The Mystery in the Bones
Story By Reuben Unrau
Photos By Andy Abeyta
Multimedia By Bianca Pallotta
Like many of the students in Veronica “Nici” Vance’s University of Montana anthropology class in 1989, she had no idea what the word “forensic” meant. So when her professor asked, “Is anybody
interested in working on a forensic case?” Vance, somewhat bewildered, cautiously raised her hand. She was the only student who did.
At the time, the Missoula city police did not have an anthropologist to investigate deaths, so the crime lab turned to the university for guidance. Vance teamed up with a group of experts who were assigned to determine the gender, age, kind of trauma, and ultimately, the identity of a recovered body. The process was mysterious to the 19-year-old Vance who, at the time, had no idea how forensic science would apply to her future career. The team eventually concluded the remains were of a 16-year-old female homicide victim, but for Vance, the greatest discovery was her revelation of a new passion: forensic anthropology.
Today, peering over a sterilized lab table, Vance examines bone trauma in the Oregon state medical examiner’s office in Clackamas, Oregon. Since 2004, she has been the state’s head forensic anthropologist, examining skeletal remains from every county in Oregon. She splits her time between working in the field recovering human remains for local police departments and identifying those remains through forensic analysis in her laboratory. Although Vance has successfully identified 15 missing people in the last 11 years, an expansive closet containing more than 80 unidentified body samples still awaits her study. In a process that involves unwavering patience, acute attention to detail, and collaboration with police and fellow scientists alike, Vance’s career is, in the simplest terms, an enduring puzzle.
Reuben Unrau: What has been the most important step in your education to get where you are today?
Nici Vance: In 2003 I began mentoring under the wing of Dr. John Lundy, Oregon’s head forensic anthropologist at the time. He earned his PhD in South Africa, and he urged me to do the same because so many people die there every year who can’t afford funerals or burial plots, so they donate their bodies to science. The medical schools are amazing because there is about one cadaver for every two students, which is nuts [most universities in the US can only assign one cadaver for every 20 students]. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it warranted a lot of important hands-on, gross anatomy experience for me. When I returned in 2007 with a PhD, Dr. Lundy had retired, and I became the state forensic anthropologist. He didn’t hand me the reigns—he literally threw them at me.
RU: What was it like being surrounded by death and uncertainty as a 19-year-old undergraduate student, and even now as a professional?
NV: I grew up Catholic—I went to church every Sunday, and my brother is actually a Jesuit priest, so we had a lot of spirituality growing up. I had a pretty reflective conversation with myself early on and said, ‘Ok, you can go one of two ways with this: You can either get totally freaked out by what you’re looking at and what you’re touching, or you can acknowledge the fact that you can’t bring that person back—you can’t do anything to help them in life. But in death, you can do so many things to help a person’s case, to bring justice for their families, to bring closure for the people that loved them.’ I really choose to focus on it that way. I try to pull myself out of the muck and look at it from a justice perspective.
RU: What has been the most crucial technological breakthrough in forensic science?
NV: In 2004, the University of North Texas launched an extensive database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NAMUS). Before that, all of our information was scattered in boxes and files, and everything was extremely disorganized. Now, probably 95 percent of the cases that are in our storage facility for skeletal remains have a number, have been analyzed, and have a full biological profile.
These profiles are sent to NAMUS and divided into categories: there’s a missing person database, an unidentified remains database, and a convicted offender database. It’s a dynamic tool, and it’s national, so every sample gets put into it. It’s kind of a civil liberties issue knowing that this one system holds everyone’s personal information, but if it can further our investigations, I’m all for it. My mother always said, ‘If you haven’t done anything wrong, then why are you worried?’ You can’t really argue with that logic.
RU: Do you think forensic-themed TV programs like Bones and CSI inspire young people to get interested in forensics, or do they over-glamorize your career?
NV: I think TV shows are misleading because they show people in this career as antisocial, dark, surly, and sulky. We’re really way more outgoing than those people, and we have lives; we have families, and we are truly passionate about what we do. But I think the programs are good because they show how fascinating my kind of work is. A lot of us like the way that they have furthered people’s knowledge of science and the things that can be found at the crime scene. In fact, we find jurors to be more educated than they were ten years ago, but they also expect much more from us. Jurors tend to throw out blanket statements like, ‘Why didn’t you look for DNA?’ without ever understanding the principles of how evidence is analyzed. Attorneys across the country have begun to call it ‘the CSI effect.’
RU: What makes you a good forensic anthropologist?
NV: Curiosity. I feel like I’m smart, but I’m certainly not the smartest person. As a scientist, I am inherently curious about how things work and how things look. It’s the puzzle solving, and the nuances of things, and trying to think outside the box: ‘What else can we look for? What are we missing?’ Everything I do is a puzzle, and many forensic cases can be frustrating because you can’t solve them like a jigsaw. Sometimes you don’t find that last piece, so you don’t feel that true sense of accomplishment because a piece will always be missing. In many cases, animals seem to have always dragged something away.
RU: Even when cases seem to linger on forever, do you persist?
NV: Yes, absolutely. I want that closet empty by the time I retire, which may not be ever. I just absolutely love this career, and I feel it is my mission to answer every one of these unsolved questions. But really, I don’t lose sleep. I feel good about the work I do, but I can leave it behind at the end of the day. I’m just like anybody else with a family to come home to and a life outside the laboratory.