By Cindy Swirko
Published: Monday, June 21, 2010 at 6:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, June 21, 2010 at 8:15 a.m.
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As it turns out, human remains were found in the St. Johns River by law enforcement scuba divers searching for Haleigh Cummings in April - but they weren't those of the missing 5-year-old.
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They were a lot older, as in an American Indian who lived along the river hundreds of years ago - a determination made by the experts in bones at the University of Florida's C.A. Pound Human Identification Lab.
"Those divers found a human bone, it just wasn't (Haleigh)," said Mike Warren, the lab's director. "You dive in a river with that many people, and you expect to find bones out there. The bones of Native Americans are still here."
Bones are Warren's business. He heads a laboratory that is a national leader in the identification of human remains and is on pace to become the first nationally accredited and certified forensic anthropology lab in the U.S.
The lab has been involved in high-profile criminal cases including those of Haleigh and Caylee Anthony - the Orlando 3-year-old whose mother is facing murder charges in her death. It also has been involved in cases of international significance in trying to identify remains of the family of Russia's last czar, Nicholas Romanov.
And Warren says he has memorized the dental structure of Tiffany Sessions, a University of Florida student who disappeared in 1989, so he can easily identify her should remains be found.
But standing in a long, narrow, brightly lit lab with table after table laid out with human remains, Warren said the staff and students who work there pay just as much attention to the unidentified skeleton that has been stumbled upon in the woods as they do to the sensational cases that are on television every night.
We treat all of our cases as high-profile cases," Warren said. "They are still the remains of somebody who had family."
A human body has 206 bones - more or less in some cases - and Warren can identify all of them. So adept is Warren that he can pick out the most minute ear bone from the ashy remains of a cremated person.
The lab receives human remains that are skeletonized, decomposed or are burned or fragmented beyond recognition.
A skeleton analysis is done to develop a biological profile - gender, approximate age, race. Anomalies are noted - any bones that had been broken, dental features, evidence of disease.
The report will be given to law enforcement, which will try to match the findings to an unidentified missing person.
For three days in mid-April, dozens of divers and deputies from several area agencies searched for remains of Haleigh off a boat ramp in the St. Johns River. Among the daily convoy of vehicles was a small, white pickup with decals identifying the Pound lab.
Most of what the divers found was easily identified, most notably a deer skeleton that was erroneously reported to be a human skeleton by some television media.
Warren said identifying and determining the age of human bones or fragments is not difficult for Pound staff.
"We look at bones for thousands and thousands and thousands of hours. We know what every little piece of human bone looks like. If I can't recognize it, it's not human," Warren said. "A lot of it is an experience type of thing. There are some twists - if you don't smell any decomposition, you could put a flame under (a bone) and if you smell hair burning, that means there is collagen in the blood. In Florida, that takes about a year to leech out."
Warren said the lab was involved with earlier searches for Haleigh, including unearthing a horse carcass on a relative's property to ensure that no human bones were there.
Putnam County Sheriff's Lt. Johnny Greenwood said having the lab nearby is a big asset to law enforcement, saving local agencies time and money.
"They are very helpful to be able to identify bones very quickly to eliminate us from having to take the time to send them off to a lab," Greenwood said. "When they do respond to a scene, it expedites the search. You can rule out animal bones very quickly."
The Gainesville Police Department and the Alachua County Sheriff's Office are chipping in $14,000 each in drug seizure money to buy the lab equipment for dental X-rays.
GPD Sgt. Martin Krpan, who heads the forensic unit, said the lab has assisted GPD in several cases. In one, lab employees were able to determine the angle at which a bullet struck a man's head to rule that he died from a self-inflicted wound.
Lab Graduate Analyst Traci Van Deest, holding a reasonably fresh-looking skull, pointed to a thin crack in the jaw - evidence of some sort of trauma. It is that kind of detail that helps police and provides the thrill of the find that forensic anthropologists dig.
"The challenge of figuring out the puzzle - putting all of the pieces back together as a skeleton - is something that I think we all enjoy," Van Deest said. "We know that there is an answer that we can strive for."
Contact Cindy Swirko at 374-5024 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Erica Brough/Staff photographer
University of Florida graduate analyst for the Department of Anthropology Traci L. Van Deest works with human remains in the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at UF.