In Fla., bones could help solve mystery

Theories abound in Fort Myers after discovery of eight skeletons

May 27, 2007|By Jim Stratton | Jim Stratton,Orlando Sentinel

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The bones are whispering to Heather Walsh-Haney.

Laid out on a stainless-steel examination table, they're hinting at the secrets of death that the forensic anthropologists are working hard to understand.

How old are they? Whom do they belong to? And how did they die?

"They can give you a tremendous amount of information," said Walsh-Haney, a 39-year-old professor at nearby Florida Gulf Coast University. "You just have to know how to read them."

The eight skeletons are part of an unfolding detective story in this small city two hours south of Tampa. Found in a wooded area on the city's east side, they are the silent witnesses to a mystery local police can't yet solve.

Right now, they're not even sure what the question is.

"We've got eight bodies in the woods, and that's not normal," said Sgt. Jennifer Soto, a 12-year veteran of the force. "But we don't know yet what kind of case it is."

That hasn't stopped the speculation.

Some people have suggested that the site may be an old burial ground or a body dump for an unscrupulous undertaker. But the possibility they talk about most, that a killer might be responsible, is the one police have taken pains to rein in.

"We're still not there," said Soto. "Not at this point."

The skeletons were discovered March 23 by an ecologist surveying a piece of land near a city industrial area for potential development.

About 200 feet off a sun-baked dirt road, he spotted a human skull poking up above the leaf litter. Nearby lay a handful of fragments that appeared to be from an arm or leg.

He called police, who began scouring the tangle of towering slash pines and melaleuca trees. At first, searchers thought there was only a single set of bones, but as they worked through the day - sifting leaves, twigs and dirt through their hands - the number kept growing.

Police spokeswoman Shelly Flynn had trouble keeping up.

"I put out the first [news] release when they found the first one," she said. "Then it was two, then four, then seven, then eight."

By the time darkness closed in, local authorities had uncovered the biggest cache of human remains in Fort Myers' history. And their work was just getting started.

During the next week, more than 50 searchers and a team of cadaver dogs descended on the site to recover as much evidence as possible. They started with chainsaws, cutting paths in the dense undergrowth.

Then they crawled on their hands and knees, finding bits of bone as small as a lima bean. Searchers focused on four areas, spread out over several hundred feet.

The bones were found among a layer of debris estimated to be at least 4 years old, but it's not clear how long they had been there. Walsh-Haney, brought in as a consultant, said that flooding, predators and insects help bones "travel," so it can be tricky determining when they were dumped.

"We have bobcats, foxes, feral dogs," she said. "All those play a part in moving remains."

Most of the bones were found beneath a dry, shallow carpet of leaf litter and debris.

Investigators found no clothing and no remnants of coffins, body bags or anything else that might be used to hold human remains. There were no footprints or other signs that anyone had recently been to the scene.

The site is at least a quarter mile from the nearest building, in the middle of a sprawling, undeveloped piece of property, a good place to dispose of bodies.

The serial-killer theory is one of several swirling around the Fort Myers case. However, when a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent suggested the case "most likely" involved homicides, local authorities warned against hasty conclusions.

"That's not the opinion of the Fort Myers Police Department," said Soto, "and we're the lead agency."

It would not be unusual for a killer to rely on favorite "dumping grounds," said criminologist James Fox. Ted Bundy disposed of several bodies on a mountainside in Washington state, and Dean Corll - who killed more than 20 boys in the early 1970s - hid many of his victims in a boat shed outside Houston.

The possibility that a killer may have dumped the bodies is an unsettling notion, said Dan Cohen, executive director of the Gulf Coast Humane Society. Cohen's building is about a mile north of the site, close enough, he said, to creep out some of his 15 staff members.

"You sort of wonder, `Is there a murderer walking around?'" he said.

Others in the community suspect the bodies were left by a funeral-home director who couldn't - or didn't want to - dispose of them properly. That's what happened 13 years ago, when authorities discovered that Finley Carter Jr., a prominent Fort Myers funeral director, had placed nine bodies in a storage unit and left them to rot. In all, investigators found more than 25 people he had not buried.

Some residents have theorized that the eight skeletons might be related to the Carter incident, but an investigator with the Lee County Sheriff's Office isn't convinced.

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