The skull also could help finger a suspect, according to Lt. Eugene Taylor, an investigator with the Cape May County Prosecutor's Office.
The skull appeared to have a nearly intact set of upper teeth and was missing a section of its left rear side, Taylor said.
Investigators were researching missing-person records and wondering how the skull got into the ocean and then onto a Cape May County beach.
"It could end up being a very important piece in a puzzle involving any number of cases," Taylor said yesterday.
Early speculation centered on murder victim Anne Marie Fahey, who was former Delaware Gov. Tom Carper's scheduling secretary. She went missing in 1996, and her body was never found, though her killer was convicted.
Taylor said that during his 14 years at the Jersey Shore, all sorts things had washed up that helped investigators solve mysteries and crimes.
"It's not really all that unusual for bones and body parts to wash ashore," Taylor said. "Sometimes we're able to match them to a particular incident, sometimes we're not. You can never be sure what you'll find here, though."
Britt Wetzel of Wildwood agrees.
Wetzel, who sells and markets sunglasses for a living, was driving his pickup truck Monday morning along a stretch of beach that is ordinarily under water near the mouth of the Hereford Inlet, looking for a good fishing spot.
Because of the unusually low tide, he was able to drive near a sandbar, where he spotted the skull tucked among shells, rocks and seaweed.
"At first I thought it was a Halloween prank, a fake," Wetzel said. "But when I got out of the truck and took a closer look, there was no mistaking what it was. I felt a definite creep factor standing there looking at it."
Wetzel said that because of its size, the skull appeared to belong to a woman. All the teeth in the upper section of the jaw were "highly glossed" and intact except for two missing front teeth. There appeared to be a large hole in the back of the skull directly opposite the mouth, he said.
"I'm a sunglass marketing and sales guy - not CSI," he said. "But to me it looked like maybe a gun was shot through the mouth, knocked out the teeth, and went through the back of the skull. That's just how it looked to me."
County investigators turned the skull over to Lyla Perez, chief of the Southern Regional Medical Examiner's Office. Perez is expected to conduct a rigorous examination of it to match dental records with those of known crime victims or missing persons. Perez declined to comment on the investigation.
The skull will then be passed to the New Jersey State Police Forensic Anthropology Laboratory in Trenton, where investigators will try to determine the sex, age and race of the victim. Forensics experts may reconstruct a model of the victim's face based on the size and shape of the skull.
The findings will be shared through bulletins with regional and national police investigators, Taylor said.
Taylor said law enforcement investigators throughout the region had already begun discussing where the skull may have originated and whose it may be.
A retired police detective called the Prosecutor's Office to remind investigators about an unsolved case he had worked 20 years ago, Taylor said.
People who followed the Fahey murder mystery wondered whether the skull could be hers.
Thomas J. Capano, a high-profile Wilmington lawyer who had an affair with Fahey, was convicted of her murder in 1999 and sentenced to death. The death penalty since has been overturned, and he is now serving a life sentence.
Capano's younger brother, Gerard, who struck a plea bargain for conspiring in the plot, told investigators he helped his older brother dump Fahey's body into the ocean from his boat in an area known as the Baltimore Canyon, about 70 miles off the Cape May coast, in water deeper than a 70-story building.
The Capanos set off for the fateful journey, allegedly with Fahey's body stuffed in a cooler, from Gerard Capano's home in Stone Harbor, a tony beach town across Hereford Inlet from where the skull was discovered.
Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.