Answers to longstanding mysteries and unsolved crimes are sometimes provided with the use of forensic reconstruction, a lot of perseverance and collaboration, and a little luck.
The John Aden murder case, for example, began when a Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer discovered Aden’s remains while hiking near Tarryall Reservoir in 2014.
With only the skull and mandible of the victim with which to work, Park County Coroner David Kintz began the process of attempting to identify the deceased.
“My job as coroner is to act as an advocate for the deceased,” Kintz said. “In cases where the deceased is unidentified, my job is to identify them and to tell their story. It is of the utmost importance that we identify them for a number of reasons, one being that they likely have loved ones out there somewhere. So we spend a lot of time and exhaust all resources to identify deceased individuals.”
In Aden’s case, there were in fact loved ones seeking answers pertaining to his disappearance. There was also the possibility that he was murdered, adding a sense of urgency for those working to identify his remains.
According to Kintz, if the skull of the deceased can be found, it can be used by forensic artists to reconstruct the individual’s general appearance in a sketch for the public to view. That is precisely what occurred in Aden’s case.
In 2015, the Park County Coroner’s Office released a forensic artist’s reconstruction in the form of a 3D sculpture representing what Aden might look like for public review in The Flume. The 3D sculpture appeared as part of a story written by Editor Walter L. Newton. The story, dated July 15, 2015, encouraged anyone who might have tips or information about the unidentified remains to contact Kintz directly by phone. It was not until January of 2016 that Kintz finally procured a positive identification of Aden, but the forensic artist’s 3D sculpture from 2015 had already produced a considerable number of calls to Kintz’s office in Fairplay.
“We received thirty-nine tips in the case,” Kintz said. “And one of those tips eventually helped in leading to a positive identification of John Aden. But we spent a great deal of time going through tips, weeding out facts and getting DNA samples from family members of the deceased.”
James Kevin Aden, John Aden’s brother, was recently arrested and transported from his home in Iowa to the Park County Jail in connection to John Aden’s death.
James Aden appeared in Park County Court via a videoconference May 12, where Judge Brian Green set a May 18 hearing for Aden to be formally charged with the murder of his brother before Judge Stephen A. Groome in the 11th Judicial District Court.
The science behind John Aden’s identification
When human skeletal remains are discovered, as John Aden’s were, a variety of entities are usually called upon to search for additional remains and to gather potential evidence. In many cases, groups consisting of law enforcement officials, coroner’s office personnel, anthropologists and citizen volunteers conduct a thorough shoulder-to-shoulder search at a given location.
Once those remains are procured, there are a number of ways in which forensic science can be utilized to help identify the deceased party. The forensic reconstruction methods used, however, largely depends upon the types of body parts that are found.
“Forensic options are dictated by which body parts are found,” Kintz explained.
“If you have a skull with teeth, that is the easiest way to identify a person with the help of a forensic odontologist and dental records. The post-mortem samples are compared to anti-mortem records in an effort to find a match, but you have to have some idea of who the person is in order to obtain anti-mortem dental records.”
Fingerprints are also sometimes pivotal in putting a name with the unidentified deceased, but only if anti-mortem and post-mortem prints can be compared with the evidence that is available.
“It’s not like you see on television or ‘CSI.’” Kintz said. “You enter fingerprints into a database with the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and the prints are placed into classifications that are a possibilities, and then you narrow it down from there. And no single person ever executes the entire process. These things always require collaboration between a variety of different entities.”
According to Kintz, if an unidentified person has had plates or other surgical implants that contain serial numbers, those numbers can also help lead to a positive identification.
In some instances the previously mentioned options are not available, but there is DNA evidence with which to work. In those cases, DNA testing and DNA reconstruction provides profiles with which to help identify individuals.
Anthropological analysis can also be extremely effective in helping to ascertain the race, sex, age range and time since the death of an unidentified individual.
“When you have a specimen of bones, nuclear and mitochondrial DNA can be utilized to get a profile of each,” Kintz said.
“Then you can look for a DNA hit within a database called CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System, in hopes of finding potential matches.”
CODIS not only contains the DNA combinations of criminals, but also contains those of missing persons and potential victims of crimes. Once a deceased individual is identified, all information pertaining to that individual is combined and compared with various reports.
Determining the manner, cause and approximate time of death are generally the first priorities when the remains of an unidentified person are discovered. Once the identification of the deceased is determined and foul play is suspected, according to Kintz, an investigation can begin in earnest.
“This case (Aden case) is a very complicated case,” Kintz said. “Because we spend so much time and effort identifying deceased persons, it is very rewarding when we are finally able to put a name and a story with them.”
Some remains of the deceased are never positively identified, and others can take years, or even decades, to identify.
According to Kintz, his office is still working on a particular case from 1974 in which the identity of a deceased individual has yet to be determined.
Kintz will hold a public videoconference May 29 from 7 - 9 p.m. for the purpose of sharing information with the public about open cases in Park County, information about COVID-19 deaths, and how they are handled, and a plethora of other interesting topics.
Specific information about how to join the videoconference will be released soon on the Park County website at www.parkco.us.