She Has a Strange Idea of Fun

Kate Flora: Last week I took a break from revising my non-mystery book, Unleashed Lovethe story of a woman who discovers the post-breakup dog she got from the shelter was a match-making dog. For two days, I drove from the island to Colby College in Waterville to attend part of the annual Coby Forensics Conference. While forensics are not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, I enjoy two information-filled days in a college classroom, learning about DNA and Genetic Genealogy, unidentified remains, expert witness testimony, and stress-induced markers in cases of child abuse.

Sound like fun to you? It was fascinating to me.

The first speaker I got to watch was from the Doe Project. I knew that there were a couple of large organizations that worked with genetic genealogy. What I didn’t know is that one of them, The Doe Project, limits its investigative work to identifying bodies, whether homicide victims or simply those who have died without identification, rather than taking on cases like that of the Golden State Killer, where the process was used to identify the man who’d committed multiple homicides. My mother was fascinated by genealogy back when it didn’t happen on line but through correspondence with record keepers and older family members who might have memories or old family records. Getting a glimpse of how complicated it can be, even when there is a usable DNA sample, to trace ancestry, was illuminating, and far more difficult that I had ever imagined.

Along with the fascination of learning new information was learning that one of the founders of the Doe Project was Dr. Margaret Press. I knew Margaret back when we were both writers in the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime. When Susan Oleksiw, Skye Alexander and I founded Level Best Books and were publishing crime stories by New England writers, we published at least one of Margaret’s stories. Margaret also inspired me to try writing true crime when she published her own book about a murder, A Scream on the Water. The way she handled the victim’s story was particularly inspirational and became a model for me when I was working on Finding Amy. Margaret’s book was subsequently republished as Counterpoint.

About six weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking at the annual training and conference of the Maine Association of Search and Rescue. One of the presentations was by Maine’s forensic anthropologist, Dr. Marcella Sorg on identifying bones. At the Colby Conference, Dr. Sorg paired with Maine’s former Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Margaret Greenwald, on a presentation titled: An Unusual Maine Case. Using medical forensics and information from bones and a scene of a decomposed body in the woods, they told the story of a man’s body found by a hunter in the town of Stacyville in 2010.

The body was found with a book bag and various items but no identification beyond a knit hat with the name “Chris.” Autopsy and toxicology revealed no criminal cause of death. Despite years long efforts and many contacts with missing persons databases and families looking for their missing, the body remained unidentified for about ten years. In the end, it was the amateur efforts of a blogger fascinated by true crime connecting with a group of students at a school in Concord, Massachusetts looking for a missing teacher that ultimately led to the man being identified. As I sat in the audience, I was stunned to realize that the man had been a popular substitute teacher in the Concord school system, Christopher Roof, and he had taught my son.

There was much more, ending on Wednesday with a complex (if you were an English major like me), and heartbreaking presentation by Maine’s current Chief Medical Examiner, Mark Flomenbaum, on some cases of child abuse homicide and markers in those cases of the effects of stress and subsequent damage to the children’s bodies. Drawn from a recently published paper, an aim of the talk was to alert those dealing with child abuse to issues that might be identified in time to save future children’s lives as well as further information about issues to look for at autopsy.

Between sessions, I also ran into Vermont mystery writer Archer Mayor, who writes the Joe Gunther mystery series. Archer is a writer I much admire. He is also a death investigator for the Vermont OCME.

Grim. Gruesome. Disturbing. Sad. Enlightening. Thought provoking. An amazing two days with some surprising coincidences. And of course, some new ideas to use in a future book.


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3 Responses to She Has a Strange Idea of Fun

  1. Janet Anderson-Murch says:

    Wow! Intense and so interesting…I will be looking for conferences like this…

  2. John Clark says:

    Wow and in my back yard. Sounds like there was plenty of amazing stuff to absorb and ponder.

  3. Alice says:

    Kate, you asked:
    Sound like fun to you?
    My answer is yes; this whole blog was fascinating.
    BTW I taught in Concord, Ma many years ago.

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