Detectives are weighing several theories after the discovery of eight human skeletons in a remote wooded area. The remains might have been abandoned by a shady crematorium or come from an old cemetery. But authorities are most concerned about a possible serial killer.
The investigation into the bones has taken on the look of a "CSI"-style television mystery. A forensic anthropologist is studying the remains and reconstructing them like puzzle pieces. A botanist and an entomologist will examine plants and insects at the site to determine how long the skeletons have been there.
"If it was a body dump by a funeral home, they probably would have dumped them all in one place, and these are not on top of each other. They're spread around," said Karen Cooper, supervisor of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Fort Myers crime lab. "I think we're more likely dealing with a serial killer or something of that nature."
The skeletons were found down a dirt road in a brush-covered area just a few miles from downtown Fort Myers. The first was found March 23 by a surveyor checking the industrial site for potential development. Seven others were soon discovered in a 200-yard radius.
Flesh is gone
No clothing or personal items were found, and no flesh remained on the bones, which were believed to be from adults.
The skeletons were not buried but appear to have been placed on the ground. Cooper said the bones were also chewed by animals.
Police are keeping quiet to avoid scaring residents of this southwest Florida town known as a warm-weather haven for retirees and spring-breakers, and for white sugar-sand beaches and gently lapping Gulf of Mexico waters.
"I've heard probably 10 different theories thrown around out here, everything from an old cemetery to some alien thing," said Lt. Brian Phillips, head of the major crimes unit for Fort Myers police. He stopped short of mentioning murder.
"Who knows what we'll find in the next week or so," Phillips said.
Heather Walsh-Haney, a forensic anthropologist from Florida Gulf Coast University, is helping reconstruct the skeletons to determine age, gender, race and cause of death. Investigators are looking for nicks and cuts on the bones that could have been made by a knife or a bullet.
Walsh-Haney said a cause of death will be difficult to determine without any tissue or organs, and it's unclear how long the bones have been there.
"In Florida, because of the humid environment, you can get to a skeleton within a few weeks," she said.
Experts say it's not uncommon for serial killers to dump their victims on the same site or in the same type of terrain.
Serial murderer graveyard?
Authorities would not speculate on whether they suspect the skeletons are connected to Daniel Conahan, who was sentenced to death in 1999 for the strangulation murder of a homeless man whose body was found in a swampy, wooded area north of Fort Myers.
Conahan is also suspected in a string of other slayings dubbed the Hog Trail Murders because of the wooded locations where the bodies were found in Charlotte County in the mid-1990s. Those cases remain unsolved.
John Douglas, a former FBI profiler and expert on serial killers, said the absence of clothing and personal items with the skeletons leads him to believe they were a "serial murderer graveyard."
"To find eight bodies in one place, that's really bizarre," Douglas said.
"If you're in the business of killing people, that's a great disposal area," he added. "You've got the remoteness, the elements, the heat, the insects, animal predation. You put a body out there and probably within a week or so, there's not going to be much left."