Fort Myers Police detectives are counting on a national television show to help them figure out what happened to the eight sets of bones found in March.
“America’s Most Wanted’’ already has offered to pay the $20,000 it will cost to reconstruct the faces by a forensic sculptor in Wyoming and crews have already filmed footage there and in Fort Myers, according to testimony in a hearing Friday.
But the filmed footage is being kept by Chief Medical Examiner Rebecca Hamilton and won’t be given back until a court order allows detectives to publish videos and photos of the skeletal remains. Lee Circuit Judge Sherra Winesett heard testimony Friday in which Detective Barry Lewis told her that without more exposure, the case, which is being treated as a homicide, might not be solved.
The reason the police department is asking for a court order is because of a Florida law known as the Dale Earnhardt law, which makes autopsy photographs, video and audio recordings confidential, unless a family member gives consent to publish them. In this case, there are no known family members, so police need the public’s help identifying the men.
And without identifying them, the case’s progress may come to a halt.
“Without (identification), it’s very difficult to proceed because you need a trail to follow,” Lewis testified. “Obviously, there’s a loved one who’s missing a child.”
The remains, found March 23 off Arcadia Street, all were of white men between 18 and 49, said Heather Walsh-Haney, a Florida Gulf Coast University forensic anthropologist who examined them. If a serial killer is responsible — and police have not ruled that out — he or she has not used the dump site for years. Investigators estimate the bones could have been in the wooded area for up to 26 years.
The bones have been sent to Wyoming so forensic sculptor Sharon Long can reconstruct faces for possible identification. Also, scientists at the Human Identification Center of the University of North Texas are extracting DNA from the bones, but without family members with whom to compare extracted DNA, it would be difficult to confirm identity.
The department worked with Fox’s crime show earlier this year to publicize the case of Bryan Dos Santos Gomes, the baby who was snatched from his mother in Fort Myers last December.
“I think that’s certainly what this case needs,” Lewis testified, noting local media publicity has produced only half a dozen or so leads. “On a national level, hopefully we could parlay that into hundreds of leads.”
Hamilton, too, testified the exposure is necessary.
“Without a starting point, we’re kind of sitting here twiddling our thumbs,” she said. “This is not a typical death investigation. We’ve been given a blank slate with eight unidentified bodies and no information.”
Lewis said show producers have agreed to let detectives screen the show’s footage before it airs to make sure its content doesn’t hurt the investigation. He said it will be helpful to let producers show the public the whole story, including the reconstruction process and the actual bones.
“None of that really impedes the investigation,” he said. “It’s a win-win for both the police department and America’s Most Wanted.”
Winesett urged Fort Myers City Attorney Grant Alley to file his order quickly, which Alley said was encouraging. He said he should be able to file an order for Winesett’s signature early this week, which means the order could be signed by the end of the week.
“I think the court’s sensitive to the criminal investigation,” he said.