New Castle News


November 20, 2010

Digging Deep: Forensic team using every tool to locate missing teen



Katrina Young of Marathon, Fla., shares Dirkmaat’s frustration in the search for Laura’s bones. The cold case was the first dig the Mercyhurst graduate student had joined where there is no map or clearly defined area.

Typically, they would carefully document the precise locations, but in Laura’s case, it’s all guesswork.

“Basically we were looking for any human remains that might turn up,” Dirkmaat said.

Previous searches by Dirkmaat and his students included the somber combing of land in Shanksville, Somerset County, looking for body parts after United Airlines Flight 93 was downed during a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

The search for Laura proved more difficult after 17 years.

“It’s very unlikely anything would be left, other than bone,” Dirkmaat said.

The keen noses of cadaver dogs are useful, but they too, were unsuccessful. Even a Belgian malanois trained exclusively to detect the scent of decomposition came up empty. In some spots, the dog would stop and bark, but Dirkmaat’s team tested those and found nothing.


Dirkmaat has been training students at Mercyhurst since 1991. An aspect of their study involves feeling bone fragments and tiny bones of hands in paper bags to learn their size, shape and texture.

His doctorate in anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh led him to a position in the Allegheny County Coroner’s office in the late 1980s, working alongside Coroner Joshua Perper, who preceded Dr. Cyril Wecht.

Dirkmaat boasts being the 50th person in the country to be certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, an achievement that requires a few years of casework.

Mercyhurst’s forensic program is competitive.

“We like to think it’s the best one in the country,” he noted.

The school selects only five to eight students each year out of 80 applicants because “we don’t want to flood the market.”

Young, designated as the scene photographer, enrolled in the graduate school because of the hands-on experience she would gain, plus the certain satisfaction from completing a quest.

“It’s nice be able to recover the remains and provide closure to families who have been waiting a long time to learn the whereabouts of a loved one,” she said.

The team will resume its dig in the spring.

That, Dirkmaat said, is when new plant life perforates the soil and could transport the scent of human remains above ground.

But he’s not optimistic.

“I don’t think we’re going to find anything there,” he said.

“It’s a longshot, but often when looking for buried bodies, spring is the best time.”

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