Allison Schlesinger, The Associated Press
When forensic anthropologist Dennis C. Dirkmaat is called to dissect
crime scene, the first thing he does is tune out the television
fold up the newspaper.
The associate professor at Mercyhurst College -- a 3,625-student
in Erie -- tries to remain objective as he gathers evidence
for some of
the state's most gruesome homicide cases and mass
It's not that the 46-year-old Dirkmaat doesn't care about the people
bodies he is studying; it's just that getting to know the
his task more difficult.
"I'm just aware that I have a job to do," Dirkmaat said as he sat in
office, where plastic skeletons and skulls share space with
and pictures of his 9- and 4-year-old sons.
Using a mix of archaeology and forensic anthropology, Dirkmaat has
a key player in the recovery of human remains from the USAir
and United Flight 93 crash sites and has pieced together
cases for police.
In 1994, when Dirkmaat worked as a consultant at the Flight 427 crash
he happened to hear a news report about 26-year-old Kirk Lynn,
singer who had performed a prophetic ballad 11 days before
he and 131 others
died in the plane crash outside Pittsburgh.
The song, "As We Sail to Heaven's Shore," became something of an
for the victims' families and friends.
A few days later, Dirkmaat found Lynn's ring among the flight's ruins.
"That was tough," he said.
"A mass fatality scene is tough because there are human remains mixed
with personal effects," Dirkmaat said. "So, I try to stay away
Like many others in his field, Dirkmaat got interested in archaeology
anthropology with the help of National Geographic magazine and
of famed fossil hunter Louis Leakey.
As he worked toward his doctorate of anthropology at the University
Pittsburgh in the 1970s and 1980s, Dirkmaat was a teaching
a teaching fellow for introductory archaeology, primate
anatomy and paleoanthropology
His background in studying the remains of past cultures sets him
from some other forensic anthropologists, many of whom stay in
"fondling bones," said James Adovasio, the director of
the Mercyhurst Archaeological
Dirkmaat agreed: Most forensic anthropologists have bones and other
delivered to them and they examine them in the lab. But he
believes a lot
can be discovered when forensic anthropologists
examine human remains at
a crime scene.
"The logic is very simple. If we can use archaeology to reconstruct a
1,000 or 100,000 years ago, we can reconstruct an incident that
last week," said Adovasio, who worked with Dirkmaat when he
was a student
and Adovasio was the chairman of Pitt's anthropology
When Adovasio moved to Erie to head Mercyhurst's archaeology and
department in 1990, he encouraged Dirkmaat to relocate,
too, and develop
the college's forensic anthropology courses.
Adovasio said he extended the invitation because he's impressed with
attention to detail and strong research habits.
If someone stole a basket in Arizona and it ended up at a crime scene
Pennsylvania, Dirkmaat could probably find a grain of sand on the
and trace it to a hole on the other side of the country,
It was this methodical research and skill that helped Dirkmaat's
in 1987 when he was a doctoral student and worked one of
his first cases
in Lawrence County.
The Pennsylvania State Police approached Dirkmaat about a case from
in which a 15-year-old girl, Patricia Desmond, disappeared.
received a tip and believed the teenager's remains were
the ruins of a burned-down home in Slippery Rock
Sometime during the 17 years since Desmond's disappearance, however,
bulldozer had cleared the area and thick vegetation had grown over
Dirkmaat and two other graduate students used techniques typically
at archaeological digs to lay down a grid and examine every
inch of the
From what they found, Dirkmaat hypothesized that Conrad E. Miller,
man who was last seen with Desmond, killed the teenager, burned
then burned down the house.
"I think (Miller) tended to the fire and broke up the bones with a
so we found a fragmented body. A piece of pelvis bone was the
we found," Dirkmaat said.
At the time, law enforcement was not using DNA to identify remains
the team of students never positively identified the body. But
did determine -- the body's gender and her approximate age
-- was enough
to push Miller into confessing to the murder, Dirkmaat
Miller, who was paroled in 1987 after serving more than 10 years on a
conviction, was given a 7- to 14-year sentence for third-degree
in April 1988. He was released from prison in June 2001.
Since that case, word spread throughout law enforcement that
thorough methods help him uncover fine details from crime
scenes that seemed
to be void of information, said Somerset County
Coroner Wallace Miller.
"He's an unassuming guy. A mild-mannered
professor with a great sense of
humor," Miller said. "But he doesn't
get enough recognition."
When Flight 93 crashed in a reclaimed strip mine in Somerset County
the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Miller said he immediately
to consult with the county.
For that case and others Dirkmaat applied some of the methods he
used at the Flight 427 crash site. He used a theodolite, an
usually used for surveying, to create a topological map of
scene. Dirkmaat also set up a grid that helped workers
flag human remains,
personal affects and wreckage.
But since he worked on the Flight 427 crash site, Dirkmaat enhanced
protocol for mass fatality scenes.
He now prefers that state police, rather than volunteers, scan the
scene and that workers recover as much evidence as possible
in their first
sweep of the site.
Law enforcement officials from around Pennsylvania and New York call
Dirkmaat's skills about 15 times a year. If he's called to a crime
Dirkmaat brings along a staff of five to 10 Mercyhurst
He hopes the field work will spawn a new generation of forensic
who embrace hands-on research as much as theory.
Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
"I tell them that a lot of people find this stuff interesting, but it
be a hobby. You've got to take this seriously because people
could be convicted,
they're lives could change, because of what
you're studying," Dirkmaat