Marzena “Mary-Ann” Mulawka knew in the fifth grade that she wanted a career in forensics. The 28-year-old has been chasing it ever since.
But when a car wreck nearly killed her last January, she remained determined to stick with her course. Recovery brought her to Middle Tennessee, where she volunteered her services to the Metro Nashville Police Department — and still improbably stayed the course on which she’d already been.
Mulawka, originally from Chicago, worked as an investigator in the San Diego medical examiner’s office while she pursued her master’s degree in forensics. Part of her research there included contributing to two articles that would later be published in the Journal of Forensic Identification by the International Association for Identification.
In one article, Mulawka and others were able to identify 51 previously unidentified bodies out of 109 cases in San Diego dating back to 1979 by submitting the fingerprint records to two federal databases at the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, which are often overlooked but contain broader databases.
The other article examined the processes agencies such as police departments and medical examiner’s offices use to identify human remains and missing persons to see if a universal protocol could streamline forensic identification work.
Nationwide, police departments and medical examiner’s offices have faced problems matching unidentified bodies, particularly those dating back 20 or 30 years, with missing persons.
“It’s very difficult,” said Sgt. Pat Postiglione of the MNPD’s Homicide and Cold Case Unit. “It may not sound difficult, I guess, but it’s really difficult to do because when you begin to realize how many missing people you have nationwide, it’s absolutely astounding.”
Postiglione said there needs to be both a central repository that lists all missing persons and also one the lists all unidentified bodies. And there should be an effort to join the two, “because I’m sure there are a lot of unidentified bodies that are those missing persons that have been reported throughout the country,” he said.
While there are national clearinghouses, such as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, that compile information and help match missing persons with the unidentified, those databases are only as good as the agencies feeding them, according to Postiglione. With many agencies not participating — for various reasons, including budget, manpower and expertise — gaps exist in the information shared at the national level.
Postiglione and Mulawka both estimate there are about 40,000 unidentified bodies in the U.S., something that has been referred to as a “silent mass disaster.” Technological advancements, including DNA evidence, also have opened more avenues for identifying bodies, Mulawka said, and revisiting older cases to fill in gaps with technology could result in the closure of more cold cases.
That’s something Mulawka wants to facilitate through her work, which includes helping to develop protocol and step-by-step procedures to guide agencies on compiling and submitting information.
After receiving her master’s degree, Mulawka wanted to move to New York City to work in forensics and to eventually get her doctorate from a forensics program there.
She took time off to travel around Australia, and when she returned, she received an internship at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Shortly afterward, she set out from Chicago in her Ford Freestyle.
On Jan. 3, 2010, she made it onto a snowy stretch of Interstate 80 in western Pennsylvania. A couple driving behind Mulawka told her later that a semi-truck slammed into the side of the Freestyle, ping-ponging it off another semi-truck and causing it to spin sideways into a guardrail. The guardrail sliced through the driver’s side door, severing her right leg below the knee cutting into her left. The impact also shattered Mulawka’s back and pelvis.
Still, Mulawka pulled herself out of the car and through the snow, thinking, “This is not happening. I’m getting myself — somehow — to New York City,” she said, now able to laugh about a thought that at the time should have seemed absurd.
The couple, who saved Mulawka’s life by packing her bleeding legs with snow to stave off blood loss, told her the car bounced off the guardrail and barrel-rolled twice in the air before landing on all four tires. After a two-hour wait in the snow for paramedics to arrive, Mulawka’s next five months involved eight surgeries and multiple procedures at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center before she was able to walk again using a prosthetic right leg. Doctors were able to save her left leg.
Mulawka’s detour from New York and her life to that point brought her to Middle Tennessee, where her sister, already the mother of a 1-year-old girl, gave birth to Mulawka’s second niece the day after she arrived.
While undergoing physical therapy in Murfreesboro, Mulawka essentially re-learned to walk as her oldest niece tackled the feat for the first time. She was also able to look after two young nieces while her sister, a doctor working toward a residency at Meharry Medical College, provided her medical attention.
Television newsmagazine Inside Edition flew Mulawka to New York to tell the story of her wreck and the couple who saved her. She ended up staying in New York and began her internship at the medical examiner’s office there before returning to Chicago last month and then to Murfreesboro after the new year.
Mulawka started volunteering at the Nashville police department on Jan. 12, though she stayed for a much shorter period of time than first planned. Before returning to her internship in New York on Friday, Jan. 28, she left the MNPD with a modified protocol geared toward its own process.
“Mary-Ann was very helpful, and I’m glad she was able to come in and assist us,” Postiglione said. “She helped us, she created some spreadsheets. We had some of that information that we were already working with; she just gave us a different way of doing it.”
Postiglione added, “We looked at it, and we kind of liked it. We’re going with it.”
The effect of Mulawka’s work with the MNPD in the brief time she was there won’t be clear until the Davidson County Medical Examiner’s Office has a chance to process any additional information she provided them on some 19 open cases from the police department. For now, she’s keeping herself available to investigators in Nashville even while she’s away.
“It’s not just a job for me, it’s my life,” Mulawka said. “So whether it’s at night or on the weekend … I don’t mind doing anything for the better of identifying someone.”