BATON ROUGE, La. – “Can you get me the bone lady?”
Since the 1980s, law enforcement officials from across Louisiana have called LSU for help in identifying human remains and finding missing people. This earned Mary Manhein the reputation as “the bone lady.”
Given that interest, Manhein formed the Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services Lab at LSU in 1990 to help law enforcement and coroner’s offices identify missing persons and human remains.
With cases ranging from mummies to murder victims, the FACES Lab provides invaluable services across the state using bones, DNA and other forensic methods to identify missing persons.
FACES was in the news again this October when Sabine Parish officials, building on the lab’s earlier work in identifying a dead man in a well, were able to recover more of the body and make an arrest for a murder that they believe occurred in 1984.
“They were a tremendous help all the way around,” said Detective Chris Abrahams of Sabine Parish, who worked with the lab’s experts on the case. “If they wouldn’t have brought the missing person case to our attention, we would’ve never put two and two together.”
By securing funding from the state and LSU, Manhein, now 77, helped the lab build a national reputation in forensics. She also created the LA Repository for Unidentified and Missing Persons Information Program, the most comprehensive statewide database of its kind.
Manhein retired from the lab in 2015, and Dr. Ginesse Listi, who had worked with Manhein for years, succeeded her and has continued the work.
The repository lists 600 missing-persons cases in Louisiana. Experts estimate that 40,000 unidentified bodies are lying in morgues around the country.
“My heart has gone out to missing-person cases,” Manhein said. “It’s a great feeling to know that you help resolve things for families, but it’s not really closure. I’m giving back to families, which is what I always wanted to do.”
Manhein has written several books about her work as a forensic anthropologist with titles like “The Bone Lady,” “Trail of Bones,” and “Bone Remains.''
In retirement, she also wrote her first young adult novel titled, “Claire Carter: The Mystery of the Bones in the Drainpipe,” about a young girl who works with a forensic anthropologist to solve mysteries.
The forensic anthropologists in the FACES lab are trained to handle many types of cases. Whether remains are found within days or decades, the lab can still solve cases. It all depends on the conditions of the bones.
The investigation in Sabine Parish has been nicknamed the “Man in the Well” case.
The victim, Lester Rome, went missing in 1984. Two years later, a property owner there discovered the skeletal remains of a man in his water well.
The FACES lab examined the nearly 30-year-old remains in 2013 and made a possible connection to Rome. Shotgun pellets embedded in his pelvic area years before his disappearance helped the lab to make this connection.
Sabine Parish law enforcement recovered more remains from the well in October, allowing the coroner to officially identify the remains as Rome. Shortly after that, U.S. Marshals arrested a 74-year-old Mississippi man on a second-degree murder charge.
The FACES lab inspects skeletal remains to determine the victim’s age, race, height, cause of death and the time since death. Using bones and x-rays, the lab can also construct clay models and create computer renderings of what the victim looked like.
Listi, the current lab director, said that the rate of decomposition varies depending on heat, moisture and types of soil and that minerals can leach out of bones over time, sometimes leaving only a person’s teeth. She added that her team can take DNA samples from bones and teeth if no soft tissue remains.
Two skeletons were found in the sunken ruins of the USS Monitor, a Civil War ship that sank in 1862. Because they were so well preserved, the FACES lab created a clay model of what their faces may have looked like.
Every set of bones tells a story. The lab studies skeletons to identify traumas that may have happened immediately before death or years earlier. In some cases, the anthropologists were even able to study teeth to determine if the victims exercised regularly, if they ate a healthy diet or even if they smoked.
In 2010, the FACES lab determined that a skull found in Clayton, Louisiana was not that of Joseph Edwards, a young Black man whom the FBI suspects was murdered in 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan and Concordia Parish sheriff’s deputies.
Edwards remains one of the many unsolved cases in the repository, and Manhein said she is still haunted by it.
“It bothered me that someone could take his life the same year as the civil rights law,” Manhein said. “Justice was denied and delayed.”
The FACES lab does not only work on missing people in Louisiana. In 2001, it examined the remains of a small child found in Kansas City, Missouri. The case grabbed national attention, and the remains were nicknamed “Precious Doe.”
Manhein determined the gender and the age of the child and created a clay model of the child’s face.
The child was finally identified in 2005 after her grandfather saw an ad in the paper with the clay model sketch and alerted law enforcement that he believed it was a granddaughter he had not seen in years.
Using DNA, police confirmed the identity of Precious Doe as Erica Green. Her mother and stepfather were later convicted of her murder.
The FACES Lab also has solved historical mysteries. The Louisiana Arts & Sciences Museum and the lab worked together on mummified remains from the bank of the Nile River in Egypt from 300 BC.
Originally nicknamed “the Princess of Thebes,” the remains were believed to be a mummified priestess.
After months of research, the lab concluded that the 2,300-year-old princess mummy was actually a prince.
The lab was also able to use his teeth to give the first age estimate for the mummy, who had died in his late 20s to early 30s. Using the skull x-rays and samples, the lab created an image of what the mummy would have looked like in his life.
The lab also discovered that the internal organs and brain had been left within the mummy, which was not standard mummification practice at the time. Since then, historians have used the lab’s findings to study why this was one of the only mummies buried in this manner.
“The work of the FACES lab is very important,” said Elizabeth Weinstein, former curator of the Louisiana Arts and Sciences Museum. “They provided a very valuable service to us and did it in a very professional and ethical way, which was important for everyone at the museum.”