I wouldn’t normally get excited watching the exhumation of a decaying skeleton in Kentucky, but then again, it’s not something I get to do often. I was in Emeryville, California, interning at the Centre for Investigative Reporting (CIR), and watching their latest documentary – The Dead Unknown.
The three-part series examines the forty-five year old cold case of “Mountain Jane Doe,” a young woman stabbed to death and left in the woods of Harlan County, Kentucky. The girl, thought to be a teenager at the time of death, was consigned to a makeshift grave shortly after she was discovered, but her identity, to this day, remains a mystery. In the decades that followed, the tale of Mountain Jane Doe trickled down through generations, becoming fodder for local fables and ghost stories.
Investigative reporter G.W. Shulz has a longstanding fascination with America’s countless missing and unidentified persons cases. Along with the CIR’s video production team, Mr Shulz set off for Harlan, intent on uncovering the name of Mountain Jane Doe. The site was excavated, cameras rolling, but what was unearthed was not what the team expected.
Leading up to the release of the documentary series, the CIR, via its online platform Reveal News, has aired a four-part podcast as well as numerous articles discussing some of America’s coldest cases. Dubbed the nation’s “silent mass disaster,” there are currently tens of thousands of unsolved cases in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. Alice Almendarez, for example, spent 12 agonising years searching for her missing father, despite the fact his body had been found, soon after his disappearance, just eight kilometres from her home.
In response to these alarming statistics, the CIR team have developed an innovative online platform – The Lost & The Found – that could make solving such cold cases simpler. Unlike the tool used by NamUs, it compiles all missing and unidentified persons cases side by side on one page. Any member of the public can now access the site and compare cases in the hope of making a match.
My time in Emeryville was undoubtedly inspiring. Working closely with the CIR video team and acclaimed filmmaker Michael Schiller, I was able to gain invaluable experience in documentary production and editing. – Thea Carley
Main image is a screengrab from the US Centre for Investigative Reporting’s documentary series The Dead Unknown about the search for the identity of “Mountain Jane Doe”, the victim in a 45-year-old cold case.
The CIR is a non-profit news organisation investigating and publicising social, political and corporate injustice through media including film, radio, photography and even theatre. Its reporters are free of direct commercial pressures from an owner or advertiser, allowing them to focus on quality and transparency. Macleay College’s relationship with CIR allows it to award an annual scholarship under which a student interns at the centre. Thea Carley won the 2015 scholarship.