On May 25, 2003, a Sunday, a hiker walking his dog in the woods above the Shady Rest campground in Mammoth Lakes, California noticed the animal unusually interested in something. When the hiker went to investigate what his dog had found, he discovered a human skull.
Several days after the discovery, a law enforcement officer searching the area found a shallow grave near where the dog found the skull. Several fragmented human remains were inside the grave, other fragments and artifacts were scattered around the area. The grave, and its contents, appeared to have been disturbedby the coyotes and bears common in the region.
A forensic team from the California Department of Justice responded from the Fresno Regional Crime Lab to process the crime scene. In addition to the human remains, the team found clothing, including size 1-2 pants, black 32A bra, Bass shoes size 5M, small top, Cold Air Design coat, and a watch that was still running.
The victim’s remains were later transported to the San Francisco medical examiner’s office for examination by a forensic anthropologist. Based on this examination, the victim was determined to be a 30-40 year old female, possibly southeast Asian, based on her slight 4-foot, 6-inch stature (give or take two inches). There were indications she had carried at least one fetus to full term.
The examination also established the victim had been dead six to nine months, and had spent the winter buried under the snow. Sierra snow pack that year was 160 percent of average.
DNA was then extracted and entered in the missing persons system, as well as the VICAP system. A press release was circulated to the local media.
A short time later, on June 12, 2003, employees from the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center who remembered an incident from the fall of 2002 contacted the Mammoth Lakes Police Department Detective Division. They recalled a short Asian-looking female in the Visitor Center accompanied by her white male husband. The female informed one of the Forest Service employees that her husband treated her badly and that she was fearful of him.
Another Forest Service employee gave the woman a card from the local WildIris Domestic Violence Center.
The husband – described by Forest Service workers as white, heavyset, 5-foot, 9-inch, 175-200 pounds, with brown hair – asked a third employee about campsite rules and stay limits. That same employee characterized the husband as “abrasive” and “mean spirited.”
Based on the importance of this possible eye-witness information, I requested a forensic artist from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department be dispatched to Mammoth Lakes to sketch witness descriptions. LASD forensic artist Sandy Enslow responded on June 17, 2003, and interviewed the witnesses, ultimately producing drawings of the victim and possible suspect.
A case summary flyer with the drawings was then circulated throughout the region. A few theories were developed and followed; one being that the victim was an Asian mail-order bride. These theories were investigated for over a year, with no success.
Then, early in 2004, Mono County Sheriff’s Department investigator Joh nRutkowski happened to attend a California Homicide Investigators Training Conference where a Sarasota, Florida company named DNAPrint Genomics demonstrated how they use DNA to determine ‘bio-geographical ancestry,’ or BGA, using anextensive database of DNA markers. I immediately requested that DNAPrint Genomics analyze the victim’s DNA.
Results of the DNA analysis from DNAPrint were returned in late August, 2004, indicating the victim was not Asian after all, but 100 percent Native American. DNAPrint’s senior scientist Dr. Matthew Thomas said that was the one of the first 100 percent matches they had ever had.
With this new information, I resumed possession of the remains and DNA andturned the investigation in a completely different direction.
From the first I assumed this was a homicide – people don’t stab themselves then cover themselves up with dirt. But this would be only the third murder in our small town of 8,000 in 25 years. I suspected I could use some expert help with this case.
Right after the DNAPrint results came back I went online. Since I was dealing with skeletal remains, I wanted to find a physical anthropologist. I immediately found an organization called the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. On August 26, 2004, I called their president, Phillip Walker, Ph.D., an anthropology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
I found the right guy. He not only generously agreed to help; he also offered his extensive contacts. Walker is well-known in academic and legal circles, not just from his pioneering anthropological studies, but for the forensic work he has done in child abuse homicides. He is adept at finding hidden injuriesin skeletal remains.
With all of his knowledge and contacts, Walker became the civilian lynchpin of the investigation.
Early in September, 2004, I had the remains delivered to Walker’s Santa Barbara campus laboratory. One of the first things Walker did was have the fragmented bones x-rayed by Thor Gjerdrum, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in nearby Santa Maria, to see if there were any blunt force injuries. Gjerdrum found no indication of skeletal trauma that was not the result of carnivore activity.
Walker began a thorough examination of the remains. Although most of the dried skin on the remains had been chewed by animals, Walker noticed two penetrations that looked like stab wounds. Walker asked Santa Barbara County forensic pathologist Robert Anthony, M.D., for his opinion. Anthony concluded the gashes were consistent with knife wounds.
Next, Walker took careful skull measurements, which he asked Stephen Ousley, Ph.D., an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., to run through a system that uses sophisticated statistical procedures to find similarities between an unknown individual and morphologically similar groups using nothing but skeletal measurements.
Ousley’s results showed the victim’s skull was not Asian, but was consistent with someone of Hispanic origin with Native American ancestry – further confirmation the victim was not Asian.
Later in September, 2004, Walker sent me information about recent DNA studies of Native Americans, including a paper written by Henry Erlich, Ph.D., of Roche Molecular Systems in Alameda, California, on human leukocyte antigen, or HLA. DNA was sent to Erlich for genotyping. His results came back in February, 2005, showing the victim’s genotype to be consistent with Native American populations of southern Mexico and Guatemala.
Walker also provided me information regarding mtDNA research of different Native American tribes. Roche’s Cassandra Calloway was contracted to chart the victim’s mtDNA, which was subsequently sent to John Johnson, Ph.D., at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and David Glenn Smith, Ph.D., professor of molecular anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Both maintain Native American mtDNA databases.
In his database of California Indian DNA lineages, Johnson found the victim’s mtDNA closely matched that of a population know as “California Spanish,” consistent with people of southern Mexico. Smith pinpointed it even closer. His databasecontains about 3,000 DNA sequences from dozens of tribal groups.
Smith told me in February, 2005, that the victim was a perfect match with his Zapotec sample from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. While Smith couldn’t say how geographically specific that mito-chondrial haplotype was, he did say the majority of mtDNA hap-lotypes he finds turn out to be regionally, if nottribally, specific.
The mtDNA match that Smith made was one of 200 Zapotec samples taken earlier from the Valley of Oaxaca. The match indicated that the victim and the person who gave the sample (Apolonia Mendoza) were related. This eventually led us to the specific village where the victim was tentatively identified.
DNA FOR DUMMIES
While some of the science encountered during the course of this case tended toward the highly technical, all of the scientists were eager to help and took the necessary time to explain their results – which sometimes included a 10-minute ‘DNA for Dummies’ course. No one refused to help. All the scientists were excited to contribute their specialty, mostfor the first time to a criminal investigation.
Usually I was charged only for the materials used in the tests. The scientists donated their time. It probably didn’t hurt that I could play the poor-little-small-town-police-department card. If you have mtDNA sequenced, that’s a $5,000 – $7,000 deal.
I also felt it was important to keep all the various scientists informed of progress made in the case, so whenever new results came in, or a new clue was received, I let everyone know right away. I wanted everyone to feel they were part of the team, which they were.
Early in 2005, following the mtDNA tests, Walker suggested I have an isotopic examination of the victim’s hair to see if there were any geographic clues left there by her diet. Hair samples were subsequently sent to another of Walker’s friends, Dr. Henry Schwarcz, a geology professor at McMaster University in Canada. Schwarcz concluded in March, 2005, the victim had a diet significantly more rich in corn than the average North American, consistent with the diet of Central American.
Schwarcz also conducted isotopic examinations of the victim’s bone and teeth – the first time he had used isotopic analysis in a criminal investigation. Until this incident, isotopic hair and bone analysis had been used for anthropologic studies of ancient peoples.
Since the isotope signal in rain water changes gradually by geographic location, isotope deposits in the human body can tell something about where the person lived when that body part was formed. Using the baby tooth of a life-long resident of Mammoth Lakes as a control, Schwarcz wanted to see whether the victim spent any length of time in Mammoth Lakes.
Results of the teeth analysis conflicted somewhat with the mtDNA findings.
Schwarcz concluded that, based on water isotope analysis in the teeth, as a child the victim could have lived somewhere in northern Mexico or the American Southwest, possibly Los Angeles. However, the mtDNA results had revealed the victim’s mtDNA to be a type very rare in the U.S. Southwest but common in southern Mexico.
Also, other isotopes in the victim’s teeth revealed that as a child she lived on a diet mostly of corn – more typical of Central America or southern Mexico. This is a poor diet for a growing child since corn is low in lysine, one of eight essential amino acids the body cannot produce – possibly accounting for her small stature. The diet findings were thus more consistent with the mtDNA results that pointed the search to southern Mexico.
Further, analysis of water isotopes in the bone substantiated the southern Mexico angle even more. This test can indicate where a person lived the last years of their life. It showed the victim spent the last 10 years of her life drinking water found only in southern Mexico, and that her diet during that decade was much more balanced than during childhood.
Based on all of the results gathered to this point, I surmised the victim’s life history as follows:
She was born and raised in southern Mexico, subsisting on a nutrient-poor diet rich in corn, and lived possibly in Oax-aca for at least the last 10 years of her life. Sometime during the last two years, the victim traveled to California, where she was murdered.
At this point I decided that a full facial reconstruction of the victim should be done, so the skull was sent to Betty Pat. Gatliff, of the Skullpture Lab in Norman, Okla. Gatliff, a retired medical illustrator, has turned her intereststo developing and teaching forensic sculpture. She instructs at the FBI Academyin Quantico, VA.
When photos of Gatliff’s facial reconstruction were received it was remarkable how closely they resembled the drawing of the victim that was done by the LosAngeles Sheriff’s Department artist based on what witnesses at the U.S.Forest Service remembered seeing prior to the murder. Gatliff had not seen the police drawing prior to performing her reconstruction.
When the police drawing and reconstruction photograph were shown in Oaxaca, a woman said that the Gatliff facial reconstruction looked like her stepdaughter, Barbara Pacheco Santiago. We are currently attempting to confirm this tentative identification by collecting DNA from Barbara’s relatives in Oaxaca.
Since the victim was found on a hill near the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center, and the fact that witnesses at the Center spoke to a woman in the fall of 2002 in fear of her husband who fits the description of the victim, as well as the fact that a drawing of the woman at the Center closely matches the facial reconstruction, I believe it is safe to conclude the drawing of the victim’s husband is most likely a drawing of the murder suspect. Women are usually killed by a spouse or boyfriend.
I’ve been asked whether I’m worried that all the information about the case floating around the Internet might spook the suspect. It doesn’t matter to me if the suspect is following progress of the investigation in news accounts or on the Internet and knows the police are coming after him. It’s okay with me if he knows we’re closing in. What can he do, run? To me that’s not much of a worry.
The tradeoff is the publicity. I believe that the couple was so unique – a slight 4-foot 6-inch Indian-Hispanic female and a pudgy 5-foot 9-inch, 175-200 pound white male – that maximum press exposure to this story and the pictures of the victim and her husband, will lead to tips from citizens that could identify this woman and help solve the case.
Press exposure is paramount. Someone recognizing this couple far outweighs the suspect knowing the cops are after him. When we get that tip, that’ll be huge. Her DNA could still be somewhere in the suspect’s car, house, or apartment – on a hairbrush or old toothbrush. That would end the case right there, if we could put her DNA on him.
The first question I want to ask him: Why didn’t you report your wife missing?
Detective Paul Dostie is a 20 year veteran of the Mammoth Lakes, California Police Department. He holds a BS degree from Pacific Union College. Paul is currently training a forensic investigation canine for human scent evidence discrimination. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org