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David Glassman, forensic anthropologist

Evansville Courier & Press, August 22, 2006
by Jacob Bennett, staff writer

The skull was smashed and most of the bones were missing.  The flesh was gone, except for a few straggling pieces on the arm.

Only a couple of people knew David Glassman was in a lab at the University of Southern Indiana, examining this incomplete skeleton.  But thousands of television viewers have seen him.

Investigators in Texas mailed this skeleton to him, looking for answers.  They wanted Glassman, USI's dean of liberal arts, to help figure out: Who is it?  Was it male or female?  How did this person die?  Who might have done it?

Only one thing was a good bet: "When I'm involved, it's almost never an accident."

*****

Glassman is now a TV veteran -- he's been on "Forensic Files," "America's Most Wanted," "The New Detectives" -- walking viewers through his methods, explaining how he found the clues that put away killers.  On Friday, you can catch his third appearance on the Discovery Health series "Skeleton Stories."

But when TV producers first approached him six or so years ago, he was caught off-guard. "For the first 15 years, nobody knew what I did, or if I told them, nobody cared," he said.  "I spent 18 years doing this in a dirty, dingy place.  It's funny that all of a sudden, it's become popular."

He is a forensic anthropologist, which means he studies bones to help law enforcement.

The field is a ratings champ now -- it is the subject of some of TV's most popular dramas that glamorize a field that requires slow, careful work. In Glassman's case, he examines bones, looking for clues to age, height, sex, race and manner of death.

"There's an inherent human interest in this type of stuff," said Robert J. Thompson, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Once the appetite started being fed, we realized we had the appetite."

Glassman got his first taste of the limelight in the 1996 David Sayles movie "Lone Star," starring Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey.  When doing research for the script, Sayles asked Texas Rangers, "What's the first thing you do when you find a body in a field?"

"Call Glassman."

"Who's Glassman?"

*****

Glassman, 52, works in an office surrounded by skulls and bones and a trumpet made of leg bones.  He came here in 2004 from Texas State University.  There, he taught anthropology courses and classes in human variation and primate behavior.

He is one of just 70 certified forensic anthropologists in the country, he said.

He is a Minnesota native who was interested in prehistoric anthropology when he arrived at the University of Tennessee for grad school in the 1970s.  The school was trying to get its forensic anthropology program off the ground, so it made students in prehistoric anthropology study the newly dead, too, at its three-acre "Body Farm," where students observe decomposition.

"I didn't know (the field) existed when I went to grad school," Glassman said. "It's intrinsically interesting to me.  You're dealing with what (bones) can say about a person. It's good for society.  Even though you can't bring someone back to life you can at least help families get closure on their missing individuals.

*****

These bones were found in a field in Texas and arrived at USI via Federal Express.  Glassman's administrative assistant, Pam Moore, said she wouldn't know they were bones if he hadn't told here.

"At least it's just bones," Moore said.  "It'd be different if there was flesh."

Earlier this month, Glassman took the skeleton to a lab that he shares with archaeology faculty.  He laid out the bones as if he had a complete skeleton, searching for clues.  He measured the arms and legs and looked at each piece under a magnifying glass.

"Although 'CSI' can be bogus and bizarre, it does note that you never know what's going to be the important piece," Glassman said.  "You never know where that one subtle, small ... crack or fracture line is going to become apparent, where you can go, 'I know what happened to this person.'"

*****

Glassman's first appearance on "Skeleton Stories" was the case of Trini Gonzalez, a 9-year-old girl from Alice, Texas, who was missing for a year before her bones were discovered by two boys on their way to play baseball.

Glassman not only confirmed the identity of the remains, but determined how she died: Fractures on both sides of her head indicated she had been pushed into a wall.  Armed with this knowledge, police pulled a confession from the boyfriend of Trini's aunt and guardian, who said he smothered the girl with a pillow because she was convulsing after her aunt pushed her into a wall.

Also this season, Glassman discussed how three skeletons he examined linked one man to the deaths of three women.  The skulls all showed fractures, which meant they were all killed in similar ways, which enabled authorities to prosecute the man as a serial killer.

Friday's episode involves the case of a man murdered in a homeless camp.  Police didn't tell Glassman this -- they like him to come to his own conclusions, but they thought he might have been killed with a hatchet found nearby.  They even had a suspect who had been known to threaten people with a hatchet.

But Glassman's initial findings ruled this out -- the trauma wasn't caused by a sharp object.

"When they brought me the hatchet, it did not take long before you got that 'Aha!' moment," Glassman said.  "What had happened, the hatchet had been turned over and the butt of the hatchet fit exactly into the hole."

*****

In the case of the skeleton found in the field in Texas that Glassman was looking at this month, answers were hard to come by.  The vertebrae were in good shape, which meant the person didn't have arthritis, which indicated the person could have been younger than 45.  But the bones in the skull were also fused together -- a sign that growth was complete, so the person was probably older than 30.

This skull was shattered, but Glassman wasn't sure if that happened before or after death.   Most of the face was gone, which made in impossible to discern ethnicity.

Glassman filled out a data sheet and punched his measurements in a computer program to determine height.  He would send his findings to authorities in Houston.  When he reports his conclusions, he has to offer a degree of probability.

"I'm sure somebody would love to know that this is their father, brother, mother, sister," Glassman said.  "They'll look through matching records and see if they find anybody who matches that profile.  If they can't find a match from missing persons, it just becomes a cold case file."

But that's another show.