Science unlocks skull's secrets

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Rosie Gillingham
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Police hope more details on murdered man will help them find out who he is

They still don't know who he is, but police have a better idea of where the victim of a years-old homicide may have come from.

During a news conference at the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Headquarters in St. John's Thursday afternoon, police released more information about the human skull that was found on May 17, 2001, in a wooded area off Minerals Road in Conception Bay South.

RCMP Sgt. Michel Fournier, forensic facial identification special for the Atlantic region, describes how a reconstruction of facial features for a human skull, discovered in the Minerals Road area in 2001, was made. - Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

They still don't know who he is, but police have a better idea of where the victim of a years-old homicide may have come from.

During a news conference at the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Headquarters in St. John's Thursday afternoon, police released more information about the human skull that was found on May 17, 2001, in a wooded area off Minerals Road in Conception Bay South.

Despite several investigative procedures used since that time - including forensic facial approximation, DNA analysis, forensic anthropological examinations, extensive searches of missing person reports across Canada, canvassing of local dentists and following up on various tips from the public - the case was at a stand-still.

New techniques

That is, until recent results from two scientific techniques helped RNC investigators uncover more details about the man.

They now know about how old he was, when he died and where he spent time prior to his death.

"The identity of this murder victim is critical to advancing our investigation," Const. Sharon Warren, the case's lead investigator, said.

"We are hopeful that recent advancements may assist us in identifying this person."

From a technique called stable isotope analysis - which examines the varying weights of the same element, such as oxygen or hydrogen, from bones, hair and teeth - it was determined the man resided for extended periods of time in southern Ontario or southern Quebec, and/or Atlantic Canada or possibly the north-eastern United States.

He was a white male, with shoulder-length curly hair and facial hair, who may have visited Newfoundland for a brief period about 13 months prior to his death.

Dr. Vaughan Grimes, assistant professor in the Department of Archeology at Memorial University, explained how isotopes work and how they can tell a lot about a person's environment and geographical origins.

"You're all familiar with the phrase 'You are what you eat.' That is particularly the case when you look at isotope analysis," he said. "Everything you consume ends up in your body (in carbon from bones, hair and teeth). ... So, we can expand this to not only what you eat, but where you eat and where you're from - by looking at where the food was derived."

Oxygen and hydrogen levels can tell more about the possible locations of the person.

He said isotope levels show a good correlation with geography - with varying levels between the north and south, and the coast and mainland.

To better help explain his point, Grimes used a map showing the variations in isotope levels across North America.

For the Minerals Road case, Grimes said, the victim's third molar tooth, along with samples from his shoulder-long hair, were used to help make their determinations.

The second scientific technique used in the case was carbon-14 bomb-pulse dating. By examining carbon-14 levels in the victim's tooth enamel and hair, investigators were able to determine he was born between 1955 and 1961.

It's estimated he died between 1994 and 1997.

Scientists have discovered that above-ground nuclear weapons testing in the late 1950s and early 1960s led to significantly increased levels of carbon-14 in the atmosphere and carbon cycle.

As a result, it affected the amount of radiocarbon present in tooth enamel. Analyzing the levels of carbon-14 in the enamel has proven to be a good indicator of when a person was born.

Neither Warren nor Insp. John House would comment on the cause of the man's death or anything else relating to the murder.

"That's not why we're here," House said.

With a better knowledge of the victim's physical features, RCMP Sgt. Michel Fournier, a forensic facility identification specialist, was able to construct an updated facial approximation of what the man may have looked like.

"You need to keep in mind, it's only an approximation. ... Having only the skull, it's impossible to capture every little facial detail when the person was alive," said Fournier, who is based in Fredericton, N.B.

"But it will reveal the facial proportions ... and overall facial profile."

He said an educated guess is made regarding features like the shape of the ears, nose and lips, as well as the eye colour.

However, he hopes the likeness is close enough to help trigger someone's memory and identify the man.

Fournier later told The Telegram he was able to determine the man had facial hair because there was hair found in the plastic bag, in which the skull was discovered.

The case garnered plenty of attention when two residents of the area looking for seedlings found a skull instead.

The whereabouts of the rest of the body are as much a mystery as the man's identity.

The RNC has offered a reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for this homicide.

Police are asking that any person who believes that he or she may have any information that may assist in identifying the victim, or has any other information that could be relevant to this investigation to contact the RNC major crimes unit at 709-729-8080 or 709-729-8000.

Information can also be relayed to local police agencies, by calling Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS or by visiting the RNC's website at

www.rnc.gov.nl.ca

.

rgillingham@thetelegram.com

Organizations: RNC, Department of Archeology, Insp. John House RCMP Crime Stoppers

Geographic location: Minerals Road, Atlantic Canada, St. John's Conception Bay South Southern Ontario Southern Quebec United States Newfoundland North America Fredericton

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