Medical examiners' dream: Identifying all victims
By Mike Sakal, Tribune East Valley Tribune
When Shannon Aumock was 10 years old, a psychologist asked her during an interview what she would want on her tombstone if she were to die because of her continued behavior of running away and constant run-ins with the law.
Aumock, who was classified as a “throwaway” child and had lived in numerous foster and group homes, told the psychologist she would want her tombstone to be blank because she said no one cared for her when she was alive, so why would anyone care when she was dead?
But Dr. Laura Fulginiti, a forensic anthropologist for the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office, said she has a dream — to put a name on every unidentified person who is found dead.
In Arizona, there currently are 736 unidentified deaths, with 203 of them being in Maricopa County alone.
Of those, up to 30 percent of the county’s unidentified deaths are from the East Valley, according to information from the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Aumock’s body was discovered in a pile of trash by an ATV rider in north Phoenix near Deer Valley Road and North 26th Street on May 28, 1992, soon after she turned 16. She was strangled to death, according to the medical examiner.
On Tuesday, Aumock’s body was exhumed from her grave where she had been buried as a Jane Doe in the Double Butte Cemetery for the indigent in Tempe after a positive identification had been made through DNA her biological mother had recently provided. She also was identified through her dental records examined by Dr. John Piakis, a forensic dentist for the medical examiner’s office.
“For nearly 20 years, Shannon got her way,” an emotional Fulginiti said of Aumock being buried in an unmarked grave. “She was on our radar ever since I first walked through the door of the medical examiner’s office in June 1992, when I began working there,” Fulginiti said. “We were thinking we were going to get her identified right away. It didn’t happen. It took good old-fashioned police grunt work to figure this one out.”
Aumock was never listed as missing because about a month before she was slain she ran away from the last group home she was in under state care soon after she was released from the Adobe Mountain Detention Center, according to Detective Stuart Somershoe of the Phoenix Police Department’s missing persons unit.
Detectives hope that leads involving her killing will come in now that she is identified, and police already have received telephone calls from Shannon’s friends in the wake of her identification.
At the time of her death, Shannon was wearing a tan and orange flower-covered shirt, blue jeans, a black bow in her hair and pink, thick glasses were found near her body.
Somershoe and his partner, Detective Will Anderson, began looking into Aumock’s case last fall when they began sifting through 1,600 runaway reports from 1989 to 1992. The reports were pared down to about 100, and in many of them the same girl kept coming up — Aumock. who ran away 40 times between 1989 to 1991. But the trail of reports involving her stopped in 1991.
Arizona Child Protective Services petitioned the court to relinquish their responsibility of her since she had run away so many times and could not find her the last time.
“She was tossed aside in death as she was in life,” Somershoe said.
What got the attention of the missing persons detectives about Aumock’s case that they began investigating last fall is that she was brutally killed and no one called to report her missing.
“Nobody who dies should ever go as unidentified,” Somershoe said. “Everybody has a mother, everybody has a brother. The good news is that we’ve identified her. The bad news is, we still have a child murderer on the loose.”
Shannon’s birth had been the product of a sexual assault on a 16-year-old mother, who gave her to CPS when she was 3. Shannon was adopted at that age by a Flagstaff family who later lived in Scottsdale, but because of what they said were “uncontrollable behavioral issues” gave her back to CPS when she was 12.
“Now we’re trying to determine where her last days were spent,” Anderson said. “She had no driver’s license, no job, and no Social Security number.”
Phoenix police detectives also are considering to change the name of the Missing Persons Unit to the Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit.
“There definitely is a need,” Anderson said.
On Tuesday, the same day Aumock was exhumed, the body of another unidentified young woman found strangled to death near a canal in the 4300 block of East Williams Field road in Gilbert was exhumed, and was scheduled to be further examined on Friday. She was found in August 1983 by road workers. Initial examination showed she had extensive orthodontic work and dark brown hair.
Another body that is being examined is that of a man in his 30s to 40s, whose skeleton was discovered by a hiker shot five times in the Superstition Mountains in December 1992. The man, who died from a gunshot wound to the head, was believed to have been dead three to eight years. He had healed fractures, including a cracked pelvis, indicating he was in some kind of accident — possibly a motorcycle accident prior to his death, Fulginiti said.
With the help of an ongoing $138,000 federal grant received by the county through the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission and National Institute of Justice to fund research for unidentified deaths, the medical examiner’s office has exhumed 24 bodies since September and has identified four of them. The office also has leads on three more unidentified deaths, including a man believed to be from Chandler who was killed in a motorcycle crash in the late 1980s.
“When we received the grant, we were hoping to get one person identified,” Fulginiti said. “We’ve identified four and have the names of three others we need to positively identify, so we’ve had much higher success than expected. It has encouraged us to go forward.”
“When you can bury someone with their name, it makes it all worthwhile,” Fulginiti said. “It validates what we do.”
If anyone has any information about the death of Shannon Aumock, they can call the Phoenix Police Department’s Violent Crimes Bureau at (602) 262-6141 or Silent Witness at (480) 948-6377.
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