Social Media Forensics: Coroners using Facebook to find victims' next of kin

Posted at 10:50 PM, Feb 22, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-23 12:49:29-05

Most of us use social media on a daily basis to keep up with friends and family, and it turns out that dependency, on sites like Facebook, is making Treasure Valley coroners' jobs just a little easier.  

"Facebook is not something we thought we'd be using to find next of kin," said Dotti Owens, Ada County Coroner.  "We use it every single week."  

It is just another thing made more convenient by the ever-growing presence of social media.  

"You would be surprised at the amount of information people put out on Facebook," said Owens.   

Facebook is becoming a daily tool for the coroners of the two most populated counties in Idaho.  

"If we can come up with a name through a Christmas card or a photo on the wall," said Owens, "We'll actually research that and run it through Facebook. It's one of our go-tos and we'll usually find cousins or some kind of family."  

In an age where landlines are becoming obsolete, coroners have to keep up with the times. Instead of flipping through the yellow pages looking for relatives after a death, they're searching friend lists on Facebook and making connections from around the globe.  

"We actually found family on one that was in Germany, and family on another particular case that was in Greece," said Owens. "It took us about a week and a half to locate them, but we were able to do so using that social media piece."  

In March of last year, the agency was again saved by social media.   

After a gunman who opened fire in the Boise Foothills was shot and killed by law enforcement, the agency hit a dead end searching for next of kin. Eventually, they reached out to the public for answers. But it was Facebook that allowed them to finally track down the man's mother in another state.  

"We couldn't find anything," said Owens. "We knew who he was, but we couldn't find any sort of social media account with him. And so, once we reached out, we started getting a couple names from people who were associates of his, and we were able to find her Facebook and run it that direction."  

While social media helps find the families, the agencies try not to use it to notify them of a death. They prefer to track down an address and inform a family of their loss in person.  

"If they have a good location if we can get that, we will call the local law enforcement and have them go make the notification," said Vicki Degeus-Morris, Canyon County coroner.