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UNIDENTIFIED

Ocean torso’s identity remains unknown

Posted on November 21, 2021

Local newsUnidentified
Surf City police Officer David Beaver holds what was believed to be an 11-inch human bone found on the beach in 2011 in this picture taken by the late Ed Caram, a renowned photographer in the coastal North Carolina area. The bone was later identified as belonging to an animal. Actual human remains that wash ashore are rarely identified, according to authorities.

Contributed photo

Surf City police Officer David Beaver holds what was believed to be an 11-inch human bone found on the beach in 2011 in this picture taken by the late Ed Caram, a renowned photographer in the coastal North Carolina area. The bone was later identified as belonging to an animal. Actual human remains that wash ashore are rarely identified, according to authorities.

Unidentified is a weekly series examining the more than 120 cases of unidentified human remains discovered in North Carolina. News Editor Lindell J. Kay produces each installment for The Enterprise of Spring Hope and other Restoration NewsMedia newspapers.

Click here to read previous installments in the series, along with case updates and additional resources, on Kay's Unidentified blog.

lkay@springhopeenterprise.com | 252-265-8117

Topsail Island has its share of skeletons.

From pirates to wartime submarine casualties, bones of the long dead have been washing ashore on the beaches of the 26-mile-long Outer Banks isle for centuries.

It’s not unusual for an occasional bone to be found mixed with seashells. A little less typical is the skull-less skeletonized torso pulled from the Atlantic Ocean at the southern tip of Topsail three decades ago.

Beach bones are among the most difficult cases to solve because they could have come from literally anywhere in the world, said Clyde Gibbs, a medical examiner specialist responsible for all unidentified bodies found statewide.

“Some of these bodies went missing in South Carolina or Virginia,” Gibbs said. “Some even died at sea. We’ve even had two that were actually buried at sea and their containers were breached due to a hurricane, then the bodies wash ashore still embalmed.”

Using fingerprints, dental records, X-rays and ever-advancing DNA technology, investigators attempt to identify bones whenever they end up on the beaches of North Carolina. Autopsy examinations help reveal cause of death, approximate age, race, gender and other basic facts about decedents.

But skeletal remains, especially those ravaged by the sea, offer few clues. That’s why beach bones frustrate law enforcement officers and medical examiners alike.

Washed ashore, unearthed in shallow graves, stumbled upon in the woods, discovered in abandoned houses, killed on busy roads and located in rivers, ponds and along railroad tracks, more than 100 bodies remain unidentified in North Carolina. This is one of their stories.

“We keep DNA profiles of all the unidentified bodies that come through the system,” Gibbs said.

The torso found in 1991 is one of the exceptions. The remains were destroyed before samples could be taken. That happened prior to Gibbs’ tenure caring for the more than 100 unidentified remains at the N.C. Office of the Chief Medial Examiner in Raleigh.

Authorities cremated the torso and scattered its ashes at sea. DNA samples were not gathered in the case because the process was too expensive 30 years ago, according to medical examiners.

A passing boater spotted the torso about half a mile offshore, just beyond the breakers on Aug. 1, 1991. The U.S. Coast Guard responded and recovered the remains.

“The body was severely decomposed. It was impossible to tell how the person died, or whether all the limbs had been intact when the man entered the water,” according to an entry in the National Missing and Unidentified Person System under case number 2644.

The torso is believed to have belonged to a 20- to 50-year-old white man who was 6 feet to 6 feet, 1 inch tall and of an unknown weight, hair and eye color.

Investigators submitted the torso’s right hand to the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, but it remains unclear whether any prints were ever obtained, according to information from the Doe Network, a volunteer-run international clearinghouse for unidentified and missing persons.

No clothing, jewelry or additional personal items were recovered with the torso.

While most John Does and Jane Does are identified within a week of being found these days, beach bones are almost never identified. The case of the 1991 torso is closed, according to the Topsail Beach Police Department, citing prior exhaustive attempts to identify the remains.

Cases like this are most often solved with the public’s help, according to a statement from the Pender County Sheriff’s Office.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner at 919-743-9000. The agency case number is 91-681.

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