Saturday, January 9, 2010
Investigators comb burned gulch the day after Christmas
By Guy McCarthy
Two skulls discovered Dec. 24 and Dec. 26 in a mountain gully scorched by the Station Fire belonged to a man and a woman, respectively, a coroner's investigator said today.
The first skull, found Christmas Eve by hikers in a draw below the Angeles Forest (N3) Highway, had an apparent bullet hole in it, a sheriff's homicide lieutenant said.
The skull with the hole in it is now considered evidence in the death of John Doe #225, said Coroner's Investigator Jerry McKibben.
The second skull, discovered two days later by a team of investigators searching the same area, had signs of trauma, said Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
The second skull is now considered evidence in the death of Jane Doe #87, McKibben said.
The gender of each set of remains was determined by examination of other bones collected in the steep, fire-denuded gulch two weeks ago, McKibben said.
This is the first disclosure of gender identification in a mystery the Los Angeles Times described recently as a "jigsaw puzzle."
Both cases appeared to be homicides but no conclusions had been reached, Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter told The Times last week.
Early today, the cause of death in both cases was listed as "deferred," McKibben said.
"We're still working it," McKibben said. "I'm sure homicide is still investigating."
The gully where the skulls were found is near mile marker 19.36 of the Angeles Forest Highway, above the Big Tujunga Dam. The draw feeds into the Lucas Creek drainage, which in turn feeds Big Tujunga Canyon above the dam.
The remains were found about 100 feet below the Angeles Forest Highway.
Before the Station Fire burned 250 square miles of the San Gabriel Mountains in August and September, Lucas Creek and Big Tujunga Canyon were popular with hikers.
Though the backcountry burned areas are now termed off-limits by the Forest Service, some people still go.
On Christmas Eve, deputies from the Crescenta Valley Sheriff's Station responded to the site when hikers found the skull with the apparent bullet hole, said Lt. Paul Becker of the Homicide Bureau.
On Dec. 26 -- two weeks ago today -- about a dozen forensic specialists, coroner's investigators and homicide detectives returned to dig and sift through dirt, rocks and debris in the gully.
Using soft-bristle, wood-handled brushes to excavate, and metal, wood-framed screens to sift through material, as well as one dog trained at sniffing out human remains, they found the second skull close to where the first was located.
"We don't know if this is a murder, a suicide or accidental," Becker said that day. "Obviously that is the focus of this investigation."
At least one of the skulls appeared to pre-date the fire, McKibben said.
"Apparently it's part of the burn area, but it sounds like the bones are pre-fire," McKibben said. "Just from the condition of the skull, it sounds like it was skeletonized before the fire."
The John Doe and Jane Doe numbers assigned to the two sets of remains indicate the first skull was the 225th unidentified male case worked by the Los Angeles County coroner in 2009, and the second skull was the county's 87th unidentified female case of the year, McKibben said.
Photo copyright by Guy McCarthy. All rights reserved.
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