How investigators identify human remains that have been underground for decades

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – For Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Priya Banerjee, finding a medical artifact among decades-old human remains, is akin to hitting the forensic lottery.

“It’s a huge break,” Banerjee said in an interview inside the laboratories at the Rhode Island Medical Examiner’s Office. “A hip implant, a knee implant, a pin, a plate with a number on it… all of these are traceable.”

Traceable back to the manufacturer and ultimately the surgeon who installed the device. Ultimately leading to an identity.

As soon as someone dies the clock for investigators starts ticking, and identifying remains – and what put them there – becomes exponentially harder as time drags on.

Sometimes all medical examiners have to work with is skeletal remains. But even then, bones can hold clues.

“We look at every bone to see if there are any marks, details or fractures, anything that I can help tell what happened to them,” Banerjee said. “Help tell their story.”

In March, federal investigators authorized the digging for human remains behind a mill building on Branch Avenue in Providence. After several days, they unearthed bones that, months later, were identified as Steven DiSarro. He was a Boston nightclub owner who investigators say was murdered in 1993 by former mob boss Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme, his son and another man.

Banerjee was on site during the dig, but because the case is still open and winding its way through federal court in Boston, she can’t speak directly about DiSarro. But she said for major excavations – turned exhumations – members of the medical examiners are always on site.

“The hardest part is unearthing them in a systematic fashion and making sure you get as much of the person’s remains as you can,” Banerjee said. “We do it in a very systematic fashion, layer by layer, you sort through the soil or whatever is associated with the body and you take pictures at every layer.”

Because of that surgical approach, Banerjee says massive excavating equipment – like backhoes – make her nervous.

“I understand the logistics of a backhoe because it’s such a volume of dirt that needs to be unearthed and gathered,” she said. “But it definitely makes me nervous because how deep are you going? One scoop of a backhoe can go very deep and potentially disrupt the remains.”

Rhode Island State Police Corporal Scot Baruti has been at dig sites before, including the 2008 exhumation of Joseph “Joey Onions” Scanlon, a 1978 gangland slaying victim. He said it’s not only the volume of dirt that sometimes calls for excavation equipment, but conditions.

“If you have remains at 12-13 feet in frozen soil you have to use large equipment to get down to that depth,” said Baruti.

Once it becomes clear they are near what could be remains, the backhoe is turned off, and investigators enter the trench and strategically remove dirt, soil that is then carefully sifted through.

Banerjee said they aren’t just looking for bones, but other evidence as well.

“Say someone is shot and that bullet is left with the body when he or she decomposes, that’s why the dirt is sifted so thoroughly,” Banerjee said. “Maybe I will recover a bullet, maybe I will discover some sort of a weapon.”

Thanks to shows like CSI, many think DNA testing is the ultimate tool to reveal the identity of remains, but it’s actually last on the list for forensic investigators.

Primarily because there is one major hurdle: “You have to know who the person is and have a relative to compare or maybe a hair sample from when they were alive to do that,” Banerjee said.

And it’s expensive.

Extracting DNA from bones is a specialized science, and one that has to be done out of state.

In the Scanlon case, state police detectives were fairly certain who they had found, but they needed to be sure – it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they had exhumed someone else’s skeleton instead.

“You take a piece of a long bone … a nice sizeable piece of bone and that would have had marrow in it and those cells can be ground up and compared to a reference sample,” Banerjee said.

The Scanlon case file shows investigators drove to Connecticut and obtained a “buccal swab” – or a sample from inside a person’s cheek – from the daughter and sister of Scanlon to compare with the DNA extracted from the bones. It was a match.

The state can also outsource some work to a forensic dentist to look for dental work that could offer a clue to identification, as well as forensic anthropologist, if a case is particularly complicated.

“It really is a team effort,” she said. “The body is always evidence; no unidentified remains ever leave this office.”

Banerjee says skeletonized remain cases are prioritized mainly because of the complexity that comes with identification.

“I think my interest is everyone has a story and everyone is someone’s loved one,” Banerjee said. “These people are essentially my patients if you will; these are the people I work for.”

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook