Florida's forensic investigators face range of challenges

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Of the 54 unclaimed remains in various states of decay at the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office, some were murdered, some died of traumatic injury, and some are a mystery with only bones left behind.

"It's amazing what these bones can tell you," offered Amanda Whidden, who manages investigations for the office.

All of the remains are methodically and meticulously examined for clues. Fingerprints are taken; dental x-rays and body x-rays are conducted. But not even the best technology can unmask the dead.

It's a lot like solving a puzzle, and Amanda believes, many times, the people who can help her put the pieces together will not come forward.

"The biggest challenge we have is getting families to report their missing. If they're not reporting their missing then we don't have any way to match them up," Amanda explained.

Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at USF, is often called in to assist Amanda by reconstructing skulls to see what they may have looked like as living people. She says she faces challenges of a different kind.

"There are nearly a thousand unsolved cases in Florida and we routinely rework these long-term cold cases, and there's really not funding for it," Kimmerle told us.

But still the work must go on.

"We look at the bones and teeth to come up with an age, ancestry, sex. Who this person was from that biology. And then we put together that information into a facial reconstruction,” Kimmerle continued.

Once completed, those reconstructions are then posted on county websites to have family or friends come forward to identify the dead, and close out what's become an alarming issue.

"The homicide rate in Florida, the solvability is only about 64 percent. So if almost 40 percent of cases aren't solved every year, we're not solving the old cold cases at that rate, so it's a growing problem," Kimmerle added.

And those cases are growing colder every day. To find out how you can help identify a loved one who may be missing, click over to https://www.namus.gov/