SPRINGFIELD — Nici Vance's job puts a whole different spin on the phrase "body of evidence."
As the state's forensic anthropologist, what she does is more like getting evidence from bodies. And right now Vance has a total of 96 bodies — mostly just remains, actually — that still haven't given up enough evidence to attach a name to them.
That's a big part of Vance's job. But even with all the advanced technology and science at her disposal, some remains just won't give up enough information to identify them and send them back to loved ones who still mourn for a lost son or daughter, a friend or relative.
Vance has been going around the state giving talks about her job with the Oregon State Police crime lab and State Medical Examiner's Office.
On Saturday she was at the Springfield Public Library, running people through some of the finer points of telling dog bones from human bones and how a person's sex, age, height, nationality and other characteristics can be teased out of what otherwise just looks like a jumbled, and sometimes gruesome, pile of bones and bodily remains.
It's a lively talk by a lively speaker. But one of the things she most wants people to know is that they may be able to help identify some of those 96 still unnamed people.
The key is a public website and database known as NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. It's a place people can go to look up information on missing persons, as well as unidentified remains, using anything that's known about the case to help aid an identification.
So far, Vance said, 16 Oregon cases have been solved through the NamUs program. Among them was the first case she ever worked on, a set of remains found at the Troutdale Airport in 1996.
The case was solved a few years ago when family members decided to enter their DNA into the database. The man was identified almost immediately.
"I never thought we would identify him," Vance said. "Then, boom, a hit."
NamUs now lists 121 missing and unidentified people from Oregon. Among them are a man found floating in the Willamette River just east of the Autzen footbridge in 2009 who remains unknown, still waiting for a key connection or bit of evidence to perhaps allow a family some closure.
According to NamUs, the man was between 50 and 70 years old, had brown hair with a graying brown beard, was wearing a red T-shirt and white socks, and had what appears to be a house key on a lanyard around his neck. He weighed about 150 pounds, was about 5 feet 6 inches tall, and his arteries were narrowed from atherosclerosis. His DNA and dental records are on file.
It's all there in the database, along with contact information for anyone who might have more information or who knows of a missing person who resembles the description. "We'd love help," Vance said. "Pass the word. Tell people about this website. We need it to be more public."