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The Unidentified: Boy's death continues to be puzzling 15 years after body found

Each year the remains of men, women and children go unidentified. Some are days and some decades old. Some are victims, others their cause of death unknown. Their remains are found after days of decay others die in the hospital with no one by their side. With little or no leads for police to go on, their cases are filed away unsolved. This weekly series will highlight their cases and hopefully help reconnect them with their loved ones who are unaware of what happened to them.

Picture of reconstructed skull of an unidentified boy whose remains were found in 1999.
Picture of reconstructed skull of an unidentified boy whose remains were found in 1999.FBI

They named him Dennis — a boy whose death is as mysterious as his case is unusual. And even more puzzling to investigators is that the boy’s remains have gone unclaimed for more than 15 years.

Perhaps, if he was poor and homeless, but based on the quality of the clothes found and the medicine discovered in his system, Dennis was well cared for and loved by someone. So why has his identity remained unknown for so long?

"Unidentified children's remains are rare," said Linda Gochenouer, the investigator in charge of the cold case for the DeKalb Medical Examiner’s Office. "You've got to wonder why no one is looking for this child."

The examiner’s office has 13 unidentified cases dating back to 1987 and Dennis is the only child among them. All, except two of the 13 cases, are men. Three were killed in a hit and run and four others were murdered. The cause of death for the remaining seven is unknown. Dennis is among the seven.

Some people walking through some woods near a subdivision off Clifton Church Road found his remains on Feb. 26, 1999, Gochenouer said. When anthropologists examined the remains, they discovered they belonged to a child between 5 and 7 years old, she said. He had been in the woods for about three to six months, Gochenouer said. The body still had a little bit of tissue on the bones, she said.

"He was too young to be runaway," Gochenouer said. "We just don't know what happened."

There were no obvious signs of trauma to the body, Gochenouer said. Investigators estimated that the boy, who is black, weighed about 50 pounds and was 4 feet in height.

“We do know he had medication in his system, but we can’t even say he was sick,” she said.

Toxicology reports found cough medicine in Dennis’ system, Gochenouer said. And the child was well dressed in high-end clothes and new, size 11 Timberland brown suede boots, investigators said. He was wearing denim jeans and a long-sleeve hooded pullover shirt made of two different materials; the body of the shirt was blue plaid and the sleeves and hood were dark blue thermal.

“It’s very, very unusual,” Gochenouer said regarding the child being unidentified for so long. "It’s mind boggling for us.”

Dennis is the only unidentified preadolscent remains listed for Georgia, according to NamUs, the national site for missing and unidentified persons. Still, the site showed that Fulton County had five cases of unidentified infant remains and four cases of unidentified fetus remains.

The little information available on Dennis was also entered on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Gochenouer said. And with DNA and dental, they have ruled out numerous cases, which have filled up two folders. His information is now listed with the other cold cases at the medical examiner's office. A case becomes “cold” after all investigative leads have been exhausted and new information has not become available, Gochenouer said. These cases are never closed, but are not actively investigated until new information is presented, she said.

Still, unable to bear that this child has gone unclaimed someone in the office named him Dennis.

"Every kid deserves a name," Gochenouer said. But it was so long ago, Gochenouer didn’t know who named him Dennis or why.

Anyone with information about the child's identity is asked to contact the DeKalb County Medical Examiners Office at (404) 508-3500.