Unlocking a Mystery
USF anthropologists use technology to serve long-lost victims
By Daylina Miller
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Feb. 12, 2010) - With the chilly wind whipping through the palm trees and graveside flower bouquets, the team of anthropologists and police officials got to work, marking three gravesites with white twine and pink and blue flags. Yellow tape kept reporters at bay, a stark contrast against the bright, cloudless sky.
The gravesites held the unidentified remains of homicide victims from decades past, which University of South Florida anthropologists were about to exhume. Their purpose: extract DNA samples - a technology not available when the victims died - with hopes that it will lead to identifying the unnamed victims and bring closure to families who are still missing their loved ones.
In 1969, the body of a white woman was found stuffed in a trunk behind the Oyster Bar restaurant in St. Petersburg. The cause of death was strangulation but the victim was never identified.
Four years later, a teenage girl known only as “Marie” was shoved into oncoming traffic during an altercation and died on impact. Lawrence Edward Dorn was charged with manslaughter but the larges were later dropped and the case closed. “Marie” was never identified.
And 30 years ago, two white men were shot to death at the Siesta Motel in St. Petersburg; neither had any identification. A suspect was arrested and charged with murder, but one of the victims was never identified.
“We were all there for a greater purpose--to give three individuals back their identities and to uncover the truth behind their deaths,” said USF student Lindsey Bressi, who is majoring in anthropology and criminology. “A big part of why I want to pursue this work is because I believe everyone's story deserves to be told.”
St. Petersburg Police cold case Investigator Brenda Stevenson echoed the sentiment.
“The exhumation is not anything we wanted to do but we are responsible to do it,” Stevenson said. “Even though they’re cold cases, law enforcement has a responsibility to identify the people and notify their families.”
Led by USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle and geologist Sarah Kruse, a half-dozen graduate students and one undergraduate from USF marked out specific locations of the three graves at Memorial Park Cemetery and helped Pinellas authorities remove the bodies on Feb. 10 for lab testing.
Using ground-penetrating radar, the students mapped the depth of the graves. Richard Estabrook of the Florida Public Archeology Network - a group whose aim is to inform the public about Florida archaeology and involve volunteers in regional research and preservation efforts - guided students in using the GPR, explaining the data it was extracting from the ground.
With the geographical data in hand, the students set up a grid to guide the earth mover as it dug into the cold ground. The machine scraped out a few feet of dirt, digging to just a few inches above the area where the remains were located.
The USF students who participated said they valued the experience as preparation for future careers as field anthropologists who would work with police to identify unknown victims.
“It’s very interesting to put to use all the knowledge and skills we learned in the classroom and apply them to something in the community,” said doctoral student Charles Dionne. “You get a broader background as an anthropologist from working with different people in the field. It’s a good balance between the academic side and the practical side.”
After the earth mover gouged out the dirt covering the bodies, students carefully lowered themselves into the rectangular gravesites, using shovels and trowels to meticulously scoop more dirt into 5-gallon buckets. They emptied the buckets into a sifter to look for fragmented bones and preserved materials in a process that went on for a full day until sundown.
The remains will be moved to the Pinellas County Medical Examiner’s Office, where DNA samples will be extracted and entered into the local database of missing persons. The remains then will be sent to the FBI, where more genetic material will be removed and entered into a national database that allows forensic laboratories nationwide to compare DNA samples.
The technology didn’t exist at the time of their deaths.
“I encourage families that have a missing person to submit a DNA sample,” Stevenson said. “That’s the only chance we have to identify these remains. Only DNA is going to make a positive identification.”
Florida has more than 500 unidentified remains, Kimmerle said. Victims go unidentified because of the large numbers of residents who have moved here from somewhere else, she said. Language and cultural boundaries, as well as legal ones, often hinder investigations.
“A lot of people might be here undocumented or seasonally for work and are fearful to go to law enforcement,” Kimmerle said.
The task of identification is not easy, especially in long ago cases.
The remains have decomposed over the years, leaving little biological evidence left to analyze. The exhumation and identification requires consulting experts in the field of anthropology, a science outside of many police detectives’ expertise – which is why Kimmerle is often consulted by local law enforcement agencies to handle such technical work.
“Dr. Kimmerle has been very helpful and cooperative with other cases and has the expertise to help in something like this,” said Bill Pellan, director of forensic investigations at the Pinellas medical examiner’s office. “Because the deceased have been buried for quite a few years, it’s not as simple as bringing up an intact casket and vault. You need to have an anthropologist who can help.
Technology aside, their work is motivated by the hope that three families haunted by a disappearance might finally know what happened to their loved one.
“What’s happening globally, the problem of missing, unidentified persons, is becoming a human rights issue,” Kimmerle said. “Families have the right to know what happened to loved ones, have their remains repatriated to them and seek justice in cases of homicide and criminal activity.”
Photos by Joseph Gamble and Daylina Miller.
The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.