Dr. Erin Kimmerle stands at the head of an open, watery grave and peers down.
It’s a sweltering fall day in Tampa, and here’s what she knows about what’s below: It’s the grave of a murder victim.
The woman’s body was found in a patch of scrub brush used as an unauthorized trash dump in 1985 just outside downtown Tampa. Detectives never discovered her name. DNA wasn’t analyzed at the time. They weren’t sure how she was slain, when, or why.
Back then, there was little hope of solving the case. Heavy caseloads, a lack of money and no relatives coming forward all meant that police moved on to the next corpse. The woman lay in this pauper’s grave in a city cemetery for more than 30 years.
Now, Kimmerle — a former investigator for the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, an anthropology professor and a 44-year-old married mother of two — might be the woman’s only chance for justice.
Kimmerle knows locating the killer is a long shot. But maybe, just maybe, if she is detailed enough and throws enough science at the case, she can identify the body and find relatives.
Surely, someone, somewhere loved this young woman.
Digging into cold cases
Two dozen detectives, students and researchers gather around as Kimmerle stares into the void, then crouches down. Her hands — double-wrapped in latex gloves — brace her body as she eases into the hole. Stepping nearly all the way in, she leans over and peels away dirty white plastic.
“It’s a grave liner,” she says, squinting into the sun. She and her team remove it and hit a muddy brown body bag. The corpse had been buried in a cardboard casket. That’s long since dissolved, but the bag stayed intact. Kimmerle’s team hoists it out of the grave. She climbs out, kneels at the side of the bag and gingerly unzips it.
There’s a full skeleton inside, and the bones are small. Sweating, Kimmerle looks up and nods.
It’s her cold-case homicide victim, and the skeleton is in excellent shape.
Still, Kimmerle doesn’t make any predictions about finding answers. “This is a long process,” she says.
Her plan: “throwing science” at the case. She’ll use state-of-the-art DNA testing. Then, a chemical isotope test — her lab at the University of South Florida is one of a handful in the country to use this advanced study of minerals and geography to narrow down where a person is from or has visited through tooth, hair and nail analysis.
She can spend the time on this case thanks to a $385,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to review 50 unsolved and unidentified-person deaths. Most are in Florida, but some are from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; because Kimmerle’s considered one of the country’s best forensic anthropologists, her lab often takes cases from states with fewer resources.
A week after the skeleton’s exhumation in Tampa, the bones are at the medical examiner’s office on a steel gurney. Kimmerle walks in. She no longer notices the earthy smell of death. She pays no mind to a nearby body, its chest open for an autopsy. Instead, she slips on a white lab coat and beams at one of the coroners.
“Happy birthday!” she says, smiling.
When Kimmerle investigated dozens of graves at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys — a now-shuttered site where former students accused officials of abuse — she received lots of media attention. She’s positive and bubbly, with a high-pitched voice — unexpected from someone who jumps in graves and scrubs bones with a toothbrush. And that’s exactly what she does this day at the morgue: polishes bones.
Most of the skeleton is still in the brown bag, mixed with mud, twigs and leaves.
“See, the bones are typically the color of the soil,” she says, dipping a femur into a stainless steel bowl of sudsy water. The plan for case No. 85-00945 is to clean and assemble the skeleton. Crucial parts can be missing, because of the rigors of time or something more nefarious.
Kimmerle uses cooking strainers when scrubbing and washing the bones; she wants to inspect every fragment. Because the woman was autopsied at the time she was discovered, a few other items were tossed into the body bag — vials that once contained blood and tissues and a zip-top bag holding a brownish liquid. Probably the organs, Kimmerle says.
“Ziplocs hold up pretty good,” she says, reaching over a tray of scissors, scalpels and forceps.
Already, Kimmerle sees promise. The skull and jaw have nicely preserved teeth, and those hold a wealth of DNA and isotope information. Some molars are missing. By the looks of the jaw and a missing tooth socket, the woman had untreated cavities. Perhaps she lacked money for dental care, Kimmerle muses.
“Teeth tell us a story about a person’s station in life,” Kimmerle says.
She cradles the skull in her hand. “Now we’re going to try to put together that story.”
Days later, at Kimmerle’s USF lab, the bones are laid out neatly on a table. The skull has “very feminine features,” Kimmerle says. The clavicles are tiny, meaning the woman was small in stature. Her ribs are like two rainbows around the spine.
Kimmerle will slide the bones into a machine to take X-rays, snap photos and get the skull laser scanned. She’ll use a saw to take a femur sample, and she’ll scrape a molar’s surface.
Those shards will be used for the isotope analysis, a detailed look at environment and diet. Kimmerle will send the samples to University of Florida geochemist George Kamenov, who analyzes chemical traces in the shavings for lead, carbon and other elements. It’s not a typical test, but Kimmerle and Kamenov have become so well-known for the practice that law enforcement officials nationwide send them cases.
While Kimmerle waits for the DNA and isotope tests to return — it can take eight months or more — she orders a 3-D printed cast of the skull. Actually, she orders skulls in about a dozen cases all at once, and assembles folders for each.
When the 3-D skulls come in, the files are handed out to a group of forensic sculptors from around the world visiting USF for training. For a week, they work with blocks of clay, picks and rasps to make the dead come alive, using the skeletal anatomy of the face and details such as race and ethnicity to create the busts. These artists are modern Michelangelos, but instead of working on heads of gods in a palazzo, they re-create the faces of crime victims in a university basement with harsh fluorescent light.
“They started with the muscle structure, and they are moving into different features and characteristics of the face, then they’ll add hair, and all the things that make a person look unique,” said Kimmerle, who teaches part of the training. “I help and guide in terms of anatomy and how that informs the soft tissue. Those are those subtle differences in how somebody looks.”
From the skull’s bone structure and earlier autopsy reports, Kimmerle has determined the Tampa victim was African-American.
Tatiana der Parthogh, a forensic-imaging consultant in London who’s taking the training, is working on the case. She smooths her fingertips over the jaw and brushes the cheekbones. Soon she’ll create hair out of clay.
“You can really see that it was someone who was alive at one point,” der Parthogh says.
Another detail makes the woman even more real: Isotope results based on diet and water have returned, and Kimmerle reaches a conclusion:
The woman was local to the Tampa area.
Best chance for justice
Kimmerle heads to a podium, TV news crews following her. She’s not in her usual work clothes of a T-shirt and jeans; instead it’s a smart black suit. She thanks the 100-person crowd for their work on the hardest mysteries of all: cold cases.
It’s October, and her stage is at the Tampa Bay History Center, an airy, open space along the water. Detectives, researchers and prosecutors are gathered for The Art of Forensics. Kimmerle helped organize the event and brought along the busts from the training session.
The Tampa woman’s sculpted face sits on a stand closest to the audience. In the event brochure, she’s Case 5: “The remains are believed to be those of a young black female, approximately 5’2” to 5’9” tall. She was found nude and her death was ruled a homicide.”
Kimmerle tells the crowd: “Time is against us. But there is a reason there is no statute of limitations on murder. Stripping someone of their life is the ultimate crime. The years may pass, but it’s not a pass to get away with murder.”
Kimmerle finishes her presentation, and other speeches begin. But there’s a commotion near the busts, and the cameras cluster around two women standing before Case 5. They saw a TV clip about the event and decided to show up; their sister has been missing for decades.
Could this be her?
One sister holds a faded, photocopied picture up to the sculpture and weeps. It looks eerily similar to the sculpture, a young black woman with haunted big eyes and close-cropped hair. The women mention that their sister was missing molars.
A detective whisks the women away for interviews and DNA swabs.
Kimmerle knows it will take months to try to match the DNA of the sisters to the young woman. Working cold cases isn’t like what people see on TV, and there’s a nationwide DNA-testing backlog. But Kimmerle’s superpower is patience, so she wears a hopeful smile when she learns that the women are talking to detectives.
Sure, a long slog is ahead. But it’s the best chance for justice the woman in the pauper’s grave has had for more than 30 years.