BY KIRSTI CLIFFORD, DHHS OFFICE OF COMMUNICATIONS
Deep inside the Chief Medical Examiner’s office is a small windowless room. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary storage room. But walk inside and one can see stacks of cardboard boxes, each with a unique case number scribbled on the end. This is the osteology room, better known as the “bone” room. Each box contains an unidentified person’s skeletal remains. The room holds bones from more than 100 cases, some dating back to the 1970’s.
Medical Examiner Specialist Clyde Gibbs knows each case well. For the past 16 years, his duties have included custody and identification of the remains of North Carolina’s “unidentified.”
He says bones are like puzzle pieces. Examining each individual bone, he works tirelessly to assemble what happened to that individual. “Bones can provide details. You are getting the age, sex, race - looking at each individual bone to tell you what has happened to that individual and who that individual could be,” says Gibbs.
Each case is unique - from the young boy whose remains were found in 1998 beneath a billboard in Orange County, to the woman whose skeletal remains were discovered on the side of Interstate 40 in Jackson County in 1985, 10 years after her body was apparently dumped there. While the young boy remains unidentified 15 years later, Gibbs helped identify the woman as Priscilla Blevins in October 2012. She had been missing for 37 years. The identity was confirmed after Blevins’ sister provided a DNA sample.
Since he began work at the Medical Examiner’s office in 1997, Gibbs says three unknown people have been identified with the help of DNA and fingerprints. Whenever unidentified remains are found in North Carolina, Gibbs enters relevant information about the remains into the U.S. Justice Department website NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. He says the database, which is accessible by the public, is an important tool in keeping cases open and making sure the public gets as much information as possible.
Not all of Gibb’s work involves solving the mysteries of who, what, when and where. Some are the more mundane cases involving corpses that are identified, but may go unclaimed, sometimes after families have been contacted. He says the number of unclaimed bodies has nearly doubled in the last few years most likely because of the bad economy. Some families cannot afford proper funerals for their loved ones.
With a background in anthropology and funeral home work, Gibbs still feels a need to see the remains through to a final resting place. Once unclaimed remains have been cleared for cremation, he solemnly takes ashes by boat, accompanied by the N.C. Marine Patrol, off the coast from Morehead City, where he scatters them in the ocean, three miles from shore.
It’s not a job that many people would be willing to do, but to Clyde Gibbs, it’s the most satisfying work he’s ever done. He hopes to complete the puzzle of many more unidentified cases…and bring closure to families. He points back to the Blevins case. “I’m very glad we had the skeleton and could give it to her sister,” he said. “The family finally had something to actually bury or cremate.”
To view more photos and a news report on Gibbs’ work, go to WRAL. The television station also has a series of photographs used by the Office of the Medical Examiner to help establish identities for some of the open cases at: unidentified cases in NC.