Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Anthropology:

The Bones of 29 Young Men

John Wayne Gacy's home after it was demolished.
John Wayne Gacy's home
after it was demolished.

First they dug up an arm bone.  Then in another corner of the crawl space, they found a kneecap.  They called the medical examiner to confirm that they'd unearthed human remains.  He gave the go-ahead, and in December 1978, a team of police officers began the excavation that marked all of their careers as the most sensational apprehension of a murderer they'd ever experienced.

John Wayne Gacy
John Wayne Gacy

From the ground around and under the house at 8213 Summerdale Avenue in Des Plaines, Illinois, they would bring up twenty-nine separate bodies of young men in all different states of decomposition.  Several more were dredged up from the river, and John Wayne Gacy was charged with first-degree murder.  The final official total of his victims was 33. 

To put together a solid case and to bring closure to families who had been waiting as long as six years for news of a missing relative, investigators had to begin the painstaking task of identifying the bodies.  Some families came forward with photos, X-rays and dental records, and in other cases, driver's licenses and other forms of identification belonging to the victims were found in Gacy's home.  Because few parents of missing boys could believe that their sons would engage in the kind of homosexual activity that Gacy claimed happened, it became clear that some would offer no assistance.  Detectives had to use dental records, fingerprints, and X-rays of missing persons and assumed victims to get leads on the identities of many of the corpses.

When after six weeks they had succeeded with less than half of the bodies, they turned to a specialist in bones, forensic anthropologists Charles P. Warren and Clyde C. Snow.  Since Gacy had piled some bodies on top of others, their first task was to sort and separate individual bones.  In the end, it turned out that the typical victim was a Caucasian male in his teens or early twenties—and one had even been married.  Warren made charts for each body and examined the bones for unusual osteological features.  Forensic odontologists helped with the identification of teeth.

Snow compiled a chart for each skull, based on thirty-five points of reference that could be compared with descriptions in the many missing-person reports they had at their disposal.  For example, he determined that one skeleton had been that of a person who was five-feet-eleven, left-handed, had sustained a head injury and had broken his left arm.  All of this matched the missing former Marine, David Talsma.

After a year, there were still nine bodies left to identify.  Snow then brought in another expert, a sculptress, to examine seven of the skulls.

Betty Pat Gatliff agreed to join the team.  Her first step in working with a skull was to establish the thickness of the skin, and for that, she glued eraser-type markers on it at various strategic points.  Then she applied modeling clay in accordance with certain measurements, based on general data about facial anatomy.  That gave her an idea of what the mouth and cheeks would have looked like.  For the nose, if any slivers of cartilage remained, she arranged them to try to determine how large and what shape the nose had been.  For this, she relied on racial characteristics.  Then she inserted prosthetic eyes.  If any hair had been found with the body, she used a wig of the appropriate color.  Then her reconstructions were ready for the photographer.

Despite all of this effort, people were reluctant to come forward, so the nine victims remained unidentified.  Even so, it was a clear case in which forensic anthropology made an obvious contribution—and it's likely that much less progress could have been made without such expertise.

Let's look more closely at how anthropologists work.

 

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