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When only bones are left, Erie County's forensic anthropologist steps in

Forensic anthropologist Erin Chapman specializes in dead bodies – the unrecognizable kind.

The most recent hire of the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office was part of a team from Mercyhurst University who arrived within hours of the 2009 crash of Continental 3407. Over the next four days, she helped sift through the wreckage to map and recover the bodies of 50 victims at the crash site in Clarence. Of those on the plane, all but one was quickly identified.

But the last body had been so charred and "highly fragmented" from an underlying natural gas fire that she and her fellow anthropologists had to reconstruct the position of every other passenger on the plane in order to identify and return the last remains to the victim's family.

"I'm talking about pieces of bone this big," she said, making a golf ball shape with her right hand.

Unlike academic-minded anthropologists who study the evolution of mankind, Chapman is one of a small number of anthropologists in the nation who works in a medical examiner's office.

Most medical examiners employ forensic pathologists who examine organs, soft tissues and bodily fluids to determine a cause of death. By contrast, forensic anthropologists study skeletal remains.

It can be an unpleasant business. Decomposition invites maggots and the odor of rotting the flesh.

"It's definitely a big downside to the job," Chapman said.

But it doesn't stop her from using skeletal remains to create biological profiles and search for signs of trauma that might enable law enforcement to reconstruct what led to a person's death – even if that person died days, months or years ago.

Her skills are particularly useful for the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office, which serves a four-county area, because the region is bordered by lakes and rivers. Bodies regularly surface, especially as the weather gets warm, said Director Janinne Blank. In the past 30 days alone, she said, her office has been asked to examine 10 bodies either pulled from the water or found near waters' edge.

Erin Chapman, Erie County's forensic anthropologist, uses a stereo microscope to examine evidence that a skull fracture was caused by a straight metal tool. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Chapman also identifies bones discovered by the public, usually by accident. Cheektowaga Police Detective David Mossman recounted a case last month in which a contractor cleaning up the corner lot of a vacant gas station found a single vertebra near the headstone of a private, adjacent cemetery.

Mossman doubted the vertebra was human but couldn't be sure.

"We always err on the side of caution and always rely on the experts, not a Google search," he said.

Chapman determined the vertebra belonged to a deer or a pig.

Unlike colleagues who have built careers in academia, Chapman enjoys being an asset to law enforcement. That's reflected in her masters' thesis about how to distinguish between hand saws and power saws based on the marks they leave on a dismembered body.

"I've had my hand in academia, and I enjoyed teaching," she said, "but the case work is what drives me."

The science

The skulls of two humans, a black bear, a monkey and a couple of rats line Chapman's work space. Under a nearby exhaust hood, four Crock Pots sit ready to cook away old tissue to expose the underlying bone structure.

In this work room and an adjoining autopsy room with a special stench-minimizing vent, Chapman studies hard tissue to answer two questions: Who was this person, and what contributed to his or her death?

She tries to answer the first by taking bone measurements and assessing growth patterns to create a biological profile that offers a rough idea of a person's racial ancestry, height and age. Beyond that, knowing how bones grow, break and heal is integral to Chapman's ability to assess bodily trauma.

When the skull is bashed in by a hard object, for instance, the fracture typically looks the same regardless of the weapon's actual shape. The break forms an egg-shaped depression because of how the two layers of skull bone buckle and collapse.

Chapman holds up a sawed off section of skull to demonstrate. The round, cap-like skull piece, from the side and rear portions of the head, features two injuries, one crescent-shaped depression from an old, healing fracture and one deep, oval depression that clearly never healed at all. That fracture is one of a number of signs of blunt force trauma sustained by a homicide victim a year ago.

Forensic anthropologist Erin Chapman holds a piece of skull showing evidence of blunt force trauma. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Two small, high-intensity lamps snake around the fracture as Chapman positions the bone under a $45,000 stereo microscope system. To her trained eye, the evidence of the weapon used to break the person's head is clear.

"There are two points of contact," she said, pointing to two very slightly dented ends of the concave fracture where miniscule amounts of scalp muscle and hair were driven into the bone.

She theorizes the newer skull fracture was caused by a small to medium-sized tool, probably something metal and straight.

In a nearby autopsy room, Chapman has set out the skeleton of someone the Medical Examiner's Office has been trying to identify for eight years. Laid out from head to toe, with hand and foot bones, ribs and vertebrae gathered in seven clear bags, this skeleton told the story of one hard life.

Chapman considered John Doe to be a black male between 45 and 65 years old. Pointing to irregular and missing bone structure, she said the man had lost all his teeth before he died, and suffered prior leg, arm and rib fractures. Then she pointed to the one feature the skeleton had that would identify him easily for any family member who knew he was here: a narrow metal plate screwed into the man's right calf.

A unique serial number is etched into the plate. But there is no database against which that number can be checked. Instead, it's buried somewhere in the man's own medical file. And if the man's not from around here, identifying him becomes much harder.

"We care very much about identifying this person," Chapman said. "The hope would be this person is not here forever."

The work

A native of suburban Dayton, Ohio, Chapman first went to college thinking she would become a doctor. But she couldn't handle the chemistry courses. Fortunately for her, she also took a general anthropology course, taught by a professor who did work for the county Coroner's Office in Columbus. That set her path.

Four college degrees later, Chapman, 36, is happy to have settled in Buffalo after having done consulting work with Erie County over the past nine years throughout her schooling, most notably with Flight 3407.

Then, like now, Chapman avoids the news to prevent from hearing about the tragedy and heartbreak associated with the victims of disaster and crime, some of whom she was personally responsible for examining. Seeing their pictures and reading or hearing their stories was just too hard.

"I am not heartless," she said, "but I couldn't turn the TV on."

Many of the cases Chapman works on, however, never make the news. Some are suicides, the end result of people who may have killed themselves in the woods, drowned or gone over Niagara Falls.

[In Niagara Falls, the unceasing struggle to identify bodies found in the river]

A year or two ago, she was asked to consult on a case in which police officers from outside of Erie County brought in the remains of a person found in the woods of a rural area. Police and family members suspected this was the body of particular suicide victim who had shot himself.

But as Chapman laid out the remains, she realized most of the person's head was missing. So she, a pathologist and investigator headed back into the woods with the police.

Assuming the person had shot himself in the head, the crew began searching from an outermost point where skull fragments could reasonably be found, and worked inward, searching every square inch of space in a collapsing circle until they mapped and recovered the rest of the head.

Many of the pieces were buried under leaves and located 15 to 20 feet away. But ultimately, she said, the Medical Examiner's Office not only recovered most of the skull, but found traces of lead at the bullet's exit site, confirming the nature of the fatality.

Criminal cases

Most cases Chapman works on aren't high profile, though her workload is steady. Since graduating with her doctorate in anthropology and being hired full time in April, she's already handled 16 cases for the office, said Director Janinne Blank.

But some cases stand out.

When the charred remains of South Buffalo resident Brian Dombek were found after a fire consumed his house in 2014, investigators originally assumed Dombek was killed in the blaze, said District Attorney John Flynn. But Chapman reconstructed his skull and showed that Dombek had actually been bludgeoned to death beforehand. The killer, David Meyers, was sentenced to 20 years to life.

Two years prior, her anthropological training was used in the case of Cody Testerman, who had murdered his half-brother, Jesse Seneca. His decomposing body was found outside days later, but Chapman was able to show he'd been the victim of more than 20 stab wounds. Testerman was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

"These people can basically reconstruct the body," Flynn said of forensic anthropologists. "It really is a fascinating area of science and definitely assists us in the DA's Office to determine manner of death, and ultimately, cause of death."

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