Identity of Arlington Cemetery remains might rest on Army search for girl in photo

The girl in the photo is young and lithe, a figure skater in a short blue dress, striking a pose on the ice. She keeps her head high as she arches her back, and her right arm reaches up, like a ballet dancer’s in a Degas painting.

But who is she?

If Army special agents can determine her identity, they believe they’ll be able to solve a mystery that has hung over Arlington National Cemetery ever since a mass grave was discovered there almost a year ago.

The photo was found tucked in a plastic bag in an urn full of ashes. The brass-colored urn was among eight sets of cremated remains found in a grave where only one person was supposed to be buried.

Using markings etched on tags attached to the urns, Army investigators identified three sets of the remains. They have concluded that four others cannot be identified.  

The last set was in the urn with the photograph. If they find out who the young girl is, the agents believe they’ll be able to identify who is in the urn.

But they have only a weathered, grainy photograph, and lots of unanswered questions. Is she the relative of a deceased veteran — a daughter, or granddaughter, perhaps? Did her family include the photograph in the urn, as is sometimes done, because they wanted her to be with her relative for eternity? Could the remains be hers? Is she maybe still alive?

“We just don’t know,” said Christopher Grey, a spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division.

The discovery of the mass grave in October is perhaps the most egregious problem in the scandal at the nation’s premier military cemetery. Investigators have found mismarked and unmarked graves and people buried in the wrong spots.

They also found that several urns had been mistakenly dug up by cemetery crews unaware that people were buried in the spots where they had been assigned to dig fresh graves. Along with the FBI, the Army’s CID has been looking into whether unearthed urns were stashed in the mass grave as a cover up. The errors at Arlington prompted Congress to pass a law requiring the cemetery to fully account for its 320,000 graves.

Three of the urns had metal tags with weathered numbers and initials or partial wording on them.

Investigators then started checking names of crematoriums across the country, trying to find ones that had similar lettering in their names. It took weeks, but the agents were able to match the urns to the crematoriums. Then, they used the numerals to identify the remains, which have been reburied.

Occasionally, people leave mementos in urns, although it’s more common for personal effects to be left in coffins, funeral directors said. With the photograph of the young ice skater, the agents thought they had a solid lead to help them identify the last set of remains. They not only had a face — they estimated her to be 11 to 13 years old when the photo was taken — but a context as well: She appeared to be in an ice skating exhibition or competition.

Surely someone would know who she was.

But how to find her?

They started by cleaning the photograph, then blowing it up. That revealed the advertisements behind the girl on the skating rink wall. One was for Hilton Hotels. The other promoted a safe-driving campaign.

So they called Hilton and scoured the country looking for organizations that advertised safe-driving campaigns in ice rinks, Grey said. Finally, about two months ago, they found a driving organization that had advertised in a skating rink at the same time Hilton had.

That gave them a time frame — the ads were posted between March 1999 and March 2000, which would mean the girl would be in her early 20s today, Grey said. Most important, it gave them a location. The ads were posted at a skating rink called Ice Works in Aston, Pa., outside of Philadelphia.

This was their breakthrough, and the Fort Myer-based special agents drove north, following their only lead. They showed the picture to everyone at the rink — the staff, the hockey players, the figure skaters and their coaches. But no one recognized the girl.

They went back again and passed out more fliers. They checked with skating organizations from across the country. Weeks passed. But no one recognized the young girl who had apparently skated there more than a decade ago. Perhaps she was from out of town, they thought, skating in one of the many competitions the rink has held over the years.

The skating complex has four rinks, which attract people from across the Philadelphia region and the country. It holds two to three figure skating events a year, including one for more than a week in July that attracts 1,000 skaters of all ages, said Stephane Charbonneau, the Ice Works general manager. About 3 million people a year use the facility, he said.

“We have all kinds of tournaments,” he said. “We get people from all over: Florida, Michigan, Canada — everywhere.”

And that makes it difficult to identify the young skater.

With no other leads, and seemingly at a dead end, the Army agreed to allow The Washington Post to publish the photograph, hoping someone would come forward.

“It’s morally imperative that we do everything we can to find out who this is,” Grey said.

Even though agents continue to try to identify of the remains, the urn has been reburied at the cemetery as Unknown, he said. But cemetery officials hope that the headstone is only temporary and that they will soon be able to replace it with one that has a name.

Anyone with information is urged to call Army CID at 703-696-3501.

Christian Davenport covers federal contracting for The Post's Financial desk. He joined The Post in 2000 and has served as an editor on the Metro desk and as a reporter covering military affairs. He is the author of "As You Were: To War and Back with the Black Hawk Battalion of the Virginia National Guard."
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