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Anthropologist Seeks Truth in Tissues, Bones : Forensics: FBI's top 'bone man' shuns talk about gruesome details gleaned when the chaotic world outside erupts in murder or tragic mishap.

July 18, 1993|CONNIE CASS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Down a museum hallway lined with drawers of human bones, past wooden tables for studying fresh remains, is a quiet office where a bullet-pocked skeleton stares up into the fluorescent hum.

Part researcher's cell and part morgue, it is the domain of Doug Ubelaker, a Smithsonian anthropologist who doubles as the FBI's top "bone man."

When the chaotic world outside erupts in murder or tragic mishap, the result may arrive in Ubelaker's book-lined office as a cardboard box of bones. It's his task to sort through skeletons and scraps of tissue to tell their story.

This soft-spoken scientist, who holds a skull as casually as a farmer grips a cantaloupe, is the voice of the dead.

He speaks for the schoolgirl strangled by a serial killer, the homeless man who froze while huddled under a bridge, the mother and child who burned together in Waco, Tex.

"I give them one last chance to say who they were and what happened to them," Ubelaker said.

He traveled to Waco to help sort through the charred bodies strewn over David Koresh's cult compound, where as many as 86 people were slain by fire or firearms.

Ubelaker was among those who extracted women's and children's bodies, many badly burned and decomposed, from a bunker-like concrete room filled with more than a million rounds of live ammunition. For two weeks he helped identify the dead and determine how they died, a task that continues in Waco.

All Ubelaker will say about the experience is: "It was intense."

He has identified remains of Gulf War soldiers. He worked on Washington state's unsolved Green River serial killings. In all, he has handled about 450 forensic cases--skeletons found in shallow graves, under water, and in basements; people whose bones were scarred by bullets, rocks or tire irons.

It is grisly work. In a book he wrote about his job, titled "Bones," Ubelaker describes the effects of maggots and wild animals on bodies. But he is reluctant to discuss such gruesome details. He prefers to talk about the research, the intellectual challenge, the dogged detective work.

"The more of these you work on," he said, "the more you recognize that some of the traits that initially are particularly unpleasant, like odor, become clues to the very things you're trying to solve."

His first anthropology professor, William M. Bass, said Ubelaker's rugged childhood on a farm in Everest, Kan., prepared him for work others might disdain.

"A lot of the job is things that many people wouldn't want to do, but to Doug it's just what needs to be done," said Bass, now head of the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Center.

Another colleague said he has seen Ubelaker's stoical shell crack only once, when describing the murder of a child. Ubelaker, who is 46, has a 9-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son of his own.

"He tends to be very closed-mouth, very careful and deliberate, seemingly unemotional," said James E. Starrs, a forensic science professor at George Washington University. "He is the quintessential scientist."

Ubelaker loves jigsaw puzzles, combing through all those tiny pieces to put together the big picture. That's why his first archeological dig as a University of Kansas premed student lured him away from medicine to anthropology.

"Seeing how much you can learn to solve a puzzle from just a bone or a fragment of a skeleton, that's what set the hook for me," said Ubelaker, who joined the Smithsonian in 1971. He is curator of physical anthropology at the Museum of Natural History.

From a single thigh bone, forensic anthropologists often can learn a dead person's sex, race, height, approximate age, roughly when that person died--sometimes even clues about the manner of death.

"They are amazing sometimes," said Special Agent Joseph A. DiZinno, an examiner in the FBI Laboratory Division. "We go to the Smithsonian because they're probably the best in the world."

The FBI examines remains at the request of local police and sheriffs across the country. When little more than bone is left, bodies are sent to Ubelaker. Because a body left outside in the summer can decompose within days, he is much in demand.

A carton of human remains travels the block between FBI headquarters and the Museum of Natural History about twice a month. The majority of cases are handled by Ubelaker himself. Since 1977 he has divided his time between forensic work and his other specialty: ancient civilizations of Ecuador.

After Ubelaker writes up his findings, he rarely hears about a forensic case again unless it comes to trial. He has testified about a dozen times, and said he doesn't care whether his evidence helps the defense or the prosecution.

"I'm not there to convict somebody," he said. "It's up to others to figure out guilt or innocence."

Time never closes some cases. Ubelaker was among scientists two years ago who exhumed the body of Dr. Carl Weiss, the man recorded by history as the assassin of Louisiana political boss Huey Long.

Witnesses said Weiss fired a fatal shot at Long in the state Capitol corridor in 1935, and immediately was gunned down by Long's bodyguards. But some historians believe Weiss did not fire, and that Long may have been accidentally killed in a hail of gunfire aimed at Weiss by overeager guards.

Ubelaker's examination found 24 bullet wounds on Weiss' skeleton, bolstering the theory that Long's guards did some wild shooting. Did a stray bullet strike their boss? There is no conclusive evidence.

Ubelaker keeps the doctor's skeleton on a table by his desk. It's an especially baffling puzzle, a reminder that science has yet to solve all the mysteries of a bloody world.

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