Transcript of Episode 3: A Smaller Haystack
Note: episode transcripts are radio scripts - please keep that in mind as you come across notations and errors in the text. Click here for the audio version of the episode.
Previously on Bear Brook:
...Here lie the remains Known only to god of a woman aged..… May their souls find peace in god’s loving care...
...How does an entire family go missing?
… What grandmother let this happen? Or what neighbor or bus driver.. I mean where were all you, you know?
...Did you ever have any suspects? Not even close.
...After the Paquette case, you know there was really a feeling that this could be done.. If the resources would be set aside.
… There’s always some link. Someday… somebody will come forward.
*** Press Conference ***
[Agati] “...Everybody all set? Ok? Alright... First of all ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you all very much for coming today. My name is Benjamin Agati, I am a senior assistant attorney general here at the Department of Justice. We have some new testing results, some significant testing results that we want to share with the world.”
In November 2015, New Hampshire state law enforcement officials held a press conference.
This is actually how I first learned about the Bear Brook murders. I was one of about dozen or so reporters from New Hampshire and Boston who showed up.
We all crowded into a small carpeted room at the New Hampshire Department of Justice. Benjamin Agati, with the AG’s office, stood behind a podium.
[Mux begins to rise]
To his left was a row of stern looking police officers. To his right, a powerpoint was beamed against the wall.
[Agati] “30 years ago this month, a mystery began when the remains of an adult and what we will found out will be the oldest child were discovered in a bag next to an overturned 55-gallon drum in great Bear Brook State Park. In 2000, the remains of two more victims, both young girls, were found not far away, having been located in a second 55 gallon drum.”
The discovery of the second barrel in 2000 was really the last big development in the Bear Brook case - and that was 15 years ago.
In 2009 the case had been handed over to the state’s new Cold Case Unit. The unit was the first of its kind for New Hampshire with a mandate to focus exclusively on old murders, disappearances, and suspicious deaths. It was formed thanks in part to the investigation into the shooting of Danny Paquette which we talked about in the last episode.
The Cold Case Unit was just as stumped as the investigators that came before them though - so in 2012, they took the Bear Brook mystery to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, called NCMEC for short. NCMEC experts pored over the case alongside New Hampshire authorities, brainstorming ideas on how to move the investigation forward.
Three years later, in the fall of 2015, the New Hampshire Cold Case Unit was ready to share some of the work that came as a result of that collaboration.
[Agati] “These are our new images. And we’ll have individual shots of each of our victims later on.”
They started the presentation with a closer analysis of the information investigators already had on hand. Facial reconstruction experts at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had created new composite images of the victims. The victim’s faces are rendered in grayscale and they look a little computer generated. But certainly a lot more lifelike than the simple sketches that once hung on the refrigerator at the Morgan’s home in Allenstown.
[Agati] I’d like to go through each one in particular...
Agati clicked through slides of these new images one-by-one.
[Agati] “Our first one is our adult victim. She is is a female, likely to be within her mid-twenties.
The adult victim’s hair looks almost wet, like it was still drying from a shower.
[Agati] Our first child victim, also found in the same barrel with her, her age is closer to nine to ten years old.
The oldest child victim has a few freckles on her nose.
[Agati] She was approximately 4-feet-3-inches tall… Had light brown dirty blonde hair.
Her mouth is slightly parted, like her photo was taken while she was lost in thought.
[Agati] We do not know what her weight was specifically and we do not know her eye color. Child victim number two.
The middle child’s expression reads almost as surprise, like someone just called out her name.
[Agati] Her age is anywhere between two-to-four years old.
Her hair is darker than the others, her eyes set a little further apart -- details that really drive home the fact that she’s not related to the other victims.
[Agati] She had a dental overbite, and this has been remarked about before, that may be noticeable to others.
The image of the youngest child shows a cute kid. Big chubby cheeks and a tiny little nose.
[Agati] The last child, She had a very large gap between the upper two front teeth...
Wispy strands of dirty blond hair falling down to her shoulders.
[Agati] We are trying to get these images out there. Through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, they have not had one single case like this. With four individual victims that have been unidentified for such a period of time.”
This is Bear Brook, I’m Jason Moon.
For me, this was my first time hearing about the Bear Brook case, so everything — the barrels, the trailer park, the faces of the victims — everything was brand new to me. But the real showcase of this press conference were the results of long-awaited scientific testing.
[Agati] “Today we want to announce results of new radio-isotope testing that has been conducted on the bones, the teeth, and the hair of our four unidentified persons.”
Radio-isotope testing: it’s a scientific process usually reserved for geologists. Many of the reporters in the room that day, including me, struggled at first to understand it.
But as we slowly came to realize, the technique can offer surprising details about a human life based on nothing more than the type of environment a person lived in.
And almost exactly 3 decades since the Bear Brook mystery began, it finally gave investigators their first lead.
*** Isotopes ***
[Jason] Hi this is Jason with NHPR, how are you?
[Kamenov] Getting sick with some kind of virus.
[JM] Oh sorry to hear that, did you get your flu shot?
[Kamenov] I got it, but looks like it’s something else.
[JM] Uh oh.
When George Kamenov was studying to become a geologist, he never imagined he would one day use his training to solve murder cases. But then again, he says, all science is about solving mysteries.
[Kamenov] “What we do in geology is often like forensic chemistry. We’re trying to identify, let’s say, where this water comes from or what this water interacts with. And it’s sort of like this is the same thing now, we’re just applying it to humans.”
Kamenov, who’s with the University of Florida, analyzed the remains of the Bear Brook victims with a technique that relies on the science of isotopes.
Before we get into this, I want to point out just how important forensic science has been to the Bear Brook case. In the absence of witnesses or missing persons reports, the only information that detectives have been able to glean about the victims -what they look like and where they might be from- has come by way of pushing the boundaries of forensic science. Whether that’s cutting edge facial reconstruction, or using a high-tech chemical analysis of the atoms from within the victims remains.
[cue twinkly mux]
Isotopes are atoms with either too few or too many neutrons. Basically, they’re just different versions of the same element.
You’ve probably heard of radioactive isotopes. But there are also other less-dramatic isotopes that can be really useful for scientists.
A handful of isotopes that are stable and naturally occuring are known as environmental isotopes. Geologists like Kamenov like them because they can be linked to geographic regions.
[Kamenov] “They can be used sort of like an inorganic DNA tracer. They can tell you about geographical place of origin.”
Take oxygen-18, it's an isotope that is heavier than your standard oxygen atom. When rain clouds come in off the ocean, the water with oxygen-18 in it is the first to fall out. That means areas near the coast end up with more oxygen-18 than areas further inland.
So a geologist can look at the amount of oxygen-18 in, say, a rock sample and get a clue about the type of environment the rock was formed in.
But environmental isotopes aren’t found only in rocks.
Plants and animals also absorb environmental isotopes through their diet. So an animal who lived in a region with lots of oxygen-18 will have more of it stored in their bones than an animal who lived elsewhere.
In other words, living things carry an imprint of their environment, recorded in isotopes.
Scientists first started using the technique on human remains in archaeology -- think ancient burials. That’s how Kamenov first started doing this.
[Kamenov] “Cause you can do isotope analysis and figure out where these people were from and then you can use that for ancient human migrations and things like that.”
Then one day, in 2012, one of Kamenov’s colleagues, a forensic anthropologist, came to him with a question.
[Kamenov] “She came one day into my office and she asked me if we could apply the same technique to modern cold cases and I said ‘well, let’s try and see what happens.’”
It didn’t take long to see they were on to something. The first case Kamenov looked into involved the remains of a woman found murdered in Florida in 1971.
[Kamenov] “All the leads were exhausted and they could not identify her. And now basically 40 some years later, we can show why that was the case -- because she was not local, she was a foreigner, most likely from Europe. And that’s how basically we started. We tried with one cold case and then we started working on other cold cases.”
Kamenov is quick to point out that isotope testing alone can’t identify individual victims, but it can you give you some broad clues about where to take an investigation. In the Florida cold case, it told investigators they should be looking through missing persons reports from a totally different continent. As one researcher put it, isotope testing doesn’t find the needle in the haystack, it shrinks the haystack down to a manageable size.
With the Bear Brook victims, given what we little knew about them, the haystack was essentially the entire globe. They could have been from anywhere.
But by looking at four isotopes in the bones, teeth, and hair of the victims, Kamenov was able to narrow down the possibilities.
One of those isotopes - came from a source you would never expect.
[Kamenov] “The main reason that works is because for many, many years we used leaded gasoline.”
That’s right: One of the first real clues about where the Bear Brook victims came from is thanks to leaded gasoline. Here’s how.
From the 1920’s until it started getting phased out in the 1970’s, cars all over the world were using leaded gasoline -- basically spraying lead all over the environment.
[Kamenov] “So wherever you go, let’s say you take soil sample pretty much anywhere in the world, it still will contain tiny amounts of this lead.”
But not all of the lead used in gasoline was the same. In America, the lead came from one mine -- in Mississippi. In Europe, the lead came from a different mine -- in Australia. The two different lead mines have different ratios of lead isotopes, making it easy for a scientist like Kamenov to tell them apart.
Meanwhile, we absorb small amounts of the leftover lead in the environment into our bodies over the course of our lives.
[Kamenov] “So we as live, let’s say you live in New Hampshire, you go around, you drink the water, you eat the food and tiny amounts of this lead that’s in the soil gets recorded in our bodies.”
So basically anyone who lives in North America has lead in their bodies with one isotopic signature while Europeans have lead with a different isotopic signature in their bodies.
This is how Kamenov was able to tell the victim in his first case was European. And this is how we know the Bear Brook victims are from North America.
Ok, not the biggest reveal. But a start.
After lead, other isotopes helped Kamenov narrow down the area even further.
Strontium and carbon isotopes, which hold clues about someone’s diet, helped eliminate Canada and Mexico as possibilities.
Oxygen isotopes shed light on the water they drank, giving hints about how far from the coast they lived and how far north.
It was here that Kamenov started to see something interesting: differences between the isotopic signatures of the victims.
[Kamenov] “What we saw was that the three victims who are related by DNA, they kind of have the same oxygen isotopic signal. Which tells us that they were all living together. But then the fourth girl that is not related, she shows distinct oxygen isotopes, which tells us that she came from somewhere else.”
Back at the press conference, this was summed up for reporters in two color-coded maps.
[Agati] “The specific areas highlighted in green behind me are the areas in the United States where the adult and the oldest and the youngest child were both raised in and were living in at the time of their death.”
The map for the related victims includes a swath that covers all of New England and stretches down as far as West Virginia.
[Agati] So you can see the area here on the Eastern Seaboard, anywhere in green is a possibility.
It also includes parts of the upper Midwest and West Coast.
The second map, for the unrelated child, highlights four very specific areas In the Northeast.
[Agati] She spent most of her childhood further inland, and likely further North.
Two different regions in upstate New York, one on the border between northern Vermont and New Hampshire, and one in northern Maine. Her map also includes different sections of the Midwest and West Coast than the other victims. But notably, her map does not include the area directly around Bear Brook State Park. Which means, according to the isotope results, she was not from the immediate area.
I’d like to pause for a moment here to think about what exactly this means. Kamenov had reduced the global haystack to areas within the U.S. equivalent in size to a handful of states.
If this was the starting point of the Bear Brook investigation, it probably wouldn’t have seemed like a lead at all. The areas highlighted on the map - they are home to millions of people. But if you’ve been watching this case gather dust - wondering how on Earth four people could disappear so completely from the world without anybody noticing - this map is the first new piece of information in 30 years.
It wasn’t a slam dunk. Not even close. But it told investigators where to focus their efforts.
And there was one more thing that Kamenov was able to find. A tantalizing clue about how the victims spent the last few weeks of their lives.
---- [BREAK] ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Isotope testing can tell us a lot about where someone lived thanks to regional variations of isotopes and human pollution.
But while the isotopes themselves are important, scientists can also learn a lot from where the isotopes are found within the body.
For instance, your teeth. The isotopes there only reflect the environment from your early life, since teeth stop forming by your mid-twenties. That means the isotopic signature of your childhood environment is forever locked in your enamel, even if you spent the rest of your life somewhere else.
Isotopes found in hair, on the other hand, tell a different story.
Because hair grows continuously, it provides a record of the recent past. Each strand of hair is like a timeline of the final months of someone’s life. How far the timeline goes back depends on the length of the hair.
And because hair grows pretty quickly, it records changes in someone’s environment with a surprising level of detail.
In a case from Seattle, isotopes from an unidentified victim’s hair showed she had been moving back and forth from two regions several times in last few months before her death. That information helped police match her to a missing persons report and ultimately to identify her.
The hair of the adult victim in the Bear Brook case offered a similar clue about her movements just before the murder.
[Kamenov] “Her hair showed that the last few months before death, she was living in the area. However, about 5-7 months before death, she went somewhere -- either to the North or to the West. To a colder climate where the oxygen isotopes are lower. And what’s interesting is that the unrelated victim, the fourth girl that is not related by DNA, her teeth also show these lighter oxygen isotopes. So one possible interpretation is that that’s the time when the non-related girl joined the group.”
While the isotope maps for the related victims and the non-related child showed they grew up in different areas, testing of their hair showed that all four victims were together for the last two weeks to three months of lives, most likely in New England.
So what happened? Where did the adult victim go six months before she died? Was that when the non-related child joined the family? Was it an adoption? A kidnapping? Where is the non-related child’s family?
After that press conference in 2015, I asked Benjamin Agati, the prosecutor assigned to the Cold Case Unit, how they would they would try to answer those questions. Now that they’d inched the case forward with the isotope testing, what was next? What else could they do?
[Agati] “Somebody told me the other day that they saw the photos on the news and said ‘wow, the adult female, the victim, she looks looks like somebody back in highschool. They went to their old yearbook and looked -- they were completely wrong, it wasn’t that person. But the fact that they thought to go look, tells me we’ve got something going down the right road. So, even something like that, if somebody says ‘I’m not too sure.’ Pull out your yearbook. Look up that old friend or person that you knew and see if they are there. Take a look. Is it a possibility that this is a match? Give us a call, let us do the work.”
[begin creepy sound at low volume]
This theory of how the case would be solved seemed totally reasonable to me at the time. Remember, this was the first time I had ever even heard about the Bear Brook murders. But looking back, it must have been hard… calling that press conference, explaining how years of work had resulted in two simple maps and a set of images - putting that information out into the word, and then just hoping for a tip. Nothing useful had come in before - I wonder if they really thought anything would be different this time.
[Agati] If so, we’re encouraging everybody to reach out to us through those contacts, and the people who have been involved in this case, they have been great, they have done that and given that information to the cold case unit, given it to NCMIC and we’re following up it s fast as we can….[pause] Alright , if there are no further questions, I do have handouts for anybody who wants them and they contain the entire presentation.
[News conference ambi plays out, creepy noise grows]
[News conference tape cuts out]
Since we spoke in 2015, Agati has been reassigned out of the Cold Case Unit. But I imagine he still thinks about the Bear Brook case, frustrated that the victims, even now, remain unidentified.
In that sense, all of his work, and the work of investigators at NCMEC, was for nought. The new composite images and the maps went out on the news and people called in, but they mostly gave the same tips that investigators had already ruled out. If there is an old yearbook out there somewhere with a photo of one of the Bear Brook victims, it’s probably still sitting in a closet, or tucked under a bed.
The release of the isotope testing results was in some ways the final hail mary in the Bear Brook case. The Bear Brook investigation was reaching the end of the line.
But meanwhile, another mystery thousands of miles away in California was just beginning to unravel. This case had also stumped police for decades, and it would also push the boundaries of forensic science. And by the end, it would lead all the way back to New Hampshire.
[Ramos] “The minute I met him...I...it was...it was like meeting the devil.”
[JM] “Have you ever felt that way about anybody else?”
[Ramos] “Never. Never in my life have I ever, ever, ever had the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I met somebody.”
That’s next time on Bear Brook.
END OF EPISODE
If you have any information about the Bear Brook murders, or if you think you recognize any of the victims, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THELOST. That’s 1-800-843-5678.
You can see the latest composite images of the victims and the isotope maps released in 2015 at our website bear brook podcast dot com.
Bear Brook is reported and produced by me, Jason Moon.
Taylor Quimby is Senior Producer.
Editing help from Cori Princell, Todd Bookman, Lauren Chooljian, Sam Evans-Brown, Britta Green & Annie Ropeik.
The Executive Producer is Erika Janik.
Dan Barrick is NHPR’s News Director.
Director of Content is Maureen McMurray.
NHPR’s Digital Director is Rebecca Lavoie.
Photography and Video by Allie Gutierrez.
Graphics and interactives by Sara Plourde.
Original music for this show was composed by me, Jason Moon, and Taylor Quimby.
Additional music in this episode from Blue Dot Sessions.
Bear Brook is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.