Thirty years ago this week, when the brutalized body of an unidentified woman and young girl were found inside a steel drum in New Hampshire, authorities were left with a mystery: Who were these two individuals and what led to the circumstances of their deaths? That mystery was compounded 15 years later, when another steel drum was found -- not far from the original crime scene -- that contained the skeletal remains of two young girls. DNA revealed at least three of the victims are related, but beyond that, few clues have emerged in the last three decades.
"I find it bizarre, maybe, but disturbing, I guess, is a better way to describe my feelings," New Hampshire State Police Lt. Joseph Ebert told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "Here are four individuals, who disappeared from whatever family nucleus they were in, and we haven't come to an understanding of who they are or identified somebody who is looking for them."
According to Ebert, the first discovery was made on Nov. 10, 1985, by a hunter walking in a wooded area of Allenstown, a small town in Merrimack County.
Inside a discarded 55-gallon metal drum, the hunter was shocked to find the badly decomposed remains of a partially dismembered woman and a young girl. A medical examiner determined the victims died as a result of blunt force trauma. It is estimated the woman was between 23 and 32 years old and the child was between 5 and 11 years old, The Boston Globe reported Tuesday.
Authorities found few clues at the scene and, following an exhaustive investigation, the case went cold.
In May 2000, New Hampshire State Police Sgt. John Cody was assigned the task of reinvestigating the case. In the course of doing so Cody revisited the crime scene, at which time he made a second, equally shocking discovery: a second 55 gallon drum containing the skeletal remains of two children.
According to the Globe, the steel drum was found roughly 100 yards from where the first drum was found. It is believed the two drums were initially dumped together, but became separated when children playing in the woods rolled the first drum away prior to its discovery.
"It always sticks in my head," Cody, now retired, told the Globe. "There's somebody out there … did they basically get rid of their entire family and just start over? And are they now living with someone? It's a scary thought."
A medical examiner determined one of the girls in the second drum was between the ages of 2 and 4 and the other was between age 1 and 3. Because of the condition of the remains, the cause of death for both girls was listed as undetermined.
Ebert told HuffPost that mitochondrial DNA testing indicated the woman is related to the oldest and youngest girls, but their exact relationship is unclear.
"There are a number of different scenarios," the lieutenant said. "I think the most likely is that you're looking at a mom and her two children, and we're [still trying to determine] who that third child is."
It is believed that the victims were killed sometime between 1977 and 1985. The deaths have been ruled homicides, but barring the victims' identities, authorities were left with more questions than answers.
Subsequent searches turned up nothing, leads dried up and forensic reconstruction portraits of the victims failed to produce new leads. And so, the case went cold, again.
Now, three decades after the initial discovery, advances in forensic science have revitalized efforts to identify the victims.
"We're now looking at isotope testing across the four individuals," Ebert said. "We're hoping to have a best guess of where these individuals are from."
Isotope analysis of a victim's hair – a process popular with archaeologists that has only recently been applied in criminal cases – allows forensic scientists to measure the levels of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen in the hair, which should identify what region of the country the victims came from.
"We got [the results] last week and we're still analyzing what they mean," he said. "On [Nov.] 17, we will release them."
Authorities are hopeful, once that happens, the case will garner widespread media attention that might finally lead to a long-sought-after resolution in the case.
"The identities of these individuals will be discovered via the media," Ebert said. "I feel confident in the fact that we've done lots and lots of interviews in the area in the last 30 years, but what we haven't been able to do is get that larger media splash."
Anyone with information in this case is asked to contact the New Hampshire Cold Case Unit at (603) 271-2663.
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