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Identification of remains found in Cass County hinges on how intact they are

Cass County sheriff calls search for remains a 'multi-day' event

Cass County Sheriff Jeff Weber said Tuesday afternoon that the remains of two bodies, including skulls, had been found in a wooded area west of Peculiar and the search of the area would be a multi-day event.
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Cass County Sheriff Jeff Weber said Tuesday afternoon that the remains of two bodies, including skulls, had been found in a wooded area west of Peculiar and the search of the area would be a multi-day event.

If police have uncovered two full skulls, teeth intact, from the Cass County area where human remains were found Monday and Tuesday, it shouldn’t take long to find the identities, according to a retired expert in the field of bone identification.

David W. Frayer had been called to identify bones at least two times a year before he retired after teaching anthropology for 37 years at the University of Kansas.

Authorities found a skull Monday and another Tuesday in rural Cass County after a mushroom hunter found bones in the area Monday. Their search for more bones in the area of East 233rd Street and Missouri Y was suspended Wednesday for weather but will continue Thursday.

The families of Kara Kopetsky, who disappeared in May 2007, and Jessica Runions, who was last seen in early September, met Tuesday with the Belton Police Department about the finds.

Kylr Yust, who was last seen with Runions, has been charged with burning her vehicle. His trial is scheduled for October. Soon after Runions’ disappearance, authorities learned of a possible connection to Kopetsky’s case.

Yust, 28, had been the off-and-on boyfriend of Kopetsky before she disappeared.

The remains have not been identified, and the families say they are still waiting.

Late Wednesday morning, Rhonda and Jim Beckford were at home in Belton. They were joined by Jamie Runions around noon. The families of the two missing women say they haven’t received further word from authorities in Belton or Cass County regarding the bones found earlier in the week.

“The waiting is the hardest part, but I’m still hopeful that possibly today or this week, one day, that we will have the answers to whether these skulls are our daughters,” Rhonda Beckford said.

Rhonda Beckford, mother of Kara Kopetsky, said authorities so far had found two human skulls as well as several other bones. One skull appeared to be older than the other, she said.

“They have not been very specific with how they’re identifying these skeletal remains,” Beckford said. “We know that there were two skulls. We don’t know how many teeth were intact. We don’t know any of that.”

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How quickly the identifications are made depends on how much of a skeleton is intact and how much is recovered at the site and the surrounding area, Frayer said.

Frayer is not involved with the Cass County case. But he said he has “an eye for bones,” and that’s what it takes to spot small bones and teeth that could be critical in helping to identify remains.

It takes special training to spot small bones in the earth, and that’s why when police find long-buried remains, they often will call a forensic osteologist like Frayer, he said. Osteology is a subdiscipline of anatomy, anthropology and archeology.

Such a specialist might be particularly important in the Cass County case, in which two bodies might have been found close together.

Rhonda Beckford and Jamie Runions talk to media after meeting with Belton police Tuesday afternoon. The families of Kara Kopetsky and Jessica Runions were notified Monday evening about the discovery of unidentified skeletal remains.

“You first have to make sure Person A’s bones are not mixed with Person B’s bones,” Frayer said.

Scientists on the scene would immediately set up a grid around the find and excavate bones from the earth as if they were on an archaeological dig.

Bones reveal much about a person.

“They could have unique features associated with that specific person,” he said.

Consider a five-year-old break of an arm, a leg — “you can see the remnants of the trauma, and that can help identify the person,” he said.

Teeth are a big deal. If a full jaw is available with upper and lower teeth, dental records could easily identify the remains.

“Dental records tend to be unique, a missing tooth or twisted teeth,” Frayer said.

Tall bones say a lot, too, when it comes to determining the age of the person, he said.

At the end of tall bones is a growth plate called the epiphysis, which fuses as one ages. The trained eye of an osteologist can get within a couple years of the person’s age.

The pelvis reveals the gender, Frayer said. Experts can use the length of the femur or the thigh bone to determine how tall the person was within a few centimeters, he said.

It’s a visual science, Frayer said.

Even without DNA that scientists would take from the inside of the bone and match with hair or another sample, the folks who closely study bones can tell whether an individual is 14 or 40, male or female, 5 feet or 6 feet tall. And damage to certain bones can tell you how the person may have died.

“There are lots of little things to look for,” Frayer said.

Depending on how much is recovered, it could take days or it could take weeks.

At the Beckford home in Belton, Rhonda Beckford and Jamie Runions continue to wait.

“Everybody out there, I just want them to keep praying for us to get the answers that we’ve been looking for,” Beckford said.

A look at the cases of Kara Kopetsky and Jessica Runions.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

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