Madeleine Hinkes, A Quiet Passion

Forensic AnthropologyMy favorite heroes/heroines are quiet, unassuming and passionate. A writer can’t help but come into contact with an amazing array of people, especially if the writing project deals with topics that impact us all. Many years ago, I was working on a project that dealt with forensic anthropology. It’s one of those fields that often goes overlooked by mainstream media. Yet, it is a vital, passionate kind of science. It’s a science that speaks for the dead.

During the course of the project, I came into contact with some extraordinary people. They were not simply scientists going about their work. These were dedicated, involved and determined individuals, who deeply cared about the meaning of their work.

One of the forensic anthropologists who moved me was Madeleine Hinkes. The depth of her commitment and her obvious passion impacted me at the time and has stayed with me over the years. Here’s a bit of background about this extraordinary woman, and a letter that she wrote to me in the 1990s.

Madeleine Hinkes holds a Diplomate in Forensic Anthropology from the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and has published dozens of important papers in her field. She has worked with the Office of the Medical Examiner in San Diego, Albany, Honolulu, Tucson, and Albuquerque, analyzing human remains and participating in a wide variety of forensic investigations. Hinkes has taught at both the graduate and undergraduate levels and has been involved in many criminal and mass disaster investigations throughout her career. In short, she brings first-rate credentials and decades of experience to her science. However, she also brings something rare and compelling to her work—a deep passion for what she does and an obvious commitment to its social significance. In this sense, Hinkes’ career is an expression of the human side of forensic anthropology—a style and approach that is shared by many of her colleagues.

Here is Dr. Hinkes’ letter. In it, she expressed what her career has meant to her from both a scientific and personal point of view. Despite the chaos and death that naturally surrounds her in her daily work, Hinkes discovered a deep, personal meaning to her science that is moving and inescapable:

You asked if I would tell you something of my career as a forensic anthropologist. Twenty-five years ago, I wanted to be an archaeologist—to dig up dinosaurs, in fact. However, in the Summer of 1973, I found myself in a field school and discovered my first human skeleton. It was 8,000 years old and perfectly preserved. That discovery made all the difference for me and I immediately switched my college major to physical anthropology. Ten years later I earned my Ph.D.

In graduate school, I worked with Walter Birkby, a nationally recognized expert in forensic anthropology. I had the opportunity to serve my apprenticeship with him and also work with the medical examiner in the Tucson, Arizona area. Those years of outstanding training gave me the knowledge and confidence to understand that I could handle any forensic situation that came my way. Since then, I have worked on medical examiner cases for more than twenty years. I’ve investigated homicides, airplane disasters, search and recovery operations, and much more.

Each forensic case is different in terms of the human remains to be investigated and what can be learned from them. These investigations are always fascinating, but sometimes also painful. I try to convey this to my students. I read somewhere that a student once described the human skeleton as bones with the people scraped off, so I try to use that definition in the classes I teach. I tell my students that the job of the forensic anthropologist is to put the people back on the bones. This is the concept of osteobiography—writing an individual’s life history through the skeletal remains. Most people take their skeletons for granted and are surprised at the amount of information contained in them, such as sex, age, race, stature, build, and even more specific characteristics like diseases, nutrition, trauma, occupation, socioeconomic status, and cause of death.

There is a tremendous range of human variation in the skeleton because each of us has a different life history in terms of health, disease, nutrition, exercise, lifestyle, trauma, and occupation. I often meet individuals whose skulls or skeletons I would love to study more closely because of their distinctive characteristics, and it is frustrating to me that the only way I can see my own skeleton is through an X-ray!

I have met many interesting people in my career, like pathologists, dentists, and investigators. I’ve also made some very close friends in strange places—like over an autopsy table. To my mind, the team approach to forensics is indispensable, and the best characteristic a forensic anthropologist can have is flexibility. Every situation is different and a forensic anthropologist can often find herself in some very primitive, difficult situations.

The sights and smells associated with forensic anthropology are distinct and often unpleasant. Much of my education didn’t prepare me for that, but I’ve learned to deal with it over the years. I have also learned much about people and the unspeakable things they can do to each other. It’s been quite an education in the real world, and I am much more conscious about my personal safety now.

I enjoy forensic anthropology because it allows me to give something back to society, to help families searching for loved ones, and to solve puzzles with a skill that few others possess (or may not even want to possess). When I first started in this science, there were few women in the field and I enjoyed that aspect of being different. Today, forensics is a very public arena and the expertise of the forensic anthropologist is constantly being tested. I am always learning something new and gaining a deeper appreciation for how different individuals are.

Testifying as an expert witness at trial can be daunting, but it is the ultimate end to a case—testifying to the trauma that led to death. Knowing that the accused murderer is in front of me in court is a sobering experience. As a scientist, I am supposed to be impartial and leave the arguing to the attorneys. However, the cruelty I often see in these cases—the inhuman treatment and indifference for another—should be punished.

I’ve investigated several mass disasters, like the 1985 crash of an Arrow Air DC8 in Gander, Newfoundland. In that crash, 256 lives were lost and I was instrumental in identifying 70 of the victims. In those kinds of situations, I routinely work at least a twelve-hour shift. The families are desperate to know what happened to their loved ones and the media is constantly pressuring the investigation team for information. In these situations, we cannot make any errors. A misidentification is the worst thing you can do to a family.

I’ve also worked on teams to identify the war dead, spending seven years at the Army’s MIA lab in Hawaii. I have met the sons of dead men who looked exactly like the photographs of their fathers on their military identification. It’s a strange and spooky feeling. Still, I found Vietnam to be a beautiful country filled with friendly people. They seemed very curious about a blonde, curly-haired American woman in their midst. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the Vietnam War when it was happening because I was too young. However, being there and talking to American former prisoners of war stirred me to learn all I could about the War. Each time we sent an identified soldier home to his family, there would be an official ceremony at Hickam Air Force Base. I would attend those ceremonies for the remains of the soldiers I had helped to identify. I don’t think my eyes were dry for a single ceremony. That’s the hardest part of the job—putting aside the clinical detachment and meeting the families and loved one of those men and women whose lives were cut short.

Today, I work on about twenty-five forensic cases a year. Some of them are routine homicides, but others can be quite strange. One of the strangest cases I investigated was the wreckage of a Boston Whaler boat and a gravesite discovered in 1988 on the uninhabited Taongi Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The boat turned out to be the Sarah Joe—a fishing boat that was lost off Maui in a storm nearly ten years previously with five men on board. When the grave was investigated, it contained the remains of a man. The questions that raced through my mind were incredible. What happened? How did this boat get to be 2,500 miles from home? Who found the bones and buried them? When? This case was featured on the television program Unsolved Mysteries because it certainly was an unsolved mystery! When I investigated the Sarah Joe, I had the adventure of sailing on a United States Coast Guard buoy tender through the Marshall Islands to Taongi. I was the only female on board for the four-day mission. The bad news is that I discovered that I get seasick and cannot swim to save my life!

Now, having said all this, I ask you: is there really any other career even worth considering?


The Truth Behind True Crime, Maybe


true crime part two, A1


Over the years, I’ve written several true crime books, both hardbound and mass market paperbacks. There have been countless articles, interviews, and media-related opportunities that flowed from my work. The genre has been good to me. Still, looking back, I’m not really certain what makes true crime writing work. It’s complicated.

In fact, I’m not sure what drove me into the genre in the first place.

I’ve learned a little about true crime over the years. Some things surprised me, others were life lessons that took a long time to absorp. It’s been a wild ride, sometimes. It’s been life-changing, for sure. Here are a few personal thoughts about the genre.

The dark side takes a ride. True crime isn’t pleasant, no matter how you approach it. Yep, it’s fascinating, most of the time. But it’s also dark. Whenever you write true crime you come face to face with victims. There’s nothing easy about that. These folks get into your mind and into your heart. It doesn’t take long for the fascination to fall away and leave you with the ugly facts. People die for no reason at all, no reason that makes sense to me. This is the worst part of working the genre. You can’t get away from it. You find yourself going back time and again, wondering how it could have worked out better for everyone. You want to rewrite history but you can’t. What’s done is done. And, it’s often evil and senseless.

My readers were mostly women, I think. It’s hard to be sure, especially with mass market paperbacks. All I really know comes from reader feedback or personal encounters. I remember my surprise, early on in my true crime journey, that most of the readers who contacted me were women. Looking back, I’m not quite sure why I was surprised. I really hadn’t considered reader gender for my books. I was just writing the stories, spilling out the facts and my conclusions without thinking too much about the reader. These days, I’m smarter about it all. It always made me feel good to interact with these women. They were thoughtful, respectful, and really knew the cases. They also had that special insight that caught me – they showed a deep caring for the victims. They weren’t just along for the thrill ride of true crime. They cared about the story and the people behind it. I still think about these folks. I’m glad they passed through my life.


Where the Sun Don't Shine


The media gets it wrong, almost always. Media loves true crime for the pure sensationalism of the topic. I learned this early on in my writing career and became very angry about it. Before long, I had a rather lengthy list of media outlets with whom I would never work. I tried to stick with those who treated the subject with some insight and respect. They are hard to find. From the media point of view, it’s all about blood and guts. That’s not why I wrote my books and that’s not my point of view. So, I’ve tried to always stick with only those groups who would do justice to the topic. I have no use for the rest of them. Frankly, I could care less if those sensationalists help or hurt my book sales. Forget them. I also owe a huge debt to my literary agent, who always supported my point of view on this aspect of the genre. Money never came first with him. It was all about the work itself. That’s a true friend.

Back-to-back books are the worst. If a book sells, the next step is to immediately pump out a follow-up book. I’ve been there and it’s a really rough ride. The thing you want most after finishing a true crime book is to take a break. You feel like getting your whole system flushed, roaming free for a while, getting as far away from the darkness as possible. You feel downright dirty. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. If a book hits, you’re dragged into another one. Well, not for me. I did it once and will never do it again. When a later book of mine did well, a publisher came to me for a follow-up. I tried to make it work but couldn’t pull it off. I had to stay away from the genre for a while. I never did write that second follow-up and, frankly, I’m happy with that decision. Enough was enough. I needed a good, long vacation from true crime.

True crime has legs, I think. I’m still doing media work on productions drawing from books I published 15 years ago. In the writing business, that’s called “good legs.” This surprised me, a lot. Many true crime books flash for a while and then go silent. Others have legs. It’s hard to know which will make it. When I wrote exclusively in the genre, I tried to make some conclusions, to offer some ideas that readers could take away and actually use. That seems to have worked well. There were parts of each book in which I threw away objectivity and tried to focus on something more long-term, more practical. If this is what made true crime work for me, it was more luck than anything else. It was just how I felt at the time. Looking back, I think it helped.


English: A panorama of a research room taken a...


Research is critical. Before you go around doing interviews and working the investigative side of true crime, you need powerful research. It’s often hard to get the real facts behind the topic. Media reports are unreliable, official reports are often hard to obtain, people come and go. You need to have good contacts, great research, and some luck. But, the bottom line is that you must love research. Without it, you can’t get to first base.

People will talk to you if you do it right. Good interviews are tough. You need to spend lots of time building trust and making relationships work. Some of the most difficult interviews I’ve been involved with were on death row in a federal prison. I will always remember these. They were important to my writing, but they were also endless work. Just getting yourself into a position to be trusted and invited into an important interview may take months or even years. Still, this is the only way to truly understand the individuals behind the crimes. Without these interviews, your work will never stand out in a crowded genre. The most imporant lesson I learned is that a good writer must be a one-way street. If you pledge confidentiality, never break it, at any cost. That builds trust. Trust makes for good, reliable information. Take the long-term view. It’s always best.

And the bottom line, sort of. It’s a good genre, if you have what it takes to stay the course. The rewards are worth the effort. It’s the emotional aspect of the genre that strikes back at you after a while. You’re always walking a fine line, a very bumpy road, that smears the good and evil in life. Nothing is nearly as clear or well-defined as outsiders believe. It’s always a walk on the wild side.

So, you want to be a true crime writer? Go for it. I’d still do it again, maybe. Those days are behind me now, maybe. My interests lie elsewhere. I still do media-related true crime productions but I’m unsure that I will ever write another book in the genre.

Umm . . . unless something really grabs me.


DB Cooper Investigation

Cooper SketchSeveral years ago, I was asked to present a case overview to investigators involved in the infamous DB Cooper hijacking case. The original seminar was accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation to a closed audience. This presentation was also converted to a PDF file for the participants. Although the conversion process left a few unwanted artifacts and formatting issues, it accurately reflects the original presentation.

The case of DB Cooper (more correctly, Dan Cooper) remains unsolved.

Here is the PDF version of the original presentation: Vector 23

A Moment with David Van Nuys

Van NuysAbout a year ago I had the opportunity to ask my co-author, David Van Nuys, a few questions about This is the Zodiac Speaking. Here is a transcript of that brief exchange. Obviously, these are not facts but simply points of view shared between us, between friends. It represents how David approached the Zodiac killer case and what role it’s played in his life. (Michael D. Kelleher)

Our book has been on the market for nearly a decade now and went to paperback a few years ago. Are you still generally happy with our effort? Anything we should have done differently?

Ten years already! People still contact me fairly regularly with theories about the case and new ways of arranging the details, and they look to me for some level of expertise to confirm or deny their constructions. I was actively involved in my part of the book for only about three months, as I recall. My memory has never been that great and with advancing age that’s even more the case. I’m amazed that there are these passionate amateurs out there who seemingly have all those facts, details, dates and so on at their command. I just don’t. Especially after ten years.

The only thing I wish we had done differently would have been to get on the case a lot earlier. The case was already 30 years old. It was new to me when we were working on it, so I really experienced the thrill of the chase. I had the sense that if we had written the book closer to the time of the events that our speculations might have helped to unearth him. Against the odds, I still have that hope.

The Zodiac case still haunts me after all these years. How about you?

I can’t say that it does. Rather, it’s the emails I get from people who think they know who the Zodiac is (or was) that keeps it going for me. These folks expect me to get very involved but I have to tell them I’ve moved on. As you know, I put up a series on YouTube a few years ago in which I walked viewers through the Zodiac letters and our conclusions. I stalled out when I got to the Zodiac’s elaboration/distortion of a rather long passage by the Lord High Executioner from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. At that time, YouTube imposed a limit of 10 minutes and I was stumped as to how I’d cover that portion of the material in 10 minutes, and so I just stopped there, despite getting many requests from viewers to keep going. My real motivation for going to YouTube, however, was to drive people to my Shrink Rap Radio podcast, which I promoted in each of my video segments. I don’t think that effort was at all successful, though. I’ve concluded that they are two very different audiences, for the most part. But, it’s because people are still discovering those videos on YouTube that they end up contacting me. I think I’ve heard from more people responding to the videos than to the book itself.

If this case is ever solved, how to you think that will happen? Or, maybe it will be forever a cold case. What do you think?

Well, I’ve certainly been very hopeful that the case would be solved. My reasons are selfish. I’d like to know the degree to which my speculations and conclusions were accurate. At this point, I think the only way it will be solved is if some relative of the Zodiac finds some physical evidence or a confession stashed away in an attic trunk, or some variation on that scenario.

We were very careful about never naming a suspect in the case. In the past several years, many suspects have been named openly on the Internet. What do you think about this tactic?

I am of two minds about that tactic. On the one hand, I imagine it could be very upsetting and potentially damaging if a living, but innocent, person is named. I also imagine it might be upsetting to the survivors and relatives of the victims, making it harder to put the whole tragedy behind them. On the other hand, maybe it would give them a sense that they have not been forgotten. I really don’t know which is the case since I’ve never communicated with any of them. The best potential of that tactic, as I see it though, is that it might tap into what’s been called “the wisdom of the crowd.” Getting a lot of bright and highly motivated people working on the problem may potentially lead to a solution.

The real problem, however, is that physical evidence is needed. If I have learned anything from this experience, it’s the danger of relying on circumstantial evidence. The Zodiac case is so rich with details and clues and mysteries begging to be solved that it seems to submit to any number of compelling narratives! Some of the people who have contacted me have woven very convincing stories based on their decoding of the ciphers, maps, and other clues that build a strong case against one individual or another. But they can’t all be right and none have produced a shred of physical evidence.

I think, together, we succeeded in painting a very good picture of the criminal psychopathic personality. Evidently, there are a lot of those types out there in the world because I hear from people who contact me saying, “Oh, my God! You have totally described my Uncle Bob!” Or, it’s their father, or their neighbor, or someone who picked them up once when they were hitchhiking, and so on. There are a lot more people out there than we’d like to believe who have had terribly destructive childhoods and gone on to become cruel, devious, manipulative, sadistic, secretive or boastful, violent, and so on. The prisons are filled with them. Those that got caught. And, then there are those that didn’t get caught. But they all have relatives and other people whose lives they’ve impacted. So in some ways, the psychological analysis we presented makes a convenient Rorschach in which any number of real or imagined bogeymen might be discovered.

What is it about this case that so captivates us?

For me, and I think for many others, it’s the thrill of the hunt and the challenge of solving a puzzle that is both difficult and yet seemingly within one’s grasp.

I’ve often been told that we had a very unique way of presenting the case in that it became an exchange of ideas about Zodiac’s own words. I’ve also been told that this way of going about the case was “fluffy” and speculative. I see both sides of that argument. How about you?

My part of the assignment was definitely speculative. You stuck more to the forensic facts. I was working blind from the letters he wrote, with you filling me in on the factual details only after I had gone out on a limb with the very fragmentary bits of writing that he provided us with. I relied on both my training as a psychologist and my intuition to guide me in constructing what I hoped would be a reasonably compelling narrative. I was willing to go way out on a limb at times. I worried a bit that I might be risking whatever positive professional reputation I have and that I might be pilloried by my colleagues. In fact, I’ve never received any negative feedback from any quarter. I’d love to see the case solved, once and for all, so I could chalk up my hits and misses.

Something personal here. I’ve really enjoyed getting older and, hopefully, a bit wiser. Our book helped me along that fascinating path. Did our book find a comfortable place in your life?

I loved working on this project. It certainly added some spice to my life. I had long carried the burden of not having written a book. Lots of my students had published books. Just about all of my friends had published books. I had been approached by publishers, who had been impressed by shorter pieces I had written, asking me to submit a book. One said he’d publish a book on any topic I wanted to write about. So I had been dragging this cross behind me for most of my life and then you came along and offered me this opportunity, for which I’ll always be grateful because I finally at least got to co-author a book, in what, for me, was the easiest way possible. All I had to do was respond to those letters that the Zodiac had written, as well as whatever questions you put to me. And, you were very good at keeping me motivated by constantly encouraging me. So, now, I’ve pretty much been able to put down that cross of not having written a book. Of course, I had not ever envisioned associating my name with a notorious serial killer. But, still, a book is a book! And, it’s looking like my magnum opus will not be a book but rather my two subsequent podcast series (Shrink Rap Radio and Wise Counsel Podcast) in which I’ve had the opportunity to interview some of the most well-known and accomplished people (almost all authors) across the very broad world of psychology and related fields. Life is full of surprises. Much like your contacting me for my reactions to some letters from a serial killer, the whole podcasting adventure was unplanned. It just sort of emerged.

So, yes, the book found a comfortable place in my life and I thank you for that!

And I certainly thank David for working on the project. We became close friends over this rather bizarre encounter, and that friendship has lasted. If you would like to contact David, email him at Also, if you enjoy all things psychological, listen to his fascinating podcasts. He mentions them in the interview.

The Long Search for Josef Mengele

Josef Mengele

Human history is an infinitely intricate web of wonder and horror, places and people. Nothing in our past leaves us untouched, and much of history leaves us confused—particularly if it involves acts of extreme cruelty, like genocide. It is especially important for us to understand the dark and brutal side of human history if, for no other reason, than to bring some form of closure to our pain and keep alive the hope for a less violent future. That is the reason why the search for Josef Mengele, the Nazi “Angel of Death,” became one of the most infamous manhunts in world history.

The search for Mengele spanned not only decades but also continents and cultures. It brought together men and women from dozens of disciplines and nations, all united in a common cause to find the man responsible for hundreds of thousands of brutal murders, and bring closure to those few who were fortunate enough to survive his atrocities. In the end, it was teamwork and science that closed the final chapter on the crimes committed by Josef Mengele—initially, through the work of a group of forensic anthropologists in 1985 and, later, in 1992, by the use of DNA technology.

Josef Mengele was born on March 16, 1911, in the town of Gunzburg, Germany, to Karl and Walburga Mengele. He was the eldest of three boys born in four years (Karl, who was born in 1912, and Alois, who was born in 1914). Throughout his youth, Mengele had a privileged upbringing and proved to be an excellent student and a popular youngster among his schoolmates. A year after his graduation from the Gymnasium in 1930, Mengele joined a paramilitary group. This organization would later be subsumed into the German Army, which swore an oath of personal obedience to their leader, Adolph Hitler—an oath that Mengele also took, only with an extraordinary penchant for brutality.

Mengele continued his education, as well as his military career, over the next several years. However, in October 1934, he was discharged from the ranks of the military because of a chronic kidney ailment. In 1935, Mengele earned a Ph.D. from the University of Munich. Ominously (and indicative of the horrifying philosophy prevalent in Germany at that time), his doctoral dissertation dealt with the determination of politically inspired racial differences based on the structure of the lower jaw in humans.

On January 1, 1937, Mengele was appointed as a research assistant at the Third Reich Institute for Heredity, Biology, and Racial Purity at the University of Frankfurt. By this time, his outspoken racist ideology had come to the attention of several high-ranking Nazis. Through his work at the Third Reich Institute, Mengele developed personal friendships with many notorious party officials, who shared his bizarre opinions about racial purity. In May of that year, Mengele formally joined the Nazi party and, a year later, was admitted to the SS.

In July 1938, Mengele was granted a medical degree by the University of Frankfurt. Later that year, he began basic military training with the Wehrmacht. Throughout this period, Mengele was vociferous in his convictions about the superiority of the Aryan race and Germany’s allegedly predestined role in world affairs. These ideas drew him even closer to the inner circle of Nazis, who were already planning for the eradication of millions of non-Aryans in the coming years.

While still completing his basic military service in the SS in 1940, Mengele married Irene Schoenbein. Later that year, he joined the medical corps of the Waffen SS. As the war in Europe spread both East and West of Berlin, Mengele was ordered to occupied Poland, where he joined the Genealogical Section of the Race and Resettlement Office. This was his first direct involvement in what would come to be the routine slaughter of millions of individuals over the next five years.

A year later, Mengele found himself in combat in the Ukraine as a member of the Waffen SS. In June 1941, he was honored for bravery with the Iron Cross, Second Class. Six months later, in January 1942, he joined the Viking Division medical corps of the Waffen SS and earned the Iron Cross, First Class, when he rescued two comrades from a burning tank at the risk of his own life. By the end of 1942, Mengele’s military career and ideology had so impressed the Nazi leadership that he was brought from the Eastern front to the Race and Resettlement Office in Berlin. With this posting, Mengele was awarded the rank of Captain (Haupsturmfuhrer) and began the serious work of aiding in the implementation of the Nazi plan for the elimination of all Jews and other minorities from the European continent.

Mengele arrived at Auschwitz, the most notorious concentration camp in Europe and the scene of his horrific crimes, on May 30, 1943. There, he conducted unspeakable experiments on twins and other prisoners who suffered from birth deformities or unusual physical characteristics. He also became legendary for his daily selection of those who would live to suffer in the camps or those who would be immediately resigned to the gas chambers. It was during this time that Mengele became known to the prisoners of Auschwitz as the “Angel of Death.”

On March 11, 1944, the Mengeles gave birth to their son, Rolf, even as the fate of Germany was becoming obvious to most Europeans. After the birth of his son, Mengele began to make plans for his eventual escape from Auschwitz, realizing that his life and freedom would soon be at stake as Germany continued to be battered on both the Eastern and Western fronts. On January 18, 1945, Russian troops finally arrived at the Auschwitz death camp, only to find that Mengele had already fled. Almost immediately, he was listed as a wanted war criminal.

Under orders from Berlin, the Angel of Death had made his way to another notorious death camp, Gross-Rosen, just ahead of the Russian Army. However, he could find no safe haven there. Just before the Russians liberated that camp, on February 11, 1945, Mengele again fled, this time exchanging his SS uniform for that of an ordinary German soldier. However, despite his best efforts, Mengele’s freedom was short lived. In June, he was arrested and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp that was located near Munich and run by American forces. Ironically, unlike most members of the Waffen SS, Mengele had refused to allow the usual tattoo of his blood type to be placed on his chest beneath his arm. Since his captors did not see the telltale tattoo, they assumed that Mengele’s denial that he was a member of the Waffen SS (or a war criminal) was true and they released him.

For the next few years, Mengele lived on a farm owned by George Fischer, always avoiding contact with the townsfolk and, for the most part, his family. In 1949, he was finally able to leave Germany and escape to Argentina. However, by this time, he was already the subject of a massive manhunt across Europe.

For the next four decades, Mengele lived in several locations in South America, using a number of aliases, such as Fritz Ulmann, Fritz Hollmann, Helmut Gregor, G. Helmuth, Jose Mengele, Ludwig Gregor, and Wolfgang Gerhard. Over these many years, the Angel of Death was sometimes helped by small groups of fleeing Nazis and Nazi-sympathizers who had also made their way to the very tolerant environs of Argentina, Brazil, and several other South American nations. However, for many of those years, Mengele was on his own, suffering from paranoia, and avoiding contact with all but his most trusted friends.

In 1954, Mengele divorced his wife, Irene, and, in 1958, married the widow of his brother, Karl. A year after that, on June 7, 1959, West Germany formally issued an arrest warrant for the hunted man and he responded by moving once again, this time to Paraguay. For the next twenty years, Mengele changed his residence several times and avoided contact with all but those in whom he had complete trust.

By early 1979, Mengele was living in Brazil and using the alias Wolfgang Gerhard. On the late afternoon of February 7 of that year, at Bertioga Beach in Embu, Josef Mengele drowned after suffering a stroke while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. His burial in the hills above the beach was a quiet affair, which had been arranged by a female friend named Lisolette Bossert. However, those who continued to hunt the Angel of Death from Europe, Israel, and America knew nothing about the demise of Wolfgang Gerhard.

Finally, in 1985, several clues surfaced that led investigators to Lisolette Bossert and the alleged grave of Wolfgang Gerhard. Bossert had originally told Brazilian authorities that her friend, Gerhard, had simply died of a drowning accident and she had buried him. However, after hours of interrogation, she finally admitted that the man in the grave was actually Josef Mengele. In truth, Wolfgang Gerhard had been an Austrian friend of Mengele’s, who also lived in South America for many years. When Gerhard departed Brazil to return to Austria, he had left his identification papers behind with Mengele, who promptly altered them for his own use and assumed Gerhard’s identity.

As soon as Bossert’s confession was made public, a team of forensic anthropologists and other forensic specialists was assembled to investigate the claim of Mengele’s death. The team included members from Brazil, the United States, and West Germany. In addition, other international organizations, such as the Wiesenthal Center in California, joined in the effort to investigate the grave of Josef Mengele.

A single skeleton was unearthed from the burial site at Embu, Brazil. Investigators were immediately suspicious of the remains and concerned that the individual who had died may not have been Mengele after all. At the time, it was considered possible that the remains in the grave actually did belong to Gerhard, and Bossert’s story had been nothing more than another red herring designed to keep investigators away from the aging Angel of Death. Given the historical importance of Mengele’s life, and now his death, it became crucial to make a final and accurate determination about who had actually been buried in the grave marked “Wolfgang Gerhard.”

Members of the forensics team gathered as much background information as they could about the physical characteristics of Gerhard and Mengele from Austrian and German authorities. This data included a variety of X-rays, military service reports, photographs of the men, and dental charts that could be used for comparison purposes once the remains had been exhumed. Armed with this information, the team removed the bones from the grave and began their examination.

Unfortunately, the skull of the individual in the grave had been severely damaged by the gravedigger when the body was first unearthed. In essence, the skull now consisted of many fragments, some of which were very small. Before there could be an effort to compare the unearthed remains with the data that had been collected by the team, it would be necessary to reconstruct the skull. The German anthropologist on the team, Richard Helmer, agreed to do the reconstruction work.

After several days of intense effort, Helmer was able to produce an excellent reconstruction of the skull. By this time, other members of the team had examined the remaining bones to determine the sex, ancestry, age, and other physical characteristics of the individual in the grave. Now, the team members could compare and coordinate their findings.

The forensic anthropologists on the team were able to determine that the remains belonged to a Caucasian male who stood five feet, eight inches tall. This was a vital piece of information because it immediately eliminated the possibility that the bones belonged to Gerhard, who stood over six feet tall in life. However, the height estimated by the anthropologists matched that of Mengele when he was alive. In addition, the team was able to conclude that the man in the grave had been between sixty and seventy years old when he died, more than ten years older than Gerhard would have been at the time of his death. However, this estimate matched the age range for Mengele when he drowned.

Although the conclusions of the forensic team pointed to a strong likelihood that the man in the grave had been Josef Mengele, they had no solid proof. Among the data that had been provided by the German authorities about Mengele, there were no X-rays of his teeth—a piece of critical information that could prove or disprove the identity of the remains. The team considered their options and decided that they must locate X-rays of Mengele’s teeth taken after he left Germany in order to prove their case one way or the other. In addition, they decided to make use of a brand new identification technique that was being developed at the time by Richard Helmer and other anthropologists—photographic superimposition.

While members of the team scoured a variety of locations in South America for X-rays of Mengele’s teeth, Helmer worked on what he needed to perform a photographic superimposition. The anthropologist created images of the skull that he had reconstructed, along with transparencies of the last known photographs of Josef Mengele. When he superimposed the two images, they matched perfectly. Now, the team members were convinced that the man in the grave had been the Angel of Death. All they needed was to match the teeth of the remains with some X-rays known to have belonged to Mengele to validate their conclusions.

Finally, after an exhaustive search that ranged across several South American countries, team members were able to locate X-rays of Mengele’s teeth that had been taken by a dentist only a year before his death. The dentist had performed extensive work on a patient he knew as Wolfgang Gerhard. When these X-rays were superimposed over images of the teeth in the reconstructed skull found in the grave, they matched perfectly. Of particular importance, the X-rays clearly showed a peculiar gap between the two front teeth of the patient, which precisely aligned with the gap in the remains and also matched the photographs of Mengele when he was alive.

The forensics team formally announced that they were convinced that the man buried in Embu, Brazil was, in fact, Josef Mengele. Generally, this conclusion was accepted by those who had pursued the Angel of Death for so many decades. However, the nation of Israel refused to issue a public statement acknowledging that the remains were really those of Mengele. Despite the convincing evidence that had been provided by the team of forensic anthropologists, small pockets of doubt still remained.

In 1992, the conclusions of the team of scientists who had first unearthed Mengele’s remains were finally validated beyond any doubt. In that year, Mengele’s son agreed to provide a sample of blood from which a DNA comparison could be made with the evidence gathered from the Brazilian grave. When the two samples were compared, they matched, indicating without doubt that the man in the grave had been Mengele. Finally, nearly fifty years after the Angel of Death had murdered his last victim at Auschwitz, the combined efforts of investigators, scientists, and several governments had paid off. The fate of Josef Mengele had been determined and at least some closure could be brought to the survivors of his countless victims.

The Scientist: Ellis Kerley

The life and times of a forensic anthropologist can be incredibly diverse and fascinating. Ellis Kerley, who is now retired in the San Diego area, had a full career that included some of the strangest and most historically important investigations of this century:

In 1978, Kerley was asked by the U. S. Congress to help with the investigation of the John Kennedy assassination. Some conspiracy theorists claimed that the bodies of Kennedy and his alleged murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been replaced by lookalikes prior to their autopsies. Kerley and his associates were able to prove that the remains of the two men were genuine.

In 1980, Kerley was involved in identifying the remains of servicemen who had died in the Iranian desert during the failed attempt to rescue American hostages being held in Tehran.

Kerley was a member of the 1985 team of scientists that determined the legitimacy of the remains of Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi “Angel of Death.”

In 1986, Kerley worked with the team responsible for identifying the remains of the seven astronauts killed in the Challenger explosion.

Kerley was a member of the team that positively identified the remains of the Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones, who had been buried in Paris in 1792 and later exhumed in 1913.

Excerpt From: The Millennium Murderer – Richard Ramirez

The Night Stalker

English: Prison photo of .

Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, epitomizes the unpredictable, compulsive serial killer. His motives and methods made it obvious that the rules by which we traditionally believed serial killers operated were anything but reliable. His horrific criminal career also taught us that there is no room for competition, jealousy, and lack of cooperation among local police jurisdictions when a pernicious murderer of the stature of the Night Stalker is moving among us. It is likely that a more coordinated and collegiate approach among competing police departments in Southern California during the 1980s would have resulted in an earlier apprehension of the Night Stalker, and would have saved lives. Unfortunately, this was not to be, and Ramirez used this unfortunate flaw in our law enforcement system to his advantage.

Ramirez was born in 1960 to devoted, hard working, Mexican immigrants. The last of five children, he was raised in El Paso, Texas, with a good deal of family attention and support, although without much money. When he was in the fifth grade, the Ramirez family learned that Richard suffered from childhood epilepsy, which, combined with the fact that he was the youngest child, made him the unquestioned center of his parents’ attention. Although this disorder hampered the boy’s ability to play sports—and clearly frustrated him—the seizures eventually subsided on their own and left him physically unaffected.

Since he was the last of the Ramirez’s children, Richard’s parents placed a good deal of hope in his future and tried to support him in the best way possible. Unfortunately, despite their persistent efforts, it is difficult to imagine how much worse his life could have turned out to be as an adult. However, until he reached adolescence, it seemed that Richard was on the right course in life, and his parents must have been generally pleased with their son.

Throughout his early school years, until the age of thirteen, Richard was a good student, often earning better than average grades. His early background was free of significant behavioral problems or brushes with the law, although he did show a sharp and sometimes unpredictable temper—an apparent trademark of all the males in the Ramirez family. Despite a promising start to his life, shortly before Richard was ready to attend high school he was set on a course of destructive behavior that would eventually lead him to become one of the most feared serial killers in California’s history.

By his thirteenth birthday, Richard had grown close to his older cousin, who had been a Green Beret in Vietnam and had returned to Texas after his discharge from the military. He was an imposing, highly decorated soldier, who must have seemed like a real-life hero to the impressionable boy. However, Richard’s cousin was also an angry and often violent man, who loved to share his war experiences with his young protégée. This regularly took the form of graphic combat stories that were sometimes accompanied by even more troubling photographs. Over time, Richard’s cousin taught the youngster how to use weapons, how to fight, and how to use basic survivalist tactics. He also introduced the teenager to his first experience with drugs. During the time they spent together, Richard and his cousin became inseparable, and the youngster’s behavior began to deteriorate significantly.

Ramirez was still only thirteen years old when he witnessed his cousin shoot his wife in the face after one of their seemingly endless arguments. His cousin was quickly arrested, tried for murder, pleaded temporary insanity, and received a lenient sentence because of his excellent military record. However, by this time, Richard had already become obsessed with his cousin’s lifestyle and behavior, which he emulated in every way he could. With his beloved mentor now behind bars, Richard was suddenly left to his own devices, and his life decisions went from bad to worse. Even at such an early age, Ramirez was using marijuana on a regular basis, had lost all interest in finishing his education, and was beginning to steal.

For a short time, Richard went to live with his older brother, Ruben, in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, his experiences with Ruben were as bad as those with his cousin. Ruben was a heroin addict and a seasoned burglar, who did little to push his younger brother in a positive direction. Rather, he re-established the same kind of poor role model that had already captured the youngster’s interest. By the time Richard returned to Texas, he was a regular drug user who had taken to burglary to support his habit.

For the next few years, Richard attended school in Texas, increased his use of drugs, and continued to steal, although he somehow managed to avoid any significant entanglements with the law. During this period, Richard was able to land a job at a local hotel, which provided him with a master key to the guestrooms. From time to time, he would steal valuables from the guests, although he was never caught or charged with a crime. It was also around this time that he developed a passion for voyeurism and would regularly try to catch women at the hotel or in the neighborhood while they were undressing.

At one point, Ramirez sneaked into the hotel room of a female guest and attacked her from behind, tied her, and tried to rape her. His assault was interrupted when the woman’s husband unexpectedly returned to the room and severely beat Richard before turning him over to the authorities. In defending himself, Ramirez claimed that the woman he had attacked had actually solicited him for sex. Since the youngster had no criminal record, he was treated with astonishing leniency by the court and simply returned to the custody of his parents without so much as a probationary sentence. Ramirez was only fifteen years old at the time.

Shortly after he turned eighteen, Richard left Texas and moved to Los Angeles, where he initially stayed once again with his brother. However, the two men soon argued and Richard left his brother’s home to find his own way in life. By then, he was a regular drug user and an experienced burglar. At this point, there was no turning back for the young man. He had simply fallen too far into the abyss that had grown around him years earlier.

Addicted to cocaine, and often using LSD or PCP, Ramirez found himself in a world of dark, violent fantasies that involved intense themes of sexual domination and sadism. He was an accomplished burglar, who began to feel invincible in his ability to avoid detection. Ramirez had also discovered the writings of Anton LaVey, the founder and high priest of the Church of Satan in San Francisco. Through LaVey’s words, the young man discovered what he believed to be the most powerful force in the universe—Satan. In Satan he found the ultimate excuse to freely exercise a compulsion for unspeakable mayhem and violence that had been brooding within his heart for years. He had finally reached the point in his life at which society would become the victim who would catapult him to the fame he had always desired so intensely.

The Night Stalker’s year of lethal violence began when he was twenty-four. It included beatings, slashing, shootings, and unspeakable acts of sexual abuse and molestation. His victims were children, women, men, and even those who were elderly and disabled. Although the Night Stalker is believed to have murdered as many as twenty individuals, several of his victims survived the assaults, and a few were even able to provide fairly detailed descriptions of their attacker. In addition to this, Ramirez was often sloppy in his brutality, regularly leaving a variety of clues at crimes scenes, although it took investigators a year to piece this information together and use it successfully in their search for the serial killer. Like a number of other serial murderers, Richard Ramirez was more lucky than proficient when it came to avoiding capture for so long, thanks in great measure to an uncoordinated investigation into his crimes.

Here is a brief summary of the Night Stalker’s yearlong reign of terror in Southern California, which began in 1984. It does not include many of the victims who survived his attacks, nor the countless other felonies that he is believed to have committed during this period. Even in its abbreviated form, it is a tale of extraordinary viciousness that has rarely been duplicated in our long history of crime:

  • June 28, 1984, Glassell Park: A 79-year-old woman is repeatedly stabbed and her throat is slashed in the first confirmed Night Stalker murder. Typical of the pattern that he will follow throughout the next year, the serial killer breaks into the victim’s home at night and steals her valuables after the murder. In virtually every attack, Ramirez seemed to delight in spending time with his victims in their homes, inflicting a broad array of cruel punishments.
  • March 17, 1985, Rosemead: A 34-year-old woman is shot to death in her condominium. Her roommate is wounded but survives, providing police with their first physical description of the suspect. The description is vague but later proves to comport with the appearance of Richard Ramirez.
  • March 17, 1985, Monterey Park: On the same night as the Rosemead attack, a 30-year-old woman is dragged from her car and shot several times. She dies the next day from her wounds. This would not be the first time that Ramirez would claim more than one victim in two different locations on the same night. However, at this point in the saga of murder, investigators had no idea that the crimes were related.
  • March 26, 1985, Whittier: A couple is brutally murdered in their home. The 64-year-old man is beaten and shot to death. His 44-year-old wife is shot and stabbed to death, and her eyes are carved out and placed in a jewelry box.
  • May 14, 1985, Monterey Park: A 65-year-old man is shot in the head, while his wife, although beaten and brutalized, survives the attack. Footprints are discovered at the crime scene, which are later linked to Richard Ramirez.
  • May 29, 1985, Monrovia: Two weeks after the Monterey Park attack, two elderly sisters, aged 81 and 84, are brutally beaten in their home. One of them is an invalid. The assailant draws a pentagram on one of the victim’s thighs and scrawls other pentagrams on the interior walls of the home. One of the women survives the assault, while the other dies.
  • June 27, 1985, Arcadia: A young, female schoolteacher is sodomized in her home and has her throat slashed in a fatal attack.
  • July 2, 1985, Arcadia: Less than two miles away and a week later, a woman in her seventies is slain in the same manner as the schoolteacher. Police immediately see a connection between the two Arcadia murders, although they have not yet established a positive link with the previous attacks.
  • July 7, 1985, Monterey Park: A 61-year-old woman is beaten to death in her home. That same night, the killer rapes and brutally beats another woman in her home. Fortunately, the Night Stalker’s second victim survives the assault.
  • July 20, 1985, Glendale: A 69-year-old man and his 66-year-old wife are slashed and shot to death in their home.
  • July 20, 1985, Sun Valley: On the same night as the Glendale attack, a 32-year-old man is beaten and shot to death in his home. His wife is raped and beaten, and his 8-year-old son is also beaten.
  • August 6, 1985, Northridge: A 38-year-old man and his 27-year-old wife are critically wounded by gunshots in their home. They survive the attack and provide a new description to investigators, which generally confirms the previous descriptions of the Night Stalker.
  • August 8, 1985, Diamond Bar: Two days later, a 35-year-old man is shot to death in his home. His wife is beaten and sexually molested. Following this attack, investigators make a public announcement that they are searching for serial killer.
  • August 17, 1985, San Francisco: Realizing that the police are on to him, the Night Stalker decides to change the location of his attacks. In the only known fatal assault outside of Southern California, a 66-year-old man is shot to death in his home. His wife is also shot and beaten, but survives her wounds. She provides yet another description of the assailant, which closely matches the appearance of Richard Ramirez.
  • August 25, 1985, Mission Viejo: A 29-year-old man is shot in the head and his fiancée is raped before their car is stolen. Both survive the attack. On August 28, the automobile is recovered and a set of fingerprints belonging to Richard Ramirez is recovered. After the killer’s description appears extensively in the newspapers and on television, Ramirez is captured by citizens in Los Angeles on August 31, 1985.

The Night Stalker’s last day of freedom nearly cost him his life. Ironically, it was responding police officers who rescued him from several angry citizens who were beating him into submission after he had tried to forcibly steal an automobile. In a turn of events that should have shattered his belief in Satan’s protection, Ramirez was relieved to be saved by the same pursuers who he had always thought would never be able to capture him. In fact, he pleaded with them to be taken into custody and out of the hands of his enraged captors. Much to the pleasure of investigators in the case, the man who had so terrorized Southern California for more than a year ultimately proved to be easily subdued.

Although Ramirez bragged that he had murdered twenty individuals, investigators believe that the actual number was sixteen. However, given the large number of unsolved homicides that typically plague this area of California, no one can ever be certain of how many murders were actually committed by the Night Stalker. In the end, he was formally charged with 13 counts of homicide and dozens of counts of other felonies, including sexual assault, and breaking and entering. It is virtually certain that many of his crimes, possibly including additional homicides, will never be brought to light.

After more than a year of legal delays, the Night Stalker’s trial finally began in July 1988, more than two years after he first faced a preliminary hearing for his crimes. However, it took some six months before a jury was finally seated and matters began in earnest, in January 1989.

From the onset of the trial, it became clear that Richard Ramirez was basking in the self-perceived glory of his horrific crimes and the inevitable, sensational media coverage that followed in their wake. His typical court garb was a dark suit and sunglasses, which made him look like a cross between a rock star and a Mafia hit-man. Ramirez incessantly played to the court, the jury, a disturbing number of women who apparently had fallen in love with the killer, and virtually everyone else in attendance at trial. Throughout the proceedings, the Night Stalker showed no remorse for his brutality. Rather, he took every opportunity to demonstrate his unremitting faith in Satan and a complete disdain for his victims. Finally, on September 20, 1989, he was convicted of 13 counts of murder and 30 additional felonies, which resulted in multiple death sentences.

For a while, Ramirez fell from the media limelight; however, he continued to capture the imagination of many true-crime devotees. Seven years after his conviction, in 1996, while on San Quentin’s death row, the Night Stalker was married to a woman who had become his ardent admirer during the unremitting media coverage of his trial and its aftermath. Today, Ramirez awaits the last of his appeals and a final date with the executioner.

What was Richard Ramirez, and how do we classify him? Was he an organized or disorganized serial killer? If organized, of what type? What do we really know about this predator, and what have we learned from his horrific crimes that could help us deal with future serial killers?

The Night Stalker is technically classified as a mixed-type serial killer because his behavior and signature borrowed elements from both the organized and disorganized type of offenders. In truth, Ramirez broke all the rules of how we generally understand these predators. He successfully defied any attempt to clearly categorize him in a formal way. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual scenario with serial killers. They often cannot be categorized successfully, or in more than general terms. However, the Night Stalker proved to be wildly beyond accepted psychological or criminal categorizations. He was a true predator without any hint of conscience, whose exceptional brutality helped define many of the essential characteristics of the kind of societal assailant that we now recognize as a Millennium Murderer.

In many ways, Richard Ramirez rewrote our understanding of serial killers, and he significantly clouded it. Like other serial killers, Ramirez selected his victims at random. However, he demonstrated no preference for any societal, age, or sexual subgroup. In this sense, the Night Stalker lashed out against women and men, young and old, the infirm, and even children, all with equal fury and disdain. He murdered his victims with unspeakable brutality using guns, knives, blunt objects, and even a machete. Like the disorganized serial killer, Ramirez would sometimes use weapons that he found in the victims’ homes. Like an organized serial killer, he would often bring his own weapons with him. It didn’t seem to matter to the Night Stalker how he killed his victims, so long as it was brutal and shocking.

Ramirez would travel significant distances to select his victims, at one point even driving the length of the state of California. This kind of behavior was traditionally attributed to the organized serial killer. However, the Night Stalker’s crime scenes were typically chaotic and gruesome—and he would regularly attack his prey from behind—just as one would expect from a disorganized serial killer. In the end, the murder’s ability and willingness to vary the locations of his attacks probably kept him on the streets far longer than he should have been.

Many believe that this predator was a master at claiming his victims across police jurisdictions, which confused and prolonged the investigation because of the poor cooperation and interdepartmental jealousies that were rampant in Southern California at the time. In effect, Ramirez used the weaknesses of his pursuers against them in a rather sophisticated way, which is certainly a hallmark of the organized serial killer. However, he also left numerous clues behind, such as footprints and even fingerprints in a variety of obviously sloppy and disorganized crime scenes. Nonetheless, Ramirez planned his attacks in at least a modest way, carefully selecting homes that he felt he could enter without being seen or immediately heard, although he did not seem to care about who lived in these houses. To the mind of this enigmatic killer, any victim would do, and the rules of the lethal game were his alone.

Richard Ramirez was convinced that he could not be captured—that his lord, Satan, would protect him throughout his killing career, regardless of his actions. However, despite this bizarre belief, Ramirez was legally sane and well able to understand the meaning of his actions. He certainly knew right from wrong, and he took obvious delight in living on the darkest side of human depravity that he could muster. In this sense, he was a serial killer by choice, not in accordance with the will of some ill-defined demon.

In the final analysis, Richard Ramirez was a Millennium Murderer of the most horrific kind—a man who felt no compulsion about his actions, cared only for his own unspeakable gratification, and was completely dissociated from his victims and society at large. That he was so successful in evading capture for so long, and claiming so many innocent lives, was more a tribute to the lack of coordination among several law enforcement agencies in Southern California than it was to the concise planning of the Night Stalker, or the intervention of Satan. Ultimately, Richard Ramirez was truly a man without a soul. In that sense he probably was the devil’s work, as well as one of the most pernicious Millennium Murderers of the late twentieth century.

The El Mozote Massacre

The work of Clyde Snow and others who labor with problems of individual identification in cases of mass disasters reflects the humanistic side of their profession—the need to account for all human beings, especially those who have been the victims of atrocities. — Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, Ph.D. Professor of Ecology, Anthropology, Asian Studies, Cornell University. (From a private letter to the author.)The site of the old, burned down church in El ...

In his book, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War, author Mark Danner wrote that the events at El Mozote in the early 1980s may well have represented the largest massacre in modern Latin American history. In fact, this tiny, impoverished village, which is located in a mountainous region of northeastern El Salvador, proved to be a killing ground of unspeakable horror and a focal point of international controversy that involved the outright denial of historical truth by high-ranking representatives of two governments, including our own. It was only when the science of forensic anthropology was brought to bear at the El Mozote site, more than a decade after the massacre, that the world would learn of the horrific crimes that had claimed the lives of all but one villager. Unfortunately, for Americans, we would also learn that the atrocities that occurred in this Salvadoran village were a direct result of our nation’s unflagging support of a foreign government that set few limits on the use of force against its own people.

El Salvador is a country of less than 6 million people, whose population lives primarily in rural areas. This is a very poor nation, with as many as 3 million inhabitants living in extreme poverty. Most of the citizens of El Salvador eke out a marginal subsistence on the land and live in isolated communities where comforts are few but family and religious bonds are crucial and unquestioned.

In 1981, El Salvador was at the height of a civil war that was ravaging the countryside, costing thousands of innocent lives and resulting in a complex network of foreign entanglements and intrigue that epitomized the political and philosophical divisions inherent in the Cold War. At the time of the civil war, Cuba and Nicaragua supported the guerrillas fighting in El Salvador, who were organized as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and committed to overthrowing the regime then in power in their country. For its part, the Salvadoran government was equally committed to putting down the revolution, using whatever force they thought necessary to do so. The ruling government was strongly supported by American funds, weapons, and specialized military training that focused on counterinsurgency combat techniques. Caught in the middle of this brutal conflict were the Salvadoran people—most of them poor, peaceful, and deeply religious peasants—who struggled with both the civil war and the inherently difficult living conditions common to the vast rural areas of their country.

In all, more than 75,000 people would be killed in the twelve-year civil war before peace was finally restored to El Salvador. Sadly, many peasants and refugees in this conflict became the victims of a series of brutal massacres that were carried out by the Salvadoran military. However, of the many atrocities that took place during the course of the conflict, none was worse than what occurred in the small village of El Mozote in 1981.

On December 10, 1981, units of the Atlacatl Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion (BIRI), the Third Infantry Brigade, and the San Francisco Gotera Command Training Centre descended on the village of El Mozote in an anti-guerrilla action that had been code named “Operacion Rescate.” The goal of this operation, which had begun a few days earlier on December 6, 1981, was to eliminate guerilla presence in the northern Morazan area of the country and, in particular, in the hills near El Mozote, where a guerrilla training camp was thought to be located. The Salvadoran troops had been engaged in minor skirmishes with guerrillas in the area near El Mozote for several days preceding their occupation of the village. Much of the combat had involved American-trained and equipped soldiers, who comprised the heart of the infamous Atlacatl Battalion.

The Atlacatl Battalion had an unhappy history that may have led to its reputation as an especially brutal element of the Salvadoran military. Nine months before the commencement of Operacion Rescate, a company of the Battalion had taken part in another anti-guerrilla operation near El Mozote. During that encounter, the Atlacatl Battalion had suffered heavy causalities and was forced to retreat in disgrace from the area. After this incident, the Battalion became the brunt of jokes from other military units, acquiring the hated moniker of the “Rapid Retreat Infantry Battalion.” When the Atlacatl Battalion once again found itself positioned near El Mozote, its members were committed to not repeating their mistakes of the past.

El Mozote was a typical rural village, comprised of about twenty small homes that surrounded a modest central square. Facing the square was the village church, which was the primary gathering point for villagers and the pride of El Mozote’s inhabitants. Behind the church, a small building had been erected, which was known to the villagers as the “convent house.” This structure was used by the Catholic priest to change into his vestments before celebrating mass for the residents of El Mozote and the surrounding area.

When they arrived in the village, the Salvadoran soldiers discovered that the population of El Mozote had swelled with a large number of peasants from the nearby area. These refugees had fled their own villages and homes to avoid the ongoing clashes between the military forces and the guerrillas, seeking the relative safety they thought would be provided by a respected businessman who lived in El Mozote. The occupying soldiers immediately assumed that the villagers and refugees were guerilla sympathizers and decided to deal with them in the harshest possible way. In reality, few of the peasants that the soldiers encountered that day were involved in the ongoing conflict. Most of them were women and children.

Soon after their arrival in El Mozote, government troops ordered the residents to leave their homes and gather together in the village square. There, the frightened peasants were divided into groups of men, women and children, and placed under guard in various structures, including the church and the convent house. Throughout that night, the villagers were held without food or water and kept under an armed watch.

The following morning, December 11, members of the Atlacatl Battalion reassembled the villagers in the square in front of the church. At midday, the male villagers were systemically interrogated, tortured, and then executed by the soldiers. When all the men in the village had been massacred, the troops began murdering the women and children by herding them into the convent house and shooting them to death. When they were convinced that the entire population of El Mozote had been slain, the troops set fire to the buildings in which the bodies lay. However, one woman managed to survive the ordeal and later tell her story of that horrific day.

After the massacre, the government troops spent the night in El Mozote without bothering to bury the bodies of any of their victims. The following morning, they moved to the village of Los Toriles, which was approximately two kilometers away. There, they continued with the massacre. However, a few residents of Los Toriles were able to flee the area after the soldiers arrived and later confirmed the atrocities that they had witnessed.

In the village of El Mozote, only one individual was known to have escaped the massacre of December 11, 1981—Rufina Amaya, who had witnessed the murder of her blind husband while hiding in some bushes at the edge of the village. Tragically, while still out of sight of the soldiers, she also heard the screams of her four children as they, too, were systemically murdered.

When she was later located and interviewed by investigators, Amaya explained her remarkable tale of survival in an exceptionally moving and straightforward way that both affirmed her strong faith and expressed her deep pain:

God saved me because He needed someone to tell the story of what happened. I wish He hadn’t, though, because it is very painful to have to think of it all the time. There are so many things that I remember, and I tell them, but I just cannot stand to be there [in El Mozote].

The actual number of victims who were massacred at El Mozote has never been precisely determined. However, highly conservative estimates initially put the number at two hundred. Some estimates ran as high as 1,000 victims slaughtered that day. In fact, most investigators believe the number to certainly exceed five hundred.

The villages of El Mozote and Los Toriles were not the only locations of atrocities carried out by Salvadoran troops around that time in the Morazan area. In fact, the Atlacatl Battalion and other government troops ravaged several surrounding villages. According to the United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Mozote, the following massacres of civilians also took place at approximately the same time in nearby locations:

  • More than 20 civilians were murdered in the La Joya area on December 11, 1981.
  • Approximately 30 civilians were murdered in the village of La Rancheria on December 12, 1981, by units of the Atlacatl Battalion.
  • An unknown number of civilians from the village of Jocote Amarillo were executed on December 13, 1981.

On January 27, 1982, the American public and the world became aware of the El Mozote tragedy when articles written by Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto appeared simultaneously in the New York Times and the Washington Post. In those articles, the investigative journalists confirmed that they had visited the site of the massacre earlier that month and had personally seen the remains of the victims and the ruins that had once been El Mozote. When these articles first appeared in the press, Reagan administration officials involved in overseeing Central American policy publicly ridiculed them and brushed aside any possibility of a massacre. In fact, they claimed that El Salvador had made a good deal of progress in the area of human rights. However, as the world would soon learn, nothing could have been further from the truth.

Despite an immediate outcry by a variety of human rights organizations in the United States and other countries, the Salvadoran government immediately and unequivocally denied that any atrocities had taken place. The United States government continued to publicly support the Salvadoran government position and no official investigation into the incident was undertaken. However, human rights activists, working in secret, located the few remaining eyewitnesses to the massacres. Their testimony left little question that the alleged atrocities had actually taken place. Still, in the face of strong denials by both the U.S. and El Salvador governments, more than eyewitness testimony was needed to confirm what had occurred. Somehow, hard scientific evidence of the tragedy that had befallen El Mozote would have to be gathered.

In 1989, the legal office of the El Salvadoran Catholic Church, Tutela Legal, began an investigation into the massacres at El Mozote and the surrounding villages, based largely on the scarce eyewitness testimony of survivors and the work of a few investigative journalists. It was not long before the findings of Tutela Legal were made public. They indicated that at least 767 persons had been killed in the area around El Mozote in 1981. Still, even the report released by Tutela Legal was publicly derided since it contained no hard evidence to refute the Salvadoran government’s revised position that only insurgents had been targeted by their military actions.

In an effort to produce further hard evidence of the massacres, the leaders of Tutela Legal contacted the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and asked them to provide scientific assistance in their investigation by conducting an exhumation of key areas in and around the village of El Mozote. This action, they believed, would finally provide irrefutable proof of the atrocities that were now known to have been committed but continued to be so vehemently denied by government authorities.

In 1992, the warring parties in El Salvador’s civil uprising executed a peace accord, formally bringing an end to the twelve-year conflict that had ripped the country apart. As part of the treaty, both sides agreed to let the United Nations oversee an investigation into serious acts of human rights violations that had occurred over the previous decade. This was the opportunity that was needed by organizations like Tutela Legal to move ahead in gathering solid evidence of war crimes.

For much of 1992, the EAAF and several internationally renowned forensic anthropologists and scientists struggled to obtain legal permission from the Salvadoran government to begin their investigation in earnest. Finally, near the end of that year, all permissions were in place and the fieldwork was scheduled to begin.

An exhumation of the remains of the victims at El Mozote took place from November 13-17, 1992, by a combined effort with Salvadoran and international forensic scientists. It was decided that particular attention would be given to the area near the village church and the convent house, where Rufina Amaya had claimed to witness the murder of her entire family.

The El Mozote team of scientists included: Clyde C. Snow, Ph.D., forensic anthropologist; Robert H. Kirschner, M.D., forensic pathologist; Douglas D. Scott, Ph.D., archeologist and ballistics expert, and John J. Fitzpatrick, M.D., trauma radiologist. This team operated as consultants to the United Nations Truth Commission in El Salvador and in conjunction with the EAAF, who had intimate knowledge of fieldwork in Central and South America.

Eight years earlier, in 1984, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense, or EAAF) had been founded under the guidance of Clyde Snow to investigate the fate of individuals who had disappeared during the many years of a repressive military regime in that country. Since its inception, the EAAF had handled cases in Chile, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Brazil, and a number of other Central and South American countries. It was comprised of an experienced and highly professional group of scientists, who were familiar with the special challenges of forensic anthropology fieldwork in rural Central American venues. The organization’s efforts at El Mozote proved to be crucial to the successful exhumation of remains and evidence collection, as well as the eventual confirmation of the atrocities that had claimed the lives of so many villagers.

The Science at El Mozote

The principle site exhumed by the El Mozote forensic team was the convent house—the ruin of a small, single-room building that was adjacent to the remains of the village church. This structure measured 4.36 by 6.94 meters and had been destroyed by fire after the inhabitants of the village were executed. It was at this site that at least 143 human skeletons were unearthed.Because of the time that had elapsed since the massacre, the lack of burial of any of the victims, and the actions of predatory animals in the area, many of the remains were scattered and partially destroyed. In addition, because the structure had been set ablaze, the remains were also subject to damage by fire and the crushing weight of the structure as it collapsed on the bodies inside. The El Mozote site was exhumed by members of the Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (EAAF) and the remains were subsequently analyzed by members of Clyde C. Snow’s interdisciplinary team, acting as consultants to the United Nations Truth Commission.

The exhumation team carried out the field investigation, prepared extensive sketches, photographs, and videotapes of their work, which were later provided to Snow’s analysis team using the facilities at the Institute of Legal Medicine at Santa Tecla. Both Snow’s team and the EAAF subsequently released separate reports on their findings. Snow’s report was included in the United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Mozote (1992), which proved to be the definitive account of what had transpired in that village in 1981.

The El Mozote team issued their report of findings on December 10, 1992, which not only authenticated the story that had been told by Rufina Amaya but vilified the government of El Salvador. The conclusions reached by the scientists clearly demonstrated that a horrific act of mass murder had occurred at El Mozote and had been subsequently covered up for more than a decade.

While in El Salvador, the El Mozote team analyzed hundreds of skeletal remains, ballistic evidence, a variety of clothing, coins, and other artifacts that had been exhumed in and around the area of the village church and the convent house. After collecting the evidence at the village, the group undertook its analysis at a special laboratory that had been established at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Santa Tecla. There, the scientists were assisted by various members of the Institute staff, a local dental expert, and the Comision de Investgacion, which provided additional ballistics testing support.

The El Mozote team was able to confirm overwhelming evidence of the massacre that had been denied on virtually all fronts, including by the United States government, for so many years. In their final report, Snow’s group offered precise and compelling evidence for their troubling conclusions:

  • At least 143 skeletal remains were discovered, including 136 adolescents and children, and 7 adults. The team was able to determine that the average age of the slain children was approximately six years. Despite the confirmed number of victims, the scientists believed that a greater number of deaths had occurred at El Mozote. However, they were unable to positively confirm additional victims due to the chaotic nature of the burial site, the activity of predatory animals in the area, and the number of years that had passed since the executions.
  • The skeletons unearthed at El Mozote demonstrated unmistakable evidence of severe trauma caused by high velocity gunshot wounds, crushing wounds, and fire or heat damage to the remains.
  • The team determined that the victims had all died at approximately the same time, followed by a deliberate burning of the structure in which the villagers perished. It is possible that some of the victims were burned alive since not all the remains showed evidence of death by gunshot wounds or other identifiable trauma. From the evidence at the scene, including coins and other personal belongings, the team determined that the victims had definitely been slain no later than 1981.
  • Although the vast majority of the victims were children, one of them was a pregnant woman.
  • At least nine of the victims were shot inside the convent house while they were lying in a horizontal position.
  • Nearly 250 cartridge cases and more than 260 bullet fragments were discovered at the El Mozote site. The majority of these cartridge cases (184) showed discernible headstamps that indicated the ammunition had been manufactured for the United States government at a Lake City, Missouri, location. Beyond this, 34 of the casings were preserved well enough for the team to further identify certain characteristics related to the weapons that had been used in the executions. According to the El Mozote ballistics team report, all but one of the bullets had been fired from M-16 rifles that were manufactured in the United States. Twenty-four individual weapons were identified, based on an analysis of the casings, implying at least twenty-four individual shooters who participated in the massacre.
  • According to the unearthed ballistics evidence, the team determined that the shooters fired at their victims while they were huddled together in the convent house. The shooters had positioned themselves near the doorway and at the area of a window to the right of the doorway, while their targets were gathered together in the middle of the room. In other words, the children and adults were surrounded and fired upon by the shooters, who had blocked any possible escape from the structure.
  • There was no evidence discovered that would support the long-held government assertion that these victims were actively involved in armed conflict or caught in the crossfire of warring parties. Rather, the evidence clearly supported the conclusion that the victims were intentionally murdered while unarmed and apparently uninvolved in any ongoing conflict.

Even at the time of their field investigation, the forensics team was convinced that many more victims had been claimed at El Mozote than could be accounted for by their findings, and several EAFF scientists carried on with the work at the site. By late 1993, the EAAF team publicly announced that they had been able to identify more than 500 people who had been killed in and around the village in December 1981. However, it is widely accepted that the true extent of the massacre will never be known.

Unfortunately, there are few final answers to the El Mozote tragedy, and much will likely never be known about the atrocious acts that destroyed the village and its inhabitants in 1981. The Salvadoran government has persistently claimed that it is unable to identify any of the participants in the massacre at El Mozote, publicly maintaining that there are no government records still in existence from the time period in question.

Today, in the village of El Mozote, a Wall of Lamentations has been erected in honor of those who died so needlessly. The monument depicts a man and woman holding the hands of two small children. On the monument, a plaque reads: “They have not died, they are with us, with you, and with all mankind.” For El Salvadorans, no other explanation is needed to describe the horror that befell this small village.

The humanitarian work undertaken by the forensic scientists who excavated and analyzed the El Mozote massacre site confirmed the truth of what had happened in this tiny village so many years ago—and it did so beyond any doubt. The efforts of these scientists not only led to an important revision of false history that had been propagated by government authorities for far too long, it also brought honor upon themselves and to the victims who perished in such a merciless, cruel way. Hopefully, the truth of the horrible history that the EAAF and Clyde Snow’s team brought to light will lead us all to a heightened awareness of the atrocities that are so often committed by a government against its own people. In so doing, perhaps this knowledge can help prevent future occurrences of these kinds of horrific crimes.