Skull find remains a mystery

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Vernon - posted Tue., Mar. 19, 2013
Several police vehicles were seen for several days at the site where the remains were found. Photos by Steve Smith.
Several police vehicles were seen for several days at the site where the remains were found. Photos by Steve Smith.

Adam Viens made an unusual discovery when he went looking for pieces of scrap metal to use for an art project. While searching a former dump in the woods near his home on West Street in Vernon, he happened upon a human skull.

Viens, 23, an art student at Manchester Community College, said he didn’t think it was a real skull at first, and had picked it up and taken it into his family home. He later noticed that some of the teeth had fillings, and then it became obvious that it was a real skull.
“I was shocked,” he said, “that I was holding it in my hands and it’s another person’s head.”

Since Viens’s discovery, the two properties at 126 and 130 West St. near the wooded area have been swarmed by Vernon and state police investigators, including the State Medical Examiner’s Office, and State Forensic Laboratory. An undisclosed number of other bones were also found. Vernon police said they were finished collecting evidence from the properties as of March 17, but they remain part of a crime scene and the investigation remains open. As yet no indentification has been made, but the preliminary findings are that the remains are indeed human and consistent with a single victim. It is being treated as a suspicious death, but the cause of death is not known.

Lt. William Meier of the Vernon police said other news agencies were speculating that the remains could belong to people missing from the area around 30 years ago, but that there is not yet any direct connection to any specific individual. “It’s just too early,” Meier said.

Also working on the scene is Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni, Connecticut’s state archaeologist from the University of Connecticut. At a press conference on March 17 at the Vernon police station, Bellantoni said he typically responds when skeletal remains are discovered in the state. “Usually I get involved when the remains are 50 years old or more,” he said, “but I do get called in, on occasion, to modern criminal investigations where the police could use the expertise of a forensic archaeologist.”

He added that he and his department are considered most useful when remains need to be removed from underground, as well as human skeletal analysis. “I’m able to assist on the field by making immediate identifications as to what bones are human, which are animal, and which ones pertain to the case,” Bellantoni said. “Sometimes I can just look at a bone and tell the age and the sex.”

Bellantoni said the Vernon find was “very challenging,” because of the terrain, and the spread of the remains. He later said that in his 25 years as state archaeologist, this was “one of the most difficult recoveries” and “the most challenging one [he’s] worked on.”

Bellantoni said the type of tooth fillings can help identify the era of when a tooth was filled, and dental records may ultimately help with identification. Dental health can also help determine socio-economic status.

Bellantoni said there are certainly times when the best identifications don’t match a specific person, and cases remain unsolved.

Viens said there was a bit of serendipity in his discovering the skull. The art project he is working on resembles a skeleton with pieces missing, and several faces or masks surrounding it, which he said is meant to suggest an artist being torn apart by society.

“Our whole country is built on a mass of people,” he said. “There are bodies everywhere – under our shopping malls – so, it’s not all that weird. Plus, the world and the universe is giving you signs and trying to communicate with all of us all the time. It’s things that people don’t recognize. So, it was weird to find it when I found it.”

The discovery clearly having affected him, Viens added that he also started a painting on Friday – two days after his find – that is based on a photo he took when he first found the skull.

Viens said he hopes that the remains are eventually identified and gives the person’s family some closure. “It’s possibly something that’s going to solve a family’s worries,” he said.

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