The Skeleton In The Closet
Shaun Hachinsky, Deputy Chief Investigator for the Jackson County Medical Examiner's Office, holds the skull of man who has gone unidentified since his skeletal remains were found in 2012.
JULY 28, 2016 - jacksongov.org (Also responsible for photographs)
If you have information that can help identify "the skeleton in the closet" or help resolve unclaimed body cases, notify the Jackson County Medical Examiner's Investigations Division:
816-881-6600 or investigationsMEO@jacksongov.org
“I’ll tell you all about my skeleton in the closet.”
Now that she has your full attention, Diane Peterson will pause for effect. What well-guarded secret is she about to divulge?
Actually, Dr. Peterson isn’t speaking metaphorically. She is being quite literal.
And the Jackson County Chief Medical Examiner doesn’t yet know the one secret this skeleton — that was, indeed, found in a closet — has been keeping the last 4½ years.
Who was this man?
No Escaping The Smoke
Two days into 2012, the Kansas City Fire Department fought a blaze that gutted a vacant house on Wabash Avenue in the urban core. The next day the house’s windows and doors were boarded up, essentially creating a tomb that would remain sealed more than two months — until individuals who acquired the property with the intention of rehabbing it went back inside to start cleaning the debris. On March 26, they made the shocking discovery inside one of the closets.
Entangled in what appeared to be a pile of charred clothing were the skeletal remains of what Dr. Michael Finnegan, an anthropology consultant, determined was an African American man. Finnegan estimated the man's height at between 5-foot-5 and 5-9, his age range 54 to 65 or older.
Although she needn’t consult her notes too often to refresh her memory about this particular case, assigned to her when she was a Deputy Medical Examiner, Peterson glances at the file briefly. “His clothing being slightly burnt told me he was there when the fire happened.” (And he did not somehow enter the property, then die sometime after Jan. 3.)
Peterson ruled carbon monoxide toxicity (in layman terms “smoke inhalation”) caused the man’s demise. Concluding his death was an accident required some deductive reasoning.
A neighbor reported the house on Wabash had been empty at least two years, yet had not always gone unoccupied. Homeless people frequently sought shelter in the abandoned dwelling.
The fire was intentionally set — not maliciously but likely out of what would tragically be the man’s fatal attempt to stay warm. To ward off the cold, in a house disconnected from utilities, squatters will frequently risk starting what will hopefully stay a very small, contained fire. (The temperature Jan. 2, 2012, dipped to 23°.)
This fire, ignited near a mattress, got out of control.
“I believe,” Peterson says, “the fire prevented this man from getting out of the room, so he went into the closet to try and avoid the flames. He couldn’t get away from the smoke, though.”
How did the corpse go undetected during the fire investigation?
Shaun Hachinsky, the Deputy Chief Investigator for the Jackson County ME’s Office, shrugs. He won’t hazard a guess, saying, “It was supposed to be a vacant house.”
Fire did not entirely consume the body leaving only the bones behind. Decomposition — the breakdown of organic materials — did.
And the remains, Peterson says, were not yet 100 percent skeletonized. “Some tissue was still present.”
How Fast You Decompose Varies
That tissue immediately proved the man had not been dead years. Paradoxically, full decomposition need not take months.
When Peterson explains how decomposition rates vary, she speaks in the second person, which can send a shiver down your spine: “It doesn’t take years for you to skeletonize — that’s a common misconception. How fast you become a skeleton depends on the environment in which you died, what natural diseases you might have had, how big a person you were, what you were wearing.”
The man in the closet wore multiple coats and was also exposed to the heat from the fire.
“With heat you get bacteria,” Peterson continues, “so decomposition doesn’t take many months. In this case it was only a couple of months to get to near full skeletonization.”
She has seen even faster decomps. During her fellowship in Birmingham, Alabama, a man went missing about six weeks before his skeleton was found. Peterson sighs. “It was summer in Alabama.”
The Skull In The Street
The skeleton in the closet was a rare find.
“We don’t get many complete skeletons like this,” notes Tom Hensley, the Jackson County ME’s Chief of Operations and Investigations. “Sometimes, all that is left is a bone here or there. We do get a lot of skulls.”
This sparks some “shop talk” between Hensley and his Deputy Chief, Hachinsky.
First, Hachinksy talks about a skull—or was it skulls?—being retrieved from the basement of a closed funeral home. Then Hensley remembers a couple moving into their new house and rummaging through the attic. “They found a skull.”
Hachinsky can top that story. He once picked up a skull found lying on a street in Independence.
“It was just sitting there in the gutter,” he says, “and it had been there quite a while because it’s was around Halloween time, four or five years ago. Everyone thought it was a decoration.”
Hachinsky suspects the skull was from a “private collection” and had, indeed, been used as an especially ghoulish Halloween ornament. Peterson jumps in and says, “We’ve had people buy skulls down in Mexico.”
The Skeleton Key
The skull is often the key — the true skeleton key — to unlocking the mystery of who was he?
The skull, alone, can indicate whether the person in question was male or female. A man’s forehead will have a more pronounced eyebrow ridge. (A quick examination of the pelvic bones, if available, is the most precise means for determining gender.) The skull is also vital to deduce ethnicity based on cheek and nasal bone structures.
Furthermore, anyone who has watched crime procedurals on TV — from Quincy, M.E. in the 1970s to NCIS today — knows the skull houses what has to be the most common way to ID a skeleton. The teeth. Just check the dental records.
If not dental records, there’s always DNA. Identifications can even be made when all that is left is a single tooth — no skull, nothing else.
“We can get DNA from a tooth,” points out Peterson. “If we’ve got just one bone, we can extract DNA from the marrow.”
“But,” stresses Hachinsky, “you have to have dental and DNA records somewhere to match up with.”
Waiting For A Hit
Upon seeing a surgical plate screwed into the jawbone, Peterson thought, if nothing else, that would lead to identifying the skeleton in the closet (read 'Another Dead End'). That proved, she says, no pun intended, “to be a dead end.”
Old fashioned investigative work netted no viable leads. ME investigators visited homeless camps and shelters, asking if any man matching this description — African American, 54 to 65 years old (maybe older), between 5-5 and 5-9 — had disappeared shortly after New Year’s Day 2012.
“All we can really do now is wait,” Hensley says. “Wait for a hit.”
The best hope of obtaining the man’s name is probably NamUs. The Jackson County ME’s Office has loaded his crucial information, including the dental records and DNA code from the skeleton, into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. The U.S. Department of Justice’s database automatically scans all records twice a day, looking for “hits,” matches in the records medical examiners across the nation have put into the system with data — DNA, dental records, missing person reports, etc. — that law enforcement agencies have inputted.
“There are two sides to this,” Peterson says. “We can put the DNA code in. We can put in the dental records we developed from his skull. We can put in our anthropology information. What we are waiting for is for someone else on the other side — the missing person’s side — to put into NamUs the data that will give us a match.”
Hensley puts it succinctly: “Medical examiners have bodies without identifications; someone else has the person’s name but doesn’t know what has become of their body.”
Skulls Will Roll
It’s a ghastly thought, but a simple fact of nature. A dead body, if not promptly discovered, will attract animals.
The smallest critters, ants and flies, can get indoors. Hachinsky saw “clears signs of multi-generations of insects” when he entered an apartment with the lone occupant being — other than the bugs — a weeks-old cadaver. Neighbors had noticed a foul smell, but, in Peterson’s words, “odor alone doesn’t always prompt immediate action.”
Most skeletal remains are discovered outside. Someone may literally trip over a femur or skull. Once ligaments have fully decayed, there’s no connective tissue left to keep the skeleton intact and prevent scavenging animals from scattering the bones.
“Your bones are sort of free to move about as nature might seem fit to move them, whether by animal or rain water,” says Peterson.
She tries to put this delicately: “The skull... it’s round. It rolls. The skull Shaun picked up in the gutter might have been washed away by the rain.”
That’s why, according to Hensley, “we often only wind up with the skull or a bone here and there.” And that’s why most cases involving only a partial skeleton are officially declared “undetermined.”
“We can’t determine the cause of the death,” Peterson says, “if all we have is a skull and there’s no sign of injury to it.”
What the ME’s Office will do, she says, is everything in its power to put a name with the skull, even if it means waiting decades.
More Skeletons In The Closet
There are more skeletons in the closet. Each in its separate box. Or boxes.
“We do store our unidentified skeletal remains in a closet,” Hensley says.
Unable to suppress a quick ironic laugh over the skeleton from the house fire on Wabash Avenue still being in a closet — the skull in one box, the rest of the bones in a separate box — Hensley adds, “It’s hard to say how many bodies we have when all we’ve got is bones. I’d say right now we’ve got about a dozen and a half case files.”
“We’ve got bones that go back at least to the 1980s. We’ll hold on to them until their identified,” declares Peterson, “however long it takes.”
Then she states a simple fact: “They don’t take up that much space.”
Another 'Dead End'
Every bone has a story to tell.
When a complete skeleton was found in a closet 4½ years ago, the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office contacted its anthropology consultant, Dr. Michael Finnegan. He would interpret everything all those bones had to say.
The pelvic bones told Finnegan this was a man’s skeleton. The femurs, a.k.a. the thigh bones, enabled him to estimate the individual’s height (between 5-foot-5 and 5-9). The cheek and nasal bone structures indicated ethnicity (African American).
A whole chorus of bones can be examined to calculate a person’s age from his skeleton. During childhood, the skull eventually encloses around the brain, leaving distinctive lines where the bones have merged. In adults, these “sutures” gradually fade and are far less noticeable on the skull of an older adult. Other bones will often show telltale signs of age. The ribs may be thin at the ends and have sharpened edges in an older person. The vertebrae may be ravaged with arthritis.
For the skeleton in the closet, Finnegan put the age range at 54 to 65 years or older. This is not an exact science.
Can the skeletal remains tell an expert like Finnegan anything about what may have happened to this person years before his death?
Healed fractures — to the face and both collarbones — shouted out that this man had recovered from multiples injuries suffered at different ages. The most obvious was a busted jawbone, fused back together with a surgical plate.
“When we saw the surgical hardware screwed into the jaw, we thought getting him identified was going to be relatively easy,” says Dr. Diane Peterson. She was a Deputy Medical Examiner in 2012 and now serves as Jackson County’s Chief Medical Examiner.
Shaun Hachinsky, Deputy Chief Investigator for the Jackson County ME’s Office, nods his head. “We thought this was going to be a slam dunk.”
Engraved on the jaw bone’s plate was a lot number ME investigators traced back to a local surgical supplies sales representative. Unfortunately, this particular part had no serial number. That, coupled with the lack of any additional records, made finding the exact hospital that purchased the plate — let alone the specific surgeon who screwed it into the bone — impossible.
“Every piece of surgical hardware that was made that looks like this [plate] was given the exact same number.” Peterson’s voice has a hint of frustration about it as she remembers the letdown. “There was just no way to find out which surgeon at which hospital used this plate…. With a hip prosthesis, there is a lot number and then a specific number unique to it, so you can find the surgeon and then figure out which patient the hardware ended up in.”
Hachinsky looks at a photo of the plate affixed to the jaw and wonders out loud “if some surgeon might recognize his work.” Peterson looks at it and replies, “This ended up being just another dead end.”
After four-plus years, Peterson is still waiting for a dental record or DNA match to be made through the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), so that she can finally give the skeleton in the closet a name.
“You have to have an idea who he was to try and match his dental records or DNA,” she says. “The only thing you can do blindly without having any idea who the person might have been is fingerprints. Then their fingerprints have to be in the system. We didn’t have fingerprints in this case.
“Or, their DNA has to have been drawn for law enforcement reasons — and the people who have their DNA drawn for law enforcement are few and far between.
“Or, their information has to someday be put into NamUs to match up with the dental and DNA records we’ve put into the system.”
The ME’s Office continues to store other skeletal remains that have gone unidentified for decades, and Peterson knows the skeleton in the closet may forever go nameless. These anonymous bones have now been silent for four years and counting — their story incomplete.
Rarely does a body in the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office go unidentified. But about once every two weeks there will be a body that eventually ends up being designated “unclaimed.”
Despite having a name to go with these bodies, ME investigators are unable to find someone to claim the remains.
“It’s not that uncommon,” Chief Investigator Tom Hensley says. “The number 100 sticks in my mind.”
Given that 35 to 40 bodies will pass through the Jackson County ME’s Office during an average week, one unclaimed body every two weeks or so would be 1 percent of the overall total. Or, approximately 100 to 110 unclaimed bodies per year.
“Statistically, it’s a low percentage,” states Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Diane Peterson, “but it happens with enough frequency that we do need assistance trying to locate families.”
A body will be held about 10 days before the ME’s Office will turn to the news media to publicize the case and more actively begin seeking out relatives to claim it. As part of that effort the county will now start posting the identities of unclaimed bodies on jacksongov.org.
“We want to give the family time — time to find out what has happened to their loved one and to reach out to us,” says Peterson. “But if after 10 days we haven’t heard from anybody…”
Hensley and his staff get busy. He says, “We search databases, do Google searches, check genealogy websites, work with law enforcement, read the obituaries in the newspaper.”
During the first six months of 2016, Jackson County buried or cremated 88 bodies. In the previous four years (2012-15) the county averaged 128 burials/cremations a year.
“Sometimes we have families who just can’t afford it,” Peterson points out, “or just bow out for some reason or another. Not all county burials are unclaimed bodies, though all unclaimed bodies will be a county burial.”
The ME’s staff uses the term “burial” for all bodies Jackson County either buries or cremates. Actual burials are rare.
“Unclaimed bodies that were homicides and unidentified bodies... we will bury them, so that we have a record of where they are,” says Hensley. “If the person is ever identified, we can direct the family where to go. They can either leave the remains where they are or move them. You also have the potential for exhumations with homicides.
“We hold on to all these bodies a long time — over a year in some cases.” (Unidentified skeletal remains, in fact, are stored in the ME’s Office indefinitely.)
Charter Funerals has a contract with Jackson County to bury or cremate unclaimed bodies. Charter Funerals stores the ashes of the cremated. The county ME’s Office is regional, also serving Platte, Clay or Cass counties.
“When we have unclaimed bodies from those counties, we go directly to their county commissioners,” Hensley says. “They generally assign an administrator to handle the burials for those bodies somewhere in their counties.”
UNCLAIMED BODY CASES
These are current cases in which the Jackson County ME's Office has been unable to locate or contact family members:
White Male • 53 Years Old
White Male • 53 Years Old
White Male • 59 Years Old
If you have information that can help find relatives of these individuals contact the ME's Investigations Division at 816-881-6600 or investigationsMEO@jacksongov.org
The skeleton in the closet is now separated into two boxes — one of the skull, the other for all the rest of his bones.