When bones stay silent
Scientists, groups work to identify thousands of bodies, but often fail.
June 2, 2008
By STEVE ROCK
ATLANTA - A tourist strolling on Cumberland Island found the man's skull, partially buried in the alabaster-white sand.
It had been years since the man uttered his name, and the elements that ravaged his remains, along with any identifying information, removed nearly all hope of anyone else doing the same again.
But the dental work in the skull, found in 2001, speaks to Rick Snow, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's first full-time forensic anthropologist, whose duty it is to find names for the nameless.
The technique and crudeness resembled the product of Eastern European dentists, which Snow grew familiar with sifting through mass graves in Kosovo on behalf of the U.N. two years earlier. Given that only the skull washed up onto the beach, the skull suggests he was white and between 40 and 60 years old, probably jumped ship but never made it alive to dry land, Snow surmised.
Today, the skull is among the 62 sets of remains authorities have uncovered around the state since 1969 but have been unable to identify.
Who are they?
In each case, the bones and clothing left behind are telling, giving slight clues into a person's life.
However, one thing is always missing.
"I can tell you a zillion things, except the one thing I need most: Who they are," Snow said.
That final detail, if missing, can leave grievous questions on a family's mind and hamper criminal investigations. So the task falls to Snow to glean what he can from the remains.
Citizens' groups devoted to putting a name to unidentified remains have sprung up in recent years, and the news they help bring to families with missing loved ones is a blend of sorrow and relief.
"Some people are saddened because they hope for something different. Some people are so relieved that they finally validated what they already knew," said Todd Matthews, spokesman for the DOE Network, an online group whose 500 volunteers have helped solve 40 cases.
Not knowing what happened to a relative can be a fate worse than death, Matthews said.
And it can lead to a killer going free, because an unidentified victim can throw a wrench into the prosecution of a suspected killer, Snow said.
The process of identifying remains starts like a TV crime drama. Hunters sneaking through the pines in pursuit of deer find a skeleton underfoot, or the family dog comes home with a human femur it found in the brush.
Many times authorities know exactly who the person is.
But if a check of missing persons records and several missing persons Web sites fails to produce a match on the remains, Snow begins compiling a biological profile on the deceased, basing age, sex, race and stature on telltale signs human bones and teeth provide. A forensic artist then creates an image of what the person may have looked like.
Sometimes the building blocks of life itself identify the dead.
DNA material Snow gathers from a body is shipped to the FBI in Quantico, Va., where it is continuously checked for matches with samples entered into a nationwide DNA database. Matches on mitochondrial DNA, the type passed from mother to child and extracted from the powerhouse of human cells, can reveal links to family lineage. Matches on nuclear DNA, from the nucleus of the human cell, can reveal exact identities. But matches of either type are not made often, Snow said.
Medical examiners across the county have on file the remains of about 14,000 people who have not been identified, according to a 2007 report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Matthews, of the DOE Network, said the figure is probably closer to 40,000. Snow said about four bodies a year go without identification in Georgia.
Identifications are often difficult because the migration of records to the digital age left many behind in paper form, according to Snow. A decades-old missing persons report, which could be the link to one of the 62 cases, might not have made the transition to a computer file, and Snow said he repeatedly finds such records are in the ashes of a county courthouse that burned to the ground years ago.
One significant obfuscation is that many of the unidentifiable remains are those of people on the fringes of society - prostitutes, drug addicts, the homeless - who haven't maintained the same bonds that would cause someone to report them missing, or even know it, Snow said.
"In many cases we never knew and will never know where they came from," he said.
One such case haunts Snow.
Drug-related tattoos on the body of the man pulled from West Point Lake in 1990 clearly show how he lived, and the twin gunshot wounds in his head explain how he died, Snow said. The initials on the cigarette lighter found on his body may even be his.
The only evidence that seems to lead anywhere is a ring on his finger, the same type of ring the Missouri Pacific Railroad handed out to certain workers in 1978. Snow's efforts have yet to reveal a name, but he believes he's frustratingly close.
"It's the kind of thing that keeps you awake at night," Snow said.