SEATTLE – Daris Swindler could read old bones in the days before DNA analysis became commonplace. Police from throughout the country would send remains to his office in the University of Washington’s anthropology department, hoping he could divine a subject’s race, age, sex or height from skeletal clues.
Sometimes he could, as when he assisted in the Ted Bundy and Green River serial killer investigations. Sometimes he couldn’t, and packed the unidentified remains away in the department’s archives – essentially a closet on the fourth floor of the oldest building on campus. There they stayed, preserved, for decades.
The university announced Friday that it had transferred the remains of eight possible crime victims kept there to the King County medical examiner’s office, in hopes that DNA analysis could reveal what Dr. Swindler couldn’t. Swindler, who taught at UW from 1968 to 1991, died in Spokane in 2007.
“More than anything I’m grateful Dr. Swindler had the foresight to put them on the shelf and preserve them until technology could catch up,” said Dr. Kathy Taylor, a forensic anthropologist with the medical examiner’s office.
Anthropology department chairwoman Bettina Shell-Duncan said the department knew forensic remains were stored in the archives and began to sort through them after Swindler’s death. DNA extraction from bone has only become viable in the past five years, she said. It was time to turn over the remains to authorities.
As the review was under way, she said, the Yakima Police Department asked whether the university still had the skull of a murder victim killed in 1977. Taylor didn’t find that one, but she did find the remains of eight other people who may have been crime victims.
Among them is the partial skull of a juvenile that was mailed to the anthropology department in a box with a 1980 postmark from Bay Center, in Pacific County on the southwest Washington coast. Pacific County has no record of any missing person case that might fit, but nearby Grays Harbor County does: a 7-year-old boy, Jeffrey Bratcher, who vanished while camping with his family at Ocean City State Park near Ocean Shores in 1974. DNA testing should provide a definitive answer.
“There was a massive search for him at the time, and no one ever found any evidence of what happened to him,” said Grays Harbor Undersheriff Rick Scott.
The skull fragment had no teeth, so there was no hope for dental analysis, and no conclusions could have been drawn from it in 1980, Taylor said.
Bellingham police Lt. Steve Felmley said his department hopes to perform DNA analysis on a skull found by someone who was walking in Whatcom Falls Park in April 1981. Police records indicate that at the time, Whatcom County’s medical examiner believed the skull belonged to a 45- to 50-year-old man, who had dental work done before World War II and had been dead for 10 to 30 years. Cause of death was not apparent, and Felmley didn’t know why the department sent the skull to the university.
Taylor said she doesn’t know how many of the eight were crime victims.
“Every time I’m confronted with new remains it’s a new puzzle for me, and that’s why I do what I do,” she said.
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