He cracks mysteries held by unknown bones

Gibbs assembles clues to identities

Staff WriterJuly 27, 2003 

CHAPEL HILL -- He is working in a glorified walk-in closet at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, a space known as the bone room.

Sunlight streams through a wall of windows onto metal shelves filled with what look like shallow cardboard shirt boxes, each with a case number scribbled on the end.

Clyde Gibbs opens one and arranges a child's skeleton on a gurney. He recites musical anatomical names: femur, fibula, tibia. These are the long bones of the leg that help him estimate a body's height, a first step toward puzzling out the identity and cause of death.

"Looking at skeletal remains is like putting together a big puzzle," Gibbs says. "You're taking the bones and the skull and trying to decipher who this person is."

Mystery bones are Gibbs' specialty. For the past six years, investigators across the state have taken them to him from rivers, forests and back yards. Their first questions for the forensic anthropologist: Is it human? If so, who?

Some bones come from animals or ancient burial grounds. Others are from fresh graves. There can be a single bone or a complete skeleton.

He is still trying to identify a skeleton found July 9 in Apex . Looking at the long bones, the skull and facial features, he can tell it belongs to a white man about 36 years old. Wake County sheriff's investigators found bullets at the scene; Gibbs found signs that the man was shot twice in the head.

It would be easier to figure out how the man died, and who he is, if his body had been shielded from the elements, Gibbs says. Take the body of Durham cellist Janine Sutphen, 57. Missing for four months, her body was found in Falls Lake in May, wrapped in a tarp that Gibbs says left her well-preserved. An identification was made right away, and her husband was charged with murder.

Gibbs takes pride in his work and the bone room in particular. Despite the challenges of identifying skeletal remains, the bone room houses only about 25 unidentified skeletons from as many years.

"We're talking about someone who knows what bones look like," says Chief Medical Examiner John Butts. "If you take a cross section of your average population or law enforcement, they wouldn't necessarily recognize a human bone lying by the side of the road. Most doctors study bones their first year in medical school. But after that, they get kind of rusty on it."

Gibbs studied forensic anthropology in college. The medical examiner and other pathologists in the office specialized in forensic science after medical school. All are qualified to identify bones, assemble skeletons and perform autopsies. Gibbs' unique talent is osteometrics , the bone measurements and comparisons he uses to make his estimates.

He measures the size and shape of the pelvis or skull to determine sex. He can estimate age from the seams of the skull, which tighten over time. If bones have started to degenerate, it means the person was at least 60. Once he has estimated the age and sex , Gibbs measures the leg bones and plugs the three figures into numbered tables to estimate height.

His work is confined to the bone room and surrounding morgue at UNC Hospitals. Co-workers say Gibbs, 32 , looks as if he belongs there. Pale and thin, with dark blue eyes slightly shadowed, he could pass for a science graduate student. He wears a scraggly brown goatee, white sneakers and khakis with a beeper in lieu of a belt. No need to dress up -- rarely does he visit crime scenes or testify in court.

Lawyers generally hire forensic anthropologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology as expert witnesses. Gibbs never attended graduate school, a requirement for certification. But he points out that Kathy Reichs , the best-selling Charlotte author, is the only one certified in the state.

Gibbs keeps a lower profile, although he doesn't try to hide his occupation from the curious. Even at parties. "I'm good for at least 20 questions," he says.

A fascinating course

Gibbs graduated from Bath High School in Beaufort County . The son of a funeral home employee, he wanted to minister to the living, not the dead. At Appalachian State University, he was set on a career in sports medicine until the fall of his senior year, when he signed up for a course with Harvard Ayers , an anthropology professor .

The mysteries of forensic anthropology captured his imagination, and Gibbs switched his major. After graduating, he spent a summer catalog ing boxes in the bone room at the state medical examiner's office . Then he studied mortuary science for a year, interned at the funeral home in Beaufort County where his father had worked and waited for a job in Chapel Hill.

Paul Dunn, president of Paul Funeral Home , watched Gibbs grow up in a house owned by the funeral home across U.S. 264. Gibbs played with Dunn's children and watched hearses pass daily. Dunn says Gibbs proved the most enthusiastic intern he has seen in 42 years, particularly in embalming. He was not surprised when Gibbs was hired by Butts' office in 1997.

Gibbs soon discovered how bones can frustrate as well as fascinate. In 1998, he found a metal plate on an unidentified skull from Randolph County nearly identical to that of a missing man, only to find it was one screw short of a match. It took four years to match the skull to another missing man through DNA.

Also in 1998, the skeleton of a 10-year-old boy was found on a wooded Orange County lot. The boy had $50 in his pocket, showed no signs of trauma and did not match any descriptions of missing children. Gibbs had teeth and DNA, but no records to compare them with. He was stumped.

"He looked like he'd just gone down to sleep," he says.

The mystery endured. Five years later, the child has not been identified.

One bone to go on

On July 22 came a new challenge. Robeson County sheriff's investigators took him a femur. Just a femur.

Gibbs could tell right away that it belonged to a man. The thigh bone had the telltale enlarged end where it would have connected to the hip. Just short of that, Gibbs saw an old fracture where surgeons had inserted a metal rod inside the bone, held in place with three screws. It had healed nicely.

"This guy probably wouldn't have walked with a limp," Gibbs says.

He brought out the bone last week and fingered it lightly. The underside was still dark from lying on moist earth for so long. He turned it over to show a serial number on the rod. He had called the manufacturer, but the number could not be linked to a particular hospital, let alone a patient.

"Adult male -- that's about all we can do with it," he says. "This could be one of those mystery things we were talking about that goes on forever."

Staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske can be reached at 829-4884 or mhenness@newsobserver.com.

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