Saturday, 17 May 2014

Clyde Snow, famed forensic anthropologist dies; called “grave-digging detective”

Clyde Collins Snow, 86, one of the foremost of the nation’s forensic anthropologists, who discovered the hidden stories told by skeletal remains and put his findings in the service of human rights, bereaved families and law enforcement , died Friday in a hospital in Norman, Okla.

The death of Dr. Snow was confirmed by his wife, Jerry, who said he had cancer and emphysema.

As a forensic anthropologist, Dr. Snow was a medical detective, a kind of latter-day Sherlock Holmes, who used keen observation, encyclopedic knowledge and a thorough n understanding of human experience to overcome what conventional wisdom describes as the silence of the grave.

In many of the most notorious crimes of the past half century, Dr. Snow made his energies and abilities available to those responding to the concerns of both grieving relatives and society at large: who had died, how they had died and who was responsible.

In a career that spanned continents and decades, he helped to give names to murder victims and to the persons whose remains were found after airplane crashes.

With decades of scientific knowledge in his head, and a leather satchel filled with specialized tools he helped to tell the story of Custer’s Last Stand, he confirmed the identity of X-rays taken after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and he refuted theories about the deaths of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

In the aftermath of one event that marked the communal violence in the former Yugoslavia, he and his team determined that those whose bodies were found in a mass grave had been killed execution style.

It was not only the bones from which Dr. Snow could glean names and stories, it was also the very ground under which executioners in a variety of countries, tried to conceal their deadly acts.

“The ground is like a beautiful woman,” said the man who has been described as the country’s best known grave-digging detective. “If you treat her gently,” he continued in his folksy drawl, “she’ll tell you all her secrets.” In the appearance of soil on the surface, he could often infer what was hidden beneath.

Those secrets, which he worked to ferret out, included the deaths of tens of thousands of Mayan Indians who were liquidated 30 years ago in a bloody Guatemalan counterinsurgency program.

In an interview while there, he explained the passion that accounted for his years of trying to help dead men tell their tales. It was not mere scientific curiosity. It was a matter of law, justice and human rights.

“People will never respect the law until there’s justice,” he told The Washington Post. “And a good place to start is with murder” cases.

In another overseas mission, he was sent in 1985 by a scientific group to Argentina, where a “dirty war,” conducted under the rule of military juntas, had resulted in many people having mysteriously “disappeared.”

After leading a team that found the bodies of many death squad victims, he served as a witness at the trials of some of those accused of the killings.

There was a reason, he suggested, to sift through graves and scrutinize the skeletons of those long dead.

“If you can make people feel they’re not going to get away with it,” he said, “that’s all we’re asking.” It was, he said, to hold people accountable, even after time had covered up the evidence of wrongdoing.

“His first passion in life,” his wife said, “was human rights.”

Clyde Collins Snow, was born Jan 7, 1928 in Fort Worth, Tex. and grew up in the town of Ralls in the Texas panhandle. His father was a physician, and his mother, although not formally trained, served often as his nurse.

His bachelor of sciences degree came in 1951 from Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.

After graduate work and service as an Air Force officer, he began work for his PhD in archeology at the Unversity of Arizona, in Tucson. Shifting his focus to anthropology, he received his doctorate in 1967.

Even before receiving his PhD, however, he had been enlisted by the Federal Aviation Administration to help find ways to enhance the safety of airplane passengers in the event of a crash.

In 1979 he helped identify those killed in a fiery crash of an airliner shortly after it took off from O’Hare International Airport near Chicago.

Of the 273 who died, 50 were unidentified when he began work. X-rays, interviews with survivors, photographs and an effort to find such revealing signs as fractures, or indications of left-handedness, helped, along with use of a computer, helped him and a colleague give names to about one in five.

As his achievements and abilities became increasingly known, he was called on for such matters as the effort to identify remains found in a cemetery near Sao Paulo, Brazil.

It was suspected that the bones were those of Joseph Mengele, one of the most notorious of those who carried out Nazi concentration camp killings in World War II. Mengele had fled to South America; Dr. Snow helped show that the remains were his.

Among the techniques that he helped develop was that of facial reconstruction--creating a portrait of a human face from skull bones. Based on such work, the discovery of buried facial bones permitted drawings to be made that could be widely shown and could lead to identifications.

This technique has been credited with the identification of some of the 1970s victims of Illinois mass murderer John Wayne Gacy.

Another well known achievement was his participation on reconstructing the face of the ancient Egyptian king, Tutankhamen.

His work was regarded as pivotal in the decision by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences to make a formal specialty of forensic anthroplogy.

He retired from the FAA in 1979, performed consulting work and continued his teaching at the University of Oklahoma, where he was an adjunct faculty member at the time of his death.

In addition to his wife, he was survived by four daughters and one son. Three earlier marriages ended in divorce.

He was a witty man, not given to pretense. Once in Guatemala, he was asked about how he avoided troublesome confrontation with those who did not welcome his investigations.

He responded by drawing from a pocket a large metal badge, carrying the words “Illinois Coroners Association.”

Members of the civil patrols in Guatemala , who might have caused him difficulty, carried only small badges, he said. Despite its unimpressive words, his was of more than ample size, and with local law enforcement, he said, “whoever has the biggest badge wins.”

Saturday 17 May 2014


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