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Why we need to care more about Western’s John Doe

This man, presented in a sketch provided by University Police, died at Western in early March. Police are requesting the public's help in identifying him.

In early March, the body of a young man was found on Western’s campus. Over a month later, he is still unidentified. 

By Kaelin Bell
Opinion Piece

What do we owe to the dead?

According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, around 4,400 unidentified bodies are found each year in the United States alone. Approximately 1,000 of those bodies will remain unidentified a year after they are found, making for a massive pool of nameless faces.

John Doe and Jane Doe are used as placeholder names by most U.S jurisdictions to refer to either unidentified or unknown people, whether they are living or dead.

On the afternoon of March 5, the body of a man was discovered by a Western student near the Outback Farm and Buchanan Towers. He was in his 20s, Caucasian, 6 feet, 3 inches tall, and weighed around 190 pounds. He has not been determined to be a Western student. His cause of death was ruled as a suicide, and his identity remains unknown at the time of this publication.

The Western Alert about the body’s discovery was delivered at 3:21 p.m. while I, and many other students, were in the middle of class. The atmosphere in the classroom I was in immediately changed as students checked their phones and interrupted our professor’s lecture to inform him of the news.

“After the sketch was released, I dug through all of the missing persons lists in Washington, Oregon and Canada, looking for someone who might match him,” said Kylie Maioriello, a first year Western student and Buchanan Towers resident. Maioriello watched the police activity unfold from her window.

Online resources such as the NamUs database, The Doe Network, The National Center For Missing &Exploited Children, Websleuths and social media pages dedicated to the missing and unidentified, are all free. Doing something as simple as reposting missing or unidentified persons information could help lead law enforcement to discovering an individual’s identity.

“I think that him being unidentified just makes things so much more somber,” Maioriello said. “It’s just sad to think that someone might be missing a son or a brother and have no idea what happened because we just haven’t talked to the right people yet.”

When the body of John Doe was discovered, a Western Alert was sent out to students. It read:“Western Alert: The body of a male in his mid-20s was reported to police at 1:58 p.m. today in a wooded area northeast of Buchanan Towers. See WWU email for more.”

“I initially got the text and my first thought was murder, because of the fact they did not include, in the text, that there was no sign of foul play,” third year student Parker Zapata said. “I live on south campus and just thought there was a killer out there. They sent panic to many students with that text; it should have been worded better.”

The uncertainty cultivated by the Western Alert hung in the air for the remainder of the day.

“I have dude friends who use that path to walk home sometimes, and they all fit the description,”  third year student Amelita Brown said. “I just had to message all four of them and ask if they were OK. And then that’s how the school leaves it — nothing else.”

In an email, Western’s University Police Chief Darin Rasmussen said that the Whatcom County Medical Examiner is responsible for identifying the body and determining the cause and manner of death, which typically does not happen until after an autopsy and/or toxicology report is completed, usually several weeks after a death.

“This must be considered when any message is being developed,” Rasmussen said. “Therefore, only what is suspected, or not suspected based on the evidence, may be reported prior to that determination. Therefore, any messaging must be written with this in mind. This can be frustrating both to the writer and to the recipients because the statement will not be definitive. A typical message will include a statement that no foul play is suspected.”

The procedures that Rasmussen detailed were followed during the discovery and removal of the body.

“The initial message clearly stated that no foul play was suspected, indicating this likely was not a homicide,” Rasmussen said. “Such language, when appropriate, is used to reduce anxiety among those receiving the message that there might be a killer on the loose.”

Something I noticed while talking to students about John Doe is that nobody mentioned the fact that he committed suicide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans aged 10-34, and 90% of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health condition at the time of their death.

Although we do not know his name or his story, we know that he was somebody just like you and me — a human being trying to navigate this chaotic world. John Doe may have sat next to you on the bus, or brushed past you in the aisles of the grocery store. Because he is unidentified, his loved ones cannot mourn his loss, celebrate his life nor lay him to rest. They cannot say goodbye.

We owe it to John Doe to face the reality of death and to fight for him. Mortality is a hard pill to swallow, especially during a collectively traumatic time like the one we’re all living through right now.

While we all practice social distancing and self-isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, I implore you to think about the Western John Doe. Share the police sketch on social media. Explore some of the many different resources that are present online. Educate yourself.

“Students and community members should carefully review the sketch to see if it is someone whom they recognize, know or otherwise have had contact with,” Rasmussen said. “University Police are very interested in any tip or information that would lead to the identification of this individual. This individual has family somewhere, who are concerned for him and we would like to identify him and provide closure to his family.”

If you have any information about John Doe, please call the Western Washington University Police at 360-650-3565, reference case #20-0148.

Resources if you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts

24/7 Crisis Hotline: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line

Text TALK to 741-741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7

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