Identity of skeleton found one year ago remains a mystery

Identity of skeleton found one year ago remains a mystery
Authorities aren't much closer than they were a year ago in discovering the identity of a skeleton found in Alexandria a year ago. (iStock)

A human skeleton discovered by a dog walker in a wooded, boggy area not far from Ford’s Landing nearly a year ago remains a mystery despite an ongoing federal investigation.

A city man came across the skeletal remains, which included a skull, the morning of February 13 while going on a stroll not far from Franklin and Union streets. Local police initially investigated the case before passing it off to U.S. Park Police after determining the skeleton was found on federal land.

Park police went to the public for help identifying the remains last week after their efforts to match the skeleton to a known missing person turned up few results. Though medical examiners worked on the remains, authorities ended up bringing in an anthropologist to build a biological profile, said Sgt. David Schlosser, park police spokesman.

They’ve determined the skeleton’s gender is male and was between 30 and 40 years old. He was between 5-foot-3 and 5-foot-10 and likely came from Southeast Asian ancestry, including Vietnamese, Indian, Laotian or Cambodian, Schlosser said.

He died about a year-and-a-half to two years before his remains were found, but the cause of death remains unknown.

In life, the man suffered from torticollis — wryneck. Authorities believe his head would have naturally tilted down and to the left and he might have compensated by thrusting out a shoulder. He also would have complained of neck pain.

After examining his skull, officials also discovered he had a deciduous right incisor, essentially a tooth that would have overlapped other teeth and stuck out slightly. Based on wear and tear on the bones of his lower body, authorities believe he habitually squatted.

Schlosser hopes the description will lead to someone stepping forward and possibly identifying the remains.

“Our interest is in identifying him and giving closure to his friends and family,” Schlosser said. “We don’t have cold cases, we have old cases. With any death investigation we want closure — for the family, most importantly.”

Turning to an anthropologist for help is standard practice, especially when the remains have little or no tissue left, said Douglas Ubelaker, curator of the physical anthropology collection at the National Museum of Natural History. He’s helped authorities with more than 855 cases in his career.

The first step is ensuring the remains are human and whether it’s just one person or several. Then experts use a variety of tests to determine age at the time of death and gender, Ubelaker said. Ancestry is later determined by careful observation of the bones, usually of the face and skull.

To calculate the time of death, anthropologists gather as much environmental information as possible. They use those variables to determine when the body began decaying. If it’s suspected the remains are much older, anthropologists might use radiocarbon dating techniques, Ubelaker said.

“It’s an intellectual inquiry,” he said, describing the job. “I look at this as problem-driven science. Through our training, through the work we do, we have all this science at our disposal, but there’s no cookbook to it. You have to look at the evidence itself and apply the appropriate science.”

Schlosser urges anyone with information about the body’s identity to contact the U.S. Park Police tip line at 202-610-8737. Callers can remain anonymous.