Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
It’s been more than 30 years since Etan Patz disappeared. While law enforcement official dig up a Soho basement in search of clues, Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky, a forensic scientist at John Jay College Criminal Justice, discusses the likelihood of finding remains at the site and how the FBI — if they find something — will determine whether it belongs to Etan.
Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky said the dog that first alerted investigators to possible human remains in the basement is trained to smell molecules that are pungent. It only takes a minimal amount to alert the dogs, and that’s often all you need to find a body, he added.
The last 30 years has also seen improved technology for the purpose of human identification. If investigators find human remains, they will isolate mitochondrial DNA and then find a maternal relative who would share the same mitochondrial DNA. He said this can determined with “great scientific certainty.” Identifying the bones is also possible, "but there are other details; the height, gender, age, that an anthropologist can use to help identify remains."
Additionally, any remains found could shed light on what happened to Etan. For example, Kobilinsky hypothesized, if the child was stabbed — there would be evidence on the skeletal remains.
“Bone remains intact, after a while they will decompose, but at this point, if it’s buried if it’s undisturbed if there’s no animal, they don’t come after and chew bones, everything should be intact,” he said.
It’s possible, Kobilinsky conceded, that renovations may have destroyed physical evidence, “But whoever did this, if that person buried the child I don’t think they know enough forensics to destroy the evidence, so there may very well be, in addition to a body, there may be other trace evidence that remains, even after 30 years. There may be a weapon that would be found.”
If clothing was found, scientists should also be able to identify them.
Kobilinksy did add that it’s possible that the dog made an error in detecting human remains in the area.
“There’s a distinct possibility the dog is wrong. Dog handlers will tell you they’re always right. I think you have to know the training of the individual dog, the history, how many times the dog alerted to a false-positive,” he said. “It’s not clear cut, and although they’re generally pretty good at hitting on decomposition, it may not be human. So all in all, we can’t be sure that this is the site where Etan Patz will be found.”
(Photo: Forensic experts bring tools into the building. Stephen Nessen/WNYC)