Editor’s note: This is the first story in an occasional series about unidentified human remains found in Middle Georgia. If you have information about the unidentified man described here, please call the GBI office in Perry at 478-987-4545.
It was strange how the man’s death was discovered.
If it weren’t for a truck crash on June 14, 2003, it is possible he may never have been found.
Temperatures swelled above 100 degrees that Saturday afternoon as a military convoy headed to Macon from Fort Stewart on Interstate 16.
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The trucks had just passed Sgoda Road in Twiggs County when one of them tumbled off the freeway, spilling nearly 200 gallons of diesel fuel.
A firefighter wandered down an embankment by the highway to see how far the gas had spread.
Along a creek bed, he spotted the top of a human skull poking out from some pine straw.
The wreck site became a crime scene.
Using string and wooden stakes, GBI investigators created a grid around the skeleton that spanned 45 yards long and 30 yards wide.
It took agents and forensic scientists two full days to recover 85 percent of the man’s skeleton.
“A lot of the time it took us just cutting down the vegetation to be able to access the bones,” GBI Special Agent Lee Weathersby said.
The GBI investigated his death as a homicide, which is common procedure when investigating deaths with no clear cause. Now, more than 14 years later, his identity and the cause of his death remain unknown.
A forensic anthropologist studied the bones and determined the man was biracial and probably between the ages of 25 and 45 years old.
He died wearing size 30 Gap jeans and a dark short sleeved shirt with a label marked “ODO, hand wash only.”
What was most distinguishing, though, were his porcelain veneers.
“Someone spent a lot of money on his teeth,” Weathersby said. “That would indicate to me that there’s someone looking for this individual. You just don’t see a lot of homeless or those type people have a lot of dental work done. This person has got a family somewhere.
“Somebody cares about him.”
The highway, a main thoroughfare from Atlanta to Savannah, is traveled by thousands daily, making it even harder to determine who the man was and why he was found in Middle Georgia, Weathersby said.
He’d been dead for at least two years before the crash, a forensic anthropologist estimated. Weathersby said his bones were dry and bleached from sunlight.
That means he probably died some time in 2001.
DNA from the bones was sent to FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, for testing.
“We’ve checked leads all over the country,” Weathersby said. “We’ve ruled out a lot of people that it’s not.”
The man’s DNA is among thousands of DNA profiles stored in a federal database called CODIS, which stands for Combined DNA Index System.
Created in 1994, CODIS contains a record of DNA profiles contributed by local, state and federal laboratories for convicted offenders, arrestees, forensic casework, unidentified human remains, missing persons and relatives of missing persons, according to the FBI’s website.
Weathersby, who works out of the GBI office in Perry, reviews the cold case, and eight others, every two months.
The leads he already checked are checked again. Tips are investigated. CODIS is searched for the man’s DNA.
“I’ve kept the case file since 2003,” said Weathersby, who was among special agents who combed the roadside for the man’s bones. “Anyone who is missing a loved one that is close to this, either their mother, or someone who has a common mother with that person, could get in touch with us, and we could take a DNA cheek swab sample.”
The volunteer’s sample would determine if the man is related to them.
DNA testing for this purpose is free, and the volunteer’s DNA is destroyed, unless he or she wants to keep it in the database should their missing loved one’s DNA be entered in the system in the future.
‘It’s like their bones are crying from the grave’
Once all the skin and muscles are gone, the human body can fit inside a small, rectangular box.
At GBI headquarters in Decatur, a box holds the remains of the mystery man found in Twiggs County. His box is among the 250 unidentified humans whose bodies were found in Georgia.
The oldest case dates back to 1969.
“These people are just waiting,” GBI forensic artist Kelly Lawson said. “It’s like their bones are crying from the grave, and all the while they’re sitting here, waiting for their chance to find their way home.”
“On the other side of the equation, you have their family, waiting for them to come home but not knowing quite where to turn or where to look.”
Every state has hundreds of unidentified human remains in storage, in part because, “police work was done very differently” in the 1960s through 1980s.
“You have a lot of people who would have missing relatives and they would go to the police department, and the police would say, ‘Oh, were they an adult when they went missing? Well, there’s nothing I can do for you. I’m sure they’ll turn up.’ ” Lawson said. “They didn’t necessarily make missing persons reports the same way that we do now.”
A missing persons report is essential, whether it’s been a decade or three decades since a loved one disappeared.
“If you go to the police department and you tell them ... they’ll be very understanding ... and maybe get some identification to some of the people we have just kind of sitting and waiting for comparisons,” Lawson said.
Lawson’s job is literally to put a face to the skulls.
Lawson started the job in 2012, following in the footsteps of her mother, Marla Lawson, who was the GBI’s sole forensic artist for decades. Marla Lawson completed the facial reconstruction for the man found in Twiggs County.
Facial reconstructions at the GBI are performed on a person’s actual skull, which is boiled to rid it of soft tissue.
A report sent to the forensic artist contains only the person’s race, approximate age and sex. Then, Lawson uses a chart to determine the average tissue thickness for the human face.
Estimations aren’t always spot on. People are slender, obese or average, and their weight is usually not apparent unless items of clothing were found with the body.
“Some things you almost have to guess or follow your intuition,” such as eye color, thickness of eyebrows, hair and complexion, Kelly Lawson said. “You have to have an emotional nature about yourself in such a way that you can maybe feel what this person looked like.”
“So, if you see a skull reconstruction and it might not express the same type of hair style or the same color ... of someone you know who is missing, don’t let that be a hindrance.”
Doll eyes are placed in the eye cavity and aligned using a special technique. Then, a water-soluble white clay is used to fill out the face, which is then spray painted and painted with fine brushes.
The process can take up to 100 hours of work over several months.
“When you finally get to a point where you like it, we apply a wig, in most cases, photograph it and enter it on to our GBI website,” Lawson said.
After the photo is published, Lawson removes the wig and submerges the skull into water.
The clay melts away, leaving the skull clean for return to the crime lab.
“It’s a really important, very spiritual, inspirational type of work that human beings, I think we can do for each other,” Lawson said of her job. “You never actually know when you’re going to get a resolve on a case. It could be two months or 20 years down the road.”