Anthropology professor helps county identify bodies

By Olivia Garber

For some believers, our fates lie in the stars, our future in the marks of our palms. For… For some believers, our fates lie in the stars, our future in the marks of our palms. For Jeffrey Schwartz, our identity is in our bones.

Schwartz, a Pitt anthropology professor, has worked with the Allegheny County police since 1974. The county police contact him about three or four times per year.

He is the only anthropologist that aids the county.

A specialist in forensic anthropology, he assists police when they find human skeletons. Most recently, he helped them identify bones found in a Churchill, Pa., park in mid-March.

Schwartz needs only moments with the remains before he is able to piece together a picture of who a person was.

A quick perusal for the anthropologist can reveal the age, sex and height of the victim. Schwartz looks for fungal infections, cavities and even sinuses — features that leave unique marks on a person, helping anthropologists identify him.

The shape of a person’s sinuses is unique, like a fingerprint. If police have a lead on the identity of the victim, comparing X-rays with the sinuses of the remains can lead to a positive identification, Schwartz said.

Lifestyles can also leave traces on bones.

Schwartz was able to tell that one man was a weightlifter by examining the scars left on his kneecap. Muscles pulling on the membrane caused the bones to become bigger, helping Schwartz identify the man.

Sometimes, Schwartz uses his knowledge not only to identify bones, but to find them, as well.

When he visited Cyprus in 1971 and 1972, he said he learned that a correlation exists between disturbances in vegetation and burial sites.

Bedrock is close to the surface in Cyprus, so the country’s vegetation tends to be small and scattered. When Schwartz saw larger areas of vegetation, he deduced that burial sites must be nearby.

The holes from the burial sites allowed for more water retention, thus allowing the vegetation to grow larger.

Schwartz used the same detective approach in a case he received in the 1980s.

Police had captured a man suspected of 24 murders, and part of the man’s plea bargain required him to disclose the location of two of his victims.

The man directed police to a pine grove. Schwartz, along with officers and body-sniffing dogs scoured the area for remains.

As the sun set, Schwartz noticed something odd in the grove. In the middle of the pine grove appeared a line of three maple saplings, growing from a depression in the ground.

“I must have walked by the same spot 10 times,” he said.

Schwartz and the police excavated the site — the body they found still had hair, buttons and a bullet to the back of the neck.

The maple saplings had grown in the same line as the burial, Schwartz said, adding that the trees had all the fertilizer in the world.

Sometimes, Schwartz’s experiences give him bad dreams, he said.

“As many years as I have been in the morgue and seen dead people, it still gets me,” he said.

He recalled one case in which he helped police identify a woman.

The case left a strong mark on Schwartz, inflicting him with dreams. He even took to writing short stories as a form of self-therapy.

“A woman in her 20s was dumped on the side of a deer trail. She was still in her bathrobe. You could see the history of brutality that had been inflicted on her — broken nose, broken ribs … ” Schwartz said, trailing off. “It’s upsetting.

“When you put a life together, that’s when it starts to become … ” Schwartz said, faltering, ending the sentence with silence and a somber face.

In the three decades he has worked with the police, Schwartz has successfully indentified two remains.

Unlike TV shows like “CSI” or “Bones,” in which the characters can identify remains within the first 10 minutes, Schwartz has a tricky foe: reality.

“My hair isn’t moussed. I’m not in purple light, and I can’t identify people at the drop of a hat,” he said.

He said he can discover general information, like sex and age, from the bones, but he rarely finds cause of death.

Aside from obvious wounds, like gunshots or damage to the hyoid bone, cause of death is hard to determine.

The hyoid bone, which is found in the neck and is the only bone in the human body not connected to any other bones via joints. If someone has been strangled, usually the hyoid bone will break, although that doesn’t always happen, Schwartz said.

Dr. Abdulrezak Shakir, associate medical examiner for Allegheny County, said Schwartz helps the county by evaluating the evidence that remains on the bones.

Schwartz can help determine with what instrument injuries are consistent, and whether they were made with a sharp blade or a dull blade, Shakir said.

Police call Schwartz to find skeletal remains, although sometimes an anthropologist isn’t really necessary.

The police once called him because a citizen had given them a bag of bones. The citizen reported that there was a human vertebra among the bones.

The human vertebra turned out to be the ankle of a cow, and the rest of the “bones” were rocks.