Breanna Sharp’s body was found in August 2008 in an abandoned building on Detroit’s west side. She was buried in 2011, exhumed in March 2012 and positively identified that June using DNA samples from both of her parents, authorities said. / Family photo
DETROIT — For nearly four years, the body went unidentified.
Found in an abandoned Detroit building, she was taken to the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office, determined to be older than she was, never autopsied because she was deemed a suicide case and then buried third down in a four-deep grave in a Canton cemetery.
And she took her DNA with her.
After the remains were exhumed last year, authorities, using DNA, proved a devastating fact: The body was Breanna Sharp, a 13-year-old who had moved from Texas to live with her mother in Detroit.
The Free Press has learned that the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office, which has buried more than two dozen unidentified people since 2005, routinely has not taken DNA samples, but now plans to begin taking blood samples on cases in the hopes of earning accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners.
The lack of DNA in Breanna’s case meant identifying her required a costly exhumation, which ultimately was funded by a national nonprofit organization, authorities said.
The teen, described as a frequent runaway, was found hanging on a warm August day in 2008 on Detroit’s west side and was in the early stages of decomposition.
The remains were taken to the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office, where her death was ruled a suicide, caused by asphyxiation. Her age, at first, was believed to be between 19 and 21, but a forensic odontologist studied her teeth and quickly determined she could be as young as 14.
No autopsy was conducted. Instead, an inspection, which calls for an external examination, was done. That’s the standard practice at the morgue for most suicides, Wayne County Medical Examiner Carl Schmidt said in an interview last week.
Breanna was buried in 2011, exhumed in March 2012 and positively identified that June using DNA samples from both of her parents, authorities said.
The state Attorney General’s Office has been in contact with Breanna’s family.
“It’s an ongoing discussion right now,” Joy Yearout, a spokeswoman for the office, said last week. “We are working with Michigan State Police and missing person advocates to determine whether any legislative or other changes might be necessary to improve the outcome for crime victims’ families.”
Father lost contactLenard Cobb said his daughter, Breanna, was “very happy,” but a stubborn girl who loved sports and wanted to “experience life faster.”
She lived for years with Cobb in Texas, where she was born.
For two years, Cobb, away at college, didn’t know the baby girl born to his high school sweetheart was actually his daughter.
Breanna’s mother moved back to Detroit, but from ages 6-13, Breanna lived with her father in Texas. After she began rebelling by running away, Cobb sent Breanna back to her mother in April 2008.
Every couple of weeks, they would chat.
But that summer, the phone calls stopped. He said he started leaving messages. Cobb said he eventually tried contacting local police authorities, but was rebuffed when he attempted to file a missing persons report by phone.
He said in 2009, he called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and soon the Michigan State Police were involved.
Police discovered Breanna’s mother had never reported her missing.
Efforts to reach out to her mother for this report were unsuccessful.
Detective Trooper Sarah Krebs said Breanna’s mother told police she had been in phone contact with her daughter since she disappeared, but the teen’s body was found not long after she went missing.
Krebs, a forensic artist, said the building where Breanna was found is very near where she had been living.
In July 2011, Krebs began checking the Wayne County morgue for possible Jane Does and came across a case she had a hunch was Breanna.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children paid for the exhumation, which Krebs said cost upward of $3,000. A long bone from Breanna’s body was sent to the University of North Texas, where it was tested against her mother and father’s DNA.
Her identity was confirmed on June 22, 2012, Krebs said.
Breanna, though, is not alone.
There are more than 100 open cases of unidentified remains in Michigan, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database. J. Todd Matthews, a spokesman for NamUs, said anecdotally that exhumations for the purpose of gathering DNA seem to be on the rise.
“It’s a tragic story and it was so sad to see that Breanna got failed at so many levels,” Krebs said of the teen’s case. “I was happy to see that at least we were able to give that family answers.”
Cobb, though, said he doesn’t believe his daughter committed suicide.
“I’ll go to my grave not believing that,” he said.
13,000 callsThe Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office receives roughly 13,000 calls about deaths each year, brings 3,000 to 3,400 of those cases into the morgue and conducts autopsies on 2,000 to 2,400 of them, Schmidt said.
He said DNA was never routinely gathered. He said it’s often not needed and seldomly requested. Most people, he said, are identified using fingerprints, dental records or visual identification.
The medical examiner’s office has nine unidentified remains, mainly skeletons or bone fragments, in storage and has buried 26 unidentified people since 2005, “which is as far back as our current unidentified cases go,” he said.
Schmidt said his office is seeking accreditation by the National Association of Medical Examiners, so the office hopes to soon begin putting blood samples on cards, which can be dried and stored in a filing cabinet.
He said the county will implement the sampling as soon as the request for the blood cards goes through the county procurement process.
If the office had been collecting blood samples when Breanna’s case came through, “we would have been able to skip the exhumation process,” Schmidt said.
Macomb County Medical Examiner Daniel Spitz said his office takes DNA samples on every case.
Oakland County Medical Examiner Ljubisa Dragovic said his office would not bury an unidentified body and would conduct autopsies on unidentified people. An effort has to be made to identify the person, he said.
“Whoever it is or whoever it was, it is upon the medical examiner … it’s public duty,” Dragovic said. “This is public service.”