Category Archives: Corpse Identification

Crime and Science Radio: When Disaster Hits: Naming The Dead: An Interview With NTSB’s Paul Sledzik

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How does forensic science help us in the aftermath of disasters such as plane crashes, floods, hurricanes and other events that result in mass fatalities?  We find some answers in this episode, when D.P. Lyle and Jan Burke interview Paul Sledzik.

In this episode, he tells us about historical responses to mass disasters, such as the General Slocum disaster of 1904, which caused the loss of over one thousand lives.  He’ll also talk to us about today’s processes for dealing with mass fatality events, the role of forensic scientists in processing mass fatality incidents, and the work done on these sites by forensic anthropologists and other specialists.

Near the end of the interview, we were also able to talk to him a little bit about his work on historical remains belonging to “New England Vampires.”

Bio: Trained as a forensic anthropologist, Paul Sledzik began his career at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC, as a museum technician. By the time he departed the museum in 2004, he had become a curator with responsibilities over the museum’s unique and historic anatomical and pathological collections. From 1998 to 2004, he served as the team commander for the Region 3 Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services. In the response to the events of September 11, 2001, he led the DMORT team in the identification of the victims from the crash of United flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Paul joined the National Transportation Safety Board’s Transportation Disaster Assistance Division in 2004 as a medicolegal specialist and in 2010 became the division director. The division coordinates access to information and services to support victim and family members impacted by aviation accidents and accidents in other transportation modes.

He has served as a consultant and advisor to federal and non-governmental agencies on issues of human identification and disaster response. A Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, his scientific articles have appeared in professional journals and textbooks. He has participated in the response to over 30 mass fatality events and transportation accidents.



National Transportation Safety Board

NTSB: Information for Families, Friends, and Survivors

NTSD: Family Assistance Operations: Planning and Policy

The National Museum of Health and Medicine

Federal Emergency Management Agency

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Public Health Emergency/DMORTs:

New story on study of preservation of DNA in mass disasters

The General Slocum Disaster, New York, June 15 1904 — over 1000 lives lost

General Slocum Disaster information at New York Public Library

“Sinking of the General Slocum” information at The Mariners Museum

General Slocum Disaster information at New York History.Info

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, New York, March 25, 1911 — over 140 lives lost

Documentary on YouTube 

History Channel site

Centennial program on NPR’s “All Things Considered” 

The Eastland Disaster, Chicago, July 24, 1915 — over 800 lives lost, including all members of 22 families

Eastland Disaster Historical Society description of the disaster

Montage of newspaper photographs of the event on YouTube

Eastland Disaster documentary on YouTube

“Brief communication: bioarcheological and biocultural evidence for the New England vampire folk belief.” (American Journal of Physical Anthropology)

The Great New England Vampire Panic



The Writers Forensics Blog: 100 Top Websites to Bookmark

The crew over at have listed The Writers Forensics Blog as one of their Top 100 Websites to Bookmark, which they describe as a “list of great sites to present practical, real-world information on the subject.” Many great sources here.

Thanks. I’m flattered.



Crime & Science Radio: The Body Tells the Tale: DP Lyle and Jan Burke Interview Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

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The Body Tells the Tale: DP Lyle and Jan Burke Interview Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

Join DP Lyle and Jan Burke as they explore the world of death, corpses, and decay with Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Dr. Bass is the founder of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, the so called Body Farm. Jon Jefferson is a journalist, writer, and documentary film maker. Together they write fiction as Jefferson Bass. This will be a lively, or is it deadly, interview.



The Body Farm-Wikipedia:

Tour The Body Farm:

Video Tour of The Body Farm:

WBIR Interview:

JeffersonBass Website:

Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales:

Metro Pulse: The Cult of Forensics Expert Dr. Bill Bass:

Peter Breslow’s 2004 NPR Profile of The Body Farm:



Mummies: A New Method For Analysis



After death, some corpses mummify rather than decay. This more likely will happen in very dry environments but can happen in almost any circumstance. If the corpse dessicates (dries out) more quickly than it decays, mummified remains are produced. These corpses are leathery, dark brown, and appear as if the skin has been “shrink wrapped” over the bones. They also can be very difficult to analyze.

For years, rehydrating finger pads with water, glycerin, and some other liquids, has allowed investigators to obtain fingerprints from mummified corpses. Now it seems that Alejandro Hernandez has found a way to do this with an entire mummified corpse. Very interesting.



Richard III Found?

Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England, died on August 22, 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth Field. His death wasn’t a pleasant one. Recently skeletal remains that might be those of the King have been unearthed from the ruins of Grey Friars Church in Leicester, the location where many believe Richard was buried.


The remains apparently show significant scoliosis, a bending of the spine that often raises one shoulder higher than the other. Historical documents, as well as the famous play by William Shakespeare, indicate that Richard was a “hunchback.” This condition is most often caused by kyphosis, a more forward curving of the spine, which is not the case with these remains. But the distinction probably wasn’t appreciated in 1485 so people who suffered either scoliosis or kyphosis were often termed “hunchback.”

How can researchers prove these are indeed Richard’s remains? The best bet is mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed down from generation to generation through the maternal line. This type of DNA doesn’t change often, mutating only about once every 6500 years, making it ideal for ancestry studies.


To employ this technique, they will need mtDNA from a known maternal descendent of Richard. And it seems they have located Londoner Michael Ibsen, the 17th great-grand nephew of Richard. His late mother, Joy Ibsen, was apparently a direct descendent of Richard’s eldest sister Anne. If true, and if the mtDNA matches, that would constitute fairly strong evidence that the remains are indeed those of Richard.


Maggot DNA Identifies Corpse

Corpse identification is as much art as science. Sometimes no ID is possible and at other times creativity is required. In a recent case, where a badly charred body could not be identified due to the damage, DNA was extracted from the GI tracks of the fly maggots that had populated the corpse. Using the STR technique, DNA from the maggots was compared with DNA from the suspected victim’s father and a paternity-type match was made, proving the ID of the corpse to an accuracy of 99.685% according to the authors of the study.

This is the first time this technique has been used in this manner.



A New Non-DNA Identification Technique?

Most Americans have a positive Mumps Skin Test. Why? Most of use were exposed to the Mumps virus at some time in our lives and therefore have Mumps antibodies in our system. The test reveals these antibodies. A positive test doesn’t mean you have Mumps only that you’ve been exposed to it at some time in the past. The skin test is not useful for the diagnosis of active Mumps but is often used simply to prove that a person’s immune system is intact and working.

We produce similar antibodies to very bacterium, virus, and other invader we encounter. This antibody building is going on every minute of every day as we are constantly exposed to these critters. Each of us has a different history of exposure to these various “bugs” and will necessarily have different types and amounts of antibodies running around our body. If these antibodies were tested for, each of us would have a unique “Antibody Profile.”

This individually unique profile just might be a method for identifying each of us and it seems that Global Forensics Ltd (UK) and Identity Sciences LLC (US) are marketing just such a TEST. The AbP ID test, developed by Idaho National Laboratory, seeks out Individual Specific Antibodies (ISAs), which are found in every tissue and body fluid. Since each of us has a unique antibody profile the discrimination should rival that of DNA Profiling. Maybe better since even identical twins, who have the same DNA, will have unique antibody profiles.

The test seems to be rapid (two hours), cheap, and doesn’t require a specialized lab, highly trained lab techs, or a large sample.

This is a technique that deserves watching. Begin with this VIDEO.


Guest Blogger: Crime Writers Inspired by Body Farms?

What is a body farm? It is a research facility that provides scientists with opportunities to study human decomposition in an array of settings. Body farms allow researchers to develop new forensic technologies. Body farm research is especially important to forensic anthropology, forensic science, and the field of law enforcement.

University of Tennessee Body Farm

The author Patricia Cornwell named one of her novels The Body Farm after she overheard local police officers use the nickname for the Anthropology Research Facility at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Authors Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson have published a number of fictional mystery novels based on the body farm at the University of Tennessee. Also, the UT Farm has been featured in several television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The University of Tennessee Body Farm is utilized to train law enforcement officers in crime scene skills and techniques. Numerous hallmark scientific papers have been developed by research performed at the Body Farm. This information has been vital in powering forensic investigation into solving unsolved deaths.


At the University of Tennessee Body Farm, clothed and unclothed dead bodies are places in a variety of settings, such as in the shade, in sunny areas, in shallow graves, covered with brush, in water, and in houses, to provide insights into the decomposition of dead bodies in various conditions. Detailed observations along with records of the decomposition process are maintained, including the effects of insect activity. One objective is to reconstruct scenes where police find skeletal remains.


Body Farm Locations

Here is a list of some other body farms in the United States:

- Texas State University in San Marcos
- Western Carolina University in Cullowhee
- Sam Houston State University in Huntsville
- Southwestern Pennsylvania (used by researchers at California University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Criminological and Forensic Science)

Crime Writers

Crime writers may be able to visit some of the body farms or review body farm research. They’ll learn how bodies decay in different climates and how dead bodies are effected by rain, humidity, and temperature. Crime writers can also learn from research by entomologists who observe the ways a variety of insects feed on or use dead bodies in various stages of their life cycles. Based on the maturity of species, entomologists can determine approximately how long a person has been dead.

A possible crime novel scenario: To deceive the forensics experts about the time of death, the novel’s cruel murderer digs up the victim and swaps young bugs for mature bugs.

Another scenario: A crime novel murder suspect claims the dead haberdasher died in West Texas during Winter, however body farm researcher Mr. Stiff provides forensic evidence to refute the claim. Based on decay patterns, he determines the victim could have only have died in Northeast Montana in September.

Another scenario: After thoroughly reviewing body farm research, the clever killer Mr. Grant realizes high soil moisture and acidic soil speed up the decomposition process. He buries his victim in this type of soil; after a given amount of time he carefully removes the body, thoroughly cleans it off, and buries it in dry non-acidic soil. He sends a text message to alert the police of the body’s location. The somewhat knowledgeable forensic expert is fooled and determines the murder took place prior to Mr. Grant arriving in town. Mr. Grant is no longer the prime suspect for the crime and demands an apology.

So you see, body farm research can add unique twists to crime novels!

Brian Jenkins writes about careers in the criminal justice field, including crime scene investigation, for


Stupid Criminals: Pacemaker Tracks Down Embezzler

So you have this perfect scheme figured out. Snatch $10 million from your company and disappear. Change your name, settle in another state on the other side of the country, enjoy your ill gotten money, and no one will ever know. Sounds like a plan.

But what happens when your pacemaker tells on you?

It seems that Roger and Peggy Gamblin did just that. Two years ago. They apparently embezzled $10 million from their company Flagler Title Insurance and disappeared to Colorado. Unfortunately for Roger he had a pacemaker and ended up visiting the hospital because of some cardiac issue. He of course used his newly fabricated Colorado name. When the physician caring for him checked his pacemaker, he discovered that it was not registered to the gentleman who had checked into the hospital but rather to one Roger Gamblin. He reported this to authorities and the Gamblins were promptly arrested.

You see pacemakers and other body appliances, such as artificial hips and the like, have serial numbers etched into them. These numbers are easily traced to the manufacturer, the doctor who implanted the device, the hospital where it was done, and of course the name of the person who received it. Such serial numbers are often used to determine the identity of an unknown corpse. A body that is found with no identifying paperwork but which has a pacemaker, an artificial hip, or some other medical appliance, can then be identified through the serial number on these devices.

In Roger Gamblin’s defense, he was probably unaware that his pacemaker could be tracked in this way. But even if he did, what was he to do? Take it out himself? Not go to the hospital when he was having some cardiac problem? Likely he was either unaware or simply hoped it would slide through the system without being picked up. Fortunately he was identified.

Don’t you hate it when something you trust tells on you? I remember as a kid, around age 5, me and a buddy decided we would climb this whistle tower at a mill a block from where I grew up. The goal was to grab an egg from one of the many pigeon nests tucked into the nooks and crannies just beneath the top platform. At 5 proving your manhood is a big deal. The tower was maybe 50 feet high, and of course local lore said that if the horn/whistle sounded while you were on the tower, you would be electrocuted and die. Now that is a challenge. What kid wouldn’t do that? So off we went.

Unfortunately for us, my dog decided this was not a wise idea and immediately ran home to get my mother. He pulled a Lassie on me. He barked at the door until mom answered and then led her–you know, barking, running, turning around to see if she was following–to where we were. Near the top of the tower.

That was the only dog I ever owned. Traitor. Now I have cats. Cats can be trusted. Cats are very circumspect. Or is it that they don’t really care what you do as long as you use your thumbs to open cans for them? At least that’s how it works with The Bean.

The Bean


Estimating Age From Crime Scene Blood

The police are called to a suspected crime scene, one where a murder has likely taken place. There is no body. There is no suspect. There are no witnesses. But a large blood stain is found at the scene. Whose blood is it?

Any police investigator will tell you that identifying victim is one of the first and most important steps in identifying the perpetrator. The simple reason is that most murders are committed by someone with some relationship to victim. A spouse, a friend, a coworker. But without a corpse, how can the victim be identified?

Since in this circumstance there would be no description of victim, the police would not know where to look. They would have no age, sex, size and weight, height, or any of the other physical details that might narrow their search for who the victim might be. Each one of these factors can help narrow the possibilities.

But what if they could determine that the victim was a teenager or a middle-aged male or an elderly female? DNA obtained from the blood could easily determine the sex but not the age of the victim. Until now. There appears to be a new test that just might reveal age from a crime scene blood sample. And least in broad terms.

A recent report in the journal Current Biology submitted by researchers from the Erasmus MC University Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands suggests that byproducts from human T cells might supply this information. It’s complex biology but it seems that our T cells, which are an important component of our immune system, have great diversity in their receptors. It is these receptors that allow them to recognize a multitude of foreign invaders and tag them for destruction by the white blood cells and other components in the complex system that protects us from infections.

It seems that this diversity is accomplished through a constant rearrangement of the DNA within the T cells. A byproduct of this process is the creation of small circular DNA molecules known as Signal Joint TCR Excision Circles, or sjTRECs for short. It appears that the amount of these DNA packets declines at a constant rate with age. Using them, these researchers believe that they can narrow the age range of the person who shed the blood to within 20 years. Not very accurate but it would distinguish a teenager from a middle-aged person or an elderly individual and this in turn might help identify the victim.

Stay tuned. This could prove to be an interesting and useful technique. Or not.


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