I left home at 6:30 this morning to travel to New Orleans to teach a forensic anthropology workshop to a group of 30 new detectives. My goal was to provide them with a better understanding of the tools and techniques that I use to do my job and show them how we can help them in cases where the expertise of a forensic anthropologist is warranted. When I walked into the room, I thought about how they had recently been battered by the annual Mardi Gras crowds and might not be in a mood for a forensics lecture. They proved me wrong.
I presented a typical case scenario to them and went through the details of how we were asked to help and what we actually did when called in to consult. A sheriff called us one day and asked if we would help to recover the remains of a person who had been discovered on the surface in a wooded area. We packed our field kit and met the sheriff and his deputies in the woods. The person was lying on his back in basic anatomical position not far from the rural roadside. He was partially skeletonized (I used the generic "he" because I did not know the sex at that time). Though the body was mostly bone, insect activity was still abundant.
The crime-scene technicians had already taken their photos, but we made our own. We then described the scene, looked for any evidence that might have been left near the body (a bullet casing, a cigarette, an empty cup), and then ran a metal detector to search for any metal object that might be hidden by the leaf coverings in the area. Additionally, we looked for scrapings on nearby trees because such evidence could indicate that persons may have cut into a tree with such items as a knife or shovel (shovel scars on trees are often left behind in buried-body cases because the person is cleaning the mud from his shovel). Though we don't expect to find this kind of evidence in a surface case, we always look anyway.
Our next step was to draw a map of the person in place or "in situ," detailing position, clothing (wore only short pants), etc. Then we collected insect evidence, noting carefully all the different species of fly larvae and trying to get samples for different kinds and ages. We also collected beetles, wasps, and ants. These were turned over to the forensic entomologist to assist in determining time since death. Following that, we carefully removed all of the bones and placed them in paper bags, not plastic. In Louisiana, bones can mold very quickly in plastic and are much better preserved in brown paper bags. Bones should never be wrapped in newspaper because sometimes the newsprint and the paper itself will stick to the bone. We bagged the head to prevent the loss of teeth, and bagged other bones by sections of the body, right arm and hand in one bag, left arm and hand in another bag. Once the coroner released the case to us and we signed the chain of evidence document, we transported the remains to our laboratory.
At our laboratory, we photographed the remains again, described the remains in detail (with the clothing still intact) and then X-rayed the body from head to toe. The skull was fragmented, and the nature of the wound suggested a high-velocity trauma. Though ballistics experts divide bullets into different velocity levels, to a forensic anthropologist all bullet wounds are high velocity. We developed the X-rays and noted that one bullet fragment was lodged in the small amount of dried organic matter and debris inside the skull. Additionally, the path that the bullet had taken was fairly clear. The bullet had left small fragments embedded in the bone as it moved through the skull, and the X-ray documented that. We made bitewing X-rays of the teeth that contained dental fillings.
The little tissue that persisted on the bone was mainly tough tendon material and did not prevent an evaluation. If a considerable amount of soft tissue had been left, we would have cut the tissue away and removed any remaining tissue by heating it in detergent-filled water. We then evaluated the age, sex, and race of the victim. Though we had a preliminary profile in our minds, we systematically examined all of the remains that we had brought to the lab—some of the remains were missing because wild dogs, coyotes, or feral pigs had taken some of the smaller bones of the hands and feet (the person was wearing no shoes). We looked to the skull for race. The oval eye orbits, thin beaky nasal bones, narrow nasal opening, and retreating cheekbones suggested a designation of "white" or Caucasoid. The size of the skull suggested male, but we went to the hipbone for a definite designation. The hipbone had a narrow sciatic notch and short pubic bones with a convex inferior ramus. It was a male. The hipbone's joint where it articulates with the sacrum was flat and filled with large holes, or areas of resorption. We knew from this that it was an older male. We confirmed it by examining the costal ends of the ribs, which can also grow ragged as a person ages. Bony lipping on the vertebral column added more evidence.
As suggested by our preliminary assessment, we had recovered the remains of a white male between 45 and 55 years of age, who had most likely been dead for at least 2 months and less than 8 months (color of bone, smell of bone, insect activity), and who had been shot in the head. He was approximately 5 feet 8 inches tall. We gave this profile to the sheriff, and he provided us with antemortem dental records of a person who was missing from his region; the man was positively identified. A final, formal report with drawings of the trauma and of the scene where the man had been recovered was submitted to the law-enforcement agency. The killer remains unknown.
Though some might not find this type of case "exciting" to read about or hear about, forensic anthropologists provide a necessary piece to help fit the puzzle together. The detectives agreed. Good night and goodbye.