Bringing Up the Bodies: How NecroSearch Helps Police to Locate the Dead

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At 5280, Robert Sanchez profiles members of NecroSearch, a Colorado-based volunteer organization made up of dedicated lab experts, scientists, and skilled technicians. NecroSearchers apply decades of specialized experience to help law enforcement officers locate dead bodies. Their reward? Bringing closure to the families of the deceased.

In the past three decades, NecroSearch has helped police and district attorneys with more than 300 cases in 40 states and on four continents. Fifteen bodies have been discovered as a result of that work. They’ve been found in mine shafts and in landfills, hidden under a pile of rocks in the Rocky Mountains, and buried under a suburban patio in Arizona. Once, a victim was discovered stuffed inside the trunk of a car that had been dumped into the Missouri River. Another time, a body was tangled in a Northern California redwood’s root system. When a Tennessee suspect learned authorities enlisted NecroSearch to find his missing wife, the man referred to the group as a bunch of “high-tech witch doctors.”

Just before Christmas in 1985, the coroner in Glenwood Springs asked France for help identifying 12 victims who’d died in a gas-plant explosion. When she arrived, France realized it was just her. Victims were battered and blown apart, many of them burned beyond recognition. Almost immediately, emotions roiled inside her. “It was a defining moment,” she said. She had an epiphany. “I decided I needed to take all those things I was feeling, put them in a box with a bow around it, and put that box on a shelf in my mind,” France told me. “I had to separate emotion from the science.” She worked two straight days to identify the victims, pulling remains out of body bags stored inside the morgue cooler. When she was done, she turned them over to the coroner for burial. “And then,” she said, “I went on with my life.”

“I will think about all of this forever,” France told me as she sat in a chair inside her front office. She was squeezing a miniature foam brain of an orangutan like a stress ball. “I’ve seen too much to forget,” she said. “How can you not have trauma when you do what I do? There will come a time when I have to say I’m done.”

A few months ago, Clark Davenport met me at a bookstore in downtown Denver. The 75-year-old geophysicist was a few weeks from leaving for Russia on a NecroSearch-approved trip during which he would help look for the remains of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, the youngest brother of Tsar Nicholas II. The two men—along with Nicholas’ wife, Alexandra, and three daughters—famously had been murdered and buried in clandestine graves by Bolshevik rebels a year after the February Revolution in 1917. With the rest of the murdered Romanovs discovered in the early 1990s, finding the grand duke was considered the last piece of a historical puzzle. The trip would be Davenport’s fifth to Russia in the past decade. It was work that filled him with excitement and gave him a much-needed respite from the dozen or so ongoing, more pressing NecroSearch cases in which he was involved.

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