They call him “Dennis.”
That’s not really his name, but investigators with DeKalb County’s Medical Examiners’ office say every child deserves a name.
“[We] couldn’t stand to call him ‘the kid’ or ‘Johnny Doe,’” said forensic investigator Linda Gochenouer. “Every child deserves that much. They deserve a name.”
Dennis is the name given to the remains of a child found on Feb. 26, 1999, in a wooded area near a cemetery across the street from Clifton Springs United Methodist Church.
“It’s not really some place you find by accident,” Gochenouer said. “I think somebody had to be familiar with the area.”
The boy is described as a Black male, four feet tall and approximately 5-7 years old. He was wearing a dark blue, hooded sweatshirt with plaid sleeves, size 8 red denim jeans and boys sized 11 Timberland brown suede boots, which were nearly new. The actual skin tone and eye color are not known.
Toxicology reports found acetaminophen and anti-nausea medicine in Dennis’ system.
“This child appeared to be well cared for,” said forensic investigator Greg Johns said. “And for him to just be dumped out like that and all these years with nobody coming by, it just makes it that much more unusual.”
The medical examiner’s analysis in 1999 found no signs of trauma and no cause of death could be determined. Investigators believe the remains were in the woods for three to six months before they were found, putting the possible date of the death late in 1998.
“It’s awfully difficult to time deaths from skeletonized remains,” said Chief Medical Examiner Gerald Gowitt, who originally examined the remains in 1999. “You can be off months.”
Dennis has gone through four different renderings. In 2000, a clay reconstruction was done by using the skull. A few years later, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation made a sketch of Dennis based on measurements and data analysis. In the early 2000s another clay rendering was done by Sam Buice, a former forensic investigator with the DeKalb Medical Examiner’s Office.
In the current rendering, just completed in December, an artist and anthropologist with the Federal Bureau of Investigation used advances in science and technology to make a 3-D plastic model of the skull.
“We feel it’s very realistic,” Gochenouer said. “If somebody knows this child, they can identify him from this picture.”
The case, which was featured in Atlanta Magazine in 2000 and on America’s Most Wanted show in 2004, is listed in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a clearinghouse for missing persons and unidentified decedent records.
DeKalb County currently has six other unidentified remains, but Dennis is the only one the investigators have named.
“We’ve got ‘hip replacement girl’ and ‘mohawk man’, but he’s Dennis,” Gochenouer said. “This is a child and this is our priority. This little boy needs to go home. He needs to be with his family and we all are very committed to seeing that that happens.”
Investigators say Dennis is their top priority unidentified remains case.
“We’d like to see all of our unidentified [persons] get identified, but when you’re dealing with a child as opposed to adults, the child–not that he’s more important–seems to take precedent,” Johns said.
“We don’t know what the circumstances were and we’re not here to demonize the parents,” Gochenouer said. “This little boy needs to go home.”
Gowitt called the case “very puzzling.”
“I’ve been doing this now for almost 28 years,” Gowitt said. “I’ve seen thousands and thousands of deaths. I’ve never seen an unidentified child that went unidentified for this length of time.
“I’ve spoken to many medical examiners in many jurisdictions and they just don’t have unidentified kid,” Gowitt said. “Unidentified adults are not all that uncommon, but unidentified kids this age are very, very uncommon.”