Digging up cold cases in a Northeast Philadelphia graveyard

Forensic anthropologists and crime scene investigators are inspecting the remains of seven people.

Kristen Johanson
August 08, 2018 - 8:17 am
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Alongside Dunks Ferry Road in Northeast Philadelphia, a field overgrown with grass and wild flowers covers concrete squares etched with the numbers 250, 507, 522, 530, 550, 608 and 795.

These are seven of the more than 800 graves of unknown or unclaimed people buried in a potter's field, near the border of Bucks County. The seven were being exhumed by a team of forensic anthropologists and crime scene investigators on Tuesday afternoon.

"You really can't further a case until you know who your victim is," said homicide detective Tom McAndrew, a retired Pennsylvania State Trooper now working in Lehigh County. "We wanted to go with children or younger adults first, and we wanted to go with known homicides or anything that had an investigative lead."

Like the unsolved case of a "girl in a box."

"In the 1960s, a little black girl, estimated to be 4 to 6 years old, was decapitated, dismembered. She was put in a box. She was covered with an apron and thrown into the Schulykill River,” said McAndrew. 

Another case involves a young male, possibly a teenager, stabbed several times, with chains tied around his legs, found in the Delaware River.

"When you look back at the 1960s, '70s, '80s, so many cases of missing persons have fallen through the cracks," said Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist who heads the project, funded by a National Institute for Justice grant, which aims to solve cold cases nationwide. "There wasn't mass computing with national databases, so things would be hand-written in files. Those files are in basements of archives all over the country."

Forensic experts unearth a body buried in a Philadelphia potter's field.
Kristen Johanson/KYW Newsradio

After the seven bodies are exhumed, they will be flown to a Florida lab for skull reconstruction and DNA analysis, which will likely take more than a year.

"We will take pictures of bone, teeth and hair. Those structures form at different points in your life, so you kind of have a time of somebody's life," said Kimmerle. 

She added that the skeleton taken as a whole is an important piece of evidence in identifying a person: "the biological profiles, that's all the parameters — age, sex, ancestry, any injuries, health — basically anything you can learn about a person from their skeleton."

The scientists will also examine isotopes in the remains, to identify elements like lead or nitrogen, to help determine the region where a victim may have lived.

Investigators are hoping that attention brought to the dig may help draw others who have had missing loved ones go to authorities and give a DNA swab. When a sample is collected, it can be uploaded into the national missing persons database. There ahs been some success with matching the remains of unknown people with their relatives.

As for cases involving these seven young people, the hope is to at least identify who they may belong to.

"If we can at least bring these cases up to contemporary standards, it's given these victims that have been long forgotten about one shot."