Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Skeleton keys

Forensic anthropology professors help local police stations debunk cases

April 27, 2009

Doctors Norm Sauer, right, and Todd Fenton examine a bone in their laboratory. Sauer and Fenton have spent nearly 10 years working together on various cases and have led MSU in becoming one of the country’s best forensic anthropology schools.

Dr. Norm Sauer describes forensic anthropology in simple terms. “Most of the work that we do is looking at bones,” he said. However, the value from the supposedly simple work Sauer and fellow forensic anthropologist Dr. Todd Fenton do in their fourth floor East Fee Hall laboratory is invaluable to the various law enforcement agencies they assist.

Working independently and together for more than 30 years, Sauer and Fenton have made MSU a national leader in forensic anthropology. In dozens of cases per year, Sauer and Fenton have become go-to guys for police investigators who need help identifying bodies.

“One of my favorite parts (of being in forensic anthropology) is working with law enforcement,” Fenton said. “It gets us working with different entities in the real world.”

Cold case

Most recently, the two assisted in re-opening a 27-year-old cold case in Monroe County. The body of an unidentified woman was found on March 31, 1982, after washing up on the shore of Lake Erie near the Monroe County Power Plant.

After nearly three decades, investigators from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department this year exhumed the body to compare the remains to a possible murder victim in Canton Township, whose remains were never found.

Michigan State police Trooper Sarah Krebs recommended the body be sent to Sauer and Fenton’s lab to perform a facial reconstruction. Krebs, a former student of Sauer’s and an MSU alumna, said she always refers to Sauer and Fenton to help with reconstructions.

“Every time we have a skeletal case, we use MSU,” Krebs said. “They’re the leading department for anthropology in the state and the whole country.”

Det. Jeff Pauli, the lead Monroe County Sheriff’s detective on the case, said investigators have received between 20 and 30 tips since the public release of the facial reconstruction.

“It’s critical — there’s no way law enforcement could fund this by themselves,” Pauli said. “We rely on universities to study for us.”

He said Sauer and Fenton’s findings — putting the victim’s age between 20 and 30 years old, height between 4-feet-10 and 5-feet-4 inches tall, weight at approximately 110 pounds and blood type of type O — have helped investigators verify much of what was found in the original autopsy. The importance of these findings could not be understated, Pauli said.

“It confirms the autopsy, but when you’re digging up an old case it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Pauli said. “Once you get bones out of the ground, you can only do it once and you don’t want to do it again.”

Train the next generation

Sauer has worked on forensic anthropology at MSU since the mid-1970s, including helping law enforcement with various police investigations. Fenton joined Sauer at MSU 10 years ago and pointed to their friendly relationship as a reason for their success.

“What I enjoy is having a case I may be the lead on and I try to work on it and involve students,” Fenton said. “But, when it comes down to it and when I start to write up results, I bring in Norm and say, ‘What do you think?’”

Dr. Bob Hitchcock, director of MSU’s Department of Anthropology, said Sauer and Fenton’s work gives the university more of a presence in the community.

“This is where anthropology is going, as well, doing real-world work,” Hitchcock said. “It’s practical and useful.”

Sauer and Fenton include their graduate students in all of their cases.

“One of our goals here is to train the next generation of forensic anthropologists,” Fenton said. “We think it’s important they get that experience with cases so when they’re finished with their Ph.D, they have the training necessary to go and do case work in their next job.”

Hitchcock said students working with Sauer and Fenton have multilayered experience when they’re done working with the professors.

“One, they’re learning the technique — not just analysis, but how to prepare cases to be used by lawyers in legal cases, police departments and the FBI,” Hitchcock said. “But also, those kinds of techniques are useful for their own research, not necessarily related to murders or other death situations.”

Constant evolution

Fenton and Sauer’s original training from the mid-1970s essentially has been made obsolete by advances in the field since their college days. Fenton said the evolution of forensic anthropology from simply “looking at bones,” as Sauer said, to analyzing trauma and flesh remains has caused him and colleagues to train themselves on the fly.

“The contributions a forensic anthropologist can make to a medical examiner has really changed,” Fenton said. “Trauma is an area continuing to push the frontiers of science ahead and it’s going to be a real growth area.”

Sauer said many of the new techniques he’s learned at MSU came through teaching students.

He said developments such as superimposition — the process of placing a photograph of a deceased person over a computer image of unidentified bones to identify the remains — push him and Fenton to continuously expand their knowledge.

“We’ve had to learn how to use all that stuff and develop a theory behind it,” Sauer said.

“We’ve had to learn a lot of new stuff in the last few years.”

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