Investigators re-open case of unidentified bones found near Oak Ridge

Saturday, July 5, 2008 | 5:27 p.m. CDT; updated 4:40 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

CAPE GIRARDEAU — For more than 20 years, parts of a skeleton have sat forgotten in a basement closet at Southeast Missouri State University.

The bones, along with some clothing and shoes, were discovered in 1981 in a wooded area east of Oak Ridge. The skull was found seven years later in a nearby creek.

At the time, investigators weren’t able to link the bones to any missing person cases, and the Cape Girardeau County sheriff thought the skull might date back to an American Indian burial ground.

But after rediscovering the remains, investigators say they’ll see if more recent forensics technology can help determine the identity of the bones and how the victim died.

According to anthropologists, the bones belonged to a white male between 20 and 40 years old and between 5 feet 9 inches and 5 feet 11 inches tall.

David James, chief deputy with the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Department, said the agency reopened the case when a former deputy called to inquire about the bones and whether Texas death row inmate Tommy Lynn Sells may have committed the crime. Sells has confessed to more than a dozen murders and is suspected in dozens of others across the country.

James said his initial reaction to the question was, “What bones?” Investigators dug through the archives to find the original files and photographs. The skull had been sent to the Southeast Anthropology Department for analysis.

He said the department plans to send the bones to the crime lab, with the hope that technicians can extract DNA from the bones or teeth. If so, the resulting DNA profile could be entered into a missing persons database.

Only three missing persons who date back to 1981 remain unaccounted for, James said, but the skull doesn’t match any of their dental records.

While the remains indicate the victim was shot, James said it could be difficult to determine how old the bones are or how long they were in the woods before being discovered.

“For all we know, it could be Jimmy Hoffa,” James said.

He said the clothing found with the body included green pants, a short-sleeved khaki shirt and black loafers with a metal buckle across the instep.

Identifying the victim will be investigators’ first priority, James said.

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