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WATCH VIDEO | Searching for answers | Mercyhurst University's forensic science team decodes stories of the dead

  • 4 min to read

ERIE – Staff and students with Mercyhurst University’s applied forensic science program do much more than just study bones. 

When the Mercyhurst team arrives at a crime scene, members are tasked with telling the story of how human remains arrived there, how long they were in place, and whether the remains were affected by weather, animals or other humans. 

“It’s all about reconstructing past events,” said Dennis Dirkmaat, department chairman of the Mercyhurst University forensic science program. 

Dirkmaat, a forensic anthropologist, has led his students to scenes across Pennsylvania and beyond to help coroners and medical examiners answer questions crucial to each case.

With forensic anthropology, he said, investigators don’t bring bones to a lab to be identified, at least not at first.

Vital information exists at the scene where a body is found, including the origin and spatial distribution of the remains. 

“Each particular case is a new scenario,” he said.

DNA can easily provide the identity of human remains, Dirkmaat said. 

But his students are educated in identifying trauma in bone and gathering information at each scene that could show whether the individual died from homicide, suicide, accidental or natural causes, as well as whether remains were moved or scattered by animals, gravity, water, wind or human activity. 

“We always search for where the body was originally,” Dirkmaat said, and look at whether remains are still articulated – together in the proper order or pattern – or if there are signs of decomposition. 

“The police or coroners, when they call us in, they have some idea of who this might be and how long ago it occurred, and so we start with that hypothesis and we try to prove or disprove it from the evidence.” 

Dirkmaat said he’s seen an average of 100 cases each year in the nearly two decades that he and his students have assisted police and coroners at outdoor crime scenes.

“In an academic setting, I don’t think anyone’s come close to that number,” he said.

‘Processing the scene’

Cambria County Coroner Jeff Lees called Dirkmaat in May concerning human remains discovered near a Johnstown trail. The Mercyhurst team helped local officials identify the remains of Nancy Giles, who had gone missing in October.

“Dealing with the remains is one process, but the entire scene has to be cleared methodically,” Lees said.

“It’s a diligent and slow process, but one that must be done. (Dirkmaat) and his team are second to none. Processing the scene will have a long-term impact on the investigation.” 

Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller said Dirkmaat was the first person he called last September, when the remains of two homicide victims were found along Ligonier Pike in Conemaugh Township. 

“Anytime you have skeletal remains, you have to have (the Mercyhurst University team),” Miller said.

“They’re qualified as experts in court. (Dennis) is well-known and well-respected.” 

Rusty Styer, Bedford County coroner, has called in Dirkmaat and his students several times.

The latest instance was last October, when remains were located by a hunter near Route 30 in Snake Spring Township.

The recovery and mapping capabilities are “top notch,” Styer said, and the Mercyhurst team accurately captures the location of every bone and piece of evidence, which he said is vital to the work of coroners and the police. 

“It’s essential to have it,” he said. “They turn over every leaf and every rock.”

‘Practical experience’

Dirkmaat said he enjoys his work for a variety of reasons: including seeing his students graduate from the program and earn their own success in the field, while navigating the challenges each case brings. 

He arrived at Mercyhurst University in 1991 with a doctoral degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

One of his first assignments was to help then-Cambria County Coroner John Barron with a case involving human remains, coincidentally found near the site off Roosevelt Boulevard where Giles’ remains were found in May.

From there, “it just expanded,” Dirkmaat said, as coroners spoke with each other about these types of cases they were working through, and the resources he and his team could provide.

Dirkmaat said he and his students have worked on cases all over Pennsylvania and in parts of New York and Ohio. 

“It’s a pretty big territory,” he said. “And I attribute it to the fact that we can do the forensic archaeology. We can process a scene for the police and for the coroner’s office.” 

The hands-on experience has given the program its good reputation, Dirkmaat said. 

“The students that I’ve produced are well-trained forensic anthropologists,” he said. 

“There are really very few, if any, programs that give as much hands-on practical experience as we do. Some of the graduate students that just recently graduated have 15 to 20 forensic cases under their belts.” 

Dirkmaat recalled getting a call about a plane crash in Westmoreland County the day before that year’s classes started, before he’d even met his new students. On the first day of the semester, he took the students to the scene of that crash. 

“The first day of classes, they were working a scene,” he said, “right off the bat.”

Career opportunities

Dr. Erin Chapman, forensic anthropologist with the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office, is one of Dirkmaat’s former students. 

During a recent lecture at Mercyhurst, Chapman said she is assigned 40 to 50 cases each year, 60 percent of which are trauma-related. 

Chapman said real-world scenarios encountered at Mercyhurst make that master’s degree program in forensic anthropology stand above similar options at other schools.  

“I think it’s the difference between having a job and not,” she said.

Mercyhurst’s program is an attractive commodity, Dirkmaat said, due to the hands-on experience his students receive in assisting with cases.

The approach involves applied learning, because there’s only so much forensic anthropologists can gain from a textbook, Chapman said. 

Over the past five years, Dirkmaat has seen more of his students explore careers in investigation, he said. About half graduate from the Mercyhurst program and get their doctorate degrees, he said, while the other half go into investigatory positions with coroners’ and medical examiners’ offices. 

“There’s a lot they can do,” he said of his students. 

Dirkmaat envisions a day when police will be able to collect DNA from human remains at outdoor scenes with the click of a device. 

Although the capabilities of forensic anthropology continue to expand – almost daily – through technology and research, Dirkmaat said bone identification will continue to be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to processing a scene.  

“If you just say, ‘I only work with bones,’ you’ll become extinct,” he said.

​Jocelyn Brumbaugh is a reporter for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter @JBrumbaughTD.