Dating back to 1968, there are 90 cases of yet-to-be identified bodies in the Orange County, Calif. coroner’s office.

The latest was the corpse that fishermen discovered in the ocean a mile off the coast of Newport Beach last Christmas Eve. The man’s body had been adrift for days, and the flesh had decomposed to such a state that there were no visual clues as to his age or race. Unfortunately there were no reports of missing bodies in the area, either.

Apart from the man’s black Timex digital sports watch and size-11 Asics sneakers, there’s nary a shred of data to go on…which doesn’t help homicide investigators who’re deeming it a suspicious death.

Body Found Floating Off Calif. Coast Raises Rare Question: How Are John Doe Corpses Identified When There Are Hardly Any Clues?

Image source: Orange County Sheriff’s Department

So this “John Doe” remains in morgue unclaimed and unidentified.

“This is a very rare investigation,” Margie Sheehan, investigator for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s special victims detail, told the Orange County Register. “It’s kind of an anomaly to find a person who has no way of identifying them.”

An anomaly because identification is usually the easy part. It’s what connects detectives to home addresses, family members, friends…and then suspects.

“When you have no place to start, you have no place to go,” Sheehan told the Register.

For the man found floating in the Pacific, police tried the route of releasing photos of his watch and shoes on Jan. 2 to see if that would generate leads, but that was a dead end. Not a peep.

Fingerprints and DNA work only if the deceased had a criminal record of some sort.

Beyond that, investigators also have keyed off more obscure data, such as serial numbers on breast implants, pacemakers, and hip replacements — and even manicured nails to identify bodies, said Allison O’Neal, supervising deputy coroner.

Last year, investigators I.D.’d a woman via her key chain, O’Neal said, which was brought to a local business where employees recognized the woman. “They didn’t know her last name off the bat, but they knew enough to help us,” she told the Register.

Failing that, a 3D model of what the man’s face would have looked like before decomposition set in is an option; the tool that has been used just once before – in Orange County in 1987.

There are also subtle clues within the body, anthropologist and senior deputy coroner Tiffany Williams told the Register: “We work with what we have, so there are a lot of traits you can hold from a skeleton.”

Body Found Floating Off Calif. Coast Raises Rare Question: How Are John Doe Corpses Identified When There Are Hardly Any Clues?

This shoe is one of the few clues investigators have in their quest to learn the identity of the body discovered in the Pacific Ocean on Christmas Eve. (Image source: Orange County Sheriff’s Department)

Such as: Length and size of bones (which can indicate weight and height), markings on the jaw (which can help determine gender). When Williams reaches her conclusions, she relays them to Sheehan, who can create a 3D model of a face by removing the flesh from the skull and building a face with clay.

While it’s impossible to construct an exact replica of a face, Sheehan told the Register that 3D models can jog the memories of friends or others familiar with the deceased.

“My goal isn’t to make it perfect,” Sheehan told the Register. “That’s all I’m trying to do, make someone go: ‘I think this may be my kid.’”

For many investigators, O’Neal said, it’s hard to let go of the cases: “You really just take them in as your family,” she told the Register.

“If we don’t know who they are, we can’t tell their family,” she added, noting that each John or Jane Doe has a story that belies their nameless identities.

(H/T: Orange County Register)