The Bone Lady, Part II
When a case comes in to the staff in her lab, the first step is to describe its condition on arrival. Then the remains get photographed and X-rayed. After that, the staff removes any putrefying soft tissue from the bones. If a skeleton is disarticulated (not connected), they reassemble it, bone by bone. They also take careful note and make impressions of any dental work and tooth formations to send to dentists or odontologists. That helps with identification. (Even when they think they know who it is, they must have proof.) They then look for evidence of trauma to the bone. All of this is carefully documented for potential use in court.
"If there's a lot of putrefactive tissue on a skull or on a long bone that might obscure what happened to that person," Manhein explains, "then we remove the tissue, examine the remains, and put them back together again."
To clean up bones, they cut the tissue away with scalpels, taking care to avoid scraping the bone. "Then we heat the bones with detergent. To avoid damage, you have to be careful and know when to stop."
The F.A.C.E.S. lab at LSU is quite unique. It's been in development since 1980, with special computer features added a decade later. Staffed primarily by female professionals, they offer a variety of services. "We do the traditional forensic anthropology," Manhein points out, "where we set up a profile—that means age, sex, height, time since death, and what happened. We may also help to get the person identified with dental records. In addition to that, we've added the computer enhancement component, where we do age progression from photos. My assistant was trained at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, yet we take it beyond what they do. We also do the computer enhancement on missing felons and missing adults. And we can clear up videotapes of robberies of convenience stores."
They work with agencies from the international level to local, accepting cases from all over the country and trying to get as much exposure as they can.
"We've got one that we feel could be identified," Manhein says. "This is an FBI case. Picture this: Her remains were found wrapped up in a fishing net, taped down. She was shot in the chest and anchored down with a forty-pound, homemade, concrete anchor. She was found in the early part of February 1999, 15 miles off the southernmost coast of Louisiana, out in the Gulf of Mexico. When we received her, we found the bullet and we were able to give a good description. She was white, 45-55, short brown hair, dead a week or so, had many crowns and fillings in her teeth, and was wearing a butterfly necklace. After more examination, we found that the tibia and fibula in her lower left leg had been broken sometime during her life and healed. She also had a problem in her right knee, so she might have been favoring it because of that break, which means she may have walked with a limp. We had an incredibly detailed profile. We even did a facial reconstruction, and put it into the newspaper and on our website. The FBI did a major publicity campaign and we thought we'd get a quick resolution, but she remains unidentified."
Manhein doesn't like open cases. The more help she can get from someone stepping forward with a lead, the better. She even lists some of her cases in her book, in the fashion of an Unsolved Mysteries episode. Her passion is to solve these cases and bring closure to families.
Just as Manhein combines anthropology and art, other scientists combine the identification of remains with bugs. Let's go down on the Body Farm and then talk to an entomologist.