Ever wonder what bone looks like when it isn’t inside the body?
What happens when scavengers find and act upon a body that’s been dumped outdoors?
Do scavengers eat the bones, bury them, hide them, bring them back for show and tell for the kids?
What the HELL happens to all the damn bones, anyways?
This was the topic of my Master’s research. And I’m still looking into it today. Why? Because there are no easy answers.
These are questions often asked of people who search for human remains. Remember the Chandra Levy case? (Apparently there was even a movie made of the case.) In short, Chandra went missing in 2001. A year later, human remains were found in a city park. Volunteer civilian and law enforcement searchers looked all over that park for more remains. They found some. Then, a month later, more remains and potential evidence were discovered by private investigators.
Let that sit with you.
How would you feel if your missing loved one still had pieces missing? How would you feel knowing that search efforts didn’t find everything? How would that sit with you?
Chandra’s remains were identified though dental records, but what if dental records weren’t available? What if her skulls hadn’t been found? Her remains might still be unidentified to this day.
What if there were human remains that can’t be identified because there isn’t enough information? (Guess what? There are lots!)
Things aren’t as easy as TV and movies make it out to be. A positive identification on human remains can only be done if there is something to compare the remains to. For example, a DNA sample from the remains needs to be compared to a DNA sample of either the missing person or a close relative. It’s not like DNA comes with a label of the name of the person. I’m pretty sure my DNA doesn’t read “Yvonne Kjorlien”.
DNA can be contaminated. It’s analysis is also time-consuming and expensive. Dental records or the skull may not be available. If, as I stated above, there are lots of human remains that are unidentified because of lack of information, what do we do about that?
Get more information!
This is what my research is for: increasing the amount of potential forensic evidence so that investigators have the information they need to identify the deceased, determine how they died, and close the case. It’s all about finding the pieces of a puzzle to figure out what happened to whom.
However, as with many cases like Chandra’s, those people who search often aren’t trained in how remains look in outdoor contexts and how remains may be scatter. To make matters worse, there isn’t a lot of information with which to train searchers.
I aim to change that.
I’ve developed a short online course based on my research of scattered remains. This course is aimed at searchers who have no training or need a refresher course. There are lots of pictures, a bit of insight, and some questions to get you thinking about where all those damn bones went.
But this isn’t the end. There’s lots more that can be done. Stay tuned!
Kjorlien, Yvonne, Beattie, Owen, Peterson, Arthur. (2009). Scavenging activity can produce predictable patterns in surface skeletal remains scattering: Observations and comments from two experiments. Forensic Science International. 188 (1): 103-106.
Komar, Debra A. and Wendy E. Potter (2007). Percentage of Body Recovered and Its Effect on Identification Rates and Cause and Manner of Death Determination. Journal of Forensic Sciences 52(3): 528-531.
Young, Alexandria, Richard Stillman, Martin Smith and Amanda Korstjens (2014). Scavenging in Northwestern Europe: A Survey of UK Police Specialist Search Officers. Policing 8(2): 156-164.
Young, Alexandria, Richard Stillman, Martin Smith and Amanda Korstjens (2016). Applying Knowledge of Species-Typical Scavenging Behavior to the Search and Recovery of Mammalian Skeletal Remains. Journal of Forensic Sciences 61(2): 458-466.