Buried in the dirt and perpetual dark deep below two area cemeteries are four lives cut short.
Instead of an identity, the man shot dead in the chest in Bear Creek Township, the two women dumped along a pair of area highways, and the infant discarded in a landfill like common trash are defined by the details of how they died — mysteries local investigators in the 1970s and 1980s failed to solve in the months following their deaths.
Maybe the clues were there, but the technology wasn’t.
Now, just over two weeks until local investigators and a team led by a prominent forensic anthropologist attempt to breathe new life into the decades-old deaths, one facet of the cases is undisputed:
Below the nameless headstones, a puzzle is waiting to be pieced together.
Digging up Dozier
To Dr. Erin Kimmerle, the remains are a road map.
The forensic anthropologist and University of South Florida professor, who honed her skills exhuming mass graves for the United Nations, is renowned for following the clues that make up that map and using modern crime-solving methods to integrate them into investigators’ pursuit of solving violent crimes — and she’s proven successful at it.
Kimmerle gained national acclaim in 2012 for leading an extensive investigation into the recovery and identification of human remains buried at a Florida reform school notorious since the early 1900s for reports of beatings, torture, sexual assault and murder by its staff.
Kimmerle and a team of colleagues found the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys grossly downplayed the number of deaths on its campus, a hellish place in the panhandle town of Marianna where boys were commonly hogtied or confined to leg irons and the unruliest disruptors were locked in cells and whipped — or worse.
Florida officials shut down the school in 2011, though no charges were ever filed.
Using some of the same methods Kimmerle is slated to apply later this month in Luzerne County, she and her team uncovered a total of 51 children buried in 55 graves throughout the campus — 20 more than the school’s records indicated, according to a 2016 report on the findings.
Her team was able to positively identify seven boys and presumptively identify another 14.
A man whose uncle was one of those identified told Kimmerle the findings gave his family solace they thought they’d never have.
“He told me this was the best thing to ever happen to him in his life,” Kimmerle said.
‘The best chance’
Kimmerle said she doesn’t believe cases have expiration dates, noting positive identifications have been produced on deaths dating back several decades.
“It’s really about giving every person in every case the best chance at being solved and being identified,” she said.
Kimmerle, joined by a fellow South Florida doctor and two graduate assistants, will arrive in Luzerne County Sept. 25, a day before investigators are slated to dig up the remains of four people buried in two local cemeteries.
Buried at Maple Hill Cemetery in Hanover Township are the remains of the three adults. The remains of an infant found in a West Side landfill in 1980 are buried in an isolated section of St. Anthony’s Cemetery in Courtdale marked by a small stone plaque.
The exhumations will begin with heavy machinery but could evolve into digging by hand, Kimmerle said.
Once the remains are unearthed, Kimmerle will examine them at the Lehigh County Coroner’s Office and Forensic Center in Allentown and could potentially — depending on her initial findings — take them to Florida for further examination.
Funding drives effort
The project, headed by State Police and Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office, wasn’t going to be cheap.
Digging up one body from a single grave can cost upwards of $10,000, according to Chuck Heurich, a senior scientist and program manager of the National Department of Justice’s (NIJ) forensics division.
Not only is it costly to physically remove the body, but paying personnel to be on site and having the remains placed through a series of modern analysis tools adds even more to the price tag, Heurich said.
“All in all it can be a very pricey endeavor,” he said.
That’s where the NIJ and their resources come in.
The NIJ has given more than $23 million to 32 law enforcement agencies since 2008, according to Heurich. The funding is awarded every other year and officials say it is integral to their efforts.
“The challenge is law enforcement just doesn’t have the money to invest in these long-term cases,” Kimmerle added, noting the high cost of performing an autopsy, skeletal examination, stable isotope testing and the taking of DNA samples, x-rays, and MRIs.
Officials were unable to provide the funding amount given toward the local cold cases, but Heurich said awards generally range from about $2 million to $5 million per project.
“Because of the NIJ (funding), it’s completely possible we can do this,” Kimmerle said.
But perhaps the agency’s biggest contribution to the missing and unidentified person epidemic is an online tool gaining national momentum.
In 2005, a who’s-who of federal, state and local law enforcement, medical examiners, scientists and lawmakers converged on Philadelphia in an attempt to solve the nationwide epidemic of missing and unidentified persons.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) estimates there are as many as 40,000 unidentified human remains in the offices of medical examiners and coroners across the country and officials say that number grows each year as more remains accumulate and go unidentified, DOJ statistics show.
The summit tasked officials with developing ways to shrink that number.
Out of it came the National Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, an online tool that gave both law enforcement and the general public free access to missing persons data.
“So much of what we do is data driven,” Kimmerle said. “When you have a tool like (NamUs) that pulls all that info together, it’s critical.”
The data, compiled by minds like Kimmerle’s and fed into the database, has helped resolve dozens of missing or unidentified person cases.
Hits ‘huge success’
An identification could take several months.
Heurich said identifying one of the local victims within a year would be the best case scenario for investigators, but noted a match hinged on whether DNA samples taken from their remains draws a hit in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a database of DNA profiles populated by forensic labs nationwide.
DNA profiling is a way for investigators to identify people by using traits of their DNA, Kimmerle said.
Since 2008, Heurich said, NamUs produced 16,291 DNA profiles from nearly 17,800 samples entered into the database.
While the success rate of producing a DNA profile is high (91.5 percent), turning a profile into an identification through CODIS is strikingly uncommon. Data shows investigators have gotten just 1,147 hits from nearly 14,000 DNA profiles entered into CODIS in the same time frame (8.2 percent success rate).
Heurich said the stark contrast in hits is due to age.
Because most cold cases are so old, he said, the subject’s mother and father — whose DNA samples typically help match an unidentified or missing person — are often dead or have moved several times, making it difficult for investigators to track them down.
Nonetheless, he said the hits are a “huge success.”
“We’ve been able to give resolutions to families in cases they didn’t think they were ever going to get their missing person back,” he said.
A gift of peace
The Bethlehem-born scientist said he’s encountered dozens of families whose lost loved ones were identified through NIJ funding after decades of grief. Though the sorrowful circumstances of their losses took a toll, the gratitude stuck with him.
“The amount of thanks they show after 20 or 30 years of not knowing what happened to their loved ones is unbelievable,” Heurich said. “You realize it doesn’t matter how much time goes by, these people never forget. They live it on a daily basis.”
“Any kind of peace is a gift,” she said.