Wake County sheriff’s deputies knew little about the man, except that he wore a foreign brand of jeans and blue boots and had two gunshot wounds to his head.
That was in 2003, and a decade later, investigators still didn’t know who the man was or who killed him.
The cold case came back to life when Sgt. Edward Blomgren of the Wake County Sheriff’s Office called upon anthropologists Chelsey Ann Juarez and Ann Ross at N.C. State University. The professors use advanced forensic techniques to uncover the causes of horrible tragedies.
Ross took 33 different measurements of the man’s cranium, which she entered into an ancestry database she developed called “3DID.” The database compared the shape of the cranium with those taken from people around the world and found the skull reflected South American ancestry. Reconstructing the cranium allowed investigators to re-create his appearance.
“With the forensic sketch, hopefully we will generate a lead,” said Blomgren. He hopes to identify a region of origin or a family member to confirm the victim’s identity through DNA analysis.
To try to track down the man’s home, Juarez measured the chemical composition of his bones and teeth, which reflect the drinking water unique to where he lived. None of the chemical isotopes in the man were present in North Carolina or any habitable location in the U.S.
Juarez also compared the chemistry of the man’s ribs, a femur and teeth, because they absorb water chemistry at different rates, creating a time record of where he lived. She found the bones and teeth all shared the same foreign signature, indicating that he had moved to North Carolina less than five years before he died.
But Juarez was not able to use bone chemistry to track down where the man lived, at least not yet. That’s because the water chemistry maps for Mexico and Central and South America are incomplete, something Juarez is working to fix.
This summer, she has traveled to every state south of Mexico City and collected water and hair about every 40 kilometers until reaching the Guatemalan border.
“This is the water we use to make the known map to compare the tissues that we have,” said Juarez, who pledges to share her data publicly.
The map will be instrumental in identifying the numerous unidentified remains found near the border and in other states like North Carolina, which Juarez says will help understand immigration patterns and the origins of undocumented populations.
Juarez and Ross both have personal impetus to understand these issues. Born to a Chilean mother in Panama during the regimes of dictators Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega, Ross grew up amidst families torn by sudden disappearances.
“Seeing a family member struggle with the not knowing is really difficult. That is my motivation,” said Ross. “Since we have this really unique skill, it is our humanitarian duty to give that back to society.”
Juarez, half Mexican, has lived in Mexico many times and spent more than 10 years working on border-related issues.
Outside of their responsibilities as professors, both volunteer their time and skills for humanitarian work. “I don’t see it as doing it for free,” said Ross. “We bring people to justice.”
It’s not easy work. Anthropologists use large tweezers to clean decomposing flesh from bones. Juarez recalls removing a still-pink uterus from a young mother who suffered from abuse and was murdered.
“People are made uncomfortable by that: dead kids, dead people, abuse, murder, torture and slaves,” Juarez said. “And that is what I see. That is what policy failure looks like to me.”
Juarez says the gruesomeness does not disgust her; what does is the abuse and society’s failure to prevent it. Often, Juarez says, she encounters bodies that have been disfigured and shattered in hopes of obscuring their identities and the crimes that led to their deaths.
Identifying these bodies uncovers their stories and sheds light on the loss of humanity that comes when government policies fail, says Juarez, which she hopes will inspire support for change.
The identity of the man found dead in Wake County 11 years ago remains a mystery. Ross, Juarez and sheriff’s investigators hope that continued forensic work will enable them to track down the man’s precise origin and send his body home to his family.
In the meantime, Ross credits Blomgren with having the perseverance to keep the case alive. Without it, she said, the man may have sat in a box on a shelf forever.