Wednesday, June 08, 2005


9:39 a.m. I am writing to you from the shores of Lake Michigan outside of my home. What a great day. Warm and sunny. The sand is already starting to get a bit hot, but I can always jump in the 45 degree water to take care of that. When I get cold and numb enough and my teeth begin to chatter, I run back to my blanket and bake for a while. Ah. I smile. It makes me remember that there is life outside of my truck.

I have debated up to this point whether to include any of my work in forensics on this blog. I am not sure why I wanted to keep that to myself other than maybe
this blog has been something of a journal on my current pursuits. Anyway, I decided that didn't make much sense.

Back a few years ago I was working as a death investigator in Florida. This story is a bones case.

I love bones. In fact, I went to a Dave Barry book signing last year and had him signed a horse ulna from my collection. Yes, my collection. I also have a couple of dogs, a ferret, cat, horse, cow, and the jaw from a 9-foot long shark that ate a police diver. (A story for later.) I got my degree in physical anthropology, (the study of human skeletal remains), with an emphysis on forensics. I did a lot of gunshot wound analysis and curated a skeletal collection in college. I was fortunate to be mentored by two amazing and brilliant professors who have remained great friends to this day.

11:22 a.m. I was called out on a case in a forest perserve on the east side of the county. Apparently, an anonymous caller left a tip with the cops that a skeleton was lying out by the railroad tracks. We had several prostitute murders over the past year or so, so I wasn't shocked to get the call. In fact, as an interesting aside, I read a while ago in the paper that after 5 years they finally found the serial killer who was responsible. The final death count attributed to him was in the upper teens or twenties, if I remember correctly.

I get the call from dispatch giving me directions to the scene and the telephone number of the lead homicide detective. I smile. Carl is a good one. He might be slightly out of his depth, but he is an honest cop and he tries to get it right. I grab a couple of extra pairs of latex gloves and shove them in my field investigation kit. I pick up the keys to the Explorer and head out.

The medical examiner's office is located in the worst possible part of town. Often, when I worked the night shift, I would hear gunshots from the surrounding neighborhoods. I could feel my pulse begin to race and the muscles in my neck tighten with tension. I'd look down at the body I was fingerprinting and think to myself, I feel safer with the corpses than I do out there. I was well aware that I was just a flimsy chain-link fence from the real danger of a gang-filled southern ghetto.

I back the Explorer out of it's spot and wait for the gate to open. It occurs to me how ironic it is that Explorers were being blamed for fatal roll-overs all over the country and look at what they give me to drive? I buckle my seatbelt.

I arrive on scene 20 minutes later. The uniforms are manning the police line and as soon as I approach one says to me, "Ma'am, media is not allowed beyond this point." I get that a lot. I pull out my badge and tell him I'm a forensic investigator from the ME's office. He apologizes and lifts the tape for me to duck under. "You look like a reporter." He says with a shy smile. He's kinda cute and I smile back, tell him, "No problem", and walk over to the waiting detective. Carl is tall and bald and dresses well. He's wearing a China blue dress shirt with a gray tie that perfectly matches his slacks. I can see sweat stains the size of Texas spreading under his arms. And no wonder. It's 98 degrees out and as humid as it can get without raining. Par for the course in Florida. Carl is busy writing information down on a notepad and when he sees me he lifts a hand in greeting.

"I've been waiting for you for an hour." I shrug and ask him what we've got. In Florida, nobody is to touch the body before the ME arrives and does an investigation. Consequently, detectives can get rather antsy if they have to wait for us. Carl directs me to an open patch of ground under a thicket of tall scrub pines. The area is sandy and right off the railroad tracks. I see skeletal remains spread over a 10 foot square area. There has been some scavenging by wild animals but it appears that most everything is still present. I peer closely at a femur. "That one has been moved. Do you see how there is no muddy splash back from the rain we had this morning?" Carl confirms that the person who called said he'd picked up a bone and then replaced it before leaving.

The forehead is rounded and the features are gracile. The muscle attachments are weak and she has a pointed jaw at the midline. I begin talking to myself. "A female. She was small. Very small. Maybe 4'10" or so." I am doing my preliminary skeletal analysis from behind the police tape because the helicopter needs to take aerial shots before we disturb the bones.

Hmmmm. Bones are fused and the wisdom teeth are present, so she is an adult. Her skeleton is young, though. No artheretic changes. No lipping on the vertebral surfaces. No remodeling of the facial bones. But her teeth. They are horrible. Several were missing prior to her death. A couple have fallen out since then, but they are easy to distinguish because the sockets show no signs of resorption. A lot of untreated cavities and few fillings. "She was young, but it takes time to get teeth that bad. I would say she's between 25 and 30 years old."

Her jaw is somewhat squared and her midface is neutral. There is also a hair mass a few feet from the skull. Red. "Caucasian." I say.

"I can't see any obvious trauma at this point. No gunshot wounds. No broken bones. Maybe she was strangled or something."

I don't see much flesh left. Just a few sinewy strands of muscle tissue attached to fairly clean bones. This is a surface scene. Nothing has been buried. "I am estimating she's been here for between 3 weeks and a month."

I walk back to my vehicle and wait in the blessed air conditioning for the helicopter to finish taking pics. I decide to call in the anthropology department from a local university to do a proper dig. It will be good experience for the students.

A few minutes later, Carl walks up to my window and knocks. "I got a match on the profile you gave." He says. My eyes widen. He tells me that a prostitute has been missing for a month and her mother called in a report on her two weeks ago. She was a white girl, 4'11", 28 years, red hair. Mother of two. Drug addict. I sigh and hope that my profile was accurate (seeing as I never got a chance to even pick up a bone.)

I got her dental records the next day. Turns out it was her.


Lori D said...

Fascinating Post.
Sad ending though, but in forensics, I suppose thats pretty common.

kunal said...

hey polly!

u cease to were the number 2 woman on my list,(after a dutch farmer girl i know from back home, who can shoot an impala, then skin and gut it,and have the juiciest steaks ul ever taste on the table within an hour..) but a forensic?? ooh la la, u take #1! my sis wants to do forensix, im goin to recommend her read your blog for inspiration!


mad Scientist said...

Hey Polly not only are you a beautiful intelligent woman with a great voice, but you have a flair for writting too. But why oh why do you want to blog from the beach!!! Beaches are to be enjoyed in solitude no computers or cell phones. Have fun and safe travels ;-)

Eleanor said...

WOW, Polly -how great to have such expertise in your field - brilliant!what a career you've had - and are still having!

More great stories, please! :)

Jeff Meyerson said...

Wow, Polly, pretty good without even touching the bones. I vote they fire David Caruso and hire you.

Who's with me?

and the jaw from a 9-foot long shark that ate a police diver. (A story for later.)

Can't wait for that one. Any gator stories?

Higgy said...

Nice story, Polly! Keep 'em coming!

kibby F5 said...

Lookin good Polly! Any idea if this one turned out to be related to the serial killer you mentioned? Oh, and F22's finished her 1st semister of CST. And she's still liking it.

Jas... said...

Polly, this is by far, the coolest blog I have ever run across. I am definitely a repeat visitor!

slyeyes said...

Polly, good one!

Jeff Meyerson said...

My friend Bill (a mystery writer) said She must be talking about "the railroad killer."

Railroad Killer?

slyeyes said...

Oh, yeah. I heard about the railroad killer. There were victims found along the route of a train from Texas going north. Not necessarily along the tracks, but the general route of the train. They thought the guy would hope a train, ride for a while, jump off, rob some homes for food and money, find a girl -- eventually kill her, then hop back on the train. I thought they caught him somewhere in Tennessee or Kentucky. And, I believe, that student who was missing for 7 years and found last week in Florence, KY was originally thought to be one of his victims.

That's probably all more than you wanted to know.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this woman amazing! I have never met one finer. One day I can say i ........................

kibby F5 said...

WOW! ananymous sounds - scarey ?