Bones, tissue, teeth: Small details help investigators identify remains
While many people were shocked when they learned of the human remains found in a quiet East Lyme neighborhood Aug. 19, one woman had a more unsettling thought: Could the remains be those of my father?
The woman last week called Michelle Clark, the death investigator with the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner who oversees all of the state’s unidentified persons cases.
After a series of questions, though, Clark was able to assure her the remains weren’t her father’s.
“She said he had dentures,” Clark explained. “This remains has a full set of teeth.”
The phone call is one of several Clark receives each week when she’s not doing her day-to-day work.
Sometimes it’s a concerned resident. Sometimes it’s a police detective informing her of a newly reported missing person.
Other times it’s a member of the state lab, which is charged with entering DNA from unidentified remains into a national, noncriminal database.
It’s a busy undertaking, but Clark said she likes that about it.
She likes, too, that the resolution of each case, although it brings relatives sad news, also brings closure.
“With a lot of the cases we’ve solved, the look on the family members’ faces and the simple thank you ... to know I had a piece of being able to help out is a huge, great feeling,” she said.
A long process begins each time unidentified human remains are discovered, Clark said.
Police, along with one of the state’s 11 death investigators, respond to the scene to collect the remains.
In cases where the remains are scattered about the ground and/or are buried, a part-time forensic anthropologist, Kristen Hartnett-McCann, working for the state medical examiner's office, might come in, too.
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s bone and what’s not,” Hartnett-McCann explained.
From there, the remains undergo a medical examiner’s testing and are x-rayed to look for things such as pins and plates that could help to identify the person.
Then, in cases where the body is skeletal or severely decomposed, Hartnett-McCann takes over.
She begins the hourslong and “not easy” process by laying out the remains and taking stock of what’s there.
Then she sets out to determine age, sex, likely ancestry and stature, as well as how long the person likely had been dead and whether the body has any unique features — such as signs of past surgery or trauma.
To get an idea of how long the person has been dead, Hartnett-McCann has to take into account things including the environment where the remains were, the average temperature of the area and whether the remains were out in the open, or covered or contained somehow.
She also looks at the condition of the bones.
Bones that are cracked, dry and bleach-white typically have been in the elements longer than those that still have a lot of soft tissue left.
“In our field, we have decomposition facilities that produce interesting research ... and study how human bodies decompose,” Hartnett-McCann said. “I use that information to extrapolate what I see in Connecticut.”
The practice is less accurate than what medical examiners can produce because the time frame for estimated time of death is weeks and months rather than days, she said, but it helps provide a general idea.
Determining age range
Hartnett-McCann also said a host of things aid her in coming up with an age range for the person.
At the medial end of the clavicle, for example, there’s a growth plate that fuses later in life. In younger adults, it might still be open, she explained.
Another example, she said, is a joint between the left and right pelvic bones, where, as cartilage there wears with age, bone breaks down and becomes more porous and irregular.
When a set of teeth is available, Hartnett-McCann also looks at whether wisdom teeth have come through, yet.
“I use as many traits as I can,” she said. “Then the age result I produce — it isn’t like what you see on TV — I provide an interval. It might be something like 30 to 45, or 40 to 60. But I’m not going to be able to say it was a 34-year-old male.”
In determining what in popular culture is referred to as race, Hartnett-McCann said forensic anthropology divorces itself from the broader field.
“Anthropologically speaking, most people believe there’s no such thing as race — we can’t be subdivided,” she explained. “Generally that’s true. But we answer to law enforcement and the public. We’re asked to put people in categories to help with identification, so that’s what we do.”
She said delving into which of the three major groups — European, African and Asian — a person most likely belonged is just about impossible without a skull.
If she has a skull at her disposal, though, Hartnett-McCann looks at features including nasal openings, cheek bones and overall cranium size to help her determine a potential ancestry — a process she said is never 100 percent certain.
“It’s common these days to have mixture of these traits,” she added. “And that’s OK, as long as we report out the traits we see.
"The more accurate the post-mortem report, the more likely we’ll be able to get a match,” she said.
Clark enters the demographics determined by Hartnett-McCann into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a product of the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs.
In the searchable online database, anyone can see all kinds of information about unidentified persons cases from around the country. When people call her, Clark said many cite having browsed the site.
East Lyme remains identified
In Connecticut, the database shows 33 open cases, the oldest of which was reported in 1973.
Five of them are out of New London County, including a case that was initiated in April when someone found a man’s body in a wooded area near Norwich Avenue and Hunters Road in Norwich.
On Friday, Clark said investigators had determined the identity of the remains found in East Lyme this month, but hadn’t yet notified the person's family.
She said there’s no set trend as to where remains turn up. While population can play a role, so, too, can areas that are heavily wooded.
Clark said the biggest barrier to resolving cases is people's hesitance to come forward.
Some people, she explained, are afraid providing DNA could connect them to a crime, even if it’s relatively minor and was committed years prior. Others worry it could reveal their relatives are in the country illegally.
But Clark said DNA used in unidentified remains cases isn’t run through the database that has samples collected from crime scenes. It only goes through a different, noncriminal database with samples drawn from unidentified remains.
“Even if you feel you haven’t seen or heard from someone in a while ... call and make a report,” she said. “We use every resource we possibly have to try and find out who these people are, but there’s only so much we can do.”