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UF human identification laboratory full of skulls offers insight into cold cases

<p class="p1">A skull confiscated in Fort Lauderdale from travelers incoming from Cuba was suspected to have been used in voodoo ceremonies. It is part of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory’s collections. &nbsp;</p>

A skull confiscated in Fort Lauderdale from travelers incoming from Cuba was suspected to have been used in voodoo ceremonies. It is part of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory’s collections.  

Skulls seem to be in vogue at the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory.

The director, Michael Warren, wears a small orange-and-blue skull pin on his sport jacket lapel: an adaptation of the division’s logo.

Behind his desk, a little metal skeleton plays a guitar. By his computer, there’s a black box with bony, grinning faces etched into the wood.

And down the hallway, there’s an entire room filled with skulls. Some are charred, broken, sliced in half. They’re scattered across five long worktables, grouped into skeletons with various bones atop brown paper and white foam.

It’s far from being a morbid obsession with death. The UF professor and graduate students who run this lab are professionals who have analyzed evidence in some of the most high-profile cases in the state. The clues they find through skeletal examination often unlock the stories of how people died and can ultimately provide the information necessary to solve missing persons cases.

The lab is tucked at the back of UF's Cancer and Genetics Research Complex. Its unassuming and nearly unmarked entrance looks like a loading dock.

Fluorescent lights stripe the ceiling. Red evidence tape rolls lay among the bones and manila files. Ten small, glass bottles filled halfway with what looks like whiskey contain 10 severed fingers.

On a side table sit two shallow dishes filled with gray sand — cremation ashes. Warren sifts through one of the dishes to reveal small, shiny pellets. That’s evidence of surgical operations, he says.

In the narrow, metallic room Warren says is used for “separating the soft tissue from the bones,” a 7-or-so-foot-long table takes center stage. The stainless-steel top is like a tray several inches deep. But the room isn’t only used for serious casework — occasionally, the graduate students get to do educational projects there.

To demonstrate, Warren snaps on rubber gloves. He takes the lid off of a large trash can next to the dissection table and plunges his hands into the murky depths of solution. He comes up with the entire severed arm of a gorilla.

Everything is perfectly intact, including the oily black fur and 2-inch fingernails, until the upper arm. Skin and tissue are flapping where it’s been sliced open and dissected to various levels. A male gorilla died at the Jacksonville Zoo, and Warren’s students are using it to learn about the human body because the two systems are so similar.

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A small window into the walk-in freezer shows what looks like a grocery store meat locker with squishy, brown and bloody matter stacked in plastic bags. Families, Warren explains, don’t want the tissue. They want the clean bones of their loved ones to bury.

The lab incinerates the tissue, and a biohazard truck comes once a week in the wee hours of the morning to whisk the waste away.

Michael Warren spent 15 years as a paramedic before he started dealing with bones.

“I had seen people get injured for 15 years, so I understood the mechanisms of injury and how that occurs in living people,” he says.

When he decided to go back to school, he chose anthropology. He wanted to study ancient Floridians. Instead, he found forensic anthropology, the science that spans cultures, continents and lifestyles united by something revered and respected in every culture: death and human remains.

“Anthropology was always interesting to me: the human condition and how people are different all over the world and how people are the same all over the world,” Warren says.

When he entered the profession more than two decades ago, TV shows like “Bones” and “Criminal Minds” weren’t around to popularize the branch of study. It was often a quiet, unnoticed discipline. But its effects are widespread.

During his time at the Pound Lab, Warren and associates have been called to help identify victims in mass disasters such as plane crashes and hurricanes.

He’s worked in Bosnia and Thailand on cases that resulted from ethnic cleansing and human rights violations. He’s flown to New York to testify. He examined the remains of Caylee Anthony and Haley Cummings. In the 2012 Gainesville I-75 crashes, he identified three of the bodies.

Bruce Goldberger, a UF professor and director of toxicology in the College of Medicine’s pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine department, worked with the lab on the Caylee Anthony case. He calls the lab a “very valuable resource” — an integral part of UF’s kaleidoscope of resources.

“Having the anthropology lab here is just one chunk of that diversity, that very important diversity,” he says.

Warren joined the lab as a graduate student when the 1989 disappearance of UF student Tiffany Sessions was still fresh in the community's memory.

Every time a new condo would start to go up in the area, people from the lab would be summoned out to vet the area — just to make sure her body wasn’t buried at the site.

Through the years, the lab has worked with agencies such as the FBI and cold-case detectives to follow up on leads that appeared relevant to the case.

In February, law enforcement officials announced serial killer Paul Rowles as the official suspect in the 25-year cold case. Warren was at the site for the announcement.

“She’s kind of a part of the legacy of the lab because all the students, my current students, know about her,” he says.

Warren keeps a master file on Sessions containing copies of evidence he’s compiled through the years. When people call to say they’ve found a skeleton, he takes the file with him, just in case.

But that’s not necessary. He has Sessions’ dental pattern and physical characteristics memorized.

“If I see her, I’ll know it’s her,” Warren says.

Looking toward the future, Warren wants to add a DNA analysis lab.

As of now, the lab is forced to send DNA to Texas for testing. The waiting period can be up to three months.

Funding is one roadblock: Warren says it would take about $330,000 to get the DNA lab set up. Lack of interest is another.

Maranda Kles, a lab affiliate and a UF consulting forensic anthropologist, says adding the DNA analysis capabilities “would speed up the process” and give students another avenue to learn. It could become a place that helps state and local law enforcement officials get the genetic information they need to nail down answers.

If they can ever get the resources, Warren says the team plans to transform a little room off of the main lab floor. It used to be a darkroom.

For now, the ex-darkroom is stacked with rough wooden crates containing skeletons on loan from Thailand for the students to study.

Although his job is highly scientific and takes place in a sterile lab, Warren is warm and personable. He says he doesn’t dream about his cases, but it does bother him when he works on cases that involve deceased children.

There’s a rule in the lab: If a case starts bothering you, you have to tell somebody. The colleagues counsel each other and help each other move forward.

All cases, even the low-profile ones, are significant.

“They’re all important to somebody,” he says.

So in the name of science and the interest of the families involved, Warren will stick with bones.

That’s what he’s always done. He’s never interviewed a criminal or chased down a suspect. Sometimes people bring clothing or other items to supplement physical evidence, but Warren turns it away.

“I don’t want that. I’m not an expert in that,” he says. “We just do the bones.”

[A version of this story ran on page 3 on 3/31/2014 under the headline "UF laboratory full of skulls offers insight into cold cases"]

A skull confiscated in Fort Lauderdale from travelers incoming from Cuba was suspected to have been used in voodoo ceremonies. It is part of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory’s collections.  

The examination room houses a 7-foot-long stainless-steel table is used for separating soft tissue from bones. The room is also used for graduate student learning exercises. 

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