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Mercyhurst forensics helps solve 47-year-old cold case

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dennis Dirkmaat, Ph.D.

Every once and a while, a cold case heats up. That happened this week when Mercyhurst University forensic anthropologist Dennis Dirkmaat, Ph.D., learned that a case he worked on in 2011 – the analysis of scattered human remains that had been in the woods for 44 years – had been solved.

Mercyhurst’s forensic anthropology team has helped solve its share of mysteries, but Dirkmaat was admittedly surprised to see the book closed on this one from Rittman, Ohio, when the Wayne County coroner last week identified the partial skeletal remains as those belonging to Jack Wesley Hall, born Dec. 23, 1939, and missing since 1967.

“This goes to show how advanced we’ve come with DNA analysis – to be able to take pieces of bone that had been exposed to the elements for 44 years and determine an identity,” Dirkmaat said.

Although Mercyhurst did not do the DNA work that ultimately led to Hall’s identification, it was the vehicle by which the remains were recovered from the woods using strict archaeological protocols and then analyzed in the university’s bone lab.

According to police, a resident found the remains on Morton Salt property near Chippewa Creek on Sept. 27, 2011. The authorities there sent Dirkmaat a picture of a bone fragment and asked him whether it was human.

“We do this all the time; it’s often an animal, like a deer,” he said. “In this case, though, there was no doubt, it was a human femur.”

Dirkmaat and a team of 18 forensic anthropology students drove to the scene to excavate additional remains and to determine whether this was an actual burial site or a surface scatter, the latter being the case. Back in the Mercyhurst lab, they determined the bones to be those of a white male somewhere between his late teens and middle age.

Despite an exhaustive investigation, time went by – three years in all – without a resolution.

In June 2012, the remains were sent to the University of North Texas in Fort Worth and DNA was extracted and submitted to NamUs (national database of missing & unidentified persons). Still no matches were found. At some point, Dirkmaat said, information came out that a tattered piece of clothing at the site where the remains were discovered had the name “Jack Hall” on the waistband.

According to the Wayne County Coroner’s Office, William Fairchild read this in a news report and wondered if it might be his brother-in-law, Jack Hall, who had gone missing from Rittman nearly four decades ago. Two family members provided DNA samples, but neither was a match.

Dirkmaat said the general thinking was that the case would go unsolved until authorities were advised that there had been an error in the DNA testing. Indeed, both samples submitted to the Texas lab were determined to be a match with the DNA extracted from the remains.

This was Jack Hall.

Because of the limited number of bones recovered and the associated fragmentation and weathering, Dirkmaat said his team was unable to determine if foul play had been involved in Hall’s death, although he said there was no indication of that. He said Hall was known to have had some health issues. He was also known to have enjoyed taking long hikes in the woods.