Stature, he says, is an estimate that works for an officer who is looking for a suspect that just robbed a store because it gives the officer a general idea of what to look for. But an eyeball estimate of the person’s height is not so good for identifying a missing person. Van Norman says that relativity also plays a role in identification. A very short person may perceive someone of average height as much taller, with the reverse is true of a tall person. The role of perspective is inarguable when identifying remains.
Skeletal remains in general provide difficult analyses, even when the entire skeleton is recovered. In the desert, where Van Norman often works, skeletal remains many times are disarticulated, but even in cases where the intact entire skeleton is recovered, pinpointing age can be difficult.
“[Forensic anthropologists] look at markers on the bones and estimate age and, frankly, the best we can come up with is a range of five to 10 years. Quite often the range can be much greater — as much as 60 years,” he says.
That’s because once individuals reach adulthood, their skeletons change very little, except in response to trauma. According to Doug Lyle, MD, one event that can be detected on skeletal remains includes childbirth, indicating that the remains are those of an adult female, but even girls as young as 12 have been known to give birth.
What about age entries into NCIC or other databases? To put it bluntly, whenever a human is involved, the door for error cracks open. Ages can and have been entered incorrectly, both in the missing persons report and in the paperwork revolving around recovered remains. In one case where information in connection to the remains of a young man was entered into a national database, the age of the recovered remains was estimated to be about seven years older than his actual age. More importantly, the date of disappearance was given as several days after the body was recovered. Clearly the two could not be the same individual, but they were: One of the dates had been entered incorrectly. If someone had not investigated further, the case would still be unresolved.
Hair color is another variant that, like eye color, can truly be in the “eyes of the beholder.” Unless the individual has roots showing natural hair color or body hair that contradicts hair color on the head (for instance, dark pubic hair with blond head hair), it is extremely difficult to determine even the hair color range based on visuals alone.
Becky Castillo, a coroner volunteer at the SBCSD, encourages officers to both involve the families who make the reports and double-check their information. “There are going to be discrepancies on weight [and] hair color; we don’t personally like to rule out based on those.”
Even visual identification can be dicey. In 2006, two college students were among the dead and injured involved in a terrible vehicular accident in Indiana. The pair of young women had similar coloring and size: One died immediately and one lingered in a coma. The dead girl’s family identified and buried their daughter, while the family of the coma victim sat vigil at her bedside for five weeks. Then one day the girl began to speak as she emerged from her coma, and the family grew suspicious that she might not be their daughter. A comparison of dental records confirmed their concerns: Their daughter had died in the accident and had already been buried. The wrong family had been at her bedside.
Another area fraught with a disproportionate amount of official discrepancies involves date of last contact. Castillo remembers a case that remained unsolved for months as the result of an incorrect date. “We had a case with a Jane Doe who was killed running across a freeway. She was estimated to be between 15 and 20, had no identification on her and was healthy. There was no reason that she shouldn’t have been identified in a timely manner,” says Castillo.
The young woman died in September of 2005, but by December of that same year, she still had not been identified. The SBCSD worked the case for 19 months before finally catching a break. The mother saw a composite photo on the Internet and finally contacted the sheriff’s department. However, according to information provided to NCIC, the last known date of contact with the missing daughter occurred in March of 2006. When the mother was asked about the date discrepancy, she said the NCIC data was wrong: Her last contact with her daughter had been in September of 2005 — the same month she died.