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Off the Wall News: Skull-donation mystery leads others to turn in human remains

By Erin Heffernan, The Seattle Times (MCT) • Jul 29, 2014 at 12:14 PM

SEATTLE — Quite a few people apparently have skeletons in their closets.

The disclosure earlier this month that someone had anonymously dropped three human skulls into a Goodwill donation bin in Bellevue has touched off an unexpected rush by others to turn in human remains, according to the King County Medical Examiner's Office.

The skulls dropped off in Bellevue _ two clinical skulls used for educational purposes and the skull of a Native American child _ prompted the Medical Examiner's Office to turn to the public for help.

The source of the skulls has yet to be determined, but three other people have turned in human bones, according to King County forensic anthropologist Kathy Taylor.

One set of bones consisted of clinical remains, or the type that are bleached and wired together for medical or educational purposes. The other two were Native American bones that by state law must be repatriated to their tribes.

The three donations were deemed nonforensic and not a part of a crime investigation and were sent to the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, which handles remains that are not part of a criminal case.

"We get a new case of human remains about every four days here," Allyson Brooks, director of the department, said. "The cases are most often inadvertent discovery or are remains in the family."

When the department obtains remains, staff members attempt to identify the bones and return them to family.

A revised code of Washington dictates that all human remains be returned to the family when possible. The code makes a special designation that the remains of Native Americans be returned to their tribes whenever possible, Brooks said.

"When we get Native American remains we try to identify the tribe," Brooks said. "When we can't do that we notify tribes that have interests in Washington and we let them collectively decide what to do with them. They often designate one tribe to take responsibility for them."

Brooks said that when the department gets clinical skulls it often contacts universities to see if they want to use them for educational purposes.

"I know people were shocked that these skulls were donated to a Goodwill, which is something we haven't seen before," Brooks said. "But ironically in the end they are getting the respect they deserve and are coming to us, which is much better rather than going in the trash. These are someone's ancestors."

Taylor said that people find themselves in possession of unwanted, or unknown, human remains more often than most people would think. She said the Medical Examiner's Office has found remains sold at garage sales, for sale on Craigslist and even at estate sales.

"People might not realize they have real bones or they have no idea what to do with them," Taylor said. "But I've gotten a good amount of success when I've made calls to the public in the past. I've gotten a lot of remains back to their families this way."

Taylor usually works forensic cases that involve identifying a body and finding the family of the deceased.

"This is a different kind of case for me," Taylor said. "But actually in both cases we are trying to return the bones to the family. It is a tribe in this case, so that's just a different kind of family."

As for finding the identity of the donor of the mysterious Goodwill skulls: "I'm still holding out hope," Taylor said.


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