“Them Bones”

Years ago I received a call from the city police reporting that a plumber had found numerous skeletal remains underneath a house. It’s not uncommon for someone to find a buried bone in their garden or lying in a vacant lot. It’s so common in fact that in most cases I would simply ask the reporting officer to drop off the bone at the morgue so that it could be ruled out as human. I usually don’t get too excited about the prospect of skeletal remains because well over 90 percent of the time, the bone in question is non-human. Unless there is a human skull, personal effects, or clothing among the remains, I’m not too interested in going out at 3 a.m. to look at chicken bones or beef ribs.

This most recent call had a different dynamic. The officer reported that the plumber had found “dozens‿ of bones in the crawl space underneath the home—some of which appeared to have been cut into smaller pieces. There were no obvious findings to indicate the remains were human, but then again the officer couldn’t tell a whole lot what with the house being in the way.

The officer informed me that he had already called his supervisor and was told that the crime scene detectives weren’t interested in working the scene until the Medical Examiner determined if the bones were human or not. Apparently they were as disinterested in the prospect of looking at animal bones at 10 a.m. as I was at 3 a.m.

Side Note:

Different police departments respond to scenes in different ways. Some agencies work every death as though it’s suspicious by sending scene technicians to document the scene and detectives to interview witnesses and take statements. In most cases, it depends on the size and available resources of the agency. As such, it’s not uncommon for a police department to wait for the initial impression of the Medical Examiner before it commits resources to a scene investigation. I’ve worked many deaths that started off as basic unattended deaths but warranted a more in depth scene investigation by law enforcement based on my initial findings. When that happens, I simply stop my part of the investigation until law enforcement has a chance to respond accordingly.

When I got to the scene, the officer directed me to a screened vent in the foundation at the front of the house. Peering through the screen into the dark underneath the house I could just make out an area of scattered bones with a larger accumulation in the center. Fortunately, the area of accumulation appeared to be a pile of random bones rather than the easily identifiable remains of a vertebrae and ribs.

“I don’t see anything that’s obviously human, but it’s hard to see much of anything under there. Where are the bones the plumber brought out?‿

“He didn’t,‿ the officer responded.

Just my luck. The one time I wished someone had disturbed a scene, and it turns out the plumber noticed the bones and immediately crawled out from under the house before disturbing anything.

As much as I would have liked to have determined the bones to be non-human at that point, the fact of the matter was that I hadn’t seen enough. Judging from the duty belt of the officer and the tool belt of the plumber that stood leaning against his van in the street, there was only one of us that was going to fit under the house.

“Where’s the opening to the crawl space?‿

“In the backyard.‿

“Of course it is,‿ I thought to myself as the officer led me around the house.

After seeing the opening, I returned to my car and retrieved flashlight and a Tyvek suit (the white, paper-like coveralls worn on crime dramas or in microchip factories). Within minutes I was crawling my way to the front of the house—though the more accurate word would be “slithering‿ due the fact there wasn’t room to crawl.

I’ve never considered myself to be claustrophobic, but that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily a fan of willfully threading my body into an area with all the headroom of a coffin. This particular adventure was even more complicated by the presence of pipes and floor joist supports that required me to negotiate a maze of obstructions instead of simply going straight to the front of the house where the bones were located.

Along the way I came across random bones, examining each in turn and placing them into my Tyvek suit to keep my hands free for use. I was happy to see some signs of teeth marks on the bone, but of course that didn’t automatically mean they were non-human. Many of the bones I found in the maze were cut sections of long bones that were much larger in diameter than a section of human long bone would be. Most butcher saws are powered and make a cut that is almost surgical in nature—a nice clean cut with uniform blade marks across a nice even plane. Most hand tool saw marks are more ragged and uneven across a plane. That’s not to say a butcher couldn’t use their saw on a human or a person couldn’t use a powered hand tool on their victim.

As it turned out, the accumulation of bones at the front of the house was more of the same. There were no obvious human bones present anywhere. No skull, no mandible, no vertebrae, and nothing that looked like carpals or tarsals. The closest thing to human bones were the ribs I found, but they were shaped differently than human ribs. None of the bones were fresh. All of them had been under the house long enough to dry out and lose some of their density in the interim. I also dug at the ground a little bit, but all of the bones appeared to have been placed on top of the ground. This point was worth noting because if someone were to have tried to dispose of a body under a house, then chances are they would have buried the body to further limit the possibility of discovery.

As far as I could assume, years ago the house belonged to someone with access to a butcher shop and a dog small enough and determined enough to negotiate the maze I had just crawled through. I didn’t see any reason to call out the crime scene unit. I made my way over to the screened vent and shared my thoughts with the officer, and the homeowner that had joined him. Noticing a small hole in the screen I asked the officer to pass through a plastic bag. When the homeowner went inside to get the bag, the officer asked me why I needed the bag.

“I’m going to pick up all these bones so the poor bastards that replace you and me don’t have to go through this again in 20 years.‿


7 Responses to ““Them Bones””

  1. June 12, 2006 at 7:23 pm

    I don’t know if I could ever do what you do. I’d get the creeps for sure! Give me a job where my hands don’t get dirty; like a typist or somethin’.

  2. June 15, 2006 at 8:47 pm

    good story. nice of you to pick them up:) glad you posted!

  3. June 17, 2006 at 11:05 pm

    I think it’s creepier going under the house than finding the bones. I’m very claustrophobic. I have a question for you: Back in 1991 (in Hermann, MO) my dad bought this old general store that also had a ballroom and small stage. My brothers and I were exploring the ballroom which was filled with all sorts of neat things left behind years ago. I got the fright of my life when I found a box, opened it, and three skulls on top of a pile of costumes were staring up at me. Although we called the police, they sent over the coroner who just picked up the bones and left. We did find out that they were human, but that was it. It seemed odd that we never heard anything more and there seemed to be no investigation. Neither was there any mention in the news. I know you don’t have the answer, but would just like your point of view on this. Was this handled normally? Or was it small town indifference toward old bones? How would such a discovery be handled (such as the bones under the house) if bones were human?

  4. 5 Jen
    June 24, 2006 at 4:21 pm

    Oh man! I never would have thought about a dog bone cache ending up being examined by a coroner! I’m keeping better track of my leftovers from now on…

  5. June 27, 2006 at 9:48 am

    Dark spaces in my neighborhood are usually full of black widow spiders… you’d have to pay me a lot to squirm into one, even with a Tyvek jumpsuit.

    But I think it’s cool how you’re thinking ahead. I wish more people did that in their work.

  6. 7 Lori
    June 29, 2006 at 9:08 pm

    LOL, good for you!

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