have never made the association."

When the victim's international pedigree was revealed, Krebs was as surprised as everybody else. "That case was just a long time coming, and then to find out that he was this street artist from Paris," she says. "He was very fascinating. He had painted beautiful murals. Being an artist, you know, it's really interesting to me because I spent a lot of time with his remains, to see videos online of him doing his work and painting his murals. It was amazing for me to actually see him working."

She opens a file drawer and pulls out a folder to look over his autopsy photo. It's a close-up of Berreni's face, with a bullet hole above his right eyebrow. The way his right eye is damaged and his front teeth are knocked out, it's clear the bullet had a downward trajectory, as if the young man were on his knees, perhaps pleading for his life when the teenage gunman shot him in the face.

Krebs tries to imagine his final moments. "He didn't speak the language. I mean, he barely spoke English. Like, I could just picture this happening," she says. "I used to work gang cases and I could just see him as he's begging for his life in French. That may have been the cause of his death, something as stupid as that."

Of the gang of four teenagers who robbed him, three are now convicted and doing time. She says, "I think the youngest one was 14. They were kids. They stole his money and I think they admitted they bought junk food with it. Like, some chips. It was terrible, that this budding artist, a really talented individual, was just snuffed out by a bunch of losers that just wanted to buy some snacks. The expense of that life is just unbearable, but we deal with it every day here."

Krebs pauses.

"He had been in all these other, like, war-torn nations and he comes to Detroit," Krebs says. "And he gets a bullet in the head in Detroit. So sad."

Not all surviving relatives are eager to revisit painful memories associated with the traumatic loss of a loved one, but Sgt. Krebs does the best she can to guide them through the process when she comes into their lives. Her sympathetic side serves her well in this regard, counseling families in search of the missing.

"Sometimes a family is very secretive about it. A lot of times, somebody in the family doesn't want to know the truth, they don't want to accept it," she says. "But there's usually somebody in the family that's coming forward and wants answers. And so we do a bit of walking on eggshells around some family secrets, but it's nice to see when we can find the answers and let them know exactly where their person was."

Despite those rewards, the day-to-day work can be emotionally challenging. Krebs says, "A lot of time you can't provide them with the answers that they're looking for."

And when a positive identification is finally made, the news is seldom good — and often final. "I've probably done more death notifications than our chaplains have. ... It's never easy," she says. "Sometimes, it's exactly the news they wanted, and a lot of times it's not. More often it's not, but most of the families will tell us that they'd rather know than not know."

Of course, popular wisdom dictates that learning that a missing loved one is dead provides some measure of "closure." But in Krebs' experience, that's more a soothing truism than a hard reality.

"They're never going to have closure from it, but at least they know where they are now and they can put that part of it to rest. They're not searching anymore," she says. "They might be searching for the answer of how they ended up deceased, but they're not searching for where they're at."

The very best outcomes, Krebs says, are when the identification gets an actual investigation going again. So far, only one of the unit's 45 identifications has led to a homicide conviction.

That was when Krebs helped identify the body of Evelyn Gunter, who went missing on March 10, 2013. A year later, through donated family DNA, Krebs was able to find a match to a charred body that was found wrapped in barbed wire at a west side garage. Based on the identification, the Detroit Police Department's homicide unit was able to establish enough evidence to arrest a suspect and have him convicted.

Further complicating the territory investigators like Krebs tread: Many of the cases that cross the unit's desk have already started off on the wrong foot, with half-hearted investigations by police who didn't take them seriously. The people Krebs and her colleagues deal with often want something more than closure. They want justice.

"A lot the family members that we work for have very negative views on law enforcement because of the fact that they reported this 20 years ago and nobody ever called them back," she says. "That's true. A lot of times, especially in these old missing persons cases, the ball has been dropped. We have to admit it. That's kind of where we come in. We are trying to make amends for that."

The case that would become one of Krebs' first identifications began with one of those feeble police investigations. It was the case of Shawn Patrick Raymond of Algonac. In the summer of 1983, Raymond was an attractive, popular kid, a newly minted high school graduate looking at a bright future. He had embarked on a modeling career, signed up for classes at community college, and, at 19 years old, had reached the legal drinking age in Michigan. According to the family, Raymond had already come out to his mom as gay, and, on a fateful night in July, he drove down to Detroit, to meet friends at Menjo's Bar. He was last seen leaving that bar.

click to enlarge Shawn Patrick Raymond disappeared in 1983. Sgt. Krebs identified his remains more than 20 years later. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Shawn Patrick Raymond disappeared in 1983. Sgt. Krebs identified his remains more than 20 years later.

Back then, Kathleen "Kit" Conyers was Raymond's 14-year-old little sister. Now she's a mother of three working for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office in Florida. She remembers, "It was totally out of character for him to not contact my mom in some way to let her know that he was OK. So we were immediately worried and everybody was scared."

Police in Algonac and Detroit, however, gave the case short shrift, Conyers says.

"They told my mom that he was an adult. He went to live his own life. Given that it was from Menjo's Bar, a gay bar, it was laughed at back then." She says the search for answers was also frustrated by witnesses who either dummied up or "lawyered up."

More than 20 years later, in October 2003, Krebs started facial reconstruction on a skull that had been dredged out of the Clinton River in 1992. As the skilled forensic artist worked, a face emerged. What happens next sounds straight out of a cheap crime novel: A sergeant Krebs worked with saw the face and swore he recognized it. It reminded him of a former co-worker at an Algonac restaurant. That co-worker's name was Shawn Raymond, and he pointed Krebs toward the case. Amazingly, dental records proved the sergeant correct.

But when the identification kick-started the investigation some 21 years later, the lack of results frustrated Conyers — though she praises Krebs and other state police for trying to restart an investigation "using 20-year-old notes written on scrap paper." Conyers says detectives were especially suspicious of one witness who said he'd speak to police, but kept putting it off for months and ended up getting a lawyer instead.

For all the nice things she has to say about the Michigan State Police, Conyers says the positive ID has offered little real relief. After the investigation stalled, she says, "Everybody went on with their life except for us."

"I don't know where people come up with the word 'closure,'" she says. "I mean, that's the first thing that everyone we knew said: 'Well, there you go. Now you have closure.' Well, not really. Because, like, for my mom, now we knew for sure he's not coming home. But, as a parent, she's still wondering: How did he end up in the water? Did he drown? Was it an accident? Did somebody kill him? Did he suffer? What were his last thoughts? You know, it brought up a lot more questions."

Or take the case of Donna Davis. Her daughter, Tamala Wells, disappeared two years ago in Detroit and hasn't been seen since. A former Detroiter, Davis, 54, moved her family to Cape Coral, Fla., in 2000. But Tamala stayed behind in Detroit with her longtime boyfriend and the daughter they'd had together. Davis alleges the relationship was abusive, and that Wells was making plans to move down to Florida before she disappeared.

Davis clearly recalls the last time she spoke to Wells on the telephone. "It was Monday, Aug. 6, 2012," she says. "It had to be about 9:30 in the eveningtime. I could hear a little something that wasn't right in her voice. And believe me, that plays in my head every day."

Wells cut the conversation short, saying she was out at a friend's house. Davis asked her to call when she arrived at home. The call never came, and the sudden silence was ominous to Davis and her family. Since that night, she has spent three years trying to find her missing daughter and she makes no secret of her suspicions of who is responsible.

She has spent thousands of dollars on fliers, T-shirts, and cards, and with the help of victim support group Crime Stoppers of Michigan, was able to get a billboard up for nine months.

Would it offer Davis relief to know Tamala was deceased?

click to enlarge Tamala Wells disappeared in Detroit two years ago. Her mother has spent thousands of dollars searching for her. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Tamala Wells disappeared in Detroit two years ago. Her mother has spent thousands of dollars searching for her.

"It'd offer me a way to stop the search, because you can't tell me until you show me," Davis says. "It's going to hurt, of course. I'm still holding out hope. Everybody that knows her is."

Her chief hope for a positive identification is that it will restart a stalled investigation. She claims Detroit's detectives laugh at her when she calls. She says one told her, "She's probably in the Detroit River floating to Canada."

"Really?" Davis says. "I flew 2,000 miles for you to tell me something like that? To be so unprofessional and disrespectful?"

Conyers' and Davis' allegations seem to offer extreme examples, but Krebs says not all agencies stick to best practices when it comes to missing persons. "If there is no actual blood trail to show that there is foul play involved," she says, "some law enforcement agencies will not take it seriously — or they don't take a report at all.

"We're really lucky with our agency," Krebs says. "We have strict official orders that if someone comes in to report a missing person, we take it. It doesn't even matter who's coming to report. You'll hear some agencies saying, 'Well, you're not in the immediate family.' You're a neighbor or a girlfriend, so you can't report them missing, and they turn them away. I've heard all sorts of excuses from law enforcement to these families. A lot of families get discouraged and they never come back. I do a lot of training for law enforcement, and I always encourage them to take those reports and treat the families with respect. Pull a number, document it, get it in the database, and then we can potentially solve the case."

A state police sergeant challenging careless police practices? It's just one small part of the work Krebs does, and if anybody should do it, it's a trooper like Krebs, one doing practical forensic work. Her job ends up making her an advocate for victims and their families, for the marginalized people, the poor and the homeless she sees represented on slabs every week. It's no stretch of poetry to say that she attempts to speak for the dead. She does so daily, amply.

And what keeps her going are the questions the dead provoke. Her latest fascination? A floater found in front of Hart Plaza this June, a clean-shaven white male with gray and brown hair between the ages of 25 and 45. He was wearing a blue-and-white button-down shirt, and dark wash Italian jeans with a black leather belt. Most interestingly, however, was his footwear, Hermes shoes.

"The shoes retail, I think, at $980," Krebs says. "I looked up that exact pair. So he's interesting. Why has nobody come forward for him?"

She adds, "He could be from Paris."

People may report missing persons to Michigan State Police by calling 866-638-4847. The Missing Persons Coordination Unit holds an annual event called Missing in Michigan each May, when families may donate DNA, file reports, and conduct online searches. To learn more about next year's event, tentatively scheduled for May 14 in Detroit, or to learn about providing DNA samples, email Sgt. Sarah Krebs at krebss@michigan.gov. The NAMUS database is accessible to the public at namus.gov.

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