GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KKCO) - It’s something that happens more than you might think here in Western Colorado, a hiker, hunter or rancher stumbling across a human skull or other bones while out in the wilderness.
When human remains are discovered, a team of experts must figure out who they belong to with just a few small clues.
11 News takes you inside the identification process in this special report: Positive ID.
"There are thousands of individuals who are reported missing in the United States and for those family members who don't have an answer," says Dr. Robert Kurtzman.
Kurtzman has been a forensic pathologist for more than two decades.
In that time, he has seen more than his fair share of unidentified human remains.
"There's certainly an intellectual challenge associated with the whole process," he says.
It’s a process that begins with a shocking discovery when bones or other remains are found.
"The wrong thing to do is remove them...it removes them from the place where they were discovered and we may not be able to ultimately find that same place," he says.
They’re turned over to the Coroner’s Office for examination.
Kurtzman says the first course of action is to figure out if what they’re looking at is even human.
"Some bones are very, very easy to characterize as animal bones because they're distinctly different than human bones. Other bones, often times it's the smaller bones, may be more difficult to categorize," Kurtzman says.
If they decide the bones are human, the next step is to figure out whether they’ve been sitting there for centuries or whether they’re something the forensic pathologists should be examining.
In both cases Kurtzman says a forensic anthropologist, who specializes in studying bones, may be brought in to help make those determinations.
"A lot more knowledge that they bring to the table just adds to what we do,” he says.
He also says, depending on the bones, that process can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
“If the remains are human, and there's interest about who they belong to...” Kurtzman says.
The next step is to start gathering identification clues.
"What is the gender? What is the age? What is the stature? What is the cause of death?" are all questions he asks.
All questions he says are possible to answer just by looking at the characteristics of bones, their size, their shape and their configuration.
"There are different characteristics that you can see which would identify female versus male bone,” Kurtzman says.
But sometimes it takes a more refined eye to get the information they need, and that’s where imaging technology comes in.
"X–rays have found more use recently,” he says.
Now, more than ever, forensic pathologists use what are called MDCTs, a scan of the remains that produces a virtual 3-D image that lets them see the bones with more detail.
"The CT scanner can often times identify changes, perhaps fractures, that we might not see visibly or grossly, so we're able to collect more information about the skeleton that way,” Kurtzman says.
Information that may reveal this person had knee surgery or a joint replacement, giving them more leads.
Kurtzman says, "We try to document the physical findings that are pertinent and all the physical findings that may be specific to an individual that allow us to compare to someone who is reported missing."
He says the scans also make it easier to share information with other experts they may need help from to get a positive ID. Experts like a forensic odontologist, who can compare scans of tooth remains, with dental records.
"If you take a look at the teeth and the bone structure that surrounds the teeth, there are unique characteristics that each individual has,” Kurtzman says.
He says other advancements in technology are also helping forensic pathologists answer the important questions.
"We can take DNA samples from bone to get a DNA comparison and there are labs in the US that have accumulated information about a variety of people who have been reported missing," he says.
Kurtzman says they’re even starting to analyze the chemical makeup of things like tooth fillings to help determine who remains belong to. It’s a technique that was used to help ID remains of victims from a plane crash in Buffalo last year. "It's pretty sophisticated stuff,” he says.
Even with all of this at their disposal, Kurtzman says not all remains are eventually put with a name.
"It's luck of the draw depending on what kind of remains you get," he says.
But when they do get a positive ID or a successful prosecution as a result, it makes doing what he does worth it.
"If we're able to provide an answer, there's closure for them," he says.