Jennifer Love, Forensic Anthropologist
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Love has been the director of the forensic anthropology division at the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office since 2006. She was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The forensic anthropology division here has three anthropologists, and we have three main responsibilities: identification, skeletal recovery, and forensic anthropology services. Anyone who is a victim of a homicide or can’t be recognized by the face due to trauma has to have scientific identification. We have nearly one hundred each month. With skeletal recovery, the authorities at a scene will say, “Hey, we need an anthropologist!” and we drop everything and go, regardless of the hour. Most often we’re called for house fires and car fires after accidents. The second most frequent call is for skeletal remains, and the third would be dismemberment cases. I think last year we had 36 scenes. It’s not all that many, but they all seem to happen at 3 a.m.
“Forensic anthropology services” means skeletal remains that come in without a cause of death. The last call I went on was a scattered skeleton. It was in a high, grassy area, and you could see the path of the animals—rodents or wild dogs or coyotes. I followed those paths and looked over the area very closely in a reasonable walking space until I had the majority of the skeleton. Birds are interested in the hair for the nest, but occasionally a bird will pick up a small finger bone or something.
Part of what led me into forensic anthropology is the “Sherlock Holmes” of it, the putting together of a puzzle. I had a recent case where a man was stealing a pack of cigarettes and the store clerk ran and tackled him and gave him all these rib fractures. He lived for a few days and then died due to complications from the fractures, but there was no definitive story, nothing from law enforcement. So when the pathologist got in there and looked at the ribs, she said, “This is a lot of rib fractures! What happened?”
Well, once we process the fractured ribs, we can start to rebuild the biomechanics of the force. I looked at all the broken bones, and none of the fractures were inconsistent with the forces associated with a running tackle. It’s the way the bone is breaking, where the tension and compression forces are located. If you take a hammer or a baseball bat and hit the ribs, you’ll have all these focal strikes in multiple directions, and that looks different than a body striking the ground, where you have one large, flat surface with a large force.
I had another recent case where two men, one was big and one was little, had gotten into a fight, and the big man was getting up off the little man—you know, “I’m done with you!”—and the story was that the little man had somehow pulled him back down and the big guy had fallen onto his chest and he died a short while later.
When I looked at the rib fracture patterns, they were serial; they all lined up. But what was really interesting was the way the force was directed. I said to the pathologist, “It looks like you have a single force from a large, broad surface coming down, and the decedent was twisted when the force hit him.” You don’t ever know if you’re 100 percent right, but in my mind I could see where the little guy was twisting his body to bring the big guy down. So we could say that our findings supported the story.
There are just so many of these stories—I don’t want to say you’re desensitized, but you can’t be emotionally drawn in by every one of them. I really try to stay focused on the questions the pathologist asks, and when I’m working with the bones, I usually can. It is a person and you think of that, and some of the stories are terribly, terribly sad, but thinking about the people is not an active process on my part—maybe that’s my coping mechanism.
Of all my cases, the one that jumps out in my mind is one of my first real identification cases. A female had decomposed in an abandoned building. We suspected it was a drug overdose because she was in a house where drugs were probably sold, and they had found traces of cocaine in some of the bugs, or maybe it was in some of the decomposed tissue. Before a maggot turns into a fly, it forms a cocoon, just a little brown shell, and they can analyze the casings from the fly pupae and find cocaine. I remember specifically picking up the pupae casings and collecting those and labeling them to be sent for analysis.
At some point I realized that her growth plates were still open, and I said to my pathologist, “Oh, my gosh! We have a young individual.” And when I say young, I mean a teenager. Adults make decisions, and they may become transient, but with a child, you have to figure there’s a mother looking. So I did the full analysis and turned the case in to the National Crime Information Center but didn’t get any hits. I called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and they opened a case file for me. Eventually they sent me a list of about seven girls, and one of the girls matched. She had run away from a juvenile center and they had reported her missing, and they brought me dental records, so I got her scientifically identified. I actually spoke to the mother, and we saw to it that her remains were returned and buried.
Telling this story, it seems anticlimactic, but it was just such a long period of work. She really was a part of my life for several months. Her first name was Brandy, and every day she was there, every day I did something to try to get that girl identified. And you know, it was just so rewarding when I did get her identified and I was able to return her.
I don’t think there could be anything worse than to search for a loved one. I don’t think you would have a moment of relaxation. Even if you were watching a sporting event on TV, I think that your eyes would be scanning the crowd. I mean, anytime you’re out in public, you’re always looking for that person. I just think that would be horrible. Now, when I finally called the family, the news I had was probably the worst news you could receive, that your loved one is dead. Still, they didn’t have to search anymore.