No bones about it: She solves mysteries

New Jersey State Police are trying to identify a body found in Atlantic County using a facial reconstruction (left). Donna Fontana (right) is the state police's forensic anthropologist who makes the reconstructions to help police identify unknown victims.
New Jersey State Police are trying to identify a body found in Atlantic County using a facial reconstruction (left). Donna Fontana (right) is the state police's forensic anthropologist who makes the reconstructions to help police identify unknown victims.
Posted: July 08, 2013

THE SKULL appeared on a Monmouth County, N.J., beach years ago, coughed up by the surf as casually as the sand crabs and clamshells that usually speckle the shoreline.

Was it a murder victim whose killer counted on the sea to hide the crime? Or maybe a loner lost in a boating or swimming mishap?

It didn't take Donna Fontana long to find the answer. With one X-ray in 1987, Fontana determined that the skull wasn't a skull at all: The teeth had no roots. The head was a plastic prop from a haunted house on a pier that had burned down, leaving debris behind to be carried away by the currents.

That's not so unusual for Fontana.

As New Jersey State Police's forensic anthropologist and sculptor, Fontana examines found bodies and bones, examining remains to determine their approximate age, race, gender and more to help cops statewide attach names to unknown victims of crime or misfortune.

But often, her first task is determining whether the bones are even human at all.

"That happens more often than you might think," Fontana said recently, with small bones spread out on a white towel in her lab at state police's Office of Forensic Sciences in Hamilton, Mercer County. "Someone thought these might be a baby's bones. They're not. They're animal bones. Fortunately, I don't have to determine which animal."

When terrorists toppled the World Trade Center, Fontana was called to make sure that found bones were human - because some were instead ingredients from the Windows on the World restaurant. And in 2009 in Brielle, Monmouth County, a resident thought he'd found on his deck a decayed human finger with an acrylic French-tip fingernail, but Fontana's X-rays showed that the find was neither human nor animal bones - just a clump of mulch.

Usually, though, Fontana's deductions bring needed closure to relatives left wondering, sometimes for decades, what happened to a long-lost loved one.

"When someone goes missing or becomes a crime victim, it can be tougher for the family when they don't know what happened to their loved one," said George Joo, who worked with Fontana for years as a trooper in the state police major-crimes unit and often consults with her as manager of the Burlington County Medical Examiner's Office. "And obviously, as an investigator, you have to know who the victim is before you can solve a crime."

'Bones are her business'

William Fleisher remembers tromping through the woods in central New Jersey years ago with members of the Vidocq Society, his Philadelphia-based coalition of crime sleuths, including Fontana, who meet monthly to crack cold cases. They were hunting for clues in a case, and someone had found a weathered rib cage. As the investigators crowded around, Fontana took one glance and declared the bones to be the remains of a dead deer.

"Bones are her business," Fleisher said, "and she's very good at her business."

As a trained pathologist and anthropologist, Fontana can tell a lot just by studying bones. Men, for example, have more-prominent brow ridges and bigger mastoid (behind-the-ear) bones; women have wider pelvises. Teeth can determine a person's approximate age. The shape of nasal and orbital openings and the jaw can pinpoint race and ancestry.

"The skeleton is the life history of a person," Fontana said.

Her work might take her from neglected woods and fields, where she helps to excavate found remains, to morgues from Montague to Cape May, where she consults with coroners and medical examiners.

In her Hamilton lab, she does all her "dry work," such as examining bones and dessicated remains. She enters her findings in www.namus.gov, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) public database, and checks her findings against DNA, dental and fingerprint records and other databases.

Nationwide, about 4,400 unidentified human remains are found every year, and more than 1,000 stay unidentified after a year, according to NamUs. That adds up to about 40,000 unidentified human remains, the group figures. New Jersey typically gets three to five new cases of long-term unidentified remains each year, said Lt. Stephen Jones, a state police spokesman.

Fontana handles about 40 to 50 cases a year and keeps a repository of bones in her lab - more than 200 mysteries awaiting a eureka moment.

A mummified man

Sometimes, her work involves more old-fashioned detective techniques than scientific skills. When a mummified man turned up on railroad tracks in Newark, N.J., Fontana figured that his antique suit and 1800s-era gold ring suggested he hailed from an earlier era. The Smithsonian confirmed her hunch, when it helped her track down the man's century-old tailor by his suit buttons. Investigators closed the case as a grave robbery.

Fontana also builds busts to give investigators a three-dimensional idea of what an unidentified corpse looked like alive.

Using modeling clay, she reconstructs directly onto the skull, following its contours as well as science-based flesh-density measurements, to create a lifelike head.

She often relies on intuition to complete the likeness; for example, she added beard stubble and a receding hairline to the bust of an unknown dead man found in the 1980s near a makeshift camp in the woods, figuring him to be homeless and older. The bust bears an uncanny resemblance to the man whom detectives later identified.

In Philly, such work used to be done by the late Frank Bender, a fine artist who got into forensic sculpting after he asked a coroner if he could study corpses to improve his sculpting skills.

Bender, who died in 2011, had unconventional methods: He boiled skulls in a pasta pot to deflesh them and relied on a divine sensitivity and his artist's eye to "recompose the decomposed." Among his famous successes was an age-progression bust that helped identify John List, a North Jersey man who spent 18 years as a fugitive after murdering his family.

Penn State undergrad

Fontana's fervor for forensics began in 1976 at Penn State University, where she was studying education. She went on an eight-week archaeological dig in New Mexico to excavate a kiva, a subterranean room used by ancient Native Americans. There, the students made a major find: a skeleton wedged in a chimney.

"The instructor was able to say so much about the skeleton; I was amazed at how much he could glean just from the bones," Fontana said.

So she switched majors to anthropology. Trips to Chile, where she helped excavate mummified remains, followed. She imagined a career as a museum anthropologist.

But during a 1980 fellowship in forensic anthropology at the Smithsonian, she met Dr. Robert Segal, who then worked in Philadelphia's Medical Examiner's Office and later became Camden County's medical examiner. She followed up her Smithsonian stint by volunteering in Philly's M.E.'s Office, learning the ropes. After spending 11 years in the New Jersey State Medical Examiner's Office in Newark, she joined the state police in 1993.

She knows that her job is unusual. Questions buzz when new acquaintances learn of her career, and neighborhood kids sometimes knock on her door, wondering if an occasional odd find might be human bones. (It never is.)

You might expect Fontana to be a bit unusual herself, or to have some crazy hobbies to escape the horrors she sees daily. Rather, she's just a lady who likes to cook, garden, knit and travel with her husband in her spare time. She does what she does because she feels compelled to help.

"There are some very horrible cases. Actually, they're all pretty horrible cases," said Fontana, 57. "But I don't think about how they die. I think of them as a person. I think of how I can contribute to help identify them, to help solve a case for a family."


On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo

Blog: phillyconfidential.com

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