Shrouded In Mystery: Investigators Work to Identify Skeletal Remains
Northern Virginia law enforcement and the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner met with reporters Thursday morning in an effort to identify three sets of skeletal remains found over the course of nine years in three spots in Northern Virginia.
His body was found in a wooded area in Fairfax in 2006—the only clues about his past life were the clothes on his back, some writings from a makeshift camp and a broken rosary.
The case of this still-unidentified man is one of three cold cases highlighted Thursday in Manassas at a press conference hosted by the office of Virginia’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Leah Bush.
Also present were three gray "facial approximation" busts of the unidentified remains, made in hopes that someone, somewhere will recognize the faces and provide answers.
Cold Case #1: Older White Male in Fairfax
The skeletal remains found in Fairfax on April 6, 2006 are thought to be that of an older white man, between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 11 inches tall.
The remains were discovered near Interstate 66 eastbound, close to Route 7100 (now Route 286) in Fairfax by a man looking for deer bones, said Lucy Caldwell, public information officer for the Fairfax County Police Department.
“We want families to know we don’t give up on these types of cases,” Caldwell said. “We look at these cases as something went wrong; something’s afoul.”
There is no direct evidence suggesting that the 2006 case is a homicide, but investigators have to approach it as if it is, Caldwell said.
Police believe the man was homeless because they found a camp nearby. They also found writings, which led them to pursue leads in Denton, Texas, Washington, D.C. and Ohio.
Cold Case #2: Adult Asian Male in Alexandria
The most recent of the three cold cases discussed Thursday was one concerning the body of an adult Asian man discovered on Feb. 13, 2011 by a man walking his dog near Fords Landing Way in Alexandria.
That area is also known as Jones Point Park and is near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, U.S. Park Police Sgt. Paul Brooks said.
The deceased is thought to be in his late 30s or early 40s, who stood between 5 feet 5 inches tall and 5 feet 9 inches tall.
His cause of death is undetermined, but examiners believe he was dead for 18 to 24 months before his body was discovered, Brooks said.
Cold Case #3: Adult Black Male in Arlington
The third unsolved case is that of an adult black man found Jan. 16, 2003 by a National Park Service maintenance worker cleaning debris under the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge in Arlington County, Brooks said.
The remains are that of a man in his mid-30s who stood between 5 feet 7 inches and 5 feet 8 inches tall.
It appears he’d been dead about 6 months, Brooks said.
All three bust facial approximations were made by an FBI artist, Bush said.
Such renderings were once known as "facial reconstructions," but the word “approximation” more accurately presents the work, because it doesn’t necessarily depict what the unidentified person looked like in life, Bush said.
Approximation artists no longer use different color clays, but now use a very bland media, because they want people to focus on the facial features, Bush said.
“If we thought the individual was Caucasian they used a lighter color clay and if they felt that the person was African-American, they used brown clay to mold the features. We often guessed at the hair color...we guessed at the eye color,” Bush said.
“What we found out over time is when we use color and tones, the families look at the bust and say, ‘That kind of looks like my loved one, but they didn’t have light brown hair, they had dark brown hair.’ [Now] people actually focus on the facial features and the … dental features.”
Often, people had very characteristic smiles that are easily recognizable by their family, Bush added.
There are currently 220 unidentified remains in Virginia. About one third of the unidentified remains found in the United States are of suspected victims of homicide.
Officials said it makes for a better investigation if they identify the victim before they start looking for a suspect. If they know the victim, then they can ask their family and friends questions about the late person’s associates.
Medical examiners and law enforcement were able to get a great deal of work done by using the "DNA to Identify the Missing" grant, from the U.S. Department of Justice, said Rochelle Altholz, the state administrator of Virginia’s Chief Medical Examiner's Office.
The office received $434,000 in 2008 for 18 months of funding. They received an extension and now it is up for rebidding.
The grant helped the medical examiner’s office build a mitochondrial lab, Bush said.
People looking for missing family members can use a website called NAMUS.gov which stands for National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Law enforcement puts all the information they have about unidentified remains on the website. Families then enter what information they have about their missing loved ones into the NAMUS online database, and the website will automatically try to find a match.
Close relatives of a missing person can have their mouths swabbed for DNA by local law enforcement, who will check to see if it matches the DNA of any unidentified remains.
Any information about the remains found in Alexandria or Arlington County should be reported to the criminal investigations branch of the U.S. Park Police at 202-610-8737.
Information concerning the remains found in Fairfax should be directed to the Fairfax County Police Department: 703-691-2131
The Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is also accepting information at 703-530-2600.
Photos of other facial approximations can be found at vdh.virginia.gov.