AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGame Center: Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 10 a.m.Miller, Los Angeles County’s only forensic anthropologist, can approximate the age, sex, race and height of a person if she has just four of their bones: a skull, a leg bone, a rib, and a pelvis. But information beyond that is often hard to come by, she said. Despite the impression given by television crime dramas like “CSI,” more specific information, like how long the victim has been dead or how they got there, is almost impossible to figure out. “Human remains can skeletonize as fast as a week if they’re out in the desert,” Miller said. “But if it’s cold enough, tissue can last for thousands of years.” The fastest way for any human to be stripped down to its bones, says Miller, is for animals to eat the body. An exposed body out in the open desert, for example, might be scavenged by coyotes or vultures. But a body left in an average Los Angeles household wouldn’t last a whole lot longer. “You might think Fido or your cat is your best friend, but as soon as you die, they are going to eat you,” said Miller. A pet owner herself, Miller said that in some cases, a dog will choose to starve to death itself rather than eat its owner, but that cats aren’t quite so loyal. Miller’s job requires her to be called to a crime scene at any hour of the day or night any time a bone, or something resembling a bone, is found. Many times the discovery is a false alarm. “I’ve gotten called out for fake rubber skulls, for animal bones of all kinds,” said Miller. “One time I got called out for a deer skull with intact antlers just in case it might be human.” If the remains are human, and there are enough pieces to make a complete profile of the person, the next step is for an investigator in the identification department to try to figure out who the person might have been. Dan Machian, a longtime coroner investigator, is the one who gets to try to link the remains to a once-living human, a process that usually is not successful. First, Machian searches the state’s database for a person that fits the profile: the right age, sex, height and race. If he is lucky enough, there won’t be too many matches. Then, Machian attempts to link individual cases with the remains, based on where the body was found. “We would look at whether the person had a reason to be in the place where the body was found,” said Machian. “For example, if he was found in the woods, was he a hiker?” Machian also sends samples for DNA analysis to a crime lab in Richmond, Va. If there is tissue left on the skeleton there is a good chance of getting a good sample, but DNA can also be extracted from bone marrow. Unfortunately, the backlog of cases can be immense, and it usually takes months to get a DNA report, says Machian. When he does get the report, there are no guarantees that he will get a match, because the person’s DNA may not be on record. If neither of these methods yields any results, the office will also try to match dental records with the teeth found on the skeleton. And, if none of that works, a last attempt to solve the case would be to have a sketch artist make a rendering of what the person’s face looked like, with age, race, the nose, and cheekbone structure becoming factors in the sketch. In his three years since moving into the identification department, Machian says he has only seen this work once. “We released the sketch to papers and TV news, and a family called us back saying they knew who it was,” said Machian. After that, investigators did a DNA analysis from the skeletal remains, which were found stuffed in a chimney in an abandoned halfway house. The DNA sample from the remains matched the family member, who had been missing since 1977. After almost 30 years, his family finally got some closure. But many other families are not so lucky. According to the state Department of Justice, there are almost 2,900 unidentified bodies in California, the highest in the nation. “There are so many homeless people in Los Angeles County, and no one reports them missing,” said Beth Miller. She said another problem is that L.A. County has many people coming from out of town who might only have been reported missing in another state. Meanwhile, says Miller, juries and the general public expect that investigators should be able to provide perfect detail about who a person is, and fast. “Jury members are shocked when I can’t tell them someone’s exact age, or that I can’t just send their DNA to the lab and get a perfect match hours later,” said Miller. She attributes it to the “CSI effect,” a phenomenon documented by several studies since 2005 that show that viewers of the criminal drama show expect more from forensic science than those who do not watch. When asked what aspects of the show were most inaccurate, Miller thought briefly and answered, “all of it.” Besides the difficulties that come from a huge homeless population, and a large number of people recently arrived from out of town, Los Angeles is also a challenging for forensics because of the many different climatic zones. “We have it all, from high desert to coastal plain, to just about everything,” said Miller. “In total, there are about 22 different climatic zones, and bodies decompose at different rates in each one.” As the only forensic anthropologist in a county with so many challenges, Miller feels pretty lucky. “My work is like doing an interesting puzzle,” said Miller. “I don’t plan to stop anytime soon.” [email protected] (626) 962-8811, Ext. 2105 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST – A volunteer search- and-rescue team on a training exercise a mile or so from Chantry Flat saw a human skeleton stuck in the hilly underbrush. Within a few hours, the hills was filled with police, rangers and coroner’s investigators. But with little or no tissue intact to test for DNA, and no recent reports of violent crimes nearby, the investigators could only guess at whose skeleton they found in the forest in late August. So they turned to Beth Miller.