CLEVELAND, Ohio — Forensic crime scene investigators spent the day at Wade Avenue and West 30th Street digging for clues in the disappearance of 17-year-old Amanda Berry.
The FBI’s Evidence Response Team is taking the lead on the search and excavation.
Although nine years have passed since Berry was last seen walking home from work at a Burger King on Cleveland’s west side, investigators are hopeful they will find solid evidence.
“Day one, we remotely evaluate the area and any likelihood there’s a body here,” said Dr. Nicole Siegel.
She isn’t part of this crime scene team but has participated in many other similar digs here in northeast Ohio.
Siegel says at this site they might only find bones, but bones are her specialty.
“You can tell a lot from bones. You can tell what we call her biological profile,” said Siegel, “and possibly the cause and manner of death.”
This dig is happening in an urban setting on a city log, but forensic scientists say that doesn’t matter. There are always clues, and decomposition smells can still be present in the soil, even if there are only skeletal remains.
“It might be vegetation, you know, grass and leaves that are different than the surrounding site, because you have decomposition that fertilizes the soil,” said Dr. Joe Keiper.
Keiper has worked in the field of Forensic Entomology for over 15 years.
Having lived in Cuyahoga County until recently, Keiper helped investigate many local crime scenes, including the home and property of convicted serial killer Anthony Sowell.
“When you get into a place where you start to find multiple bodies, it starts to become very disturbing, and the important thing to remember is that you’re doing a job,” said Keiper.
Keiper is now the Executive Director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History but is very familiar with the Amanda Berry case.
“When you have a vacant lot, an urban lot, the problem is you have debris. You also have areas driven over by heavy equipment, and that changes the landscape,” Keiper said.
Keiper’s specialty is bugs. Maggots are a useful, predictable tool for law enforcement officials investigating certain cases of human death deemed mysterious or suspicious.
If Amanda Berry’s remains have been buried all of this time, he says that could help preserve evidence, because the body decomposes much more slowly underground without any insects or wildlife feeding on it.
Generally, small-hand tools are used to unearth evidence, but sometimes backhoes are needed, and a large piece of equipment was seen at the Cleveland search site Thursday.
Investigators are hoping to find clothing, jewelry or an ID card, but also perhaps a weapon or any bindings used to subdue the victim.
“So you’re always looking for those little artifacts that might lead to an identification of the victim,” said Keiper.
It’s not a job for the faint of heart, but it is a profession backed by science and fueled with care and handled with love.
“You know, these people … the last moments of their lives had to be horrifying,” said Dr. Keiper. “You’re trying to bring justice to that victim and the family.”