The woman who gives bones back their names

Examining a skull
In this Tuesday, April 19, 2011 photo, Susan Myster examines the skull of an unidentified female in her lab at the Midwest Medical Examiners office in Ramsey, Minn.
AP Photo/Pioneer Press, Chris Polydoroff

TAD VEZNER, St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Susan Myster can tell a ton about you from your hips, teeth and collarbone. The rest of you barely needs to be there.

In fact, if you're dead, she'd prefer just your bare bones, thanks. Flesh -- what she calls "soft tissue" -- just complicates things, not to mention making her a bit squeamish.

"I never liked going to open-casket funerals. I never liked going to funerals, period. I was just very afraid of, I guess, death, or seeing dead people," the forensic anthropologist says. "That was a major fear."

The woman Minnesota's cops and coroners come to when they find a mysterious skeleton -- and really, what skeleton isn't? -- maintains a bipolar relationship between her job and her personality. Sunny and sprightly but admitting to a highly ingrained sense of guilt, Myster often lies awake at night wondering whether she has spent enough time with those mysterious bones. Those around her -- including astounded co-workers and a frustrated husband -- wonder that she doesn't shrivel up from exhaustion.

But the pressure is always on Minnesota's bone guru -- pressure from people she's never met, and probably never will. Myster has dozens of unidentified bodies in her Ramsey lab. There will always be more.

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"Sometimes, you lay there at night, and sit there and think: 'Somebody's waiting. Somebody's waiting. What if that were my child?' It just makes you crazy, actually," she says.

"They're out there waiting, and you can't say no."

'I'M AFRAID OF BLOOD'

As a child and a Camp Fire Girl in Brooklyn Park, Myster yearned to earn beads. "I just love the past. I just love the past," Myster still says. So she started doing reports on American Indian tribes in the area.

She racked up 50 reports before her mother told her, "OK, I think it's time to stop," she said.

Flash forward to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where she was working on a doctorate in biological anthropology. Myster remembers being assailed by tough-guy lawmen who liked to show naive college kids the worst ways folks could die.

Examining a skeleton
In this April 19, 2011 photo, Susan Myster re-examines skeletal remains of an unidentified female using new technology developed since the original investigation and examination in the 1990's in Ramsey, Minn. She is the state's bone lady -- the one forensic anthropologist in the state who receives mysterious, unidentified bones from area investigators.
AP Photo/Pioneer Press, Chris Polydoroff

One investigator arrived with the ostensible purpose of teaching about projectile trauma.

"He showed us so many slides," Myster recalled. "He tried everything he could to get us to leave that room. There was a dismemberment case. He dry-fired a weapon over our heads. ... I thought, 'I would rather die than leave this classroom.' Because that's what he wanted to happen."

Still, at the end, Myster thought forensics was too gruesome.

"I took all the classes, the most awful of the awful cases, and I thought, it's not for me."

But when she related her experiences to her mother, a nurse, her mother gushed: "That sounds so interesting!"

"She wanted me to be a nurse, too, but I don't like shots," Myster said. "The only time I gave blood, I fainted. I'm afraid of blood."

Finally, a colleague told her about Minnesota. When it came to forensic anthropology, the state had few people in the field. Medical examiners are trained primarily in soft tissue. Some spend a week or two at the Smithsonian, getting the basics in anthropology. But skeletons are rarely a specialty.

"Sorry to hear that. Not interested," she replied, hoping the conversation was closed.

"That's really selfish of you."

"What?"

"That's really selfish. There are people who are unidentified. There are people who are missing. There are people who've been victims of terrible crimes."

"I don't like soft tissue."

"You'll get used to it."

"I don't like the smell."

"You'll get used to it."

"I don't like the rotten things people do."

Rather than tell her she'd get used to it -- she wouldn't -- the colleague replied, "Then you can help solve the problem."

'ROTTEN THINGS PEOPLE DO TO EACH OTHER'

Myster arrived in Minnesota and got a job teaching at Hamline University, where she had earned her undergraduate degree in anthropology. She waited.

Finally, one night in July of 1991, an assistant medical examiner from Hennepin County asked her to come out to a scene.

It was a bad one: A resort in Grand Marais, on Minnesota's North Shore, had burned to the ground. Seven people were dead, another half-dozen injured.

A floor collapse had mixed the remains into a menagerie of ash and bone.

"We needed to separate individuals. They were very fragmented ... commingled," Myster said -- and in recalling it, her warm, bubbly nature turns solemn.

She sorted them the best she could. Some fragments were too small and split between the bodies. The family of the owner of the Windigo Lodge wanted him buried with his dog, which had also died in the fire. Another set of remains to sort out.

"Out in the field, she can immediately assess things. She can look at a bone and tell immediately if it's human or not," said Kurt Moline, a forensic scientist with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension who also serves as a team leader for crime scenes.

"If she's not along, they will have to go back, and they will always find more bones," he added.

The work on the Grand Marais case took days. In the end, Myster had one thing to be thankful for: At least it was an accident.

"I didn't really want to confront the really rotten things people do to each other on a daily basis," she says.

ONE KEY 2-INCH FRAGMENT

Eight years later: 19-year-old Katie Poirier -- a woman with the same first name as Myster's daughter -- was abducted from a convenience store and strangled, her body burned in a fire pit.

Myster was called to sift through the ashes.

"That was a hard one. That was hard to avoid. My daughter, Katie, was only a year old," Myster said. She found a brittle, 2-inch bone fragment and could tell it came from a young woman -- and later testified as much in court.

Still, she maintains, the work could have been worse.

Susan Roe, an assistant medical examiner for Dakota County's Minnesota regional medical examiner, said: "Bodies that weren't skeletonized, those bothered her. To her, (bodies with flesh) made it more real. She could separate it more if they were skeletons."

But sometimes, even with a skeleton, you can sense brutality.

There was a Park Rapids case, in which Myster was given a skeleton with ribs chipped in numerous places. The skull had been completely fractured into "lots of pieces," Myster recalled. "Really, the head was almost taken clean off."

Pregnant with Katie at the time, Myster sank into the work.

Slow down. Concentrate. First question: Human or not? Then age, ancestry, sex, stature. Evidence of disease?

Measure. Feel the texture of the bones' edges.

"You document it, describe it, measure it, put it under a microscope," Myster said. "You do that, and you get busy with what you're doing. Finally I thought, how many of these have I documented?"

Nineteen. The man had been stabbed 19 times in the chest, Myster realized. He'd been beaten in the face until his skull had shattered.

On the shelf in her Ramsey office stand two comprehensive Sherlock Holmes compilations, beside a tiny Lego skeleton, missing an arm.

Myster kept working. Thirty-seven measurements for the skull. Another 80 for everywhere else.

"Those cases take an incredible amount of time. Washing bones, dry the bones, measure the bones, sit down and plug them into problems -- it takes a long time," said Dr. Michael McGee, chief medical examiner for Ramsey County -- one of the many offices that call Myster in a pinch.

That methodical approach helps keep Myster's mind from wandering.

Her husband, James Myster, said his wife -- who used to be afraid of blood -- has toughened to the point of shocking him sometimes.

"There are times where she starts describing what she needs to do, to prepare. ...There are times where I go, 'I can't believe she can do that now.' I couldn't do that kind of work. At least I don't think I could," James Myster said.

Adds McGee: "When she comes to our office, we let her use a separate room with her own ventilation. ... (The other labs are) noisy, smelly, dirty, and got blood on the floor. It's a morgue."

But assistant medical examiner Roe, who's been friends with Myster for years, said, "She's sensitive, especially if we had children we had to autopsy.

"She's sensitive, and she still does the work she does."

'THESE ARE HUMAN REMAINS'

Gazing at rows of boxes along the wall of her lab at the Midwest Medical Examiner's Office in Ramsey, Myster shakes her head and bites her lip.

"I need to take a leave of absence so I can finish these. I was hoping to get much more done on my sabbatical," she says.

"We (my husband and I) talk about maybe I should cut back. Except for how do you say no to a case? I mean that's, that's the thing is that I don't, I -- I can't. I can't say no. ... You know families are out there waiting. They're out there waiting, and you can't."

Colleagues at Hamline University, where Myster still teaches full time, frequently use "insane" to describe her workload.

Bones keep piling up. A few boxes are strangely labeled -- "burned pig bones ... misc. nonhuman." But anything human lies in a separate drawer, cradled in foam.

"She sometimes stays up all night," Roe said. At times, Myster is forced to bring her children into work -- once rushing her 6-year-old daughter past coroners' labs with a blanket over her head.

"There are times where she's slept four hours or less a night for weeks. For weeks!" her husband said. "It's frustrating to me because (in the morning), she's like, 'C'mon, get up, let's go.' Most of us need eight hours."

Still, Myster feels she has too little time.

As the forensic anthropologist covering an 11-state region for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System -- a federal database started by the Justice Department -- she has several dozen sets of remains to catalog, maybe even identify, if things ever slow down. Bones found in woods and fields, some of them decades ago. Skeletons found in museums, garages, barns, attics, historical societies.

"It was surprising to me, how many there are ... thousands, across the country. Some bodies are so old you don't know when or where they were found." Probably inherited by a current medical examiner, she imagines.

Then there are the cases involving the living. Determining a person's age, to see if he or she should be charged as a juvenile or an adult, or whether -- in immigration cases -- someone should be allowed to stay in the country. For teens, the growth of the collarbone, the last bone in the body to develop, is often telling.

Then there are the distractions: Her office is inundated by calls that turn out to be nothing more than "BLRs" or "BLSs" -- "bonelike rocks" and "bonelike sticks," in anthropological parlance.

"Halloween is a banner time," she jokes: Constant calls from police juggling mysterious "skulls," wondering if they have anything to worry about.

And, come spring, like clockwork: "When the snow melts, the bones start to show," she says.

Recently, one investigator found a bone while planting bulbs.

"That's a cow bone," she patiently told him.

And whenever they do find an actual skeleton, "Every person with a missing relative, they call. Every police department that's got a missing person calls up. They want to clear the books," McGee said.

Myster takes it all with a weary smile. "That's the weird thing about bones, right? Suddenly it dawns on you that, hey, these are human remains. With a family.

"Other people just go and throw them outside."

Myster says she'll keep trying to tidy up: to lend a last trace of humanity -- and if possible, a name -- to those with little else left.

Even if there's only enough to hold in your hand, "I just go wherever the bodies are," Myster says.

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Information from: The St. Paul Pioneer Press

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)