Left for Dead: Inside America's Coldest Cases

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Banner: Michael I Schiller/Reveal

In 1969, a young woman was stabbed to death in Harlan, Kentucky, and buried without a name.

To many locals, she's known as "Mountain Jane Doe." To Darla Jackson and Todd Matthews, her case deserved a little extra digging.

We follow Darla and Todd into the wooded hills of Harlan to exhume the body of Mountain Jane Doe. What they end up finding is unexpected.

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Around Thanksgiving last year, authorities gathered near the grave of Mountain Jane Doe,
hoping to exhume her and end the mystery of who she was.
Photo: Scott Anger for Reveal


Out of the thousands of unidentified bodies scattered across the country, many are found in South Texas, where migrants are crossing into the US from Mexico.

Crossing the border is treacherous – it's hot and there's a lot of ground to cover. Dehydration and heatstroke claim many who try to make the trek. And dying in Brooks County means that sometimes, their bodies aren't found, let alone identified.

So what happens to these remains? Host Al Letson and producer Delaney Hall travel to the border to find out, and they interview the Investigative Fund's John Carlos Frey about what he learned while reporting this story.

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Personal artifacts discovered with the remains of an unidentified migrant in Brooks County, Texas.
Photo: Al Letson/Reveal


In 1980, 18-year-old Michelle Busha left home and never returned. It's every family's worst nightmare and it's a circumstance so tragic that it touched a complete stranger thousands of miles away.

Reporter Michael Montgomery meets two women who didn't know each other, but each had a deep connection to the young woman who disappeared 35 years ago.

Solving the case was bittersweet. Both women found the answers they were seeking, but one had to face the reality of her sister's chilling death.

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An artist's rendering of "Blue Earth Jane Doe," who was discovered to be Michelle Busha.
Photo courtesy of Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension


Throughout this episode, we've heard about NamUs, a federal database of missing and unidentified persons. This system allows law enforcement agencies and amateur sleuths to search and gather information about active cases. Networks and communities of volunteer detectives have grown online – sleuthing on their own time.

In an effort to make matching those lost and found easier, Reveal's data team created a new tool using data from NamUs.

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Listen as senior data editor Jennifer LaFleur walks us through how the tool works and how users can help solve some of America's coldest cases.

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This is a screenshot of Reveal's "The Lost and The Found" web tool that can be
used to view details about America's missing people and unidentified dead
Photo: Allison McCartney, Michael Corey, Emmanuel Martinez, Julia Smith and G.W. Schulz/Reveal

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Al Letson