New Effort to Unearth Buried Secrets of Old Philadelphia Crimes

Forensic scientists and law enforcement officers in Philadelphia are digging up graves as part of a joint effort to solve cold cases in the region.

Potter’s Field — located in Northwest Philadelphia — contains more than 200 unidentified bodies, many of them victims of murders from decades ago. Of special interest to authorities is the 1962 unsolved case of a child, age four to six, who was buried after authorities were unable to identify neither her nor the person who brutally beat, tortured and murdered her.

With no missing persons reports filed at the time of her death, the child became a Jane Doe. Now, after 56 years, authorities are hoping to finally get some answers. “Forget about me being a prosecutor, just as a parent, when you have a daughter, you hear a story of this girl whose age we don’t know, and no one ever reported her missing. We want to know who she is,” said Assistant District Attorney Anthony Vocci, Jr.

Advances in DNA technology prompted police and forensic experts to begin exhuming bodies in Potter’s Field. With the goal of matching the unidentified victims with pre-1960s case files, in which DNA samples were not routinely collected from victims, investigators are now using modern forensic technology to identify the bodies.

Leading the forensic investigation is Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida. “We take DNA samples and send it to the lab to get profiles to compare to missing persons, then we do isotope analysis of elements that end up in your bones, taken from food and water you ate and drank that can be referenced to broad geographical areas,” said Kimmerle. “We know people died in Philly, but the question is, were they born here, or did they come from somewhere else?” In addition to pinpointing the geographical area victims originally come from, DNA technology can help investigators identify sex, age, ancestry and even the birthplace of some deceased individuals.

Authorities are hoping their efforts will help them finally close these cold cases and provide closure for families who have searched for their loved ones for decades. “Two of them are drowning victims. They could be homicides,” said Detective Tom McAndrew. “There is a family out there who thinks they could be related to them.”

The Potter’s Field project started with the exhumation of seven sets of remains, and authorities will continue to exhume, sample and catalog results of remaining graves in the hopes of properly identifying the victims and burying them one final time.