Death defying

Thursday, January 22, 2004

On any given day, the setting of Harrell Gill-King’s laboratory looks the same. Bodies. Bones. Human remains are resting on tables, in cabinets, all around the room. Waiting to be pieced back together, analyzed, laid to rest.A 14-year-old girl murdered and dumped along Interstate 45 in Huntsville.A badly scavenged body found scattered in a West Texas field.A woman found dead in a bag discarded near a highway in 1981.“Every day when I walk into the lab, the bodies on the table speak, asking me, ‘Who am I?’“And every day I work as hard as I can to find the answer for as many of them as possible,” says the director of the University of North Texas’ Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology and Human Identification.Most of the time, he succeeds. Sometimes he does not.As one of only 60 board-certified forensic anthropologists in the world, Gill-King works almost exclusively with the remains of people who have been murdered or who have died under mysterious circumstances.He and the UNT human identification lab are a commodity highly sought after by law enforcement agencies, coroners, and medical examiners and district attorney offices around the state. Because the lab is funded by the university, the work Gill-King does is offered free to Texas agencies. This means that if there’s a corpse and a mystery, he will almost always be asked to help solve the puzzle.So he reads the story that living life writes on every person’s bones.“A great deal of who we are physically, our occupations, diets, health, illnesses, even where we’ve lived is recorded in our bones,” he says.Because bone typically remodels under the stress of our activities, the biomechanical habits of living (the way we brush our teeth, the labor we do routinely for work, our nutritional habits) leave clear markings on our skeletons.With those markings, he identifies sex, race, age, physical stature and physique, and often occupation He learns the time and cause of death. And he finds out who the person was.Forensic anthropology, like all science, works conservatively. The point is to disprove rather than to prove, to show that the body on the table is a particular person because it cannot be anyone else. This is a technique scientists call “the null hypothesis”.How Gill-King does that varies every time he goes to work.“Each case is as unique as the person on the table. So what I do and what I look for differ somewhat in each instance,” he says. And when he begins looking, he uses a number of tools to help him find the specific answers.Among those are missing-person databases, medical and dental records, elaborate computer programs that perform digitized facial reconstruction, and, often, mitochondrial DNA testing performed at another laboratory operated by Dr. Art Eisenberg at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in. Fort Worth.“If a case requires DNA analysis, they are our ‘go to’ guys”, Gill-King says. “In that instance, we perform the physical analysis, determine the basic biological profile – sex, age, ancestry, physique- and attempt to discover how the victim died. If we cannot make an identification, we submit specimens to the Texas Missing Persons DNA Database jointly operated by the two labs.”One such case involves a woman found dead and discarded in a bag near a highway in 1981. Gill-King has the challenge of piecing together what happened and of determining who the woman was, 23 years after she was found.But not all the cases are of the same variety.In addition to working on little-known cases, Gill-King’s lab has participated in high-profile investigations, including identifying victims of confessed Texas serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, victims in the Bosnian conflict and victims in mass tragedies such as airline crashes and the Oklahoma City bombing, World Trade Center event, and the Columbia space shuttle tragedy.“Because of the different things we see and are asked to find, this line of work is an ongoing education,” he says. “We’re always learning something new, and that something might make our next case easier, or it might add to a larger statistical picture that could help others.”For instance, because of statistical information gathered by forensic specialists of various kinds, we know that if children who have been abducted are not found within the first 24 hours, about 90 percent of the time they will be found dead or with a noncustodial parent.“We learned this by studying the pattern of postmortem interval, (length of time a person had been dead as determined from careful study of the remains) in relation to the time of abduction,” Gill-King says.That kind of information helped put the Amber Plan in place. Named after a 9-year-old Arlington girl who was abducted and killed, the immediate-alert plan is an agreement between authorities and area TV and radio stations to broadcast information about missing children and their kidnappers.And the Amber Plan — set in motion as soon as a child is reported missing — increases the chances of finding an abducted child alive.The place Gill-King spends his days and nights working with human remains, putting pieces together in search of information is a suite of laboratories off the beaten path and away from curious eyes.The lab, in the Department of Biological Sciences, is the hub of forensic studies at UNT. Five graduate students are focusing on three different areas of expertise — forensic anthropology, trace evidence and molecular biology (or DNA studies).While studying with Gill-King, the students learn how to unlock the secrets of life from the remnants of death.After graduation, they go on to work in crime labs, medical examiner’s offices and law enforcement agencies as forensic specialists.Graduate student Mark Ingraham works directly with Gill-King on the cases that come through the lab. He says it is the best preparation he could have.“I work directly on the remains, doing analysis and identifications, not just entering data or doing menial details that most graduate students in forensic programs have to do,” he says.Gill-King says that Ingraham and the other graduate students actually share the caseload because it gives them a head start in honing their most important tools — their powers of observation and deduction.“Human identification is like building a car around a key,” Gill-King says.“You can’t possibly do that if you haven’t been moving through the world with your eyes open, observing, participating and filling your mind with a lot of information.”

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