A forensics event next week at the University of South Florida will propel forward the investigations into the unsolved murders of three people officials exhumed from their graves last month in Luzerne County.
The second annual event, a week-long workshop which last year led to the identification of a 32-year-old Florida woman, brings together forensic artists from across the country to create clay reconstructions of victims’ faces. Officials say the aim is to generate new leads and raise public awareness.
The artists will spend Oct. 17 through 21 in a USF lab in Tampa examining 20 unsolved cases, including 12 from Florida, four from Pennsylvania, two from Kentucky, and one each from Missouri and Tennessee. The final busts will be revealed Oct. 21, officials say.
Three of the Pennsylvania cases — two women dumped along local interstates and a man found shot in the chest in Bear Creek Township — featured victims who died in Luzerne County in the 1970s and whose deaths were either ruled homicides or considered highly suspicious.
Some of the investigations were abandoned within months.
One of the women, found in 1973 along Interstate 80 near Black Creek Township, had been wrapped in a blanket and doused with sulfuric acid. The other woman was found nude and badly decomposed along Interstate 81 near Nuangola in 1970.
A fourth Pennsylvania case, in which a woman’s remains were found earlier this year in Delaware County, is also part of the event.
State Police Cpl. Thomas McAndrew, lead investigator in the local cases, said he expected it would take months to produce facial reconstructions. That changed when Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a USF professor and renowned forensic anthropologist, added the cases to the event’s agenda.
“We didn’t know at the time of the exhumations this would happen,” McAndrew said. “It’s certainly going to help us rather than waiting a year.”
Despite being less than a month removed from the exhumations, investigators say they’ve already made strides.
McAndrew said preliminary examinations revealed the Bear Creek victim, previously thought to be in his 40s, appears to be in his late teens or early 20s. Two people walking to a fishing spot came upon the man’s body in May 1979. His death was ruled a homicide.
Such a small detail can turn a case around, McAndrew said.
“It just changes the whole focus,” he said.
After exhuming the remains of the three adults last month, investigators traveled to Courtdale and unearthed the remains of an infant boy found discarded in a West Side landfill in 1980. The infant will eventually have a computerized likeness released, McAndrew said, but is not officially part of next week’s program.
During the “Art of Forensics: Solving Florida’s Cold Cases” event, Kimmerle and her team will also perform skeletal analysis and chemical isotope testing in an effort to help identify the victims.
“We really hope with this new information, the Pennsylvania State Police will be able to get new leads and solve these cases,” Kimmerle said in an email.
Kimmerle commended the state police for their dedication to solving the cold cases.
“For an agency to make the choice to dedicate people and resources to long-term cases, it is a huge hurdle to overcome,” she said. “For the families waiting for resolution and justice, it makes a world of difference.”