Decomposing Bodies to Solve Cold Case Murders

I don't know how many dead bodies you

guys have seen especially in this stage

being out here it's just like a crime

scene so it's uh it's kind of natural to

me I guess at this point so it doesn't

really sound really freaking me out

since 1980 you of 250,000 unsolved

homicides in this country you know on

average is gonna be 450 added every year

that's just Florida the National

Institute of justice has called it our

nation's silent mass disaster


today unlike ever before we have more

tools more technology we we keep do

things that like even five years ago we

couldn't do where the problem is is that

there's no funding for it it's really

important that we think about them as

the people that they were they

disappeared from their lives and in each

case there's a family you know somebody

looking for them

and it's like until that case is solved

you just disappear



my name is Erin Kimberly I'm a friend's

acam through Paula gist at University of

South Florida I do a lot of case for for

local law enforcement mostly open

homicides but we took on some big

projects in the last few years like a

cold-case initiative this country has

over 50,000 unidentified remains Florida

has close to a thousand of those in

anthropology we look at humanity from a

biological perspective probably grow

hopefully interact with the environment

so it's basically taking the methods and

what we do in math discipline and now

applying it to me stuff investigations

individuals are found typically it's in

a public place right something that

doesn't link them to their location

there I'm known the question is who's

this person and so we use skeletal

remains to try and find that answer we

have the number of donors outlet we've

had 38 come through the program so far

they are placed outside on the surface

they're modern people we know everything

about them and it helps improve our

methods for human identification so this

space is three and a half acres it's

mostly grassland you can see it's very

open and then there's a corner of it

which is wooded and the low-lying area

so it's a great micro environment to

look at all the different things that we

study here and you see the cages are for

keeping away vultures and scavengers and

possums and other critters that might

come and disturb the remains in some

cases we've left that off in order to

look at what those activities are and

we've been really surprised a lot of

what affects rates of decomposition and

outdoor crime scenes is local

environments so there's a real need for

this type of work all over the country

with decomposition the grass died

there's no vegetation that's typical we

caught like a burial silhouette or

burial steam after a period of time the

vegetation will grow back and then it

will grow back larger and they'll do

better than the surrounding area in some

places where the grass has grown up and

you can see like there's little patches

or it's particularly large those are

areas where we have burials the

low-lying part of the facility right now

it's dry but in the other part of the

year or when it rains every day this

fills up with water and the water will

get to about this level the red mold and

stuff you know Florida is water

everywhere and so that's something

that's been largely ignored in research

related to


last 10 20 years how crime scene has

been approached and process is like well

we're outside so just pick up everything

put it in a bag and bring it back to the

lab what happens when you do that is

that your context is lost you've lost so

much information how did things come to

view where they are that helps you

recreate that whole scenario of what

happened whether a person is killed in

that location or killed somewhere else

and brought to that location like those

are the circumstances we want to

understand excuse-excuse my name is

George Lloyd green and I've been in law

enforcement for 33 years nothing

surprises me anymore

you know it's like a doctor I guess or a

hospice nurse and you're dealing with

death all the time and people that you

have to remove yourself from the

attachment this is a human being that if

you let it get to you they would consume

you and looking at the human body or the

way someone was murdered if they were

killed so you just have to try to treat

them as okay this is the crime scene I

don't know how many dead bodies you guys

have seen especially in this stage as

the body decomposes skin loses all its

texture and all the fluids out of it and

this person is only out here what a week

no dignity and death look at all the

maggots from there's thousands of them

you're just devouring the flesh

they could be helpful to us to let us

know how long the body is here for you

say gee you know by the magnet activity

they had to be here at least four days

so now you can go back from four days

maybe there's surveillance footage maybe

there's a witness obviously this one is

here nothing but bones when we first

initially come we're looking for say the

skull is this goal cracked open is there

blunt trauma to the skull we want to

know if this was a homeless person who

was wandering around and died of natural

causes or was this individual murdered

then the remains would go to the medical

examiner's office and they would see if

there was anything on the remains that

we could you know decipher how this

person died you don't know what's

relevant at the scene until you go back

and start digging so that's why when you

come out here we would take everything

law enforcement and scientists seem very

different however like detectives as a

scientist I like things very simple

because the simplest explanation is most

often the correct life we had a

symposium here there's like six other

facilities like this around the country

and the directors of all those

facilities came for a weekend and it was

really neat to sort of see in here what

they're doing and the difference is

Texas gets a lot of altars but nowhere

near what we do everyone else even if

there's vultures in the area they don't

really mess up the bodies I think the

toughest cases are those where there's

just very little information maybe we

find a skull but not all the remains

the vultures we've seen we see them

coming unseen but I've never seen a

video how they turned the whole body

which could now altered our crime scene

if that was in fact a murder when we go

out to see Lucia body like that maybe

that's not in the same condition the


yeah or if it was a suicide and that

person killed himself and they had a

firearm now the birds come in and they

turned the whole body the firearm could

have been picked up by one of them with

a body pod

dropped a hundred feet away and now it

looks more like a murder when it was

really a suicide so how do you start to

put back together all that information

you do it by treating your outdoor scene

like you would an indoor scene for this

project we've been really interested in

having control over the site and

establishing you know location for

everything so mapping in all of the body

positions with both GPS and then we also

have terrestrial laser scanning that we

use and some of the applications with

that that we've used for law enforcement

is when searching for clandestine graves

buried bodies so this is from the

terrestrial laser scanner that is

showing differences in elevation so for

example in this we can look at if you

have areas of subsidence tracks yeah you

see the paths where people are walking

in so I mean it's pretty interesting the

level of detail you can get elevation

wise literally it freezes a site in time

the more contacts we can have the better

chance of solving it and that's where

how we process the scene is really


this is great the body founds it helps

us as homicide investigators because it

can help us timeline or wide some

particular marks were on a body proper

removal so we don't damage any evidence

I would like to get all the rookies to

come down here who have never seen a

dead body so they can learn what happens

to the body what it looks like yeah yeah

it's all a learning experience everybody

has to work together you know hand in

hand because we're on the same goal is

to find our victim will you bury a body

and if you haven't been here for a year

or two it's like take some probing rods

in there and see if I mean just

something to see if you would actually

would smell the remains of somebody in

the ground for a year or two I guess

depending on the depth how badly they

decomposed we could try something like

that if that would work yeah yeah oh the

guy who years ago you in the back when

Jill had the guy who hung himself up in

the tree he's like 60 feet up in the


and someone found the part of a bone of

a person on the floors like Pidgey where

this guy this bone and they went out

looking oh there he was to help identify

somebody who's unknown the more

information we have to work with the

more complete a picture we can put

together of who this person might have

been things need to be improved in a

system communication right everything

works together

anthropology helps inform medical

examiner's in law enforcement of a lot

of different components of who this

person was and what happened to them

this is the forensic anthropology

laboratory it's essentially a dry lab so

we work on skeletal remains here all my

research since graduate schools been in

skeletal biology basic you know that's

like the core of the science there's a

lot that we learn about a person from

their biology what we're really excited

about is chemical isotope test II


one of the easier isotopes to talk about

is the oxygen isotope because water is

made up of primarily of oxygen and

hydrogen you're drinking the tap water

the foods that you eat it's also what

you breathe in and so that becomes

embedded in your chemical signature your

biochemistry throughout your life and so

when we look at the oxygen isotopes and

the teeth it gives us a good idea where

that person may have been raised or

where they may have been born so what

I'm showing you is a broad overview of a

oxygen isotope map you can differentiate

from areas of the southwest region

because there's so much precipitation

here in Florida and Georgia and you know

the southern states you tend to have

heavier isotopes when you start to

migrate upward up north and over to the

west coast you have less precipitation

and you have higher altitudes and that

is really helpful because we can knock

down our kind of triangulate a region

for that individual

when we look at the oxygen isotopes in

the bone that gives us a good regional

idea of where they have been living in

the last five or ten years you can look

at someone's nail within six months and

see if they've actually moved from one

country to another we're using multiple

isotopes so it can help kind of

triangulate kind of like that past life

history of that person one of the things

that's been really important and helpful

to us is the ability to do 3d printing

we use it to help with facial

reconstructions so we put to shoot up

some markers on the skull basically

little erasers are cut at links

reflective of the soft tissue at that

point on the skull

so obviously cheeks and the chin they're

wider whereas on the forehead there

quite a bit narrower I take notes on our

biological profile that we recreate in

the lab so in this case I have

determined this is a male individual

who's over fifty years old he has

European or white ancestry and so we

will use tissue depths that will reflect

that population

and you can actually see some really

interesting features of those individual

so he has dentures which of course will

help build him the structure to his face

and then has fractures on his nose so I

will take notes on all of this to give

turned forensic artists so that they can

take those different features and those

special nuances into account as they're

doing their facial reconstruction

depending on which method of friends of

court we're using to make the face for

example it's clay the model will

actually have the clay sculpture built

right on it if it's going to be a

composite or a digital composite or

illustration then we're altima doing

that on the computer but we're doing it

in 2d so we take that nice 3d model that

we have flatten it to a 2d image and

then build the face over it the key in

these cases is to get that information

out to the public because someone knows

who they are

someone may know what happened to them

hopefully that triggers someone's memory

hey George the first guys on the scene

if they really don't know they can you

know potentially mess it up for you


I'd say to do this type of work it is

very difficult and very challenging and

I think you'd find that across the board

both within anthropology and then within

homicide units where they are trying to

deal with cold cases where the problem

is is that there's no funding for it

I find that whether it's the public or

politicians or others they tend to just

think this is already covered by

somebody else's priorities Nielsen's

budgets and we all should have it


it is the responsibility of medical

examiners and law enforcement to

identify people and solve cases but the

cases keep coming in every day so as the

years pass and they turn to decades

whose responsibility is it just go back

and say well we've still have all these

open cases from years and decades ago

let's continue to work them as hard as

we're working the ones coming in this


some agencies embrace it but a lot on

that I think is where as part of the

whole justice system sort of breaks down

accountability for that


we do you know a lot of events

specifically to target certain cases and

get it out to the public and every time

we've sold cases so we know it works but

without any resources and funding it's

just impossible to sustain about half of

the cases in here that we're featuring

come from Florida and the other half

come from around the country and they've

been largely neglected for decades so

this little girl for example was found

in Philadelphia in the 80s and it's the

first time there's been a facial

reconstruction for her this is a teenage

girl who actually went missing from New

Hampshire and her remains were found in

1985 this is a woman found murdered and

inside of a trunk found on Halloween in

1969 we really wanted to feature it this

year and just get it out again because

whoever knew her you know may be quite

old early today and so we want to reach

them while we have that chance I used to

have scene shows she probably came from

another state north of here maybe the

Carolinas in Kentucky that that general

northern part of the south east region

this is a gentleman that was probably in

his 60s of 70 he actually died alone in

a movie theater in Philadelphia never

been identified but also they never had

a good facial out there and haven't

haven't tried for a long time

people often ask how accurate are they

we work to make them as accurate as

possible based on the biology and the

Anatomy we've had a lot of success with

it we had one case that we were going to

feature and right before the event she

got identified which was great she

didn't missing for about over 30 years

and so we just included this example the

show that the process does work in the

there's a lot of hope for cases that are

even decades old the thing about an

exhibit and by using art and making it

visual as I think people can connect to

it and it becomes an experience not just

a story in the paper you read but

something that can be emotional

connection what struck me the most in

interacting people as I'll say like wow

the eyes are so powerful or did they

really have freckles and curly hair and

things like that and it's really

important I think that we think about

them as the people that they were they

disappeared from their lives and in each

case there's a family you know somebody

looking for them the thing I've heard

over and over from families it's always

paramount to them but they know what

happened even though that truth might be

horrific but not knowing is worse the

message that we've always said and

always tried to make is that anything

that we do with the dead it is for the

living I can tell you generally crime

rates are going up homicides are going

up and so it's the unsolved