In Part 1 of our series, a WKBN reporter was present when Youngstown police homicide detectives Anthony Vitullo and Ron Barber as well their supervisor, Capt. Jason Simon, were called to Thorn Hill Road where a woman found a set of human remains while looking for her dog. The remains were later identified as Amy Hambrick, 29, who had been missing since November 2017.
In Part 2 of the series, the detectives go to the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office as an anthropologist from Youngstown State University tries to piece them together.
Aug. 30, 9:54 a.m.
It is a dark, humid day as Vitullo, Barber and Simon head to the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office at the former South Side Hospital to meet an anthropologist to see what they can learn about the bones. It is drizzling off and on as the three walk into the office, which is shunted off to the side of the complex, almost like it’s trying to hide.
The three are met by coroner’s investigators Kelsey Simon, who was the investigator on call when the bones were found; Theresa Gaetano; Octavious Jones, Jr.; an intern, Alexandria Yorland; and Dr. Loren Lease, an anthropology professor from Youngstown State.
They make small talk as they work their way down to the basement and the morgue, which is as bright as any room can possibly be. There are several metal gurneys in the room, as well as a skeleton to be used as a reference. On the side of the room is a vast sink with sensors to turn the water on and off. Visitors are warned to immediately wash their hands should they touch one of the gurneys, even slightly.
Lease, wearing a green t-shirt commemorating a 2015 knitting festival, said a concern of hers before they start is making sure that she does not interfere with any potential evidence during her investigation. Since most of the bones have remained wrapped in the cloth since they were found, that seems to be a legitimate concern.
Barber reminiscences about a case he had on Trussit Avenue where he and his former partner, Detective Sgt. Dave Sweeney, were tasked with finding out the fate of a set of bones found in the middle of a field where there was once a house. At one point after the bones were found, coroner’s investigators were able to find a bullet among the remains, and the case was ruled a homicide. Even though the case is open, Barber is wondering if they will have a similar find here.
Kelsey Simon, no relation to Jason, brings in a box containing the skull and a couple of other bones that were collected during the initial find on Thorn Hill, and the cloth containing the rest of the bones is laid out on a sheet on one of the gurneys. Sheets are also laid on two other gurneys, one for the bones to be placed after they are collected and the other to put them together as best they can in their proper order.
Right away, Lease is able to determine that the bones most likely belong to an adult female, mainly because of the pelvis. She doesn’t see any trauma on the remains that is visible so far.
As Gaetano and Kelsey Simon get set to cut the tape binding the cloth, Barber wants to make sure they do their best to preserve any possible DNA that can be on the duct tape the cloth is wrapped in. If they can find hair and fingernails, they can probably be used to try to get DNA to identify the skeleton. Teeth can also be used for DNA if need be. Lease also tells them to watch out for any fetal remains as they prepare to open the cloth.
“That didn’t even cross my mind,” Detective Simon says.
Gaetano and Kelsey Simon begin cutting the tape, and slowly, the investigators begin to see what’s inside.
As they open up the upper part of the cloth around where the head would have been, there is a good amount of dirt, and the smell drifts in the air over the gurney. The dirt is thick and there are roots inside, interspersed with a few teeth and other small bones, which are hand and finger bones. Based on the amount of vegetation inside the cloth, Lease estimates the bones have been wrapped up for at least a year.
As they cut and make their way down what would be the upper body, they discover the sternum is broken, but it is hard to tell if that happened before the person died or when the cloth was dumped in the woods.
“The question is how or why it was broken?” Simon says.
The possibility also comes up that the sternum could have been broken when it was moved by the person who found the cloth.
“It would have been better if we had seen it in the field,” Lease agrees.
As the tape binding the cloth is cut and the bones are assembled, the investigators investigate. Vitullo puts in a call to BCI to find out the best way to preserve the tape and cloth to be tested for DNA. Hambrick’s profile on NAMUS — the National Missing And Unidentified Persons System — is up on a nearby computer. There is already speculation that the bones belong to her.
Lease and Simon are wondering if the person had their hand up on their face when they were wrapped up because of the amount of hand and finger bones near the head area of the cloth.
“It’s possible she had a hand up,” Simon said.
Then someone makes a discovery; they found a slot in the cloth where one would insert a curtain rod. That surprises Kelsey Simon, who thought it was a sheet.
“It looks like one of these sheets your grandma would have,” she says.
They have now cut enough of the curtain away that they are at the rib cage, and Lease examines the bones and finds four of them broken, all on the right side. Again, it is impossible to determine if they were broken before the person died, although there is dirt in some of the fractures. As she finds the bones in the curtain, she sets them on a gurney in the group that they belong to.
Vitullo wonders if perhaps the rib bones were broken if the person went into cardiac arrest before they died and someone tried to save them.
“What if they were chest compressions?” he asks.
Lease puts the spine together and says she can find signs of arthritis. “It’s not something that’s debilitating and they probably wouldn’t know unless a doctor found it,” she says.
Although they seem to be missing one hand, Lease says the skeleton is in surprisingly good shape.
“This is the most complete set of skeletal remains we’ve had for a long time,” she says.
As the curtain is unwrapped section by section, there are some living things found inside: worms, a caterpillar and other insects. Also found inside is a toenail with light blue nail polish. That is good because it is hoped that DNA can be found on the toenail, if needed.
Gaetano and Kelsey Simon, Barber, Vitullo and Jason Simon watch as Lease begins to assemble the bones on the third gurney, starting from the head down. Almost the entire skeleton is intact. Missing is part of the pelvis, yet the part that is present is a major clue as to the gender of the person.
A woman’s pelvis is shaped differently than a man’s because women have to push a baby out of them when they give birth. Another clue to gender is the forehead, Lease says; the skull does not have many ridges or signs of furrows, which is more robust in men.
Based on what she has seen and assembled, Lease is ready for a preliminary diagnosis:
The bones belong to a woman between the ages of 25 and 30.
There are no obvious signs of death. There are no bullet holes or knife marks on the bones that were retrieved. The four broken ribs and sternum could have been broken post-death, and those breaks are not enough to cause a fatal injury anyway.
Lease says she will take the bones back to YSU and do a more thorough study. She hopes to have it done by next week.
Kelsey Simon said the curtain and the dirt inside will be X-rayed to see if there is any metal or other objects that were missed when it was opened.
One major clue, or absence of a clue: There was not a stitch of clothing found with the remains. That leaves all sorts of unanswered questions.
Simon, Barber and Vitullo leave on their own, but they get lost in the labyrinth of hallways in the basement of the ancient building. They eventually give up trying to find the way they came in and take the elevator to the main floor, which will force them to walk around the building in a light rain to their cars.
As the lead investigator, Barber has a lot on his mind. He doesn’t think there is anything else left on Thorn Hill where the curtain was found, but he wants to go back — and soon, before it begins raining steadily as it does during the fall and before leaves cover the ground. That in itself will be an obstacle. The area is steep and filled with poison ivy.
As they drive off in separate cars, they must now wait for two things before they can continue their investigation — either a cause of death or an identity of the remains.
The identity will come a lot sooner than they can realize.
NEXT: The Identification. After detectives learn the identity of the remains, what happens next?
You can find all of our stories in this series here on WKBN.com. Stories will be posted daily this week.