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From the archives: Clyde Snow - the bone detective

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Sun-Times in 2008 after an interview with Dr. Clyde Snow at the Explorer’s Club of Chicago. Dr. Snow passed away over the weekend.

He has traveled six miles through snow on a donkey, a flask of whiskey bouncing at his side, to get to a mass grave in Kurdistan.

Once, he trekked to Vukovar in the former Yugoslavia to track a mass grave through witness accounts.

He became the voice of the disappeared in South America, identifying victims of military rulers like Argentina’s Iberico Saint Jean, who famously vowed to kill the timid.

And every now and again, Clyde Snow , 80, can be found knocking around the sterile confines of the county morgue, Cook County’s Robert Stein Institute on the Near West Side. There he examines the bones of Chicago’s unknown, the odd leg or skull that turns up buried in a lot or gangway.

Is it a man or a woman? A child? How old? Were they ever beaten, shot, stabbed? What ethnicity are they?

Snow , a forensic anthropologist, has been doing this work for more than 50 years. The Oklahoma resident has been on call for Chicago since he came here as an investigator for the 1979 American Airlines crash that killed all 271 people aboard.

The lines on his face are deep now, but the tools he uses are about the same.

So is the job.

“All the 200 or so bones, and 32 teeth, of a skeleton,” Snow once told a class of budding forensic anthropologists at Northeastern University, “each of them have a story to tell.” – – –

If bones have stories, Snow is their raconteur.

A native of Texas, he easily leans back with a Camel cigarette and a coffee or Bombay martini — straight up with two olives — to tell tales of his work around the world.

“Here’s to homicide,” he once said, his dry sense of humor tempering the realities of his job. “It keeps us busy.”

Snow has helped identify the remains of Nazi “Angel of Death” Dr. Josef Mengele and the victims of John Wayne Gacy. In 2007, he was cross-examined by Al Hassan al-Majid (Chemical Ali) and Saddam Hussein in Baghdad at the special tribunal trial that resulted in their conviction for the 1988 genocidal campaign waged against Kurds. Chemical Ali had some good queries, he recalls. But Saddam was “kind of scattered.”

Here in Chicago, in between his work on major cases, he has searched for buried mobsters and examined stolen Tibetan skulls.

Snow uses tools called sliding and spreading calipers that were developed in the 1890s.

His calipers are tucked tightly inside a weather-beaten brown leather folder he carries with him to all jobs. The calipers measure the precise length of bones.

“What we do is pretty simple,” he says. “It’s nice, old-fashioned science.”

For instance, he measures the precise distance from the tip of the nose to between the eyebrows, as well as the breadth of the nose. There are roughly 50 such measurements and, all together, when entered into a computer program he uses, they help Snow determine all sorts of stuff about the dead.

The size and shape of the pelvic area reveal gender. Subtle changes in pelvic joints can show whether a woman has had a baby. Height is gleaned from the lengths of the bones of the leg.

Bones, a very active tissue during life, also show old injuries, hint at nutritional problems and tell him whether someone was right-handed or left-handed.

The last chapter of such an “osteo-biography,” Snow says, is the cause of death.

Bullet wounds, cut marks and blunt force trauma all turn up on the bones.

Even years after a case is closed, some of his work still seems to give him pause.

Inside a downtown Starbucks, Snow talked about Holly, a 7-year-old girl who was beaten to death by her mother in 1969 and buried in a North Side gangway. Her remains were discovered in 2000.

“The horrible thing,” he says with a far-away look out the window, “was that I could see that Holly’s jaw had been broken three to four weeks before her death.”

It was a “through-and-through” break, which must have come from a punch. What he couldn’t figure out was what were the identical nick marks on each side of her rib cage.

It came to him later, but not in a “CSI: Miami” moment of high-tech revelation.

It was after quiet reflection, remembering the girl was 36 inches tall and weighed only about 30 pounds when she died because she couldn’t eat with a broken jaw.

“Somebody with really long fingernails had picked her up and shook her to death,” he said. “I’m sure her skin was paper-thin. The fingernails had penetrated the skin, incising the bone. . . . Probably the mother with long fingernails.”

Chicago homicide detectives used school records to track down Holly’s mother in Nebraska, where she gave a deathbed confession to killing Holly.

– – –

This instinct and discerning eye is what makes Snow stand out, said Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Nancy Jones, who calls him a “font of information.”

Snow is paid per job he does for the county, with an annual cap of $10,000.

“He is very good about identifying trauma on the bones,” Jones said. “A lot of these things can be very subtle.”

Some say Snow ‘s most profound contribution to his field is his work in international human rights cases.

In the early 1980s, Snow pioneered the use of forensic anthropology to investigate mass slayings and human rights abuses around the world and to identify victims.

“Thirty years ago, most human rights investigations were based on testimonial evidence,” said Mercedes Doretti, who recently won a MacArthur genius grant for her work. “He started applying forensic evidence. I think he was very moved . . . by this new world, all these families who were asking for his help. I think he saw the possibility of making a big difference.”

It all began in Argentina in 1984, when the American Association for Advancement of Science asked for help identifying the thousands of “disappeared” Argentinians killed and buried in mass graves by the government after standing up for human rights.

Once in Buenos Aires, Snow knew he needed help. Insisting it be local, he sent word out to the university community: Would anyone like to help unearth dead bodies and identify your fellow citizens?

He didn’t immediately hear back from anyone.

Then one night as he sipped wine and cut into a good steak at his hotel bar, Snow looked up to find about five “raggedy, taggedy” university students in front of him. They didn’t have much experience, but they wanted to help, they told him.

Together, the team began their work, heading out to cemeteries with crude tools — a window screen in one case — to sift dirt in their search for bone fragments and personal belongings.

In 1985, a new government brought charges against the former dictators. Snow testified, bringing forward two cases to prove what had happened to the masses.

One of the cases was 21-year-old Liliana Pereyra, who was seven months pregnant when she “disappeared” in 1977. Pereyra was executed, shot in the head at close range. Her pelvic bones showed she had given birth before her execution — likely so the baby could be given up for adoption to a member of the military or the police.

“Two disappeared people can represent hundreds,” Snow said to the Northeastern students as he told the tale. The dictators were convicted.

The work that began in Argentina survives today as the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which continues to investigate human rights violations across the world. The New York office is run by Doretti, one of the “raggedy taggedy” students who found Snow at his hotel and volunteered back in 1984.

“I basically have been following most of what he taught us,” Doretti said. “The one who started it all was him.”

Annie Sweeney