COLUMBIA — Police are pretty certain the well-kept middle-aged woman with the dolphin tattoo on her leg came to Myrtle Beach to die, but they can't figure out who she is.
Her fingerprints don't show up in any criminal databases, and she doesn't match any missing persons report from across the country. She left behind no car to be discovered, no bag unclaimed on the beach or in a hotel room. Officers took her photo by dozens of places where homeless people congregate in the area, but no one recognized her. They estimate she was in her 50s or 60s.
With the careful record keeping and interconnectivity of the modern age, very few people die these days without eventually being identified. The woman is one of only two entries from South Carolina this year in a federal database of unclaimed bodies. The other unclaimed remains are human bones found in June on Drum Island in Charleston County. Only 20 bodies have gone unidentified in South Carolina in the past 10 years.
It bothers Horry County Deputy Coroner Darris Fowler. Of the 200 or so cases he has handled this year, this is the only one where he hasn't been able to complete his two main tasks: figuring out who died and what killed them.
“I can't do anything about her because she's deceased,” Fowler said. “But that's somebody's mother, grandmother or something and they don't know where they are at.”
The woman's life ended in the Atlantic Ocean on the morning of May 25. A tourist on a balcony spotted her bobbing in the waves around 8 a.m. on the south side of Myrtle Beach. Lifeguards brought her to shore and started CPR. She died at the hospital.
The coroner's office did what it typically does in a death investigation. Her floral print bathing suit, gray shorts, T-shirt with “Live Slow” on one side and “Sail Fast” on the other and the Reebok tennis shoes she was still wearing were all photographed. Fingerprints were taken, dental X-rays were made and DNA was extracted. No ID was found, so investigators were patient, figuring someone would report a missing person, or an abandoned car might be found. But after several days and no leads, authorities released a sketch of the woman and her bright tattoo of a beach scene with dolphins on her left ankle to reporters. Myrtle Beach Police also took the pictures to areas where homeless people gather, but no one recognized her.
Police think she intended to commit suicide because cuts were found on her wrists, although she died from drowning. Blood was found in a public bathroom about a mile down the beach. Fowler is awaiting toxicology results to determine if she had alcohol or drugs in her system, because he said killing yourself by drowning is hard. The body possesses a natural instinct to survive and most people would need to be intoxicated to overcome that, he noted.
Myrtle Beach Police Capt. David Knipes' theory is that the woman bought a bus ticket to Myrtle Beach with the intention of killing herself and that's why there is no trail of her in the city.
“We're in standby mode waiting for someone to report her missing. We've done all we can do,” Knipes said.
The deputy coroner said the woman was well kept, with evidence of frequent dental work. He said her legs and armpits appeared to be frequently shaved and her fingernails were in good shape.
Fowler plans to meet with his boss and others in the next week or two to see if investigators have missed any possible lead into her identity and determine what they can do to draw more attention to the case.
Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton said coroners never stop thinking about the cases they can't solve. He knows every detail of the handful of unidentified bodies that have come through his office since he was hired as a deputy coroner 15 years ago.
“You don't stop looking. And you know there are parents, or a brother or sister or someone who is probably looking. We always have hope and faith that eventually our paths will cross,” Carlton said.
Until that day, the body found off Myrtle Beach will remain in the morgue. She has been embalmed, so she will be ready to go home whenever authorities figure out who she is.