Steven Symes, PhD - Anthropology and Forensic Science Professor

Steven Symes, Ph.D.

The charred body found in the burned-out wreckage of a mountain cabin, thought to belong to fugitive former police officer Christopher Dorner, had likely curled into a telltale posture, fingers clenched, arms up.

Forensic experts call that the fighter's stance, and it's what bodies do as they burn and the muscles and tissues tighten.

It can expose some identifying features to the flames and help preserve others; it's not uncommon, for example, to get fingerprints from the balled-up hands of a burned body.

The task of confirming whether the body in that cabin near Big Bear Lake is Dorner could be as quick as comparing dental records or as difficult as analyzing DNA. A forensic anthropologist with the right X-rays can make an identification in a matter of minutes; a DNA test can take weeks or months.

“It takes a really hot, sustained fire to cremate a body,” said Lt. David Smith of the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. Anything short of that leaves investigators with clues that can lead to an identity.

Smith and other experts, none of whom are involved in the Dorner investigation, said much depends on how the body fell and how the fire burned. A body found lying on its hands, for example, is far more likely to have usable fingerprints, the quickest and easiest way to make an identification.

Investigators also look for what Orange County Assistant Chief Deputy Coroner Bruce Lyle called “unique identifiers.” That can mean dental work, an old broken bone, even a serial number pulled from an artificial hip or a set of dentures. If investigators think they know who the person is, then those details can help them confirm it.

DNA is typically the last and longest option. Ideally, investigators have a sample from when the person was alive – a hair left on a comb, saliva preserved on a toothbrush – that they can compare it to. Lacking that, they test relatives to establish family ties – not a lock, but a good indication.

In many cases, though, forensic anthropologists can piece together not only the identity of a burnt body but the final moments of the person's life. Because of its position in the body, for example, the trachea often survives and will show signs of smoke and soot if the person was still breathing in the fire.

That's according to Steven Symes, a professor of applied forensic sciences and anthropology at Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania. He helped edit the book on this, “The Analysis of Burned Human Remains.”

The top of the head, left unprotected by the “fighter's stance” posture, doesn't fare as well, he said, and can break into pieces that obscure other injuries, such as a gunshot wound. But even then, Symes said, investigators can recreate the skull or look for fractures that would have radiated out from the wound.

Investigators on the Dorner case working to identify the body found near Big Bear Lake have released few details. Police had reported hearing a single gunshot about the same time as fire began to spread through the cabin where Dorner was believed to have taken cover.

San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said Wednesday afternoon that forensic tests had not positively identified the body. But he said the shootout and fire at the cabin “brought to a close” the massive manhunt for Dorner.

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