College Professor Gets the Call to Examine Plane Crashes and Crime Scenes
When forensic anthropologist Dennis C. Dirkmaat is called to dissect a crime scene, the first thing he does is tune out the television news and fold up the newspaper.
The associate professor at Mercyhurst College -- a 3,625-student school in Erie -- tries to remain objective as he gathers evidence for some of the state's most gruesome homicide cases and mass fatality scenes.
It's not that the 46-year-old Dirkmaat doesn't care about the people whose bodies he is studying; it's just that getting to know the victims makes his task more difficult.
"I'm just aware that I have a job to do," Dirkmaat said as he sat in his office, where plastic skeletons and skulls share space with hockey posters and pictures of his 9- and 4-year-old sons. Using a mix of archaeology and forensic anthropology, Dirkmaat has been a key player in the recovery of human remains from the USAir Flight 427 and United Flight 93 crash sites and has pieced together decades-old murder cases for police.
In 1994, when Dirkmaat worked as a consultant at the Flight 427 crash site, he happened to hear a news report about 26-year-old Kirk Lynn, a church 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 anthem 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 in with personal effects," Dirkmaat said. "So, I try to stay away from news reports."
Like many others in his field, Dirkmaat got interested in archaeology and anthropology with the help of National Geographic magazine and the work of famed fossil hunter Louis Leakey.
As he worked toward his doctorate of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1970s and 1980s, Dirkmaat was a teaching assistant and a teaching fellow for introductory archaeology, primate anatomy and paleoanthropology classes.
His background in studying the remains of past cultures sets him apart from some other forensic anthropologists, many of whom stay in laboratories "fondling bones," said James Adovasio, the director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute.
Dirkmaat agreed: Most forensic anthropologists have bones and other evidence 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 world 1,000 or 100,000 years ago, we can reconstruct an incident that happened last week," said Adovasio, who worked with Dirkmaat when he was a student and Adovasio was the chairman of Pitt's anthropology department.
When Adovasio moved to Erie to head Mercyhurst's archaeology and anthropology 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 Dirkmaat's attention to detail and strong research habits.
If someone stole a basket in Arizona and it ended up at a crime scene in Pennsylvania, Dirkmaat could probably find a grain of sand on the basket and trace it to a hole on the other side of the country, Adovasio said.
It was this methodical research and skill that helped Dirkmaat's reputation 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 1965 in which a 15-year-old girl, Patricia Desmond, disappeared. Police had received a tip and believed the teenager's remains were buried beneath the ruins of a burned-down home in Slippery Rock Township.
Sometime during the 17 years since Desmond's disappearance, however, a bulldozer had cleared the area and thick vegetation had grown over the house's foundation.
Dirkmaat and two other graduate students used techniques typically employed at archaeological digs to lay down a grid and examine every inch of the site.
From what they found, Dirkmaat hypothesized that Conrad E. Miller, the man who was last seen with Desmond, killed the teenager, burned her body, then burned down the house.
"I think (Miller) tended to the fire and broke up the bones with a shovel, so we found a fragmented body. A piece of pelvis bone was the largest bone we found," Dirkmaat said.
At the time, law enforcement was not using DNA to identify remains and the team of students never positively identified the body. But what they did determine -- the body's gender and her approximate age -- was enough to push Miller into confessing to the murder, Dirkmaat said.
Miller, who was paroled in 1987 after serving more than 10 years on a rape conviction, was given a 7- to 14-year sentence for third-degree murder in April 1988. He was released from prison in June 2001.
Since that case, word spread throughout law enforcement that Dirkmaat's 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 during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Miller said he immediately called Dirkmaat to consult with the county.
For that case and others Dirkmaat applied some of the methods he first used at the Flight 427 crash site. He used a theodolite, an instrument usually used for surveying, to create a topological map of the four-acre 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 his protocol for mass fatality scenes.
He now prefers that state police, rather than volunteers, scan the disaster 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 on Dirkmaat's skills about 15 times a year. If he's called to a crime scene, Dirkmaat brings along a staff of five to 10 Mercyhurst students.
He hopes the field work will spawn a new generation of forensic anthropologists who embrace hands-on research as much as theory.
"I tell them that a lot of people find this stuff interesting, but it can't 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 said.