State investigators unravel mysteries of old bones

Older bones found more often in Alaska because decomposition is slower

Posted: Tuesday, July 29, 2003

FAIRBANKS - When his son's pit bull brought home a human skull July 11, Roger Shields turned it over to Alaska State Troopers to determine where it came from and how the person died.

The skull made its way to homicide investigator Lantz Dahlke, who has seen his share of bones, both human and animal, brought in by people suspicious that old secrets are buried in their backyards. As with the skull Shields' dog found, the bones often have been in the ground for more than 50 years because bones in Alaska soil decompose slower than they do Outside.

"In the Lower 48, bones will get consumed over a short period of time by rodents and animals," Dahlke said. "If they're buried up here, the bacteria up here doesn't get to them."

Some of the older bones are found in good condition.

"In the past, people have buried people alongside the river because they traveled along the river," Dahlke said. "Then the river slowly changes over the years and the next thing you know this grave from 30 to 40 years ago gets washed out."

In the most recent case, the skull may have been above ground.

"It appears to have been utilized as a scent post," Dahlke said.

He took the skull to Joel Irish, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Irish said the smell was so potent it made his eyes water and he had to use rubber gloves to make his examination.

Irish determined the skull was from a Native man who died more than 50 years ago. The anthropologist said if the bones are from a recent death, they would have felt greasy and been littered with maggot casings.

Instead, Irish said, the skull was dry and had "an old appearance to it."

Irish said the skull was from a Native male because of features such as a ridge along the top of the skull and prominent cheekbones. He also decided the skull was from a man in his 40s or 50s because the teeth sockets had little root left in them. Normally he can judge the age by measuring the teeth. The older the person, the more worn the tooth is.

This skull did not have any teeth left and there was no evidence of dental care, another indicator that the person had lived a long time ago, Irish said.

Troopers will turn the skull over to an Alaska Native group.

"Nobody has any concerns or has to worry about this being a homicide victim," Dahlke said.

Dahlke bring bones for Irish to examine a few times a year.

"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time it's nothing recent, or even human," Irish said. "He can usually tell, but he just wants to make sure."

One skull that did lead to an investigation was recovered in 1989.

While investigating a man for a pull-tab fraud in 1989, troopers received a tip that led them to the skull of a woman who had disappeared in 1982. This skull was used to link Lance Linton to the death of his ex-wife.

"She was actually buried for eight years," Dahlke said. "Her cranium and teeth were in perfect condition."

Though investigators did not have Elfrieda Linton's dental records, they matched her slight overbite and crooked and chipped front teeth with the jaw of the recovered skull. Linton claimed he was innocent and that the skull had been planted on his 10-acre homestead at 38 Mile Steese Highway. A judge sentenced him to 75 years in prison. The rest of Elfrieda Linton's skeleton was not found.

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