ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Three grains of pollen might help solve a 27-year-old murder mystery.
To try to identify a teenage girl found slain in a western New York cornfield in 1979, investigators have turned to a pollen-analysis technique rarely used in the United States.
Forensic botanist Vaughn Bryant determined that three microscopic Australian pine pollen grains recovered this summer inside the girl’s jacket and pants pocket could have come only from Florida, Arizona or, the most likely possibility, Southern California – that is, provided she didn’t leave the country.
“The chances of one of those pollen grains reaching that area of New York on air currents might be, I don’t know, a billion to one,” said Bryant, director of the Palynology Laboratory at Texas A&M University. “But three of them … it’s not possible.”
Analysis of about 40 other pollen types that were also found indicates that the girl seems to have resided in or at least traveled through coastal regions in Southern California, such as San Diego, Bryant said.
The girl, believed to be about 15 years old, was shot in the forehead beside a country road in Caledonia on Nov. 8, 1979, then was dragged into the field and shot again in the back, police said.
Forensic palynology is used regularly as evidence in criminal trials in Britain, Australia and New Zealand and has helped unlock wartime mass-murder riddles in Bosnia and Hungary. But it has been used fewer than a dozen times by U.S. investigators, said Bryant, one of only two such specialists in the United States.
John York, the first law officer on the scene, has combed through more than 10,000 leads, interviewed two serial killers who claimed responsibility, saturated the South and Southwest with thousands of fliers and got the case profiled repeatedly on “America’s Most Wanted.”
Ottis Toole, a one-time companion of mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas, claimed he picked up the girl in a park near Philadelphia and was with Lucas when he killed her in Caledonia.
York, sheriff of largely rural Livingston County since 1989, said that both men “told me the same thing without knowing what the other said” but that he couldn’t confirm the pair, now dead, were involved.
“We’re using every means available,” the sheriff said. “This kid has a right to an identity.”