Mercyhurst expert to study remains found in Mt. Pleasant Township

| Saturday, April 3, 2010

Authorities working to identify a human skeleton found in Mt. Pleasant Township this week will have help from a well-known forensic anthropologist.

Westmoreland County Coroner Kenneth Bacha said he had asked Dennis Dirkmaat, a professor of anthropology at Mercyhurst College in Erie, to determine the age, sex and height of the person whose remains were found in a wooded area off Misty Meadows Road.

Dirkmaat said Friday that he had taken the bones to his lab.

"Now the process is cleaning the remains, doing inventory," Dirkmaat said, adding that he hopes to have enough information to report to investigators next week.

Two men who had been searching for scrap metal told state police Wednesday night that they found boots, bones and pieces of a human skull in a trash-strewn gully.

After Norvelt District Judge Roger Eckels approved a search warrant Thursday morning, state police, coroners and a team from Mercyhurst spent the day combing the scene to recover the skeleton and other evidence.

Dirkmaat and a dozen graduate students excavated the scene as they would an archaeological dig, he said. Before removing the remains, they mapped the locations of the bones and other pieces of evidence, including the boots and fragments of clothing.

Dirkmaat said yesterday that a complete skeleton was recovered, but it was too early to say how long ago the person died.

"It's hard to tell," he said. "We look at the amount of soft tissue that remains, whether there's been erosion (of the bones)."

Dirkmaat said DNA will be extracted to help identify the person.

He and his students also will examine the bones for signs of trauma, which may help determine how the person died. While the coroner has declined to speculate on a manner of death, state police are treating the case as a homicide.

Dirkmaat, one of only two board-certified forensic anthropologists in Pennsylvania, said his team is called to four or five scenes a year in Pennsylvania, Western New York and Eastern Ohio.

"Whenever there are remains outdoors, the state police and coroner call us," he said.

Dirkmaat has helped to identify other skeletal remains in the Mt. Pleasant area, including bones found in April of 2004 about half a mile from this week's discovery.

A woman walking in a muddy field just outside Mt. Pleasant Borough found the skeletal remains of Timothy Shirey, 38, who had disappeared in 2002.

Dirkmaat and graduate students reassembled Shirey's skull and compared it with X-rays from his medical records to make a positive identification. The coroner ruled Shirey's death a suicide.

Dirkmaat also worked at the crash scene of United Flight 93, which went down in Somerset County on Sept. 11, 2001. More recently, he helped to identify victims of the Haitian earthquake.

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