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Bones will tell the story

FGCU professor’s forensic team tries to make a case for TV

“I’m diggin’ up bones, I’m diggin’ up bones; Exhuming things that’s better left alone.” — From the song, “Diggin’ Up Bones”

With all due respect to Randy Travis’ Grammy Award-winning tune, some exhumed bones are not better left alone. In fact, forensic anthropologists such as Associate Professor Heather Walsh-Haney and her student team at Florida Gulf Coast University can help solve mysteries – even unthinkably horrible crimes – by examining unearthed fragments.

And in today’s culture of reality-charged entertainment, the yet-untold story of these exhumed bones could make great television. In this case of human remains found scattered in six truckloads of dirt dug up in Brevard County in mid-April, an examination by Walsh-Haney, forensic studies program leader at FGCU, and her student sleuths will help determine whether the story behind these bones is compelling enough for reality TV.

That’s why a three-man film crew from New York City-based Sirens Media was sound-wiring Walsh-Haney, some of her nine-student team and two investigators from the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office at the laboratory inside 209 Merwin Hall in May. The mission behind this convergence of science, law enforcement and entertainment was threefold:

  • For Walsh-Haney, it’s another mystery she has been called upon to help solve scientifically with the assistance of her best students, her reputation as an expert forensic anthropologist continuing to grow.
  • For homicide agent Troy Deavers and crime-scene investigator Erin Strait, both of the Brevard sheriff’s office, it’s the hope that work by the FGCU team can give detectives something to go on. Strait asked WalshHaney to get involved after meeting her at the National Forensic Academy at the University of Tennessee, where the FGCU professor was teaching a course in forensic anthropology.
  • For Joe Venafro, executive producer with Sirens Media, it’s deciding whether the findings hint at a tale of homicide, one that’s potentially sensational enough to captivate viewers of “The Killing Fields,” a real-life, cold-case crime series focusing on unsolved mysteries that airs on The Discovery Channel.

The remains in the Brevard field were found when a machine clearing vegetation from berms in a remote wooded area struck an object that the operator discovered was a skull. Three days later, teams of as many as 20 Brevard sheriff’s staffers at a time had sifted through six truckloads of dirt by hand to unearth the scattered remains that were tagged on tables in the FGCU lab.

The cameras were rolling soon after 10 a.m. this day in May, the backdrop being the lab inside Merwin Hall where the analysis of skeletal remains took place in a space where every inch is in full scientific use. The floor is filled with a series of oblong tables set up for various studies. The walls are draped with charts detailing forensic techniques such as fingerprint analysis, solving cold cases through reanalysis of human skeletal remains and decomposition variables. One wall is covered by shelves of boxes containing studies present and past, stacked in eight rows of 12. A small side room contains animal remains stored separately from the human ones in the main room.

When the lab isn’t being used for academic purposes, it’s a place where Walsh-Haney helps fulfill her service requirement for the university by leading forensic investigations, often to assist law enforcement. This particular case isn’t unlike many others she has worked as a consultant for several Florida medical examiners and with disaster-response teams.

“There was the unceremonious disposition of human remains, which is always suspicious,” said Walsh-Haney, who came to FGCU as a visiting instructor in 2005 while she finished her doctoral work in physical and forensic anthropology at the University of Florida, where she had earned master’s and bachelor’s degrees in anthropology. She became an assistant professor at FGCU in 2007 and associate professor five years later, adding the title of program leader for forensic studies in 2013.

“When our dead pass away, we have rituals in place to celebrate their lives and mourn their deaths,” Walsh-Haney said. “This person died in a wooded area, left to the elements to molder. The remains are fragmentary and riddled with roots and dirt.

“That’s when I really get to work – find out who the person was, how they died and estimate time of death. I have to separate what might have happened from scavenging animals versus what may speak to what happened at or around the time of death, which is very difficult to do.”

The preliminary discussion takes place at a side table as Walsh-Haney and two of her graduate students, Sam Wade and Austin Polonitza, brief the two sheriff’s investigators on what they’ve learned so far. Walsh-Haney leads the discussion, but she’s quick to let the students – all of whom are wearing the team “uniform,” a cobalt-blue polo that has “Forensic Anthropology” printed on the back with the FGCU logo and team members’ names showing out front – contribute information they’ve discovered.

When all was added up, Walsh-Haney and the forensics team came to a preliminary conclusion: The remains are that of a male older than 40, likely Caucasian of Asian or Hispanic ancestry, who had a painful back and bad teeth and who played or worked in and around water frequently. The man’s body was no deeper than four or five feet in the ground, and Walsh-Haney would give a conservative estimate that he was buried there from one to eight years, although Wade added that bleaching on a rib bone indicated the possibility of a more narrow three-to-five-year window.

The FGCU forensic anthropology team would send the sheriff’s investigators back to Brevard with a rib determined to be suitable for DNA extraction, which is being done at the University of North Texas and could take up to a year.

“There is some very specific information that I cannot share at this point due to the nature of the investigation,” Deavers of the Brevard sheriff’s office said. “But (Walsh-Haney’s) help was invaluable, and she is the sole reason we are able to proceed with what we have at this point.”

Only time will tell whether the case will rise to made-for-TV-mystery material. “The big deal is if they can identify the individual,” TV producer Venafro said. “The case has to be interesting enough to sustain six hours (six one-hour episodes). We’re just waiting on the evidence to see if they can identify the victim before we move forward.”

While Walsh-Haney wouldn’t venture to call the remains’ discovery more than “suspicious” based on what she had learned, you can read between the lines of her take on the site where the remains were found. “The location is not necessarily one where people go for a walk,” she said.

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