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Real CSI: Science helped provide backstory for unidentified Florida murder victim

Published Nov. 17, 2012

New York Times

As cold cases go, this one was frozen. Forty-one years ago a young woman's badly decomposed body was found floating under a highway overpass at the southern end of Lake Panasoffkee about an hour and a half northeast of Tampa.

There was no clue to her identity, but there was one clear sign of her fate. "A man's belt was wrapped around her neck," said Darren Norris, an investigator with the Sumter County Sheriff's Office.

She was pulled from the water on Feb. 19, 1971, and detectives spent thousands of hours in a futile effort to determine who she was and who might have killed her. She was buried as Jane Doe.

In 1986, the body was exhumed for further investigation, which again led nowhere. What the detectives had to go on, based on forensic science at the time, was frustratingly sketchy: She was 17 to 24 years old, petite, might have had children, and seemed to be white or Native American. At the time she was killed, she was wearing green plaid pants, a matching green shirt and a green floral poncho.

The information wasn't enough, and, as the Tampa Bay Times reported in July, it turned out to be only partly correct.

Early this year, Norris brought the skeleton of the victim, who had become known as Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee, to Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist who directs the Tampa Bay Cold Case Project at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Kimmerle reconstructed the woman's face and clothing, took shavings of her tooth enamel and bones, and recruited George Kamenov, a geochemist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, to analyze the shavings for chemical traces of lead, carbon and other elements that can give a surprisingly detailed history of diet and environment. Called isotope analysis, the technology has only recently been used in criminal cases.

In July, Kimmerle and Norris detailed for the Tampa Bay Times the new information that science had helped unearth in the cold case. And last week, Kamenov reported at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in Charlotte, N.C., on his work with Kimmerle and Norris.

The young woman was not Native American, Kamenov told the society. The best evidence suggested that she grew up in Greece and came to America less than a year before she was killed. Given the large Greek-American population in Tarpon Springs in north Pinellas County, he thinks that may be where she lived.

Based on the findings, he provided information for an article that was published Oct. 11 in The National Herald, an international Greek-language newspaper. It was accompanied by the new reconstructed image of the victim and her clothing.

The case is still not closed. The woman's identity has not been determined, despite the mailing of 6,000 pamphlets containing a composite sketch to Tarpon Springs households in July. Norris acknowledges that it is still a long shot.

But he is confident that he is on the right track. "The best lead that has ever come in this case came because of the science," he said — science that has changed remarkably in the decades since the body was found.

Among the changes are better databases for skull measurements used to determine ancestry; 3-D identification software for processing measurements and aiding in producing reconstructions of a face; and isotope analysis. A forensic investigation can now involve scientists from an array of fields, including anthropology and chemistry.

"We're all working together," said Ann H. Ross, who developed the software program "3D ID" and is professor of anthropology at North Carolina State University. "That's where it has changed dramatically."

Isotope analysis is one of the newest tools. One of the first times isotope analysis was used in a criminal investigation was in the gruesome case of the torso of a young boy, who came to be called Adam, found in 2001 in the Thames River in England. Traces of strontium and other elements that accumulate in bones and other tissues led to Nigeria, and eventually to an area near Benin City. He was eventually identified, but no one has been charged with his murder.

The reason such an analysis can be done is that elements come in different versions, called isotopes, that vary by mass. Rocks and soil in different geographic locations have characteristic percentages of these isotopes, a kind of signature.

Geologists have been documenting these signatures for years, creating geographic databases. Now, with mass spectrometers, a scientist can read the signature of an element like strontium from a small sample of rock, bone, hair or other material and match it to a location.

Lead in Little Miss Lake Panasoffkee's tooth enamel was what led Kamenov to his first discovery — that she grew up in Europe. In the 1950s, both Europe and America used leaded gasoline, and so lead ended up in the air, dirt, food and the teeth of growing children. European gasoline had lead from Australia, Kamenov said. The young woman's tooth enamel showed she had grown up in Europe.

But where in Europe? For that, Kamenov looked at another element, oxygen, also incorporated in growing teeth. People living near the sea have more of the heavier oxygen isotopes. The victim's tooth enamel showed heavier oxygen, which suggested she was from southern Europe.

He also looked more closely at databases showing fine variations of lead isotope signatures in teeth and narrowed down her probable geographic origin to Greece, probably south of Athens. He put the probability at 60 to 70 percent that she was from Greece, but said there could be other locations in the region with a similar lead signature.

A final piece of evidence came from carbon in her hair. Corn and wheat have different carbon signatures and Europeans have a more wheat-based diet than do Americans.

In looking at samples from the growing root of the hair and the old tip, Kamenov found a change: "The last hair that grew showed heavier carbon isotopes." The woman had moved to a corn-based diet during the time her hair was growing, less than a year. She was a recent arrival in the United States.

And that discovery has given the detective, Norris, a slim edge in pursuing a very old, very cold case. People who knew the victim may well be dead now, so such a case is very hard to pursue. But, Norris said, "the advantage is modern science comes along."

Information from Tampa Bay Times staff writer Peter Jamison, who broke the story about the new information in this cold case on July 1, was added to this report.