Life with Gracie: Identification of dead child haunts DeKalb Medical Examiner’s Office

The child in those bones is long gone. Today, he would have been 21, maybe 23, but no one can say for sure.

There’s no telling, really, when he was born, when he died.

It’s almost as if he just appeared here one day in a vapor, but we all know that’s not true. As nearly any toddler knows, little boys don’t just appear. A child may not understand the mechanics, but he knows little boys come from mommies’ stomachs.

As did this kid.

So you have to wonder, where is his mother, his father, his grandmother, his aunt, his brother, his sister, his friend? And why, for God’s sake, haven’t they called looking for him?

Accidents are the leading cause of death among children and teens, but officials don’t even know how this little boy died. What’s worse is they don’t know his name.

They call him Dennis. I always liked that name and from what I can tell from a rendering of his facial reconstruction recently released by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, it suits him.

A cemetery worker found his bones near the grounds of the Clifton United Methodist Church in south DeKalb County, just 100 yards from a wooded lot. It was Feb. 26, 1999, a Monday afternoon.

“It was almost as if they might be trying to place him on holy ground,” said Linda Gochenouer, the investigator in DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office in charge of the case.

Tests revealed he was African-American, about 5 years old, no more than 7. He was between 3 feet, 10 inches tall and 4 feet, 2 inches. He weighed about 50 pounds.

He’d already been there in the woods three months, maybe four, when he was found. He was well dressed in warm clothing, a pair of size 11 red jeans, a blue and white plaid sweater over a thermal dark blue, long sleeve hooded pull over, and sharp brown suede Timberland boots.

That’s all that was left of him. That and his bones. Last Thursday marked the 16th anniversary of that gruesome sighting and in all that time, investigators are no closer to figuring out what name this little boy answered to, if he was good in math or liked to play football.

Sixteen years they’ve been waiting for someone to call.

If that doesn’t make you weep, stay with me.

It is estimated that there are 40,000 unidentified human remains in this country. Forty thousand people for whom it would seem no one cared whether they lived or died. Of those, about 650 are children, said Robert Lowery, vice president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s missing children’s division.

Dennis is the only unidentified kid in DeKalb County. There are 14 in Georgia.

Not only has he remained anonymous all these years, you will not find him under a marker in a grave, though he was found near a church cemetery. His remains are in a sealed container accessible only to the medical examiners and their staff.

Gochenouer, who joined the DeKalb medical examiner’s office in 2009, is the latest to get the cold case.

“He’s a top priority,” she said.

Gochenouer is a mother, so I have to believe her. Mothers name their babies long before they’re even born, so if we know nothing else, we know this little boy had a name.

“I firmly believe, we’re going to be going about our business and one day we’ll get the phone call that sparks something,” Gochenouer said.

They’ve run down school records, looking for a kid, any kid, who didn’t return after winter break. They’ve tracked down leads. They thought he might be Dorien Thomas, who was last seen riding his bicycle around his Amarillo, Texas, neighborhood on Oct. 26, 1998. He was 9 years old. Dental records ruled him out years ago, but still there’s hope.

They’re waiting on DNA test results.

“Dental records are good,” Gochenouer said. “DNA is better.”

It’ll be a while before she gets the results. Meanwhile, she waits for that call from someone, anyone, who can finally put this kid’s bones to rest.

He didn’t live long enough to see 21 or 23, but hope remains that one day he finally will be buried in a grave, no longer anonymous, no longer Dennis but under his rightful name.

He deserves that much.

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