Team digs deep for answers of unmarked Somerset cemetery
He was a tall man, his body worn by time or hard work. When he died, sometime between the Civil War and the Great Depression, he was given a pauper's burial in a pinewood coffin.
This spring, when a construction crew accidentally disturbed his grave, all that remained was a deteriorating skeleton and a bullet.
On a recent afternoon, the man's dirt-encrusted bones — splintering ribs, sturdy femurs, toothless skull — were arranged on a blue plastic tarp in the basement of Mercyhurst College's Zurn Hall in Erie.
Forensic anthropologist Dennis Dirkmaat picked up a vertebra and pointed to its ridged edges, which indicated the man was probably not young when he died.
"As we get older, the bone lips more and more," he explained.
Despite the bullet, there was no gunshot damage to the bones, Dirkmaat said, and it was impossible to say what had killed the man or the 22 other people buried in a long-forgotten cemetery on the grounds of what is now the State Correctional Institution-Laurel Highlands.
Before the prison opened in Somerset County in 1996, it was the site of a state hospital, state Department of Public Welfare records show. Before that, from 1845 until the turn of the century, there was a county poorhouse there. It is likely that the people buried there were residents of one of those institutions, as records show about 90 people were interred on the land.
"In this case, we don't have names anymore," Dirkmaat said.
Dirkmaat, 54, the director of Mercyhurst's Department of Applied Forensic Sciences, brought a team of students to the prison several times between April and July, after workers digging for the foundation of a new cell block revealed the first of what turned out to be 23 graves.
"When they scraped the dirt away, they saw what appeared to be wooden coffins," said Betsy Nightingale, the prison superintendent's assistant. "We stopped the digging immediately and contacted our coroner."
Coroner Wallace Miller, who consulted Dirkmaat after United Flight 93 went down in Somerset County during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reached out to him once again.
Despite the extent of the find, the Somerset cemetery case was one of the Mercyhurst team's simpler assignments. During the past 20 years, the team has been called to plane crashes, fires and homicides throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and West Virginia.
This year, they've made several trips to Southwestern Pennsylvania.
In April, Dirkmaat and his students processed a scene where skeletal remains were found in a wooded area of Mt. Pleasant Township. The team helped to identify the bones as Curtis Eutsey, a teenager missing since the early 1990s. A Unity man was charged in Eutsey's murder.
In July, Mercyhurst associate professor Steven Symes and graduate students examined a skeleton found in Murrysville that turned out to be the remains of Wilbert Darr, an elderly man missing since 2008.
In August, they helped to recover the skeletal remains of Jerry Lee Cushey Jr., a cocaine addict and street-level drug dealer known as "The Coke Fairy," whose body was dumped in Washington and Fayette counties after he was murdered in 2001. Two men have been charged in his death.
Westmoreland County Coroner Kenneth Bacha knows he can turn to Dirkmaat.
"We know it's one phone call and later that day or the next day he's here," Bacha said.
Forensic anthropology, or the examination of skeletal remains, is not a new discipline, said Dirkmaat, a Mamont, Westmoreland County native who earned a doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh in 1989. But his technique, which involves treating a death scene as an archaeological site, is a recent development.
"The idea of archaeology as part of forensic science is still fairly new," he said.
Though Western Pennsylvania coroners and police have become accustomed to calling Mercyhurst, outdoor death scenes in much of the country are too often disturbed by law enforcement, Dirkmaat said. He speculated that police don't always realize how much forensic anthropologists can learn from a set of bones and the place where they are found.
Forensic anthropologists can extrapolate a person's height from the length of his femur. By measuring the pelvis and skull, they can determine the person's sex. The condition of the bones can reveal when the person might have died, and evidence of trauma can suggest what killed him.
"It's really interesting — well, interesting if you're into this kind of thing," Symes said. He and Dirkmaat are the only two board-certified forensic anthropologists in Pennsylvania.
Symes, 56, an expert in detecting evidence of child abuse, was working on one of the many consultations he does for law enforcement across the country every year.
He examined the delicate ribs of a toddler under a digital microscope, looking for signs that the child had been repeatedly injured before a supposedly accidental death.
"It is child abuse," he said, pointing out one of several healed fractures on the twig-like bones. "Hopefully, it aids in the investigation and the consideration of the judge and jury."
Such cases can be upsetting, Symes acknowledged. "I've been doing this a long time. Not much disturbs me," he said.
Graduate students who work with Dirkmaat and Symes must set aside their emotions and focus on solving puzzles.
"You're looking at something totally different from what the general public would," explained graduate student Kalan Lynn, 23, who worked at the scene of a deadly plane crash in Buffalo in 2009. "If you're going to be looking at a case, you can't be thinking about what the person went through."
Though it revealed no crime or disaster, the excavation of the Somerset County cemetery provided a learning experience for Lynn and her fellow students.
Most of the graves apparently contained adult men, though Lynn said that one tiny wooden box may have once held a child's corpse, wrapped in a shroud. No bones were found inside, but they had probably decomposed.
"The preservation really differed throughout the site," said graduate student Sara Getz, 23. "If it's not there, it's just because it was too fragile."
Though they can learn a lot from a skeleton, Getz said, forensic anthropologists are limited in what they can say for sure.
"People seem to think that we can just do a scan for everything," Getz said with a laugh. She blamed the popular television show "Bones" and others like it. Still, she said, "I think people are getting better about knowing the difference between reality and TV."
The Somerset County bones told little about the lives the people had lived, but there were a few tantalizing details.
One person, likely a man, was buried in his boots and leather belt, with a ceramic tobacco pipe placed in his coffin.
Another was found with a pocket watch and the metal clasp of a change purse, with coins dating from 1926 to 1937.
A woman, probably middle-aged, had her right leg neatly amputated above the knee.
All of the coffins and their contents will be returned to SCI-Laurel Highlands, where Nightingale said they would receive a dignified burial away from the construction site.
"We'll probably have a little ceremony, just because it would be appropriate," she said.