[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Before the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office called in December, Don Lee Seay's family had scarcely heard from him in four decades.
Seay, one of seven children of Alabama sharecroppers, left home at age 29 and drifted down to the Tampa Bay area, drinking moonshine and beer, chasing women and picking fruit with dozens of other migrant workers.
Over the years, his relatives wrote letters and traveled here a half-dozen times to find the brother with whom they used to spend winter evenings shelling peanuts and munching on peanut brittle in a little house with newspaper stuck in the chinks to keep out the cold. They found him once in the 1980s and lost track of him again.
In 1994, St. Petersburg police discovered an unidentified dead white man behind a commercial strip on 34th Street near Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. Eight years later, they have identified him as Seay.
Thanks to a new technology that allows the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to tap into the national FBI fingerprint database, Seay's family can finally bury him next to his father. For the first time in years, they are bringing him home.
"We're all going to miss him," said Seay's brother, Charlie Wade Seay, 68. "At least we know what happened now. I know my dad would be glad for him to be buried up here with him."
Through millions of records in the FBI database, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has identified four men found dead between 1994 and 1998. Police say the new technology could help the Sheriff's Office solve a range of crimes, from armed robberies to murders.
Pinellas is the only county in the Tampa Bay area and one of a handful in the state with the two-way link to the national records, said Bill Schade, fingerprint records manager in the Sheriff's Office.
"We laugh at Florida and make fun of it for the voting, but we are very technologically advanced here," Schade said. 'This is above and beyond what we've always done."
When the record search began, the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office had 27 unidentified bodies.
On a local level, they had searched the county and state fingerprints databases. They filled out a missing person's report. They tried dental comparisons and, in some cases, DNA. They sent the prints to Washington D.C. to see if they could turn up national records.
None of it worked.
In 1989, Sheriff Everett Rice used $1.5-million in confiscated drug money to install the Automated Fingerprint Identification System on county computers, which allows police to match one or two fingerprints with others in local and statewide records.
But if an out-of-state criminal left his prints at another crime in Florida, the Sheriff's Office might have had no way to track him down. So the four cases went unsolved. Now, with the FBI fingerprint database, the Sheriff's Office gains access to millions of national records.
The total cost of the upgrade: $1,000.
The unidentified bodies are by far the minority at the Medical Examiner's Office. The office receives about 1,500 cases per year, and investigators have identified every body found since 1999.
The four identified men, who died between 1994 and 1998, vary in age and cause of death. Aaron Israel Jones was 25 when St. Petersburg police fished his body out of Tampa Bay's Vinoy Basin in 1998.
The medical examiner ruled his death a drowning. Police do not know whether he committed suicide, was murdered or died some other way.
In 1997, St. Petersburg police found 40-year-old Jesus Prieto Sierra floating in a retention pond on the west side of Eckerd College. His cause of death is listed as undetermined.
That same year, a pedestrian named Donald A. Grande, 44, was killed in a hit-and run on Alt. U.S. 19 south of Louis Avenue in Pasco County.
The fourth victim, Seay from Alabama, died of natural causes at 66. In 1994, police found the migrant worker dead on 34th Street in St. Petersburg.
The Medical Examiner's Office has contacted the families and released their bodies to local funeral homes, said Bill Pellan, the medical examiner's director of investigations. The office is trying to find Jones' father, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
"They were very relieved and very grateful that finally their questions had been answered," Pellan said. "I think almost every family had been wondering what happened to their loved ones. Now, they have closure."
The FBI estimates that about 25 states can access the database in Clarksburg, W.Va., which contains millions of fingerprints from nationwide. The database does not include fingerprints gathered from armed forces personnel or for employment, such as security guards.
The fingerprints in the national database are those accumulated through the legal system, mostly when people are arrested.
Pinellas County operates its own fingerprint database with 360,000 records.
In Florida, counties that have not purchased the automated fingerprint system can run national searches through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. As more states begin to sign on to the FBI database, Florida ultimately will have to limit the number of searches to keep from overwhelming the system, Schade said.
Even now, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office does not plan to run most local cases through the national database, Schade said. Most cases can be solved locally without burdening national officials, he said.
NAME: Jesus Prieto Sierra
BORN: Sept. 28, 1956
CIRCUMSTANCES: St. Petersburg police found the body June 30, 1997, floating in a retention pond near Eckerd College. He was 40.
CAUSE OF DEATH: Unknown
RELATIVES: His family is in Mexico
NAME: Don Lee Seay
BORN: Sept. 27, 1927
CIRCUMSTANCES: St. Petersburg police found the body on 34th Street near Central Avenue on June 18, 1994. He was 66.
CAUSE OF DEATH: Natural causes
RELATIVES: He has five siblings in Slocomb, Ala.
NAME: Aaron Israel Jones
BORN: July 2, 1972
CIRCUMSTANCES: Police found Jones' body floating in Tampa Bay at Vinoy Basin, 501 Fifth Ave. NE in St. Petersburg on Jan. 26, 1998. He was 25.
CAUSE OF DEATH: Drowning
RELATIVES: His father lives in the Washington, D.C., area
NAME: Donald A. Grande
BORN: April 5, 1953
CIRCUMSTANCES: Grande, a pedestrian, was killed in a hit-and-run accident on Oct. 13, 1997, on U.S. Alt. 19 south of Louis Avenue. He was 44.
CAUSE OF DEATH: Blunt impact injuries to the head. The case was ruled an accident.
RELATIVES: Grande has cousins in Palm Beach County.