John Doe

By Lauren Gilger, video by Lisa Ruhl

We were sitting on a bench at Grupo Beta — the Mexican government’s border patrol and migrant relief agency — in Nogales, Mexico when we got the call.

After two weeks of nothing, a mortuary on the other side had a body.

We hitched a ride with one of the recent deportees to the downtown border crossing, walked into the United States, jumped in our car and drove ten minutes down Grand Ave. to Adair’s Carroon Mortuary.

John Doe from Lisa Ruhl on Vimeo.

Jorge and Reuben have been picking up bodies in the desert for years. This time, they took us along for the ride.

Out of Nogales, through Patagonia and Harshaw, we drove down bumpy, winding, dusty dirt roads up into the mountains near Locheil, Arizona. Border Patrol and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office were waiting for us at the scene. So was John Doe.

What the rancher found was mostly bones, Reuben guessed the remains weighed about 50 pounds. No identification was found with the body, which had already been sealed into a white plastic bag.

We watched as the two Nogales natives loaded the body onto a gurney and into the SUV; we sat next to the body on the ride back to the mortuary and watched as the gurney was unloaded and taken through the back door. The body spent the night in a freezer in Nogales.

The next day, the body was driven to Tucson and added to the other bodies that the Pima County Medical Examiner will attempt to identify in the coming weeks. Deduction, forensics and missing persons reports may mean the man’s family gets a call.

If not, his remains will be buried in one of the grave sites for unidentified people in scattered around Arizona — “John Doe cemeteries.”

Stay with us and we’ll let you know which path our John Doe takes.