The dead woman was a man, nothing but bones and question marks.
He went from Jane Doe to Unidentified Dead to Bones to Mr. Bones. A homicide investigator insisted on the Mr. because it sounded more dignified.
And it was accurate.
At first glance, the dead mans skeleton, all 5 feet 5 inches of it, had looked like the mummifying frame of a woman -- a prostitute maybe -- whod been dumped and forgotten. But on closer inspection, the remains were those of a middle-age man.
In fall 2007, someone running from the cops tripped over a skull in an overgrown field near Mercer University.
The person fleeing eluded the police but apparently couldnt shake the memory of stumbling over a skeleton. He told some people at a neighborhood dive about it. One of the people listening called a Macon cop. The cop went to the field along Interstate 75 at the eastern edge of Unionville to check it out.
Sure enough, a detective said later, theres the body. No clothing, no nothing. Bones.
* * *
By the time police found the victims remains on Nov. 2, 2007, they had rotted black. They almost looked burned.
A rib cage rose from a barren spot in a mimosa-choked, 6-acre tangle of tall grass and brush so thick in places that detectives used a bush ax to carve their way in.
The skull, kicked by the guy running from police, was maybe 20 feet from the rest of the skeleton. The skull bore signs of a knife attack. On top of it were more than a dozen marks from the tip of a blade. But on the side of the skull, someone had rammed the knife home.
Whoever stabbed the man took the time to clip the victims fingernails before leaving him in the field, perhaps thinking the man had scratched him in a struggle. Police found the clippings. For whatever reason, the trimmings had been tossed on the ground beside him.
Investigators figured the victim had been killed somewhere else, probably several months earlier, and ditched in the weedy field, which lies across the freeway from a Hilton Garden Inn.
But the time line soon shrank.
Four or five weeks later, early that December, a sobbing woman called 911. A man she knew from some streets just down from Mercer University Drive had vanished. The last time anyone had seen him was in September. Talk in the neighborhood at the bottom end of Madden Avenue was that her friend was the dead guy in the field.
The caller was a prostitute, and the missing man was one of her customers. She pointed police to a tract of six salmon-colored, cinder-block duplexes. The dwellings sit east of Pio Nono Avenue on Moore Street, behind the old Hamilton Elementary School.
Moore Street dead-ends at a fence overlooking the southbound lanes of I-75, by an on-ramp that swings down from Mercer University Drive. The street and those around it are an unseen wasteland, tucked away, if only barely, from some of the citys main drags.
The place was an investigators nightmare, a mishmash of transients and locals who didnt always make one anothers formal acquaintance. It was the kind of haunt, not unlike many tattered side pockets of society, where an alias or two might keep you in the shadows.
Many houses there have since been condemned, but the area was well on its way to shattered in late 2007. It was a haven for the drug-addled, whose lives mirrored the busted-up houses. Street junkies bought crack from back-door dealers. Passers-through were, often enough, courting trouble -- if it hadnt found them already.
* * *
On the December day in 2007 when detective Jimmy Barbee wheeled into the duplexes, there was a man out back warming his hands over a fire barrel.
Barbee, 64, a Vietnam veteran and homegrown Macon cop, had been working murders since the 1970s. As a boy, he lived close to Tattnall Square Park. He and his buddies once rode bicycles in the red-clay gullies not far from the field where the dead mans skeleton was found. As a detective in the 1980s and 90s, Barbee was such a fixture on the dead-body beat that on the streets he was known to some as Homicide.
He may well have investigated more of Macons violent deaths than anyone. He has a storytellers touch. Around here, folks might say hes colorful. As cheery a ring as his name has -- Jimmy Barbee -- his wits run far deeper.
Asked why he has taken up pursuit of some of the citys coldest cases, hell joke, Because I dont play golf. Then hell add, Because its the right thing to do. Because its all Ive ever done. ... I never give up.
At the duplexes that December day, Barbee went over to the fellow at the fire barrel. Barbee told how the police had gotten a call saying the dead man in the field up across Mercer University Drive might have been killed in one of the apartments there.
The guy at the fire barrel, a man named James Jones who goes by J.J., said, Everything that caller told you was the truth.
Whoa, Barbee thought. Do what?
Until then, detectives had no idea where the victim might have been slain.
Happened in this apartment right over here, J.J. said, motioning to a vacant duplex in front of his, one with a Tweety Bird sticker on a rear door. I heard the guy screaming.
J.J. showed Barbee where he says a patch of blood-drenched carpet had been cut out of the living-room floor and thrown in a dumpster a month or so earlier.
As best detectives can tell, the dead man had been stripped of his clothes and tossed in the trunk of his brown, two-decade-old Cadillac Fleetwood. The spot where his body was dumped is 440 yards from the apartment where he is thought to have died.
Whoever killed him collected his clothes and piled them on a walkway outside the duplex. The killer then doused the clothes with gin and set them on fire.
A few days later, the Cadillac was driven to a scrap yard and crushed.
Before long, all that was left of the dead man was his skeleton.
His real name had gone up in smoke.
People around the apartments knew him only by his nickname: Shorty.
* * *
Not a soul detectives talked to knew where Shorty was from. He had cruised into the neighborhood months earlier in his 70s- or 80s-model barge of a Cadillac. It had a novelty license plate on front: Jesus Saves.
Shorty, a black man, hung around the duplexes, usually toward the end of the week. He smoked crack from a glass pipe and was more of a casual smoker, though he sometimes swapped drugs for sex.
His face was oval, his hair thinning and gray. He sported a hint of a mustache.
A woman named Doris Day lived in an apartment near where he parked his car. She remembered him well enough to describe him to a police sketch artist. Day, whose roommate at the time sold drugs to Shorty, said the artist got Shortys face just about right. She said Shortys cheeks werent as hollow as they are in the drawing, which authorities later circulated.
His face structure was, like, fatter, Day said, adding that he was probably in his mid-50s or early 60s. Hell stay at J.J. house and they smoke, and I guess when he get broke he used to go back where he was from.
Day, 30, lived in the half of the duplex next door to the apparent murder scene. She was in the middle of moving out. Shed used the vacant apartment where the killing happened -- where the carpet patch had been ripped up afterward -- as a storage room. She let people she knew lounge and smoke there.
Shorty, she said, once mentioned that he was from down around Eastman, Dodge County. Or was it Dublin? She couldnt say for sure. He may have worked in heating and air. Days best recollection of him? He was just short. He tended to wear jeans, brown boots, long-sleeve shirts.
You know how a lot of smokers be dirty and they dress bummish and stuff? He used to always be clean, Day said. He had a family. You could tell he had a family. ... Cause he always used to leave and come back. ... If he leave, hell come some weekends, then hell come back around the first of the month. ... I think he was getting some kind of check or something.
She also said Shorty might have been a veteran. She recalled seeing medals and stuff or little button things in his car. She and a girlfriend sometimes rented his Cadillac.
We only had it for a certain amount of hours, Day said. If we went past them hours -- like $10, $20 for like two, three hours ... you had to give him more money.
Shorty, she said, was a nice guy. He didnt never get into it with nobody. ... He was never loud. ... He was mostly serious, but he wasnt mean. He didnt have no nasty attitude. ... He was just a smoker. He was a normal smoker. He paid for what he wanted. If he aint had the money to pay for it, he rent out his car.
Day seemed to know more than anyone what little there was to know about Shortys life.
She would tell detectives even more about his death.
* * *
Police struggled to track down Shortys real name.
Their best clue surfaced inside the Moore Street duplex: blood.
There was a fat drop of it on a newspaper. The nickel-size spot of blood was dead-center at the top of the Life & Style section of The Telegraph, just above the ampersand.
The date on the newspaper: Sept. 25, 2007.
If police didnt know who the dead man was, it appeared they had a good idea when hed been killed and, quite possibly, where.
Even though none of the blood in the house matched the skeletons DNA, the drop on the newspaper was helpful.
It belonged to someone else. Someone in jail.
* * *
Shortys Cadillac outlived him by a few days.
Detectives figured if they could dig up a record of who owned the car, theyd unearth Shortys name. But after talking to people whod ridden around in his car after he was killed, the police learned the car had been scrapped. Cars more than 20 years old didnt require proof of ownership at crush yards, which further hampered efforts to identify Shorty.
Police hunted for the car. They mentioned the Jesus Saves license plate on its front bumper, but it didnt jog any memories.
After sifting through salvage receipts in three counties and coming up empty, Barbee joked about the tag.
Jesus saves, he said, but he dont save receipts.
Armed with the artists sketch, a best guess at what the victim might have looked like, Barbee showed it to people at the Moore Street duplexes.
You know who this is? Barbee asked.
Yeah, came the replies, thats Shorty.
The picture aired on local newscasts but produced nary a bite. Authorities in and around Dodge County struck out, too. There were no missing persons reports for anyone who fit Shortys profile.
Barbee then tapped into greater Unionvilles galaxy of vagabonds. He scoped out anyone who might have been in Shortys orbit and questioned them. One was a man named Chicken.
Youd be surprised how many (jokers) out there go by the name Chicken, Barbee said. I got a whole damn henhouse down here before I got the right one.
Word was that Chicken and some other men had been in Shortys Cadillac after Shorty vanished. The car got a flat tire on Houston Avenue near Hightower Road.
When they opened the trunk to get the spare out, there was so much blood in there the guys would not get back in the car, the detective said.
Chicken told Barbee that he walked nearly three miles home to Unionville. Chicken didnt know Shortys real name, but he knew some guys whod been tooling around in the Cadillac.
Barbee tracked the guys down. He got a court order, took DNA swabs from one of them and slowly built a case.
Months passed. Then years.
This, the detective said, was the first case that Id worked in 41 years where I knew, in my own mind now, where it happened, how it happened and probably why it happened -- and who did it -- and didnt know who got killed.
* * *
Shorty had a cellphone.
Hope was it might lead to his real name.
While a name might not seem like much of a clue, a slain persons identity can mean everything in a murder case. At the very least, a name can be a starting point.
But a name, when no one knows it, can be as hidden as a pistol at the bottom of a lake. And a name is not some sliver of trace evidence that detectives can pluck from stray fibers. Dental records are no help when investigators have no idea whose teeth theyre looking at.
So identifying the dead is crucial. If nothing else, putting a name with a skeleton helps a prosecutor prevail upon a jury that something bad happened to someone, a person, and this is who he was.
Shorty wasnt a total unknown. Residents in the falling-apart plot of rentals along Moore Street, many of them with no electricity, were familiar with him. They remembered him as a crack-smoking regular.
They just didnt know his given name -- assuming it wasnt Shorty -- or his surname.
Shortys cellphone seemed a good place to start searching. The cops were told a man named Nard had the phone. Nard was supposedly seen leaving the Moore Street duplex where Shorty, in all likelihood, was stabbed to death.
Investigative documents also note that Nard had been seen driving the dead mans Cadillac. But the phone was Shortys last potentially traceable possession.
Detective Barbee met Nard and asked about the phone.
You got his cellphone, Barbee told him matter of factly.
Nard said, yes, hed had his hands on Shortys phone.
OK, I want it back, the detective said.
Barbee wanted to trace the number and solve the puzzle of who Shorty was.
Nard said he had given the phone to his nephew.
Barbee told Nard to go and get it.
A day or two later, Barbee called Nard and asked about Shortys phone.
My nephew hasnt got it, Nard said.
Thats fine, Barbee said. Give me your nephews name.
Hes not really my nephew, and I dont know his name.
Barbee knew he was lying.
Im not getting that phone back, the detective thought. Hes destroyed the telephone.
* * *
Why would anyone want to make Shorty disappear?
Maybe they knew they could.
He lived on the fringes, out of his car. Chances were good that no one would miss him. Even if the police found him -- which they surely would, what with his body dumped in an inner-city field, not concealed in the least -- he was a cold case waiting to happen.
Crush his car, burn his clothes, smash his phone and just like that an identity decomposes.
Killers who succeed at erasing their victims sometimes slip away right along with them.
But the lost and the dead can catch up when the found and the living talk.
The duplex the dead mans cries came from was a smoke house, a spot where crack users got high and chilled. A crack shack. Men took hookers there.
The place is abandoned today. Ceilings are caved in. Doors are wide open. Couches and tables lie tossed, furniture for ghosts.
People cannot see people in Macon living like this, Barbee said on a visit there in November. Sometimes I wonder if God knows what goes on here.
* * *
Shorty was quick with a knife.
Threaten or insult him and out came the blade.
It was maybe the size of a pocketknife, enough to show he meant business.
His old crack-smoking buddy, James J.J. Jones, who says he heard Shortys dying gasps, thinks Shortys knife-wielding ways got him killed.
Jones has since moved a block south of the duplexes. He now lives in a box of a blue house with burglar bars on the windows and nine pit bulls out back.
Jones has Connecticut roots. He played basketball there as a kid. Crazy Jones, they called him. He returned home to Georgia, where he had kin, as a young man. Now 64, he looks like Snoop Dogg might in 20 years. Sounds a little like him, too.
Can you look at me and tell me that I smoke crack every day? he asked a reporter on a recent afternoon. The reporter told him no, that he looked straight as a preacher.
He was in an Atlanta Braves cap and a T-shirt advertising high-interest checking accounts.
What he says about the night Shorty vanished or died is part of a haze of conflicting accounts and finger-pointing.
If it werent enough that the case revolved around an unidentified dead man, the guesses and assumptions of those who think they know what happened to him only fog the mystery.
Potential culprits and scant recollections are not the building blocks of murder convictions.
Still, when Jones spoke of Shortys demise as recently as April, Jones couldnt believe the police hadnt locked anyone up.
They had the fella, he said.
* * *
Jones is convinced that a man who goes by the name Big Boy is the killer.
Jones told the cops as much.
He snapped, Jones said of Big Boy, a 6-footer who goes better than 260 pounds. He had a freakin attitude.
Jones says that when Shorty popped up at his duplex in the summer of 2007, Shorty had a prostitute named Jackie on his arm.
She a good girl, Jones said. He called her a young lady.
Jackie liked Shorty and Shorty liked her.
Shorty had come looking for a smoking spot, somewhere to kick back and, if the mood struck, cozy up to Jackie.
I wouldnt say he was a crackhead, Jones said. A lot of people smoke because they have problems, trying to solve problems. He just smoked when he get around a girl. When hed get with a girl, he liked to smoke.
Jones thinks Shorty, for a time anyway, had a motel room on the south side. He may have been in town for some kind of technical training. Then he quit staying at the motel. He was spending money left and right, Jones said.
Shorty sometimes took people places in his four-door Caddy. Theyd give him $5 or $10 for lifts. He would ride everybody everywhere, Jones said, and get misused.
Shorty liked to wear hats, ball caps. One time he lost his and he bought one from Jones.
When Shorty needed a new toolbox for work, he went out and bought one.
He sold the old one to Jones for a $10 crack rock.
* * *
By the time Shorty disappeared he was a regular at Jones duplex. Hed park his Cadillac out front and crash with Jones a few nights a week.
One day when money was tight, Shorty pawned his drivers license with a drug dealer. Such transactions, Jones said, involve a smoker forking over a license in exchange for, say, $50 worth of crack. To get the license back, the user has to pay $70 or $80.
Around the time he went missing, Shorty was waiting to get his license out of hock. Jones said Shorty had packed his belongings in his Cadillac and was about to head back to wherever he was from.
He was just gonna spend the night and go, Jones said.
After Shorty disappeared, presumably slain, whoever had the license must have tossed it. Who wants to get caught holding a murdered mans ID?
The last night Shorty was seen at the Moore Street duplexes, Jones thinks Shorty was coaxed into an adjacent apartment.
Jones figures the plan was to rob him.
Shorty was a free-hearted man, Jones said. He gives. What makes Shorty stand out is that little personality he had when people against him.
He had a quick temper.
Jones told police there was a tussle -- one Jones did not see -- between Big Boy and Shorty at the other apartment.
Jones believes Shorty must have whipped out his knife and cut Big Boy, only to be shoved backward through a glass table. In the commotion, Jones says he heard Shorty deny having any money, yelling, I aint got a ---damn thing! Let me out of here! Somebody help!
Thats when the guy named Nard bolted from the apartment, Jones said, like a chicken with his head cut off.
As Jones tells it now, Shorty, apparently dead, was then dragged out to his Cadillac and driven away.
He couldnt have been alive, Jones said. Shorty would have put up a fight.
Jones also told police he saw Big Boy drag a bloody patch of carpet from the duplex, throw it in a dumpster and then set fire to what he presumes were Shortys clothes.
Jones recalls telling Big Boy, I know whats going on, but it aint none of my ---damn business.
After which, Jones said, Big Boy pointed a gun right at me, telling me how I was running around here telling everybody how hed killed Shorty.
And I did like this here, Jones said, arms outstretched, You want to pull the trigger, pull the trigger.
One of Jones neighbors at the time suggested that Jones, because he claimed to know so much about the night in question, might have helped rip up the carpet after Shorty bled out. Jones refutes that.
Anybodyll tell you about me, he said. I dont help nobody do nothing.
He said police were called that night, but they apparently thought it was a false report. A lot of times they wont come inside the duplex. They ride by.
There is no record in police logs of an officer being dispatched to Moore Street around the time Shorty was probably attacked.
Jones told The Telegraph that Big Boy looked in Shortys Cadillac and tore that car up looking for stashed money.
The only thing that ever turned up from that night, according to Jones, is a knife.
It looked like Shortys.
Jones said his dog back then, a mutt named Pup-Pup, dug it up after Shorty disappeared.
Did Jones keep the knife?
* * *
It was Big Boys blood on the newspaper in the apartment.
In December 2008, a year into the investigation, Big Boy was in the Bibb County jail on a probation violation. Detectives took an oral swab of his DNA. Three months later, police had their match.
But Big Boy had an easy alibi. His old lady, as Jones called her, was staying at the duplex. His children were there. Big Boy sometimes hung out. He could have cut himself on anything. Whats more, no blood found there is known to match the DNA of the unidentified skeleton in the field. And none of the tests on the dead mans fingernails matched Big Boys DNA.
But Jones wasnt the only person whod implicated Big Boy.
Doris Day, another neighbor, also pointed a finger at him, telling detectives she thought he was Shortys killer.
She also told police she saw Big Boy burning something and driving Shortys car.
One night last fall, Day took a break from her clerking job at an eastside convenience mart. The reporters working on this story had been trying to catch up with her for weeks.
You found me, she said before stepping from behind the counter.
Day, a plump woman in a Baby Phat T-shirt, seemed perturbed when she heard that no one had been charged with killing Shorty. It was November. The five-year anniversary of his skeletons discovery had just passed.
Day, who knew Big Boy by a few names, including his real one, thinks Shorty had come across some cash.
She has her own theories about what happened to Shorty. She shared some of those and other details about his disappearance with police.
She said people in the duplexes were talking. She noticed Big Boy and others in Shortys car.
They had the car a long time, she recalled, and Im like, Come on, something aint right.
Big Boy, she said, got a real nasty temper, a bad attitude.
She said he knows the police questioned her.
I dont care, she said. For real, cause right is right and wrong is wrong.
As for Shorty, Day said, He dead. I just wish I knew his real name.
* * *
Big Boys voice was big like him.
His reverent yes sir to the judge in a Bibb County courtroom early last December came from down deep.
Big Boy was in trouble for a 2010 incident in which he was accused of smashing a liquor bottle over a mans head and giving a fake name to police.
Big Boy had been on probation for marijuana charges when the fight happened.
It was mentioned at the hearing that Big Boy, after repeatedly failing to report to his probation officer, had managed to turn a five-year probation term into nearly a 10-year stretch.
Even so, he had been placed on unsupervised probation.
He must have been doing something right, his lawyer said.
Or either, Superior Court Judge Howard Simms said, they got tired of coming and finding him.
Simms asked Big Boy if he had anything to say for himself.
Yes sir, Big Boy said.
Big Boy, whod turned 30 the previous spring, explained that he was still young and wild when he was first put on probation.
After I got older and turned my life around just to be there for my family, thats when I finally got it right with probation, he said.
Big Boy told the judge he was taking care of his family now, making sure his kids went to school.
I coach Little League for my son and my daughter, Big Boy said. Basically thats all I do now. So I havent really been in any trouble since, and I dont see myself getting in any more. ... I just really need to get back home to my family. I got a wife and three kids there that really need me. And my wife, shes been busting her hump trying to keep it together without me.
Big Boy had already been in jail for months, awaiting his December court date. Standing before the judge, he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault as a probation violation.
Simms sentenced him to six months in the county lockup.
When your jail sentence is complete, the judge said, youre done. Youre off probation.
Big Boy was to be a free man this summer but was released early, in March.
While he was still a prisoner, though, on a Sunday morning less than a week after his December sentencing, Big Boy granted a brief interview to reporters through a glass partition at the jail.
With sad eyes and a charmers grin, he shared tidbits of his crack-dealing past. He said hed grown up selling. In Florida.
Its more stressful than having a regular job, he said. Everybody thinks you owe them something.
The reporters asked him about Moore Street.
They smoked a lot of dope, Big Boy said. It was a lot of smokers over there.
Big Boy acknowledged that police had talked to him a while back about Shortys death. I told them I didnt know what happened.
Big Boy said he stopped living there in 2006, though neighbors told police he still dropped by most days and took his children to a nearby nursery.
Asked if he killed Shorty, Big Boy shook his head no.
He a mess, Big Boy recalled. A loud-talking, (crap)-starting crack smoker.
* * *
It is more or less an online morgue.
The GBI keeps it open on the Internet -- a Web page titled, simply enough, Unidentified Remains. Forty-eight drawings and clay sculptures, faces of the unknown dead.
They are not gruesome by any stretch, and yet they are difficult to look at. Their gazes and made-up smiles are haunting, cartoonish; their likenesses frozen in a wax museum of the deceased.
Shorty is not among them. At least not yet.
Exhaustive scourings of prison and public-records databases for his true identity have thus far proven futile.
The Telegraph spoke to police in Eastman and asked around town about the man who drove an old brown Cadillac and went by the name Shorty. Nothing. In the similarly sounding town of Eatonton, the sheriff offered up half a dozen mug shots, one of every Shorty in his jail files. A Macon woman who knew Shorty flipped through them. None looked like him.
Shortys car might hold the key. Though it is believed to be junked, it may tell secrets from the grave. Midstate automobile registration records for old Cadillacs like Shortys could be combed. Ones that were not renewed the year after he vanished could be culled. Itd take weeks of digging, deducing, legwork, but it could bear fruit.
But such a search still might not lead to a murder charge.
Sure, there are suspects, three or four of them. Theyre men who knew Shorty and who, according to a Bibb prosecutor, may know more about his disappearance than they have let on. For now, the prosecutor said, the case is nowhere near ready for a courtroom.
* * *
So can you catch a killer if you dont know who he killed?
Just, in this case, not yet.
Maybe not ever.
But, yes, you can. It has been done. People have been sent to prison for murdering the unknown. Such convictions hinge on evidence, proof that someone killed someone else. Convictions arent reliant on whether prosecutors know the dead persons name. But it helps.
It doesnt bother me so much that hes, well, to be honest it doesnt bother me that the mans dead, Barbee said. That happens. Thats my line of work. It does bother me that this man is on a shelf in a crime lab in Atlanta and hasnt been buried in five years because nobody knows who he is.
Shortys death is proof that even in an era of withering privacy, of facial-recognition software and DNA databases, you can still die a John Does death.
You can be lost and found at the same time.