What goes into identifying bodies in a death investigation

The past week has been a frustrating one for two different families. The spotlight has been shining on two different high-profile death or disappearance cases of their adult children.

There is still no sign of Brian Laundrie since the death of his fiance, Gabby Petito, was ruled a homicide. He remains a person of interest after the Teton County Coroner from Wyoming announced she died by strangulation.

And, with a body being found in North Fort Myers this week, there looked to be hope that it was Lauren Dumolo. She has been missing for more than a year. It turned out to be another woman, Briana Tennant.

So much goes into identifying a person who died in cases like these. So, WINK News spoke to an expert about why this identification can take so long.

When it comes to human remains,  FGCU professor Heather Walsh-Haney knows what to look for. She’s a forensic anthropologist and the chair of the Department of Justice Studies at FGCU where she teaches as an associate professor. “Evaluate the bones that are there to help estimate age, sex, stature. What’s unique to that individual that may manifest on the bone,” said Walsh-Haney.

This could also include using teeth. When a body is found, if there are available dental records, that’s where the forensic pathologist will come in. That is how they attempt to make a positive identification.

“There might be fillings. You might have a root canal or a dental post or a crown that the dentist can use to help establish a positive ID,” Walsh-Haney said.

That is why, earlier this week, Cape Coral Police and LCSO asked for missing Cape Coral mother Lauren Dumolo’s dental records. “If the individual has a long record of visiting a dentist and the dentist kept those radiographs and charts then it’s more likely that an ID may be made because the teeth are present,” said Walsh-Haney.

However, if there are no dental records available, and the only remains are bones, then they result to DNA.

“I’m so doing, a small section of bone will be cut and that will be using a sterile instrument put into a sterile container and that is pulverized and sent out to the lab for analysis. And even the process of pulverizing the little bit of bone all of that is done in a sterile environment of the DNA lab to reduce contamination,” Walsh-Haney said.

Forensic anthropologists also need DNA to compare it to. “And that has with the technology that has gone forward with DNA has been an amazing change. From when I was assisting with 9/11 or with Value Jet in the mid-90s the speed at which medical examiners can choose a route to DNA and the to have labs that can run the DNA in a timely manner is amazing,” she said.

WINK News asked Heather Walsh Haney about Gabby Petito’s case. She said that while finding Petito’s remains outdoors could have presented a bit of a challenge, other factors, such as clothing, helped the coroner make a positive ID very quickly.

Reporter:Zach Oliveri
Writer:Drew Hill
Do you see a typo or an error? Let us know.