How Pros Recover Bodies and Solve Murder Mysteries

"A smart detective knows how much may be learned from the environment in which a body has been found . . . "
-- Dr. Douglas Ubelaker, Bones, A Forensic Detective's Casebook, pg. 105.

Physical anthropologists are experts in human skeletal variation. Forensic anthropologists are physical anthropologists who apply their knowledge of human skeletal variations to civil and criminal investigations. Forensic anthropologists solve murders. Like archaeologists, forensic anthropologists recreate the past from rubble, according to Joyce and Stover, pgs. 3, 26.

Douglas H. Ubelaker is curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He is a nationally known expert in forensic anthropology and co-author of "Bones--A Forensic Detective's Casebook." According to the dust jacket on his book, Dr. Ubelaker is a "top consultant" to the FBI.

Best selling novelist Patricia D. Cornwell, author of All That Remains, says of Dr. Ubelaker, "When the terrible truth about a death lies mingled in the soil, or identity is reduced to a singe bone, investigators call Douglas Ubelaker. Dr. Ubelaker is truly one of the finest forensic sleuths of our time."

As Dr. Ubelaker points out, forensic anthropologists place utmost emphasis on examination of human remains at the site or situation of discovery, or in situ, and recovering the remains themselves. Once the relationship between the remains and the environment has been disturbed, it cannot be created again with accuracy, writes Dr. Ubelaker in Bones, pg. 107.

Several other noted forensic anthropologists echo Dr. Ubelaker's sentiments. They are Dr. William Maples, co-author of Dead Men Do Tell Tales, and Clyde Snow, whose work was memorialized by authors Joyce and Stover.

Let's take an example from Dr. Maples's book. He writes of a murder case in Florida. The sheriff's department had found remains at a burned out shack in rural High Springs. The sheriff mistakenly thought Dr. Maples was out of the country, and sent a technician to pick up the remains. Dr. Maples laments:

"If only I had been called in just two days sooner! The Alachua County Sheriff's Department thought I was out of the country, in Peru, and unreachable; in fact I had just returned to the United States the morning before the remains were discovered. I could easily have gone out to the burned shack and seen the remains in situ. Instead, an investigator from the medical examiner's office carefully gathered up every single bone fragment she could find . . .

"When I finally opened the vinyl bag I was overwhelmed. Inside, totally commingled and crushed, were approximately ten thousand bone fragments . . . as matters stood, the remains had been jumbled twice, once by the fire and again by the evidence technician." (Maples, pgs. 151-152)

Dr. Maples tells of his involvement in a Fort Myers, Florida case where three corpses had been found buried in the same grave.

"The corpses would have to be disinterred very carefully if a case were to be made against their murderers. The details of the crime would have to be reconstructed from the stratigraphic evidence of the scene." Dr. Maples took great care to make sure that happened. ". . . In those days I was having some back trouble. I found it excruciating to stoop over these corpses for hours on end. I compromised by crawling down into the hole and lying alongside the bodies, digging them out while lying next to them, face to face . . ." The care with which the murder victims were excavated demonstrated that the victim buried deepest had been shot last (Maples, pgs. 57-58 and photo caption).

Speaking of Clyde Snow's work in recovering the remains of the victims of the junta in Argentina, authors Joyce and Stover tell us: "By six o'clock, Snow and his assistants had uncovered the entire skeleton. They photographed the remains in situ and carefully placed the bones in small plastic bags" (Joyce & Stover, pg. 247).

So important is examining the remains in situ that if the forensic anthropologist can't get to the scene of the crime, the scene of the crime goes to the forensic anthropologist. Dr. Ubelaker describes such a case.

In 1985 a Massachusetts state policeman found some skeletal remains in the grass beside an interstate highway. "The skeleton was in wet ground and had become intricately embraced by a wild net work of shrubs, weeds, and vines, and "police investigator" Martin realized that to extricate it for examination would risk the destruction of potentially valuable evidence. A metal detector was brought in: careful probing within the frame of bones produced four bullets. After the scene was photographed in detail, he divided the body in two at the top of the legs, then lifted each half--bones, shreds of clothes, soil, plant life, root systems and all--in two huge blocks, which were packaged in heavy shipping crates and sent to Washington," writes Ubelaker (Ubelaker, pg. 105).

The crates were delivered to the FBI, which is situated close to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. A short time later Dr. Ubelaker says his phone rang. It was the FBI inviting him to come over. "Along with the bones, they've sent us a couple of acres of Massachusetts real estate," his contact told him. Dr. Ubelaker writes that he rushed right over.

"When the sides of the crate were removed, we all saw the body almost exactly has it had first been found." Dr. Ubelaker goes on to describe two huge cubes of earth, "like great chunks of chocolate cake" along with grass, twigs, roadside debris, and human bones.

Dr. Ubelaker comments that by addressing the problem of the anonymous roadside corpse in that manner, "we had a unique opportunity to see the remains in the laboratory in exactly the same relationship they had to each other in the field--and once that relation was disturbed, it could never be re-created with complete accuracy . . . Another great advantage in seeing the body in that context was that it allowed me to distinguish between trauma at the time of death (perimortem) and the effects of postmortem vegetable growth." Dr. Ubelaker calls the solution of the Massachusetts state police investigator "inspired" (Ubelaker, pg. 107).

Next: How Pros Identify Corpses

Back: Directory of Exhibits

Back: Death Gallery Entrance
Home: Museum Entrance
Search: Museum Text

Many people who distrust the mainstream media have turned to alternate news sources, some of which are Internet based.  Unfortunately, many of these alternate sources of news simply promote an alternate series of lies.  These alternate lies are of course dressed up as "exposés."  But you can easily tell the phonies from the real thing.  The information in the Waco Holocaust Electronic Museum is an acid test.

Does your news source promote Mike McNulty's video, Waco: The Rules of Engagement or wring its hands because the Davidian law suit against the government failed?  (See Waco Documentary Is A Hoax! and Waco Suits for Waco Suckers.) Does your alternate news source carry promotional pieces about rebuilding the Davidian church in Waco and mouth nice words about "healing"?  (See The Cover-up Church.)

Remember, since ancient times, inquiries into questionable deaths have started with the bodies of the victims.  If your news source won't give you an honest and full account of the forensic information on Waco, or if it does not have a link to the Waco Holocaust Electronic Museum ... your alternate news has failed a fundamental acid test.   

Published by Public Action, Inc., a news and news analysis service. All commercial rights are reserved. A full statement of terms and conditions for copying and redistribution is available in the Museum Library. "Waco Holocaust Electronic Museum," "SkyWriter," and the sky writing logo are trademarks of Public Action, Inc. To receive occasional dispatches on Waco issues, write to and put SUBSCRIBE in the subject line.

All original material is copyright 1996-2000 by Carol A. Valentine, on loan to Public Action, Inc.
Postal Address: Carol A. Valentine, PO Box 10933, Burke, VA 22009

This page last updated February 28, 2001.