For more than a year, the body of the tiny woman was kept in a freezer in the District medical examiner’s morgue.
She was white and had green eyes. Her hair was brown and gray, cut in short curls. She was middle-aged, barely 5 feet tall and had died of natural causes. Her body was found in an apartment building in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Northwest Washington.
What D.C. authorities did not know was her name.
When the body was found in the fall of 2014, Jennifer Love, the District’s first full-time forensic anthropologist, was new to her job. She set out to identify the woman and find her family before the city buried the remains in a pauper’s grave.
Love looked to dental work and fingerprints and found no answers. But last fall, about two years after her search began, she learned that there had been a DNA hit via the Justice Department’s missing-persons database. As the woman’s family began gathering in Avon, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, to celebrate Thanksgiving, Love called.
“As a mother and a family member, not to know where your family members are would be horrible. You would not have rest,” Love said. “I don’t pretend what I do provides closure. But it is certainly providing them answers. What they can do with those answers, I don’t know. And what it means to them, I don’t know. But being able to provide them with answers, that’s good.”
For eight years, Love, 45, was the director of forensic pathology in Houston. There she worked with Roger Mitchell Jr., who is now the District’s chief medical examiner. When Mitchell was tapped for the new job, he hired Love to oversee the office’s body identification unit, making the District one of the few cities in the nation to employ a full-time forensic anthropologist.
In September 2014, Love arrived in the District with her husband, an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board, and their four children. Two months later, police were called to a Connecticut Avenue apartment to investigate a woman’s death.
The man who rented the apartment told police that he met the woman when she was living on D.C. streets and allowed her to stay with him. But he never knew her name. Neighbors said the woman dressed in all black, smoked cigarettes and had a “brusque” demeanor. She left behind some inexpensive jewelry and $152 in cash.
An autopsy would later find that she suffered a perforated gastric ulcer, a condition that is usually fatal without immediate medical treatment.
She became officially known in the medical examiner’s office as the “unidentified decedent from Connecticut Avenue.”
Love submitted the woman’s fingerprints to local and federal law enforcement agencies. But because of the woman’s age, Love said, her fingerprint quality was poor, and no matches could be found. No information was gained from the woman’s dental work or an X-ray of her skeleton.
Other cases kept Love, who has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Tennessee, busy.
When families come to the morgue to claim bodies, Love and her staff are the ones who meet with them.
Specializing in gleaning clues from teeth and bones, Love also works with authorities to determine whether a person died because of an accident or a homicide. Her help is often sought as authorities investigate the deaths of children and babies to look for any evidence showing a history of abuse.
“Prosecutors consult with Dr. Love, for example, to help them identify types of fractures and to understand whether the injuries at issue are old, still healing, or new,” said William Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office.
As time passed, Love never forgot about the unidentified woman. In the District, bodies are typically cremated if they are not claimed within 60 days, but Love sought more time.
Unidentified bodies in the District are rare; there are only one or two a year, Love said. Larger cities such as New York or Miami, or cities near the Mexican border, such as Houston, can have dozens.
Love had her staff of seven draw up a flier that was distributed to the news media. It had a photograph of the woman and a picture of the brown leather and suede boots that were found next to her body. It also noted identifying information such as her eye color and the tiny scars on her left wrist.
Still no leads.
“It’s a failure to me. I have to admit, we have done everything we can, and this person remains unidentified. It’s hard to do,” she said.
As Love and her staff were busy in Washington, Ricardo Ortiz hired a private detective to find his sister Rebecca.
Ortiz and his family, originally from Puerto Rico, moved just outside of Columbus, Ohio, when their father was a student at Ohio State University. The father later worked as an importer and exporter of refrigerators while their mother was a nurse.
Rebecca was the oldest of six. She grew up as an artist, singing the folk songs of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary and playing the guitar in coffeehouses. Ricardo Ortiz, 63, described his big sister as always “upbeat and happy” and said she wrote her own poems and songs.
“She channeled her energy and everything she had into her poems,” Ortiz said.
Rebecca Ortiz moved around from California to Oregon to New York and then back to Ohio. In the mid-1980s, while hitchhiking, she was sexually assaulted by a group of men, Ricardo Ortiz said.
In 1998, a family member found her on a park bench, curled in the fetal position. Ortiz said his sister was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Ortiz said his sister regularly took her medication. The family was in contact with her until 2008, when she lived in Chicago. Then they lost touch.
For years they searched. “My father was saying he thinks she was dead. I didn’t want to accept that. I could not,” said Ortiz, a traveling newspaper press repairman.
Ortiz hired a private detective and then last year agreed to take a DNA swab for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. The government database of nearly 14,000 unidentified remains across the country is used to find and identify missing people.
Within a year, Ortiz’s DNA was found to be a match to the woman in the D.C. morgue.
By the time Love contacted the Ortiz family, Rebecca Ortiz’s body had already been cremated. But her ashes were still at a local funeral home.
“I just lost it,” Ortiz said, recalling Love’s phone call. “She began telling me how they found her. I began weeping.”
The family had no idea that she had been living in Washington. Ortiz said he was “grateful” his sister’s ashes had not been buried.
“They waited and waited. I’m so happy about this,” he said. “I would have gone to Washington myself and dug her up if I had to.”
Love’s office, Ortiz said, sent his sister’s remains by FedEx to the family. Ortiz said they plan to hold a service for her and another brother who recently died, and to bury their ashes near their mother’s grave.
“I am so grateful. I thank Dr. Love for what she has done. My sister is going to be laid to rest with Mom in the spring.”
Helping reunite family, Love said, even after death, is part of her mission.
“I think that when you die, you should be able to hold on to your history and who you are and for others to know that here is this person and not just be put into an unmarked grave and no one knows your name,” she said. “We all deserve our life history and for people to know who we are and where we are.”