To the untrained eye, the discovery of Katelyn Markham's skeletal remains last week in Indiana may not tell much about her disappearance and death.
But death scene investigators and forensic scientists say even the tiniest fiber or smallest of detail may become the clue that unlocks the case and answers the question: What happened to Katelyn?
Markham, a 21-year-old art student engaged to be married, vanished seemingly without a trace nearly 20 months ago from her Fairfield home. Her fiancé, John Carter, called police on Aug. 14 and reported her missing. He said he last saw her at 11 p.m. on Aug. 13 and got a text message from her just two hours later.
The mysterious case captured the attention of national news outlets and volunteers locally and elsewhere who mounted searches for her and set up Facebook pages for any clues related to her whereabouts.
They found nothing.
Until last week, when a man and his wife, searching for scrap metal to sell, discovered human remains less than 25 miles from Markham's Fairfield home she shared with her father. Authorities used dental records to identify those remains as Markham's.
Indiana State Police and authorities in Fairfield have been tight lipped about the case. But experts say they are likely compiling a full and detailed profile on Markham, are scouring the rural Indiana dumpsite where her remains were found and working with forensic scientists to look for evidence in the case. It is a painstaking and methodical process, where details matter, experts say.
Vernon Geberth, former commanding officer of the Bronx Homicide Task Force in New York and author of several textbooks on investigating homicide and other deaths, said authorities must complete a victimology report. That report will analyze Markham's known associates and the details of her life, which is done to compile information about lifestyle.
"The whole purpose of doing victimology is to basically find out what was going on in the victim's life at the time of the event," Geberth said. "You're going to find out more about the person than the victim knew about him or herself; that's if you do a good job."
Through a victimology report, investigators may be able to nail down if Markham was deliberately or randomly targeted, which may narrow the scope of the investigation.
A look at some evidence authorities have and what that may indicate to investigators:
Car Keys and Wallet
The fact that most of her personal items, with the exception of her cell phone, were left behind at her Dorshire Drive residence is an "investigative red flag,'' Geberth said. Leaving so much behind suggests to Geberth she left her home with someone she knows.
"Women don't tend to leave their pocketbook, that's highly suspicious," he said. "I would go back to her relationships."
Location of Remains
Based on that location, Geberth said he considers her death is a homicide. He said If Markham's body was dumped as it appears it was, her body's decomposition would have contaminated any DNA, because of the high levels of bacteria associated with a decaying cadaver, Geberth said.
Geberth noted that the person who dumped Markham's remains may have inadvertently dropped something that could be used to identify a possible suspect – if her death is deemed to be a homicide.
"When you have an outdoor crime scene, especially in a location where people dump stuff, and there's a lot of garbage, there may be a nugget of information worth its weight in gold," Geberth said. "Leaving a piece of themselves at the scene."
Location is also key for forensic scientists – and it can also can present challenges, said Jules Angel, an Ohio State University anthropology lecturer specializing in forensic science.
"There are thousands of chemicals released when anything decomposes," Angel said. "In this case, two years [into Markham's disappearance] I might probe the ground for soft spots and air it out so the dogs can get a sniff of what is underground."
If remains are wrapped in plastic or carpet, the scent may seep into the soil, and that's why a forensic specialist may ventilate the soil so a cadaver dog may be able to pick up a strong scent.
" … But you don't want to ramrod through soil because you might damage the bones – you gently aerate the soil so the scent can actually get out of the ground," Angel said. "The longer something has been buried, the more important this is to do."
Authorities have not said if they suspect Markham may have been buried or dumped in the area.
Black Plastic Bag
The Brookville, Ind., couple that discovered Markham's remains said her skull was wrapped in a black grocery bag. Geberth said the bag could indicate several things: It may have been used to make transporting her body easier, as opposed to suffocating Markham.
"There is a possibility, if the head was placed into a plastic bag, they might be able to retrieve fingerprints from inside the bag," Geberth said. "We've found prints [in the past] inside the bag, not outside."
By placing the plastic bag in a vacuum with fine zinc and gold powder, the substances might connect to deposits left by a fingerprint, he said. Also, investigators will attempt to identify where the bag came from, which may geographically narrow the range of the investigation.
Locating Markham's engagement ring may prove key.
Geberth said he couldn't imagine Markham taking off her engagement ring. If her ring is missing, that would provide a potential clue for investigators. Indiana State Police have not disclosed if they found anything near her remains.
By scrutinizing Markham's phone records, via a subpoena for all cellular activity near her home, investigators would be able to map her associates to understand with whom she spent time.
"All of these would be sound investigative strategies," Geberth said. "This is routine with any missing persons investigation, whether investigators have a suspect or not."