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Identifying Jane Doe

Medical examiners use bones, dental records, and DNA to put a name to a face.


The building may be demolished, but the Mall of Murder is still living up to its nickname.

After two skeletons were found at the former Mall of Memphis site earlier this month, medical examiner Karen Chancellor was charged with identifying the victims and their causes of death.

"'Who are you?' That's what we're asking the person," says Chancellor, "and they're going to tell us perhaps by the clothing they're wearing or what kind of dental work they have. We compare that with who has been reported missing and see what kind of comparisons we can make."

The first skeleton, discovered by groundskeepers, is still unidentified at press time, but the second set of remains -- discovered by police two days after the first body was found -- was identified as 49-year-old Kathy Higginbotham.

Higginbotham was reported missing last November after her daughter dropped her off near Perkins and Knight Arnold. She was never seen alive again.

Once her body was discovered, however, police turned several missing-persons reports over to the medical examiner's office. A positive match was made using dental records.

Generally, human remains are matched with reported missing persons through dental records, X-rays, and DNA, which is extracted from the bone or from any hair that may be left on the skeleton. Getting results from DNA tests, Chancellor says, can sometimes take up to two years.

"When a DNA profile is made, we have to compare it with something. We need DNA the person left during their life, like maybe on a hairbrush or an old toothbrush," says Chancellor. "Or we can compare it [to the DNA of] living relatives."

Before the identification was made, Chancellor could tell a couple of things from Higginbotham's remains, such as her age range and gender.

Using the remains, medical examiners were able to tell that Higginbotham and the other unidentified victim were both stabbed. Police have not yet determined whether the two murders are connected.

"A knife will make an injury that is fairly characteristic," says Chancellor. "It slices through the bone."

Though an identity is still pending on the first victim, Chancellor is able to tell that she was an African-American female, age 35 to 50. "With age, it's always a range. It's not like looking at rings on a tree," says Chancellor. "Characteristics of the bone determine the range. For example, the teeth become worn as one ages, and one often develops arthritic changes over the years."

As for gender, Chancellor says female bones are often smaller than male bones. Women also have wider pubic bones and less prominent brow lines. However, certain features are also typically associated with certain races. African Americans, for instance, generally have a wider nasal aperature.


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