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Gruesome mystery of eight skeletons in a forest

On the morning of March 23rd, around 10 o'clock, Detective Sgt. Jennifer Soto received a phone call that would lead her and other officers into a dark forest, and involve them in an unsettling mystery.
Eight human skeletons were found in this melaleuca forest in Ft. Myers, FL.
Eight human skeletons were found in this melaleuca forest in Ft. Myers, FL.NBC News

On the morning of March 23rd, around 10 o'clock, Detective Sgt. Jennifer Soto received a phone call that would lead her and other officers into a dark forest, and involve them in an unsettling mystery.

The caller said a human skull had just been found in a thick stand of melaleuca trees off Arcadia Road.  At first, Soto and her partner were skeptical, because the area had long been used as a dumping ground by hunters disposing of hog and alligator remains.

Walking through the thick brush, however, it didn't take long for them to confirm the report was true. In fact, there was much more than just one human skull.

"Immediately, the officers had discovered that where the one skull was, there was a second. And within minutes I would say, the third had been discovered," Soto recalled.

"By seven o'clock that night, when we had branched out, we had a total of eight skeletons."

When the news broke publicly, it drew lots of attention. "It's kind of scary that you know there's all these bodies," said Breanna Rohauer, an area resident.

An unusual crime scene
The first skull was discovered about 50 yards from a dirt road by an ecologist who was surveying the land for a developer. He was the man who called police.

The eight skulls and more than a thousand other bones collected by investigators were scattered around a 200-square yard area, most of them hidden by roots, plants, leaves and other ground cover. None of the bodies had been buried.

The Ft. Myers Police Department declared the area a crime scene, and called the Florida Department of Law Enforcement--the state police--for assistance.

"It's just not normal to have eight bodies in a wooded area, that's just not normal," said Soto.

For the next weeks, officers from several other departments helped with the meticulous search of the area.  They used screens to sift through the dirt, set up grids, and brought in cadaver dogs to help find the remains.  One of the dogs was named Bones.

By studying the plants and insects found nearby, a botanist and an entomologist helped determine how long ago the bodies ended up here. A forensic dentist also lent her expertise.

Forensic anthropologist Heather Walsh-Haney, from Florida Gulf Coast University, was invited to map out the scene, and to predict where bones may have been carried away by groundwater and animals.

"The amounts of remains we found here was remarkable," she said.  "I'd say we have about 90 percent of each and every skeleton."

In previous years, Walsh-Haney had helped identify the victims of the 9-11 World Trade Center attack, the Valujet airplane crash and Hurricane Katrina.

Even for her the Ft. Myers scene was unusual, because no one knew the victims' histories.

"This is different in that we don't know what happened, what brought these individuals here," she said.

Some details, but no names
After combing through the scene, and working inside the Lee County Medical Examiners Office, experts were able to determine that all of the victims were white males, perhaps some of them Hispanic.  Their ages ranged from 18 to 49.

It was estimated they were placed in the woods between 1980 and 2000.

All but one of the victims had good teeth, and had obviously taken care of them. "That told me," said Walsh-Haney, "that they had the wherewithal, the finances, to seek out what can be very expensive dental work."

Investigators say no clothing was found, nor was there any evidence of the medical paraphernalia that would typically come from funeral homes.

Dr. Walsh-Haney said she found evidence of healed bone fractures on some of the skeletal remains, but would not say whether she found any evidence to indicate how the men died.

Many theories but no conclusions
The police say while they don't know what happened years ago in the melaleuca forest, they have been presented with a number of theories.

Most prevalent, and quite upsetting to many local residents, is the idea a serial killer may have used the area to lure or hide his victims. Some suggest this could be the work of an unscrupulous funeral home director who dumped bodies in the woods rather than dispose of them properly.

Other theories involve victims of human trafficking or mass suicides. A few ideas suggested by the public are even more inventive.

"We have heard everything from people believing that it was the plane that went missing in the Bermuda Triangle, to a mob hit in Tampa, to children who went missing on a spring break trip," said Soto.

Although there have been widely reported serial killing and funeral home investigations in Southwest Florida in the past, detectives insist they are not embracing any one theory, but are meticulously gathering evidence, and are following wherever it might lead.

"I simply can't work on speculations. I have to focus on the facts, and until I know them, I can't take this in a direction," said Soto.  "To do so would be reckless at this point in time."

Identificiation the key
Most frustrating for police is that they have not yet been able to identify any of the eight victims. Investigators believe once they learn the name of just one person the case will accelerate.

"We've got to figure out who these people were before we can move forward," said Soto. "Were they all connected?  Did these eight people know each other, or were they simply random people who had no interlinkings?"

At the medical examiner's office, Walsh-Haney, the forensic anthropologist, analyzed the skeletal remains in order to come up with the sex and estimated ages of the victims. 

From the bones, experts are now gathering DNA samples, while other specialists are measuring the skulls in order to build models that attempt to replicate the victims' faces.

"What that first identification will do for us in terms of the investigation is give us a name," Walsh-Haney said.  "With that name come family members and friends who may have known where this individual was when he was last seen."

Police are asking the public for help, and are urging anyone with a missing relative who matches the descriptions and time frame of the case to contact them. They may be asked to give a cheek DNA swab.

Soto said all leads are investigated, adding that some new ones are currently being checked. "I review every tip that comes in."

"A cold case to say the least"
With the searches complete, and detectives and forensic experts away from the scene now, the stand of melaleuca trees near Arcadia Road sits in eerie silence.  Only a few areas that were scraped clear by investigators, and some left-over strips of yellow police crime tape hint at the massive search here.

Police describe their effort as the largest excavation of human skeletal remains in Florida history.

While they are still trying to learn crucial details, investigators are treating the case as a criminal investigation.  They also assure the public that there is no need for alarm, because the evidence suggests that whatever happened here occurred years ago.

"This is a cold case to say the least," said Walsh-Haney.  "But I have to keep telling myself that this is never a cold case to a family member."

With that in mind, the pursuit of this Florida mystery proceeds, with a team of detectives and experts working hard for that one break--that one name.