All that remains
By David Glassman
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Bradley University
When I began studying forensic anthropology in the mid-1970s, it was a newly formed field of academic study. At that time, I could not have predicted that my studies would lead me to national television appearances, or that the field would become popularized to millions of viewers through the development of TV programs such as Bones or CSI.
Indeed, popular culture has made forensic anthropology one of the “hot” fields of academic study, even though I’ve found that cases are not solved in an hour and few have as much drama as found in the myriad of television episodes that can be seen almost every night of the week. Nevertheless, this once-nascent field has fascinated me for more than 30 years, and I have participated in more than 300 forensic cases.
I have helped investigate death scenes on the surface, below ground, and under water. The remains have varied from complete bodies to not much more than a few, small bone fragments. I have been called upon to analyze the bodies of newborns to the elderly who lived good, long lives. The causes of death have ranged from violent trauma to gunshots to deaths caused by fire to various combinations of murder and aggression. Through this study, I began to learn just how cruel people could be to one another, including those who had vowed to love one another or those who should have demonstrated unconditional love.
A few of my cases have received national attention, leading to appearances on television shows like Forensic Files and Skeleton Stories. Sadly, too many of the remains I have analyzed have never been positively identified and their families continue to search for some closure.
My interest in human skeletons began as an undergraduate student in anthropology at the University of Minnesota. Upon graduation, I was fortunate to have been invited to assist archaeologists excavating prehistoric human skeletons in Mexico. With long-term job prospects dim for a young anthropology graduate with an interest in human skeletons, I knew graduate school was the next logical step. But which graduate school became the question. During my work in Mexico, I had relied almost exclusively on a field and laboratory manual of the human skeleton authored by William Bass, former chair of the anthropology department at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. I had previously known that the department had an excellent reputation so I thought, why not?
I packed my van, moved to Knoxville, and became immersed in biological anthropology at UT. The department had just developed one of the first forensic anthropology programs in the country and continues to be recognized for its top pioneering research in human decomposition at the nation’s first human decomposition outdoor research laboratory.
I discovered that forensic anthropology is an applied subfield that utilizes the knowledge of comparative human osteology to identify human remains and evaluate their manner of death in medico-legal contexts. The context refers to statutes in each state that mandate that any human remains found in an unnatural state must have an investigation to determine the identity of the individual and the cause of their death.
While a graduate student, I concentrated my training and research in three overlapping specializations: bioarchaeology (the biological analysis of past populations from their skeletal remains), forensic anthropology, and non-human primate growth and development. Although I have conducted research and published in
each of these three scientific areas, my work in forensic anthropology has received the greatest attention, particularly after the field was introduced to the nation in a few episodes of Quincy.
The first few forensic cases I handled after leaving Tennessee were for the state of Virginia, while I served as a faculty member at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Forensic anthropology was in its infancy and medical examiner’s offices and state police departments were just beginning to use forensic anthropologists as experts. Protocols were not yet well developed for transferring remains, and it was uncertain what forensic anthropologists could do to provide assistance.
For example, one day I was teaching a class when there was a knock on the door. At the door were two policemen carrying a large, black body bag. They asked me to sign for it. You can imagine the students’ reactions.
One day I was teaching a class when there was a knock on the door. At the door were two policemen carrying a large, black body bag. They asked me to sign for it. You can imagine the students’ reactions.
The work of a forensic anthropologist is divided into recovery, skeletal reconstruction and analysis, court testifying, and research for developing improved methods and techniques for human identification, estimation of time since death, and trauma determination. Traditionally, forensic anthropologists have focused upon determining the sex and perimortem injuries of unknown skeletal remains and the estimate of age at death, ancestry, and stature. Parameters such as handedness, previous diseases, or healed fractures, and other individual features are provided when indicators are present on the bones.
Over the years, the field of forensic anthropology has changed dramatically due to improvements in technology, such as refinements for extracting mtDNA from bones, which has greatly assisted human identification from skeletal material.
Perhaps the single event that has resulted in the greatest change came from the 1993 U.S. Supreme Court case, Daubert vs. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. After the ruling in the case, which focused on the role of expert testimony, experts in the fields of science — which include forensic anthropologists — are no longer allowed to rely solely upon education, experience in the field, or use of “acceptable standard practices”
to satisfy an admissible conclusion in court. This has led modern forensic anthropologists to realign their research using quantifiable data that may be subjected to statistical analyses with determined probabilities.
I often find it interesting that for the first 15 years that I worked as a forensic anthropologist, anyone who inquired about what I did thought it was incredibly gruesome. Often they’d say: “How can you do that?” But in the past 15 years, acquaintances more commonly say how exciting and interesting my work must be. I guess that’s the power of television and our changing culture.
My most famous case
On the morning of August 27, 1995, the office staff at the American Atheists headquarters in Austin, Texas, found an unusual message. Attached to the door was a note from American Atheists Madalyn Murray O’Hair, her son Jon, and her granddaughter Robin — all leaders in the organization — indicating they were called
out of town for an emergency. Over the next month, the O’Hairs periodically checked in by phone but no additional contact was made after September 27.
The mysterious disappearance of America’s leading atheist brought much speculation and publicity, especially since during this month of exile the O’Hairs had withdrawn over $600,000 of the organization’s funds. Madalyn — 76 and in failing health — led many to suspect that she took the money and was living a quiet retirement life. Some suspected that Madalyn and her family were kidnapped and killed, most likely for her outspoken speeches against religion and her successful 1963 Supreme Court case resulting in the outlawing of prayer in public school.
Police gathered evidence over the next five years, piecing together a story of abduction and homicide. Three suspects were believed to have committed the crime. Disappointingly, the whereabouts of the atheists’ bodies remained a mystery until one suspect agreed to help locate them.
On January 27, 2001, two student assistants and I joined a task force of investigators from the FBI, IRS, Texas Rangers, and the Real County Sheriff’s Department at a sprawling ranch outside Camp Wood, Texas. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the suspect had trouble locating the precise grave site. We examined several areas on the ranch until we probed a patch of ground whose lack of compactness suggested a disturbance. We began digging there.
After an hour of excavation, a human femur was exposed. We felt confident that we would soon uncover the remains of the three atheists. The complete excavation and recovery took approximately 20 hours over two days.
The work was made difficult because the bodies had been thrown into the grave and overlapped one another. The bones became commingled, and careful excavation was needed to keep each skeleton intact. The grave contained three skeletons — all with their legs cut off above the knees — and an additional plastic bag that contained the skull and finger bones of a fourth victim.
We were able to make a positive identification of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, her son, and granddaughter. The additional skull and finger bones were identified as the third suspect in the kidnapping. He had been shot in the head by one of his co-conspirators.
It turns out, the motive was not religious differences, but simple greed. The bones of the three family members, who worked together and died together, were cremated and now share a vault in a Texas cemetery. Finding the O’Hairs ended one of America’s longest-lasting murder mysteries.