‘Bone collector’ dedicated to ID’ing mystery remains

One 47-year-old case haunts Dr. Nici Vance

Dr. Nici Vance with the Oregon State Police medical examiner's office examines skeletal remains and tries to identify them, 2017 (KOIN)
Dr. Nici Vance with the Oregon State Police medical examiner's office examines skeletal remains and tries to identify them, 2017 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A pink and beige tattered coat, shoes with square plastic heals, s silver and gold ring, a pair of wrangler jeans — bits and pieces of evidence found with skeletal remains in a remote area of Josephine County 47 years ago.

“This was immediately thought to be a female, a young female so probably late teens to early 20s,” said Dr. Nici Vance, the forensic anthropologist for the Oregon State Police Medical Examiner’s office.

“I am the one who is in charge of all the skeletal remains, human, that are found in the state of Oregon,” Vance said.

For years, the medical examiner’s office was a converted old home in Southeast Portland, an outdated facility lacking space. Unidentified remains were stored in the basement and other remains were scatted across Oregon on shelves and in basements of local police and sheriff’s offices, sometimes forgotten and gathering dust.

Dr. Nici Vance with the Oregon State Police medical examiner's office stores skeletal remains that need to be identified in her office. (KOIN)
Dr. Nici Vance with the Oregon State Police medical examiner’s office stores skeletal remains that need to be identified in her office, 2017
(KOIN)

In 2004, the state opened a new, modern medical examiners’s facility, with the latest equipment, technology and plenty of space. There, the bone collector got to work. She requested skeletal remains from law enforcement agencies because with the new facility, she could finally take care of them.

Vance began to re-examine the cases and evidence, finding new clues and putting names to the unidentified.

“New technology is amazing,” Vance said. “And DNA analysis is really one of the paramount ways we can identify human beings, even skeletal remains, now.”

Dr. Nici Vance with the Oregon State Police medical examiner's office examines skeletal remains at tries to identify them. (KOIN)
Dr. Nici Vance with the Oregon State Police medical examiner’s office examines skeletal remains and tries to identify them, 2017 (KOIN)

But 47 years after they were recovered, the remains of the young girl found in Josephine County continued to haunt and baffle Vance — who was she?

“The case did get put on a shelf and it did sit for many, many years at that point, because there was nothing else to potentially do at that point,” Vance said.

Because the remains appeared to be from a juvenile, Vance reached out to the Nation Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“They told us that they had a connection with the Smithsonian and the Smithsonian Institute could potentially do an analysis called stable isotope analysis on the bone, the teeth and hair of this young unidentified girl,” Vance said.

You are what you eat and drink, the unique materials of drinking water are absorbed into your bones. A stable isotope analysis can reveal the geographical area a person could be from based on those specific minerals.

The results of the test surprised Vance, revealing the victim could be from a much broader part of the country.

A forensic sketch from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children of a young woman whose remains were found in 1971.
A forensic sketch from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children of a young woman whose remains were found in 1971.

“The stable isotope analysis results showed us that she had an area or region of origin that was the northeast United States, the Midwest, norther portion of the United States, all along basically the Canadian border from West Coast to East Coast,” Vance said.

The Smithsonian also did a CT scan on the skull, creating a two dimensional image of what she may have looked like.

“We’ve had leads that we never had before from the northeastern area of the United States, from the Midwest, ” Vance said. “People who are coming forward saying ‘I remember a classmate who had auburn hair who was about 5-feet-5-inches tall, graduated from high school in early 1971 and no one had seen her since.'”

Another mysterious piece of evidence that could match up to any new leads was a gold Mother of Pearl ring with the initials “AL” scratched into it.

The mother of pearl ring found with the skeletal remains of a young girl in Josephine County in 1971. (Courtesy National Center for Missing & Exploited Children)
The mother of pearl ring found with the skeletal remains of a young girl in Josephine County in 1971. (Courtesy National Center for Missing & Exploited Children)

“The ‘AL’ had to have stood for something,” Vance said. “It had to have been really important to this young lady for her to scratch those initials into that ring.”

Will these latest clues solve the mystery of this girl’s identity? There is renewed hope, but for now, she is never far from Vance.

“Our Josephine County case is right here. She stays in my office so I can keep good track of her. I really feel like I am her steward,” Vance said. “All of these remains are here and continue to be unidentified but someone has to take care of them and someone has to help try and find who they belong to so that’s really my job.”

Dr. Nici Vance with the Oregon State Police medical examiner's office examines skeletal remains at tries to identify them. (KOIN)
Dr. Nici Vance with the Oregon State Police medical examiner’s office examines skeletal remains and tries to identify them, 2017 (KOIN)