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“Bones” Author: Writing About the Dead

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A&E

Dr. Kathy Reichs was in Kansas City July 23 promoting her new book, “Speaking in Bones.”

Reichs, according to her website, is one of only 82 forensic anthropologists to be certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, and she is currently a professor in the University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s Department of Anthropology. At the book signing, hosted by Rainy Day Books at the Unity Temple on the Plaza, Reichs looked like a posh grandmother. Perfectly styled in cream and gold, she looked like she would be found shopping on the Plaza rather than hanging out in crypts and mass graves.

However, that is exactly what she does, when she is not writing books based off her experience or writing for and producing “Bones,” the longest-running TV series in the history of the FOX network. She has taught FBI agents how to detect and recover human remains, helped exhume a mass grave in Guatemala, and assisted in identifying remains found at ground zero of the World Trade Center after 9/11. She also works with JPAC—Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, an organization that works to identify remains found in former conflict areas to try to bring all soldiers home. She has helped identify soldiers from World War II and the Korean War.

She discussed the differences between reality and fantasy in terms of forensic science. She bases her novels and show episodes after real cases—such as her second book, “Death Du Jour”, which was inspired by her job to identify the body of a woman who died in 1714 and who is eligible for sainthood. However, she does admit that “Bones” has taken liberty with the lab so that it would look more exciting to the viewers. She especially lamented the difference between Tempe Brennan’s storage for remains—which is a wall of Lucite, backlit cubes to display the bones—and her own real-life storage with is carefully labeled cardboard boxes. But she does make sure that when the forensic scientists go to the scene of a crime, they wear true-to-life, unflattering overalls, masks and sensible shoes—“not pumps and pantyhose” she said, like you find on other TV shows.

When asked about how these kinds of shows got popular in the first place, she said that she didn’t think anyone had heard of forensic anthropology when she wrote her first book.

“We [forensic anthropologists] had worked in our labs for years but no one had paid any attention to us, and then, all of a sudden, we were hot,” Reichs said.

She attributes this rise in popularity to the O.J. Simpson trial because of the sensational coverage.
“We were exposed 24/7 to knife trajectory and DNA and blood pattern spatter analysis, and I think people became very intrigued with forensic science,” she said.

Reichs hadn’t even known much about forensic anthropology when she started to work with the police to solve cases.

“My Ph.D. was in bioarchaeology,” she said. “And I was working on very ancient skeletons. ‘The Paleopathology and Paleoepidemiology of the Two Lower Illinois River Dwelling Populations’, has anyone read that? That was my dissertation. My mother read it and I think that was about it. I was working with ancient skeletons, doing archaeology, when the police starting bringing me cases.”

They hoped that the “bones lady” who specialized in ancient, dry skeletons could help them with fresher, juicier corpses.

“I liked the relevance of it, I liked that I could impact lives, that I could give a family answers or testify in court,” Reich said. “In archaeology, it’s fascinating and I love archaeology, but you’re not going to change anybody’s life. So I retrained and became board certified and transferred to a forensics’ lab.”
While she does help with current cases—such as the Casey Anthony trial—she also helps with cold cases because, as she pointed out “one of the frauds perpetuated by television and fiction is that every case gets solved—and that isn’t really true.”

However, because of her novels, a few cold cases are getting warm again. “Bones to Ashes” was inspired by a small skeleton found 20 years ago on the border between Quebec and New Brunswick, but the bones were never identified.
“I still have that little skeleton in my lab,” Reichs said, “and you can’t tell gender with a kid that young, but I knew the age. I dig that skeleton out every few years and look at it.”
Some light was shed on the case when she was touring for the French release of “Bones to Ashes” and, while she was doing a radio interview, someone came forward and admitted to finding the bones when he was 12, and he and a friend collected them in a plastic bag to bring to school to scare some friends. But they panicked and dumped the bones by a highway.

“It all fit,” she said,” so we were able to get an idea of how these little bones were found the way they were, but not who it was.”

A few years later, someone else had read the novel and thought it might have been their little brother who was killed in an auto accident in 1963.

“So, as a result of publishing that book, I think we will get this little guy identified and sent back to his family,” she said. “So that is pretty cool.”
While no identification has yet been released for the human remains found by the fisherman in KCK, there is a good chance that with forensic anthropologists like Dr. Kathy Reichs in the world, the remains will be identified and will find their way home.

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