When human bones were found at the rear of a Dundalk house last month, the thoughts of locals immediately turned to Ciara Breen, who was last seen less than 200m away in 1997.
As is standard procedure, State Pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy was called to the scene and, because the remains were skeletal, she was joined by Dr René Gapert, one of Ireland’s few forensic anthropologists.
It was up to Gapert to determine whether the find might be related to Breen’s disappearance 20 years before, when she was just 17.
Even though he deals primarily with skeletal remains, which by their nature are usually quite old, Gapert says that time is of the essence in his work.
“A case like that requires a rapid response, especially because you have family waiting in the background,” he says.
“The evening I was called I went immediately just to confirm they were human bones. Then the next day I examined them in the daylight with the forensic pathologist to make a determination on their age.”
In the end Gapert was able to tell gardaí within 24 hours that the bones were human but were not those of the missing girl.
“I’m on call 24/7. It’s something that has to be quite quickly dealt with. A quick decision frees up staff, police and specialists. And it means the family get an answer, even if it might not be the answer they are hoping for.”
Routinely called in
Forensic anthropology is an increasingly important part of modern death investigations. Experts such as Gapert are now routinely called in by gardaí to determine if bones belong to a human and, if so, how long they have been there.
Determining their age is vital. If the bones have been there less than 80 years it means it’s possible a relative, and in some cases a suspect, might still be alive. If they are older, as they were in the Dundalk case, the remains are legally the responsibility of the National Museum rather than the Garda.
Sometimes Gapert has to decide whether the remains are even bones or not. “It might sound strange, but there are situations where natural materials like wood or stone can mimic bones, he says.
As well as determining the direction of an investigation, forensic anthropology can also help determine the age, height and even the broad ethnicity of a victim, he says.
Dr Ferdia Bolster, Ireland’s first forensic radiologist, often forms another part of the investigation team. Based in the Mater Hospital, he uses a modern form of X-ray called computed tomography (CT) to help determine cause of death, either instead of an autopsy or in addition to it.
Forensic radiologists are increasingly in demand as full autopsies are not permitted by some religions such as Islam and Judaism. And, no matter their religion, the thought of a loved one undergoing an autopsy is extremely distressing for families.
“An autopsy is quite invasive. Relatives understandably get upset thinking about it. So if you can do a scan and show, in say the case of a car accident, a traumatic head injury . . . that might be enough for the coroner to decide a cause of death,” Bolster says.
“But in most [sudden death] cases they will do a CT scan and an autopsy. Autopsy is still the gold standard.”
As CT scans are done before an autopsy, they can be used to show the pathologist where to look. They also give investigators a detailed look at the remains before the destructive process of removing organs takes place.
“And we can always go back and review [the CT scans],” Bolster says. “While you can go back and do a second autopsy, it’s never as good as they are a destructive process.”