‘I went im­me­di­ately just to con­firm they were hu­man bones’

The Irish Times - - News Feature - CONOR GAL­LAGHER

When hu­man bones were found at the rear of a Dun­dalk house last month, the thoughts of lo­cals im­me­di­ately turned to Ciara Breen, who was last seen less than 200m away in 1997.

As is stan­dard pro­ce­dure, State Pathol­o­gist Dr Marie Cas­sidy was called to the scene and, be­cause the re­mains were skele­tal, she was joined by Dr René Gapert, one of Ire­land’s few foren­sic an­thro­pol­o­gists.

It was up to Gapert to de­ter­mine whether the find might be re­lated to Breen’s dis­ap­pear­ance 20 years be­fore, when she was just 17.

Even though he deals pri­mar­ily with skele­tal re­mains, which by their na­ture are usu­ally quite old, Gapert says that time is of the essence in his work.

“A case like that re­quires a rapid re­sponse, es­pe­cially be­cause you have fam­ily wait­ing in the back­ground,” he says.

“The evening I was called I went im­me­di­ately just to con­firm they were hu­man bones. Then the next day I ex­am­ined them in the day­light with the foren­sic pathol­o­gist to make a de­ter­mi­na­tion on their age.”

Gapert was able to tell gar­daí within 24 hours that the bones were hu­man but were not those of the miss­ing girl.

“I’m on call 24/7. It’s some­thing that has to be quite quickly dealt with. A quick de­ci­sion frees up staff, po­lice and spe­cial­ists. And it means the fam­ily get an an­swer, even if it might not be the an­swer they are hop­ing for.”

Foren­sic an­thro­pol­ogy is an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant part of mod­ern death in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Ex­perts such as Gapert are now rou­tinely called in by gar­daí to de­ter­mine if bones be­long to a hu­man and, if so, how long they have been there.

De­ter­min­ing their age is vi­tal. If the bones have been there less than 80 years it means it’s pos­si­ble a rel­a­tive, and in some cases a sus­pect, might still be alive. If they are older, as they were in the Dun­dalk case, the re­mains are legally the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Na­tional Mu­seum rather than the Garda.

Some­times Gapert has to de­cide whether the re­mains are even bones or not.

“It might sound strange, but there are sit­u­a­tions where nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als like wood or stone can mimic bones,” he says. As well as de­ter­min­ing the di­rec­tion of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, foren­sic an­thro­pol­ogy can also help de­ter­mine the age, height and even the broad eth­nic­ity of a vic­tim, he says.

‘‘ I’m on call 24/7. It has to be quite quickly dealt with. And it means the fam­ily gets an an­swer


Dr Fer­dia Bol­ster, Ire­land’s first foren­sic ra­di­ol­o­gist, of­ten forms another part of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion team. Based in the Mater Hospi­tal, he uses a mod­ern form of X-ray called com­puted to­mog­ra­phy (CT) to help de­ter­mine cause of death, ei­ther in­stead of an au­topsy or in ad­di­tion to it.

Foren­sic ra­di­ol­o­gists are in­creas­ingly in de­mand as full au­top­sies are not per­mit­ted by some re­li­gions such as Is­lam and Ju­daism. And, no mat­ter their re­li­gion, the thought of a loved one un­der­go­ing an au­topsy is ex­tremely dis­tress­ing for fam­i­lies.

“An au­topsy is quite in­va­sive. Rel­a­tives un­der­stand­ably get up­set think­ing about it. So if you can do a scan and show, in say the case of a car ac­ci­dent, a trau­matic head in­jury . . . that might be enough for the coro­ner to de­cide a cause of death,” Bol­ster says. “But in most [sud­den death] cases they will do a CT scan and an au­topsy. Au­topsy is still the gold stan­dard.”

As CT scans are done be­fore an au­topsy, they can be used to show the pathol­o­gist where to look.

“And we can al­ways go back and re­view [the CT scans],” Bol­ster says. “While you can go back and do a sec­ond au­topsy, it’s never as good as they are a de­struc­tive process.”

René Gapert: one of Ire­land’s few foren­sic an­thro­pol­o­gists

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