Unidentified remains are being exhumed from a potter's field on the outskirts of Philadelphia in the hopes of finding answers in the seven cold case deaths. The investigation is aided by University of South Florida forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle. (Photo: Courtesy of Erin Kimmerle)

Digging and meticulous unearthing of seven nameless bodies begins this morning at a potter’s field on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

The massive operation involving Pennsylvania law enforcement’s cold case load is the latest part of a long-running project involving the expertise of Erin Kimmerle, a University of South Florida forensic anthropologist.

The seven cold cases are the suspicious deaths of children and adults, five of which were found in water, who died between 1962 and 1984—and for whom there have never been answers since they were laid to rest in the Philadelphia City Cemetery decades ago.

Kimmerle and colleague Thomas McAndrew, formerly of the Pennsylvania State Police but now with the Lehigh County District Attorney’s Office, have collaborated for years on cold cases. Kimmerle’s previous work included multiple exhumations in 2016 at the Maple Hill Cemetery in Hanover Township, as well as St. Anthony’s Cemetery in Courtdale.

This time around, there were a few more challenges presented by the potter’s field off Dunk Ferry Road, at the northeast outskirts of the City of Brotherly Love.

“The graves were unmarked and we used drones, GIS [geographic information systems] and archaeology methods to locate them,” Kimmerle told Forensic Magazine. “Now we will excavate and try to ID them.” 

Once the remains are recovered from the plots, the forensic methods will include facial reconstructions, isotope testing of the bones and hair and teeth, and DNA samples.

Seven unidentified bodies are being exhumed from a potter's field on the outskirts of Philadelphia in the hopes of finding answers in the cold cases. (Photo: Courtesy of Erin Kimmerle)

Agencies involved include the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). The work is funded by a National Institute of Justice grant.

Among the cases:

  • A black little girl, decapitated and beaten and partially burned, recovered from the Schuylkill River on May 3, 1962. The child was estimated to be between 4 and 6 years old. The remains had been stuffed in a wooden milk box with a newspaper dated March 11 of that year—and the box had been weighted down with bricks and blue plastic and tied with a rope—yet it was found floating in the area east of the Passyunk Avenue bridge. The head was not found among the remains, and the fourth finger on the right hand was also amputated.
  • A while male, between 15 and 30, who had drowned in the Frankford Creek and was discovered on April 12, 1975.
  • A white male, estimated to be in his late teens, found shot multiple times in the head and torso near the railroad tracks south of the Walt Whitman Bridge on July 8, 1977. The manner of this death was definitively ruled homicide, unlike others.
  • A white male, between 18 and 21, found floating in a creek near Lewis Street and Richmond Street on April 28, 1979. The male had been stabbed multiple times—and the body was chained down with weight around the feet and legs. This too was ruled a homicide.
  • A black female, whose partial remains were found in a bag inside the sewer near 21st Street and Bellevue Street on Sept. 19, 1979. She was estimated to be between 18 and 24 years old—and though the manner of death was not conclusive, the circumstances are consistent with homicide.
  • A black woman, estimated to be between 20 and 35 years old, who was fished from water along East River Drive near the Girard Avenue Bridge on July 9, 1982. Her cause of death was drowning, and though she had dental care and a distinctive single earring in the shape of a tennis racket, she was never identified.
  • A black little girl, whose bones were recovered in a wooded area on Nov. 25, 1984, near 456 Collom Street, and not far from La Salle University. She was estimated to be between 4 and 6 years old. The circumstances are consistent with a homicide, authorities have said.

Kimmerle’s work has previously been featured by Forensic Magazine and the Associated Press. Last year, her exhaustive work at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which operated for a century in Florida, ultimately led the Florida legislature to officially apologize last year to the many victims, some of whom are still alive but most of whom are now dead.

Kimmerle has also overseen the ongoing work to create the Florida Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactical Training (FIRST) facility, a new “body farm” to be built on a tract of land off U.S. Highway 41 near the Pasco County Jail in Florida.