People sometimes kill people. And sometimes they burn or bury the bones.
After the fragments are found, perhaps after years of being underground, when finding clues in ashes looks almost impossible, police in south-central Kansas often turn to Peer Moore-Jansen.
He teaches anthropology at Wichita State University.
He came up with a title for one of his talks years ago, evocative of what he teaches and what he does: “Whispers From the Dead.”
‘Is it really human?’
Sometimes the whispers are faint. And sometimes it’s not about murder.
Moore-Jansen, 62, has saved taxpayers’ money with a mere glance at a bone.
No one knows how much money he’s saved since he arrived at WSU in 1989.
Is it really human? Is it murder?
Marc Bennett, Sedgwick County district attorney
It’s a lot, said Marc Bennett, the Sedgwick County district attorney. “Somebody finds a bone small enough to be human – and right away we’ve got a resource issue,” Bennett said. “Is it really human? Is it murder? Do we devote a lot of effort to it?”
“We get calls on a long bone someone found in the woods or in a crawl space,” said Kelly Otis, Bennett’s chief investigator. “We get it out to Peer. And he’ll say, ‘No, that’s a cow’ or ‘That’s a horse.’ ” And that ends that investigation.
But sometimes the bones are human. And sometimes it is murder.
Nola Foulston, Bennett’s predecessor, remembers that when police found skull fragments and other bones in the woods in 1990, the puzzle the bones presented looked daunting. Who was this person? What happened before animals scattered the remains? The bones had lain there for months.
Moore-Jansen not only identified the bones as being those of 9-year-old Nancy Shoemaker but also determined she had been strangled, Foulston said. He noticed a pink tinge to the girl’s teeth, still embedded in the jaw.
Strangulation causes that, he testified. Foulston and her prosecutors sent Doil Lane and Donald Wacker to prison for Nancy’s death.
Thirteen years later, when Wichita police detectives brought several containers to Moore-Jansen in 2003, Otis said, all they saw in the containers were thousands of burned, crumbling bone fragments.
Months later, Otis said, Moore-Jansen said the remains belonged to three men, that they’d likely been murdered and that the killer likely burned the bodies to destroy clues.
“Why do you think there are three victims?” police asked.
I found three left cheekbones.
Peer Moore-Jansen, WSU anthropologist
“I found three left cheekbones,” he told them.
In a skull fragment, he’d found a bullet hole.
The Club Mexico murder case, as it was called, set a standard for great investigative work, Otis said.
When the bones of the long-dead are discovered, detectives and prosecutors like Bennett are confronted with an array of questions.
“Is this an artifact from the past?” Bennett said. “How long was it in the ground? Is it female or male? Is it African-American or Asian or Caucasian? How old was this person? Was the person shot? Stabbed? Can we learn enough from the remains to match that description with the descriptions we have of missing persons?
“And then from that, can we connect the evidence to someone? Who knew this person? Who might have killed her?” he said.
Answering these questions – and, if necessary, making a convincing case for a jury – requires the exactness and rigors of scientific method.
Moore-Jansen picked up a human backbone vertebrae on Tuesday. He pointed to the neat, round bullet hole in the bone, the part that once faced forward in the abdomen.
He poked a thin, metal rod into the opening.
“And from that angle, we can see that the bullet probably hit him from the side, angling downward,” he said.
The bone belonged to a man. That man was murdered. In an act of generosity, the man’s family later donated the bones, decades ago, to scientists at Wichita State University, where Moore-Jansen teaches anthropology and sometimes solves crimes.
To teach in the laboratory where he trains students, Moore-Jansen keeps rows of casts of skulls in a cabinet: human, Neanderthal, gorilla, Australopithecus, chimpanzee, all there to remind students that our bones and those of our ancestors add up to a long and complicated story of human variation.
On a table: leg bones, spines, more skulls.
In a storage room next to the lab: 85 to 100 boxes with human remains from modern humans who donated their bodies to science.
“Harvesting” these bodies, as Moore-Jansen calls the work, means juxtaposing science with human dignity. He never harvests an entire body, though a full skeleton is a prize. “We always want to leave something for the family.” A priority in such harvests, he said, would be marks or old injuries to bones so students can see, for example, what a healed bone break looks like.
In that room there are also boxes of raccoon, deer, snake and many other animal species’ bones. Boxes of pig bones with cut marks. Boxes with body bags. Boxes with old shoes, bras, pants, shirts, blouses and jewelry, bought in local thrift stores.
Sometimes people overhear us talking in the thrift store. And one of us says something like ‘What if we buried her in this piece of clothing?’ Sometimes we get looks.
Peer Moore-Jansen, WSU anthropologist
“Sometimes people overhear us talking in the thrift store,” he said. “And one of us says something like ‘What if we buried her in this piece of clothing?’ Sometimes we get looks.”
He uses the clothes to dress skeletons before he buries them in the country. Clothes on a buried victim also become evidence. He tells his students to dig up the skeletons. If the clothes have lain in the ground a long time, what can we still learn from them?
Moore-Jansen grew up in Denmark in poverty, sometimes hunting for days-old sandwiches in garbage bins. But his stepfather bought him a bicycle and rode with him around Copenhagen and around Sjaelland, the big Danish island, around burial mounds and archaeological digs. From those, he grew interested in a career.
He fell in love with an American, Cathy, who refused to live in Denmark. He knew almost nothing about Kansas until a temporary job opened at WSU in 1989.
Not long after that, he began to build up the university’s anthropology program, which he now chairs. He wanted not only to teach but to make WSU a destination place for police and prosecutors needing help in solving crimes. He started, he said, “in a cold, hard, empty room” to build everything from an anthropology lab to a bone collection. Next year, when the new law enforcement training center opens on WSU’s Innovation Campus, he’ll teach crime scene investigation there.
Sometimes, to teach students how to figure out a murder, he burns cars with animal remains inside. Then he asks his students to painstakingly take apart the ashes and make sense of them.
Sometimes he takes students on real-life expeditions.
“We used him on a number of cases involving recovered bones,” said Otis, a former Wichita Police Department homicide detective. “Oftentimes if we had a tip on a buried body, he’d not only come out but bring his grad students along to help us search for evidence.”
Was I too cold? Too analytical? I wonder what the families involved think.
Peer Moore-Jansen, WSU anthropologist
Sometimes, Moore-Jansen said, when he testifies in a case, he wonders: “Was I too cold? Too analytical? I wonder what the families involved think.
“I never once knew how they felt.”
That bothers him, he said.
“But I take some satisfaction in knowing that what we have done might bring them some measure of peace.”