University forensic science team reveals stories of the dead
ERIE, Pa. (AP) — Staff and students with Mercyhurst University’s applied forensic science program do much more than just study bones.
When the Mercyhurst team arrives at a crime scene, members are tasked with telling the story of how human remains arrived there, how long they were in place, and whether the remains were affected by weather, animals or other humans.
“It’s all about reconstructing past events,” said Dennis Dirkmaat, department chairman of the Mercyhurst University forensic science program.
Dirkmaat, a forensic anthropologist, has led his students to scenes across Pennsylvania and beyond to help coroners and medical examiners answer questions crucial to each case.
With forensic anthropology, he said, investigators don’t bring bones to a lab to be identified, at least not at first.
Vital information exists at the scene where a body is found, including the origin and spatial distribution of the remains.
“Each particular case is a new scenario,” he said.
DNA can easily provide the identity of human remains, Dirkmaat said.
But his students are educated in identifying trauma in bone and gathering information at each scene that could show whether the individual died from homicide, suicide, accidental or natural causes, as well as whether remains were moved or scattered by animals, gravity, water, wind or human activity.
“We always search for where the body was originally,” Dirkmaat said, and look at whether remains are still articulated - together in the proper order or pattern - or if there are signs of decomposition.
“The police or coroners, when they call us in, they have some idea of who this might be and how long ago it occurred, and so we start with that hypothesis and we try to prove or disprove it from the evidence.”
Dirkmaat said he’s seen an average of 100 cases each year in the nearly two decades that he and his students have assisted police and coroners at outdoor crime scenes.
“In an academic setting, I don’t think anyone’s come close to that number,” he said.
‘Processing the scene’
Cambria County Coroner Jeff Lees called Dirkmaat in May concerning human remains discovered near a Johnstown trail. The Mercyhurst team helped local officials identify the remains of Nancy Giles, who had gone missing in October.
“Dealing with the remains is one process, but the entire scene has to be cleared methodically,” Lees said.
“It’s a diligent and slow process, but one that must be done. (Dirkmaat) and his team are second to none. Processing the scene will have a long-term impact on the investigation.”
Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller said Dirkmaat was the first person he called last September, when the remains of two homicide victims were found along Ligonier Pike in Conemaugh Township.
“Anytime you have skeletal remains, you have to have (the Mercyhurst University team),” Miller said.
“They’re qualified as experts in court. (Dennis) is well-known and well-respected.”
Rusty Styer, Bedford County coroner, has called in Dirkmaat and his students several times.
The latest instance was last October, when remains were located by a hunter near Route 30 in Snake Spring Township.
The recovery and mapping capabilities are “top notch,” Styer said, and the Mercyhurst team accurately captures the location of every bone and piece of evidence, which he said is vital to the work of coroners and the police.
“It’s essential to have it,” he said. “They turn over every leaf and every rock.”
Dirkmaat said he enjoys his work for a variety of reasons: including seeing his students graduate from the program and earn their own success in the field, while navigating the challenges each case brings.
He arrived at Mercyhurst University in 1991 with a doctoral degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
One of his first assignments was to help then-Cambria County Coroner John Barron with a case involving human remains, coincidentally found near the site off Roosevelt Boulevard where Giles’ remains were found in May.
From there, “it just expanded,” Dirkmaat said, as coroners spoke with each other about these types of cases they were working through, and the resources he and his team could provide.
Dirkmaat said he and his students have worked on cases all over Pennsylvania and in parts of New York and Ohio.
“It’s a pretty big territory,” he said. “And I attribute it to the fact that we can do the forensic archaeology. We can process a scene for the police and for the coroner’s office.”
The hands-on experience has given the program its good reputation, Dirkmaat said.
“The students that I’ve produced are well-trained forensic anthropologists,” he said.
“There are really very few, if any, programs that give as much hands-on practical experience as we do. Some of the graduate students that just recently graduated have 15 to 20 forensic cases under their belts.”
Dirkmaat recalled getting a call about a plane crash in Westmoreland County the day before that year’s classes started, before he’d even met his new students. On the first day of the semester, he took the students to the scene of that crash.
“The first day of classes, they were working a scene,” he said, “right off the bat.”
Dr. Erin Chapman, forensic anthropologist with the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office, is one of Dirkmaat’s former students.
During a recent lecture at Mercyhurst, Chapman said she is assigned 40 to 50 cases each year, 60 percent of which are trauma-related.
Chapman said real-world scenarios encountered at Mercyhurst make that master’s degree program in forensic anthropology stand above similar options at other schools.
“I think it’s the difference between having a job and not,” she said.
Mercyhurst’s program is an attractive commodity, Dirkmaat said, due to the hands-on experience his students receive in assisting with cases.
The approach involves applied learning, because there’s only so much forensic anthropologists can gain from a textbook, Chapman said.
Over the past five years, Dirkmaat has seen more of his students explore careers in investigation, he said. About half graduate from the Mercyhurst program and get their doctorate degrees, he said, while the other half go into investigatory positions with coroners’ and medical examiners’ offices.
“There’s a lot they can do,” he said of his students.
Dirkmaat envisions a day when police will be able to collect DNA from human remains at outdoor scenes with the click of a device.
Although the capabilities of forensic anthropology continue to expand - almost daily - through technology and research, Dirkmaat said bone identification will continue to be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to processing a scene.
“If you just say, ‘I only work with bones,’ you’ll become extinct,” he said.
Glossary of terms
. Forensic anthropology: The examination and excavation of human remains to assist law enforcement with identification, signs of trauma, estimated time of death and historical context of a crime scene.
. Forensic taphonomy: The study of postmortem changes to human remains, including decomposition of soft tissue, animal activity, bone modification or human interference.
. Forensic pathology: The examination of corpses through autopsy to determine a medical cause of death, collect medical evidence, order further laboratory tests such as X-rays, toxicology screens and samples of tissues or organs.
. Total Station: A surveying instrument used to map and reconstruct accidents or crime scenes to preserve the locations of evidence and the context in which a death or accident occurred.
Local scenes worked by Mercyhurst team
. 2010: An unmarked cemetery near site of 1800s location of Somerset Hospital, where an addition to SCI-Laurel Highlands was planned. Tribune-Democrat archives show workers realized they were uncovering rows of coffins during excavation, and officials with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections postponed work while Mercyhurst graduate students conducted research on each coffin’s contents. The remains were later relocated to a burial place away from the construction site.
. November 2011: Dirkmaat and several of his students responded to Bedford Township near the Midway Travel Plaza of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where skeletal remains were found by hunters in a wooded area. The remains were later identified as 30-year-old Audrey Rock Phoenix, of Portland, Oregon, who was entered as an endangered missing person by the Portland Police Department six months prior.
. November 2012: The discovery of human remains along the Great Allegheny Passage hiking trail in Larimer Township, Somerset County, were quickly identified by Dirkmaat and his team as 19-year-old Justine Jackson and led to the arrest of her boyfriend, Jonathan Beal. Beal eventually admitted to strangling and killing Jackson, then burying her, and was sentenced in 2013 to serve 10 to 24 years in state prison for voluntary manslaughter.
. December 2015: Mercyhurst University students helped investigate the scene of a fatal fire in Shade Township, Somerset County. Investigators and Dirkmaat’s students determined that Helen Kalanish, 56, died from smoke inhalation and her death was ruled accidental.
. September 2017: Human remains found along Ligonier Pike in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County; later identified as homicide victims Damian Michael Staniszewski, 19, of Duncansville, and James Edward Smith, 32, of Portage, who were both reported missing in March 2017. State police then charged two Ohio men in the murder and allege it was retaliation for allegedly stealing drugs from a “stash house” in Johnstown. Devon Lee Wyrick and Samson Ezekiel Washington are both being held without bond at the Somerset County Jail awaiting trial.
. October 2018: Human remains discovered near Route 30 in Bedford County, later identified as Robert E. Cochran, 27, of Canajoharie, New York, who had gone missing in 2013. Investigators said Cochran’s cause of death and the details of why he was in the area may never be determined, but the information from his family and Dirkmaat’s team did not include evidence of anything suspicious.
. May 2019: Human remains found in shallow grave near the James Wolfe Sculpture Trail in Johnstown, later determined to be those of 40-year-old Nancy Giles, a city woman who had gone missing in October. According to Cambria County Coroner Jeff Lees, Giles’ body was found “approximately two feet off the trail and two feet down,” by a man who was searching for metal objects in the area. Dental records were used to identify the remains, and, to confirm the identification, investigators used the serial number of a medical device found with the remains that matched Giles’ medical records. Lees has called Giles’ death highly suspicious, but has not released her cause or manner of death. Police are still investigating and have not yet made any arrests in the case.
Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, http://www.tribune-democrat.com