Social Media Sleuths, Armed With AI, Are Identifying Dead Bodies

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.

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