TAMPA — It started with the sneakers.
That's what drew the attention of a couple of blueberry farmers as they stood stranded along the shoulder of Interstate 75 on Tuesday afternoon.
Then they saw the bones.
"Call police," Dan Ebbecke told a AAA operator. "I think there's a body here."
Soon the spot near Bruce B. Downs Boulevard where 30,000 motorists pass each day was surrounded with yellow police tape. By Wednesday morning it was being treated as a crime scene.
Authorities said Ebbecke's instincts were right: The bones, long obscured by brush and debris, were human.
The identity and manner of death remained a mystery Wednesday as the medical examiner and an anthropologist examined the remains. It could be weeks before they figure it out.
"There are so many possibilities," said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis, noting that detectives wondered if the bones would provide clues to unsolved murders or missing persons cases. "Everyone's wondering who this could be."
That includes Ebbecke.
He and friend Junior Penavler, both farmers from Masaryktown in Hernando County, were driving home from a conference in Polk County when Ebbecke's car overheated. He pulled over and called AAA.
That's when Penavler pointed to the sneakers along the wooded shoulder. Ebbecke wishes he took photos so he could get his wife's opinion. She's a funeral director in Dade City.
"I'm no expert," he said. "But it looked like a human femur bone with ribs and a radius and ulna and all that stuff you remember from biology class."
Ebbecke said he didn't see any flesh on the bleached bones or a skull.
Still, identification is possible.
Investigators typically start with fingerprints, said Hillsborough Medical Examiner Vernard Adams. If there are no prints, they use dental records.
No teeth? They turn to DNA.
Even if a body is deteriorated, investigators often can take enough DNA from a bone to make a close match. They compare the sample to DNA on record for a missing person or family members.
"But you have to have a putative idea of who someone is," Adams said. "Some of these are rather straightforward, and some aren't."
Investigators often have an inkling of identity based on where remains are found or the circumstances of the death.
Sometimes, markings from previous surgical procedures give clues.
But in ambiguous cases, an anthropologist examines bones for age, sex, size and race before testing for DNA.
Determining sex is easy with a pelvis. Adams said age is estimated by examining wear and tear of the bones. Adams said different races have subtle differences in bone lengths and the way they twist.
With a loose description, investigators search local, state and national databases of missing persons. Descriptive features were unavailable Wednesday, and it was unclear how long the bones were there. "Every case is so different," Adams said.
He said bodies deteriorate fast in Florida and are sometimes dried out in a few months, though it takes longer in cold weather.
Ebbecke, the farmer, said the size suggests the bones belonged to a woman or older child. He estimated the sneakers were an adult size 8 or 9.
He said he saw what looked like the remains of a black T-shirt, or possibly a garbage bag near the bones.
Davis said there was a lot of debris and it wasn't clear which items belonged with the bones.
Since thousands of motorists drive within feet of that spot every day, Ebbecke thinks his car broke down there for a reason.
"My wife said God was ready for this person to be found," Ebbecke said. "Maybe this is going to answer questions for somebody's sister, brother, cousin or whoever to find out what actually happened to them."
Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.