The bones that end up with forensic anthropologist Sue Myster come from the strangest places: construction projects, disturbed grave sites, long-hidden crime scenes. From medical samples carelessly thrown out in the woods.
Long dead, unnamed and unknown, the people who once animated those bones somehow went unaccounted for.
It’s Myster’s job to figure out who they were.
Her career has taken her to crime scenes across Minnesota. She’s sought out by medical examiners. Her students at Hamline University, where she’s a professor of anthropology and the program director of forensic sciences, feed off her star power, lingering after class to talk skulls and bone shards.
There are just over 100 board-certified forensic anthropologists in the country, according to the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. It can be tedious work, said Myster, but the payoff comes when she identifies someone.
“It’s amazing what bones can tell you,” she said.
To coax someone’s identity out of their bone shards, Myster uses the tools of anthropology and the gumshoe instincts of a detective. It’s part CSI, part careful measurement and documentation, and nothing like the TV show, “Bones,” that popularized her field.
“Of course she never writes a note down and works in the dark,” said Myster, pealing into soft laughter, a frequent habit.
This was far from the career the Minnesota native thought she would end up with. For starters, she can’t stand the sight of blood.
“My family always laughs; they’re a little surprised I went this direction,” she said. Funerals and open caskets unnerve her. And yet brutal cases that have shocked Minnesota — Erika Dalquist, Katie Poirer — were work assignments for Myster. When she takes on the case of a young woman killed, she can’t help but think of her own relatives, or of her students at Hamline. If she’s called to testify in court, Myster said it’s difficult for her to look at the victim’s family, to imagine their pain. Myster said she feels duty-bound to keep her emotions at bay — her job demands an objective approach — but once a case is over, sometimes it all comes out.
“I’m a weeper,” she said.
She got her first inkling of her future career as an 8-year-old Camp Fire Girl. A born reader who sometimes got dropped off at the library while her parents ran errands, Myster followed the Camp Fire Girls’ encouragement to study Native American culture.
As she read she became fascinated by variations in human societies. As an undergraduate at Hamline, she took an archaeology class that talked about skeletal remains.
“I was just hooked,” she said.
After graduate school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, she returned to Hamline to teach with her mentor Barbara O’Connell. That part-time gig included working with the Minnesota Native American Reburial Project, a Minnesota Indian Affairs Council project that oversaw the identification, cataloging and reburial of American Indian remains.
In the summer of 1991, a fire swept through the Windigo Lodge on the Gunflint Trail, killing seven and injuring six. The fire was so destructive, just one victim was identified a week into the investigation. Authorities called O’Connell and Myster to help identify the missing from their bone fragments.
A second case soon came Myster’s way. A body had been found in the Mississippi River. It was badly decomposed and had gone unidentified for more than a month. Myster determined that it was a man of European ancestry and gave an age range and an estimate of his stature. He was eventually identified when a facial-reconstruction expert drew a sketch of what he may have looked like, and someone recognized it. Everything Myster had said about him was true.
“The medical examiners were like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ ” said Myster.
Her first cases were a test of her skills, but also of the field of forensic anthropology in Minnesota. Some medical examiners weren’t sure what she could contribute. Police officers would ask: “Why is she here?” She built friendships, established herself among the law enforcement community and discovered something about the work: She liked it.
By state statute, the cause and manner of death are determined by the medical examiner, but Myster’s analysis sometimes helps.
She’s often called to the scene of a bone find by a medical examiner. Her first analysis is to determine whether it’s a human or animal bone. Sometimes, she says jokingly, it’s a B.L.S., or bone-like stick.
It’s a quick field diagnosis but one that’s difficult to make.
“She can identify, right on scene, human or not human,” said Drew Evans, assistant superintendent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. “Without her, we would be collecting hundreds and hundreds of bones that could be animal bones.”
Then Myster seeks to determine gender, age, stature, even ancestry. She’s also searching for trauma or other signs that point to how the person died.
“I spend a lot of time just sometimes pacing while I think,” she said. “How could a certain traumatic injury have happened? And how does that fit with how we know bone fractures?”
Her students come with her on some cases, either to assist by cleaning the bones or just to observe her at work. Those who want to go into the field regard Myster as a pioneer.
“Dr. Myster carved her niche out in the ’90s with a shovel and a club,” said student Christopher Plount. “She made it.”
Her own children, one at Hamline and one still in high school, have an interest in anthropology, but Myster’s not sure it will be their career. They would have a jump start: She and her husband, an archaeologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, often talk shop at home, she said.
One Thanksgiving, the drive to a relative’s place in Rochester became a 90-minute argument over the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers, she said, laughing. Family vacations have included close-up looks at ancient cultures.
Last fall, when a man in Pine City found bone fragments while building a basement, Myster eventually got the call. It was potentially a homicide case, but small wood shards near the body signaled to Myster that this was someone who had been buried in a coffin. A grave site. The medical examiner eventually released the body to her after agreeing that it wasn’t a forensic case.
Myster, who gets frequent calls from medical examiners and has been working through a backlog of cases, plans to sit down with her students Monday for the first time to begin a close examination of the recovered bones.
It’s still not known whose bones they are. That could soon change.