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Medical examiner's office identifies man killed in Berea 36 years ago: Here's how they did it

Posted at 5:30 AM, Feb 08, 2017

Nearly four decades after a man was struck and killed by a train in Berea, the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner has positively identified him.

"All through the '80s, the '90s, on occasion I'd look for him," said Louis Williams whose brother, James Williams, was previously unidentified. "My wife and I, when we got married, we went and looked for him too. We just couldn't find him."

James, a native of Grand Haven, Michigan, died on November 14, 1980. The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's office said they had exhausted all efforts to identify him at the time.

It wasn't until last week when the office identified James using an FBI fingerprint database that did not exist at the time of his death.

"We never give up on trying to identify people," said Dr. Thomas Gilson, Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner. "I think after you've exhausted all of your leads, you have to wait for something serendipitous like this."

Using that database, James' fingerprints matched fingerprints submitted by the Grand Haven police department. That department had James' fingerprints on file from a 1960's police report when he had had a run-in with officers there. 

Louis, who now lives in California, never knew why James ended up in the Cleveland area. He said he left Michigan in his 20's without telling anyone.

"There was always that little sliver of hope that somehow, someway he'd be found," said Louis. "I've always prayed for my brother. I've always wanted to make amends with him and tell him I loved him."

James was a member of the Sault tribe of the Chippewa Indians. His family had a traditional pow wow Tuesday in his memory.

The medical examiner's office said they have about two dozen cases dating back at least 30 years involving unidentified bodies. Staff there said they are working to close them with technology available today.