Bones reveal victim's name

Science aids investigators

Staff WriterNovember 4, 2009 

  • A world leader in its field, the North Carolina Program for Forensic Sciences has been called upon by the United States military to develop new technology that would find underground graves in Iraq. Back home, it has been called upon to assist in 60 homicide cases across the state.

    "I can't tell you everything that we do," said veteran archaeologist Billy Oliver, who co-directs the program with Ross. "But I can tell you that we are on the leading edge of the new technology."

    The program was launched in 2005 after receiving $8,000 in startup funds from N.C. State. The staff all have jobs outside the program, donating their time to the forensics program. Most are members of the N.C. State faculty. At the core of the program's workers are Ross, Oliver, and Gary Knight, a retired SBI agent and crime scene photographer. Other members include Ron Crowson, a geophysicist who works closely with Oliver, David Hinks, who is trained in the analysis of textiles, colors and fibers, and Dr. Wes Watson, an entomologist, who studies insects to determine how long remains have been at death scenes.

    "There are 30 other faculty members involved in one way or the other," Ross said. "It's very case specific. You never know what you are going to encounter."

    The program has worked to develop new standards in areas such as identification, archaeological discovery and recovery and forensic chemistry in the analysis of hair and fiber evidence. Ross also is leading a team that received a $464,078 federal grant to develop a multimedia course that law enforcement and forensics personnel would use to train within their departments. The course would teach them through podcasts and online coursework how to properly identify, collect and preserve physical evidence from the scene of a crime.

  • Ann Ross traveled to Panama in 2003 and used a skull fragment she superimposed over a photo of Gerardo Olivares, above, a member of the Chilean Navy, to help identify his remains.

  • Associate Professor of Anthropology, N.C. State

    Education:

    Ph.D. in Physical Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

    MA Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

    BA Anthropology, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Fla.

    BA Latin American Studies, Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla.

    Age: 41 Personal: Of British and Chilean descent; grew up in Panama; came to U.S. in late 1980s for college; married, 5-year-old-son.

    Last book read: "Hija de la fortuna," (Daughter of Fortune) by Isabel Allende

    Her opinion of TV's "CSI" series: The work of an actual forensic scientist is minimized while giving the impression that problems are solved in minutes, while most of the work is done by electronics with one person simply pushing a button. It doesn't happen that way, she said. "There's a lot of research, and a lot of people are involved," Ross said. "It's not a one-person show."

— It was a copy of a 2002 CAT scan that finally put a name, a face to the bones and mummified remains found eight months ago among the decaying leaves in a thicket of woods north of Rocky Mount, where six women have been murdered.

Elizabeth Jane Smallwood, 33, of Rocky Mount was no longer a lost person, thanks to a world renowned expert and a program at N.C. State University that is pioneering the use of forensic science in crime scene investigations. Using specialized computer software, forensic anthropologist Ann Ross was able to match the unique features of the weathered skull to Smallwood's old CAT scan - a three-dimensional X-ray.

Smallwood's body was one of six found since 2005 in the rural, swampy corner of Edgecombe County about 60 miles northeast of Raleigh. The first five already had been identified as poor African-American women. Flummoxed by the lack of clues and suspecting a possible serial killer, Rocky Mount police requested a task force to be formed in June to assist in investigating the deaths. But June wasn't the first time they had called in experts to help.

They had called the North Carolina Program for Forensic Sciences on Feb. 13, when Smallwood's body was found. Ross and veteran archaeologist Billy Oliver, who co-direct the program at N.C. State, as well as forensic photographer Gary Knight responded. Their job was to collect and protect evidence that could be critical in identifying the victim, determining a cause of death and possibly prosecuting a killer.

The remains were mostly skeletal, having been scavenged by animals. There were clothes nearby, but the team was not sure if they belonged to the victim. The lower extremities of the remains were partially mummified, which Ross attributed to the trees that shaded the body, thus preventing complete decomposition.

Knight, a retired SBI agent, thoroughly photographed the crime scene. Oliver studied the leaves under the body and determined the victim had been at that site only one season, meaning she was killed in late summer or early fall.

The team carefully gathered the remains. The bones were turned over to the state medical examiner's office. The vegetation and soil samples were submitted to the SBI for further testing and analysis.

Ross is a giant in the forensics field -- internationally respected for her work abroad.

She traveled to Bosnia as a doctoral student in 1997 to help identify the remains of genocide victims. She has been traveling to Panama since 2001 to help identify the remains of those who disappeared during the 1970s and 1980s regimes of Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos, commander of the Panamanian National Guard.

In 2007 and 2008, she traveled to Chile - her mother's homeland - to help identify the victims dumped into mass graves during the Augusto Pinochet administration in the 1970s and 1980s. She developed a formula, using the humerus and femur bones among the remains found in Chile, to help forensic scientists determine the height and sex of the victims. Ross presented her findings last week at a conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Preparing a profile

So it was no surprise on March 10, when the state medical examiner's office sent the remains back to Ross and her lab at N.C. State. Her task: prepare a biological profile that would help medical and law enforcement officials determine who they had found on that bed of decaying leaves.

She studied the pelvic bones to determine sex. She studied the pubic bone and any degenerative bone issues to estimate her age. She studied the long bones of the legs to determine height, and facial structure of the skull to determine ancestry.

The bones told her the victim was an African-American woman in her mid-30s or early 40s, who stood between 5 feet, 4 inches and 5 feet, 7inches tall.

Smallwood also had what Ross described as genetic anomalies. "She had an extra vertebra and an extra rib," Ross said. "She probably didn't know she had it."

Look for a match

Ross returned the bones and her finding to the medical examiner's office. Police investigators went to work looking for a match among African-American women reported missing from the Rocky Mount area.

The dental records of one woman were analyzed. "It was not her," Ross said.

Then, about a month ago, an associate medical examiner returned the skull, along with a CAT scan of Smallwood's head.

Ross decided to give it a go. She knew that everyone has a unique skull pattern that gives distinct shape to the face and the shape of the head and the cranial vault that houses the brain.

At first, Ross was disappointed because the CAT scan did not clearly show the facial region. Nonetheless, Ross thought a reference X-ray sent along with the CAT scan had potential for identification.

She superimposed a digital X-ray of the victim's skull over the reference X-ray and found "very distinct areas of concordance." There was a pronounced front tooth that matched along with the other front teeth. The lower jaw lined up perfectly. The facial regions were in sync. She outlined the cranial vaults. "They were a match," Ross said.

Excited, but not completely satisfied, Ross did more testing with specialized computer software that detected no significant differences in the shapes of the cranial vault or in the facial shape.

Is she positive of the match?

"Without a doubt," she said.

A multi-agency task force was formed in June to investigate the Edgecombe County slayings. A suspect has been arrested and charged with one woman's murder. Smallwood's death, however, remains unsolved.

thomasi.mcdonald@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4533

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