Naming the unnamed dead in Miami: Her career became a personal crusade

Medical Examiner investigator works to identify nameless victims

Sandra Boyd has been tasked with finding the identities of victims in Miami-Dade County. She is retiring after three decades on the job.
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Sandra Boyd has been tasked with finding the identities of victims in Miami-Dade County. She is retiring after three decades on the job.

She is known only as the Japanese Gardens girl.

Her corpse was discovered on Feb. 3, 1981, outside the small tourist park on Miami’s Watson Island. A car or truck crushed her skull, leaving a bloody tire trail in the grass. She had no purse, no ID. Police found her jeans and heels across the causeway near Overtown.

She was young, between 14 and 16 years old.

For a good part of the past three decades, Sandra Boyd has been tasked with finding her identity — and those of more than 300 other nameless people in Miami-Dade County who have been stabbed, shot, drowned or killed in a host of other ways, accidental and not.

At the end of this month, Boyd retires with 33 solved cases, but many others, like the Japanese Gardens girl, will continue to haunt her. “The person that killed her has gotten away with murder,” said Boyd, 57.

Boyd has long occupied a unique position for the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Officer, checking fingerprint and missing-persons databases, chasing caller tips, interviewing potential family members and arranging police artist sketches and DNA tests.

The scope of work is visible on two large poster boards she keeps in her office which feature 81 photos, facial sketches and digital recreations of the faces of the unidentified. Thanks to her, all of the photos have been uploaded to the internet, including Namus, a federal website dedicated to naming the nameless.

“So many of these unidentified bodies, but for Sandy, would have never been identified,” said Miami-Dade Police forensic sketch artist Samantha Steinberg, who has worked closely with Boyd since the late 1990s. “I think she’s taken this on as a personal crusade.”

In the active case files, the oldest unidentified body in Miami-Dade County belongs to a dismembered man, his only remains a torso washed up on a canal in Miami Shores in September 1958. The latest case was similar: the severed leg of a woman — clad in skinny jeans, her toenails painted red — was discovered alongside a canal in Miami Gardens in January. It’s the only part of her that has ever been found.

Identifying the remains is painstaking work, to be sure.

But the successes have been rewarding. In 1999, a clean-cut young man hurled himself off a construction crane on Claughton Island. An apparent suicide, the man left no note and carried no identification. No alcohol or drugs were found in his system.

Years later, his photo was uploaded to the Doe Network, a volunteer website that aims to help identify the unidentified dead. Some Georgia Tech students browsing the site found a sketch of his face. The mystery was solved.

His name was Joseph Morse, 18, who while battling depression vanished from the Georgia Tech campus. Boyd tracked down his family, which had returned to the campus every year to pass out missing-persons fliers.

His body was exhumed from Miami and returned to his family.

“I remember how touched we both were,” Steinberg said. “He was so young and you just knew somebody had to be looking for him.”

Sandra Boyd has been tasked with finding the identities of victims in Miami-Dade County. She is retiring after three decades on the job.

Boyd, elegant and plainspoken, still relishes her job — she can recite the most-precise details of cases with one quick glance at a police sketch.

For now, Boyd — who is married to former Miami Gardens police chief Matthew Boyd and has no kids but a dog named Scruffy — has no big retirement plans. “It’s time for me to relax and enjoy my husband and just take one day at a time.”

She was just 22 when she joined the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office in September 1980, a year the murder rate in Miami topped the nation amid racial tension, an influx of Cuban immigrants and the cocaine wars on the streets.

A Miami native, Boyd landed the job after enthusiastically agreeing to a tour of the office during a job interview for a clerk’s position.

“I just looked around and was so intrigued. It was just so amazing,” Boyd said. “We toured the morgue, we toured toxicology, we toured investigations. Something always intrigued me about the Medical Examiner’s Office.”

Boyd worked under Miami’s legendary Medical Examiner Joseph Davis, who turned the office into a cutting-edge operation renowned in the world of forensic science.

Within a couple of years, Boyd’s work impressed enough that she was offered a job as an investigator. Like today, investigators are tasked with researching the personal and medical past of the dead, finding their loved ones and coordinating with families, police and funeral homes.

Back then, the tools were limited. There was no internet, few cellphones and law-enforcement databases were not as comprehensive as they are today. She was soon put in charge of managing the cases of all the unidentified bodies.

Today, the advances in technology have helped tremendously.

Back in September 2012, the skeleton of a man was found inside a foreclosed, vacant home on the 2900 block of Northeast Fourth Avenue. A Grey Goose bottle was found near him. The home’s previous owner was an elderly woman who had been taken to a nursing home under state care. Boyd tracked her down to get a DNA sample.

The test confirmed their suspicions: the skeleton belonged to her son, Robert Kemp, a chronic alcoholic who broke back into the house and died of natural causes alone in the house.

With the older cases, some offer tantalizing clues, but have yielded little. That includes the “Japanese Gardens Girl” case. Her death came at a particularly bloody time in Miami history, and was noted in a few paragraphs in both the Miami Herald and the Miami News.

Detectives theorized the girl was a prostitute. She was black, with the ends of her hair dyed pink and arched eyebrows.

Detectives found no purse, no ID. Her “Chic” brand blue jeans and high heels were found tossed from the killer’s vehicle in the blocks near the old Miami Herald building.

“From the looks of it, there may have been a dispute in the car,” Miami homicide Sgt. Richard Napoli said at the time. “And somehow it looks like she was put of the car and run over.”

How much work the detectives did at the time remains unknown — 1981 was among the bloodiest years in Dade County history, and the case file has since disappeared.

“For me, this case bothers me because this was a child,” said Eunice Cooper, a Miami Police senior executive to the chief who spent most of her career in homicide. “She has family somewhere. It makes me wonder what parent didn’t report her missing.”

Boyd arranged to have her DNA collected, re-ran fingerprints through various law-enforcement databases, and published her photos online to pages such as the Doe Network and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

So far, no luck. Perhaps Boyd’s yet-to-be named replacement will one day hear from someone who can help solve the mystery and perhaps some pain.

“There has to be family. She’s somebody’s loved one,” Boyd said. “She was a young girl and should not have had her life taken in such a terrible manner.”

Still unknown

Among more than 300 unidentified bodies, the Medical Examiner’s Office wants to identify five people in these photos and illustrations who were killed in Miami-Dade County, including the Japanese Gardens Girl. Anyone with information can call the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office at 305-545-2474.