profile: I Dig Bones
Oregon’s forensic anthropologist ‘digs’ bones
By Patricia Cordell
Nici opened the corpse's eyelids with sterile-gloved fingers and cranked open an eyelid speculum to hold them wide. Using small scissors, she began a familiar, meticulous procedure. First, she separated the flesh inside the eyelids from the eyeball, cutting carefully all the way around. She slid a hook under the lateral rectus muscles and lifted the hook vertically to pull the orb upward. She then cut each eye muscle close and parallel to the globe. When she reached the last muscle, she grabbed it with a hemostat and cut the muscle on the side of the hemostat away from the globe. Using the hemostat to hold the muscle like a handle, she pulled the eye upward and inserted heavier enucleation scissors behind the eye to probe for the optic nerve, strumming the nerve like an instrument string. If she pushed further toward the back of the socket, she could get a longer section of the nerve, which would make securing the eye in the transport vial easier. Finally, Nici cut the nerve and gently lifted the eye out with the hemostat.
The room was cold and silent. She worked alone with the cadavers in a three-hour procedure requiring fine motor coordination and a medical background with impeccable attention to detail. The eye harvesting ritual usually began with obnoxious trills from her assigned pager in the middle of a night. For some reason, no one ever died in the day. Seemingly, it was always at night. She and the other Lions Eye Bank technicians up at Casey Eye Institute worked in the lab during the day but were on call at night for enucleation, or eye removal.
After enucleation, Nici very carefully packed the eyes in small vials cradled in a Styrofoam box for transport, then restored the eye cavities to a normal shape for the funeral by filling the sockets with prostheses. Finally, she closed the lids. It was an unusual job for anyone, and especially so for a vivacious and beautiful young woman right out of college, but Nici made the most of it. At parties she was known as "the eyeball girl." In fact, her future husband hadn’t even known her name for almost three months. She was only "the eyeball girl" when they met.
This had been her life for nearly two years, bumping along wet streets in darkness in her little red Honda Civic, rolling over the reflected colors of neon lights and illuminated signs, pulling into the parking lot of a funeral home or hospital in the still of the night to address a newly deceased body made available for the harvest of corneas for transplant.
According to Nici, formally known now as Oregon State Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Veronica Vance, it was a disgusting job, but it served her purpose. She’d landed in Portland after college by following her best friend to a post-graduation job at an advertising agency. Nici hadn't had a particular plan for employment because in the late 1980s no one had yet developed a job for her occupational passion -- forensic anthropology, or the study of human bones for criminal justice.
Nici would eventually create a path to the job of her dreams by looking for any opportunity that brought her closer. She would point out, “You know, things never happen in a straight line.”
She had taken this first job to get enough “cadaver experience” to qualify for a job with the Portland Police Bureau Forensic Evidence Division. Although she already had a count of six cadavers in her repertoire by the time she finished her undergrad degree in Montana -- an impressive accomplishment for nearly anyone else -- it hadn’t been enough to get her in the door at the Portland Police Bureau.
In an old classroom far up in the attic of a 19th century gothic building an anthropology class at the University of Montana in Missoula exposed Nici to working with bones. The high walls and floor were made of stone, so the room was always cold. Large arching, church-like windows at the back of the classroom bathed the professor with light and lent a sanctified air to his lectures while, as his acolytes, the students sat at long, ancient wooden tables. It was here Nici discovered she liked the feel of bones. She liked what they were made of, that they were hard and not soft tissue, that they contained a library of intrinsic information. She loved that she could decipher the mystery of one person’s life and death by translating the history fixed in their bones.
During one of those early classes, the local police showed up requesting her professor’s help recovering bones that had been discovered by a hiker along a creek bed in rattlesnake country, and her professor had invited any interested students to come along. It was a pivotal event in Nici Vance’s life. She couldn’t imagine a better opportunity.
It was mid-August when 19-year-old Nici hiked with a group of middle-aged men for six rugged miles above the trailhead into heavy foliage along a low-running creek bed to where the body laid. The air was humid and thick with bugs and flies, especially in the vicinity of the bones found strewn along the creek’s bank and very near the water. Intermittent, direct sunlight, insects and small animals had decimated the corpse. During decomposition, putrid odors had attracted scavengers and many parts of the body had been dragged off through the dense underbrush. Recovery of the mysterious body was extremely challenging. Nici and three classmates crawled on hands and knees for several yards in every direction, turning over muddy plant debris and stones in the water to recover the smallest bits of evidence.
During the collection process, the forensic team determined the remains were a young girl, about 16 years old. Nici felt a connection when she realized they could have gone to high school together. That they were so close in age and the same gender resonated with Nici and she swore that she would find everything – even if it was only a single fingernail or bits of hair—to make sure every part of the poor girl made it back to her family.
For a week and a half, Nici and the other students helped to collect the scattered remains and laid them out on one of the long tables in their classroom. They studied what little they had found for any clue to her identity. Then one day they entered the classroom and the bones were gone. The professor announced to the class the victim had been identified and returned to her family. It turned out the 16-year-old had disappeared four months earlier and had been the subject of an intensive search throughout the area. Nici was relieved that now her family and community had some answers.
Their work with the bones led to the conviction of the girl’s stepfather for murder. Decades later, Nici doesn’t remember the victim’s name or the stepfather’s trial. Instead she remembers how terrific it felt to have helped return the girl to her mother.
Following two years of harvesting eyes for cornea transplants, Nici finally landed that coveted job at the Portland Police Bureau Forensic Division. And when, a few years later, the Bureau decided to have forensics technicians leave the building to process the scene, Nici Vance volunteered to be the first. One more step toward her goal of forensic anthropology.
Twenty years after she began, Nici is finally working as a forensic scientist and anthropologist for the Oregon State Police Medical Examiners Office. She added a Masters degree from Portland State University in 2000 while still working as a forensic scientist for the PPB, and collected her doctorate in anatomy from the University of Pretoria, South Africa, in 2007. Her work is divided between the OSP Medical Examiner’s office and the OSP Forensic Lab in Clackamas, Oregon.
She’s again deciphering clues in bones. An animated speaker, Dr. Vance exudes warmth and a self-deprecating charm. She’s a classically beautiful woman with a strong clear voice that demands attention. She’s slender, athletic and petite with perfectly manicured pink nails, glossy pink lipstick and straight black hair that has been expensively cut to follow her jaw line on the right side of her face. It must be a recent change in hairstyle because her hand wants to tuck her hair behind her right ear and then conscientiously un-tucks it a moment later. She’s dressed in gunmetal gray scrubs over a black Nike turtleneck and running shoes. Everything about her says, “Prepared.”
Tday she chats enthusiastically about a case she feels is particularly interesting and which she solved using the victim’s bones. A cold case, it had aged in the Oregon State Police Medical Examiner’s files for nearly twelve years before Nici retrieved it. It was another body exposed to weather and predation, possibly for years. The bones were found in a field next to the Hillsboro Airport in 1993, without any clothing or personal effects. From the bones they could tell it was a man, approximately in his 50s, with considerable dental work and a metal prosthesis used to stabilize a break in his forearm.
There weren’t any missing persons reports or inquiries that matched his specifics. Dr. Vance reasoned DNA testing had come a long way since 1993 so she had some of the man’s DNA retested. Fortunately, after 1991 and before the body was found 1993, Oregon had begun taking oral swabs of prison inmates convicted of sex crimes or murder to collect their DNA. On a hunch, Dr. Vance had the bones’ DNA compared to the DNA database of Oregon’s prisons and found a match. Her mystery man had been incarcerated in Oregon at some point for sex crimes. Score another first by Nici Vance.
“That’s usually the case,” Dr. Vance points out. “We’re finding that nearly all of the remains found out in the wilderness and remote locations are getting hits in the criminal DNA databases. It isn’t the young girl out hiking who broke her leg and died of exposure. It’s someone with a criminal background who has gotten into trouble.”