Endless hours for experts in forensics

April 22, 1995|By New York Times News Service

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Passers-by at Ninth Street and Stonewall hardly notice the gray, one-story building that houses the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office.

But inside, beyond a phalanx of security guards and FBI agents, are some of the most famous forensic experts in the world are trying to identify victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Under the direction of the medical examiner, Dr. Fred Jordan, the team working in this building faces staggering problems. Although federal employees killed in the explosion are relatively easy to identify because they have detailed dental and medical records, the body parts of others -- especially the children -- are much more difficult.

The most famous of the experts working at the morgue, where all the victims of the blast are eventually taken, is Dr. Clyde Collins Snow, an avuncular, 60ish chain-smoker whose detective work has helped identify both victims and murderers in government massacres carried out in Argentina, Chile, Kurdistan and wherever state-sanctioned persecution have claimed innocent lives. He has often worked for human rights groups as well as on scientific projects.

Dr. Snow, a forensic anthropologist, specializes in bones and the interpretation of computer analyses of bones of the victims of violence. For many years he headed a section of the Federal Aviation Administration responsible for identifying the victims of airplane crashes, and the sight of death on a horrific scale is nothing new to him.

Dr. Snow's work in Argentina on the "desaparacidos" -- the thousands of "disappeared" victims of the military regime in Buenos Aires in the late 1970s and early 1980s -- made him the chief prosecution witness at a trial of one of the generals &L responsible for the massacres.

In the face of death threats, he trained teams of young students in Argentina and Chile in techniques for disinterring the mass graves of the victims, identifying them and determining the cause of death. Their work sometimes disclosed the calibers and types of specific firearms.

The work of these teams continues, with Dr. Snow's occasional guidance. He was one of the experts who identified a skull found in Brazil as that of Josef Mengele, the Nazi concentration camp doctor, and he recently participated in an unsuccessful quest in a Bolivian graveyard for the remains of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the turn-of-the-century American outlaws celebrated in a 1969 movie.

Dr. Snow lives in Norman, Okla., but is often called in to the morgue in Oklahoma City to work on particularly tough cases. During a brief break outside the autopsy chamber, he said: "We're setting up a data base that should help us through a lot of the identifications fairly fast. But there's an awful lot to do."

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