Two weeks ago workers on a development site at the Toscana subdivision off Old Kings Road unearthed portions of human remains that immediately shut down that part of the development and triggered what may have been the largest dig the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office organized to recover the rest of the find.
At one point last week the dig, stretching the length of a football field, included some 30 people from several law enforcement agencies, the Palm Coast Fire Department and a team of forensic anthropologists and interns from the University of south Florida. (See: “Human Remains Found at Toscana Development Off Old Kings Road in Palm Coast.”)
On Friday, Sheriff Rick Staly announced that the dig was declared over after the effort recovered 90 percent of a human skeleton. The investigation now enters a different stage, with efforts focused on identification through the use of DNA technology. Staly said that every missing-person file at the Sheriff’s Office includes DNA samples against which the find at Toscana will be tested.
“Our team and partners did an outstanding job in a very difficult environment,” Staly said. “Finding almost the entire skeleton will allow the medical examiner to use DNA or dental records to identify this person and hopefully the cause of death.”
Speaking to media at the site last Wednesday, Staly provided significant details about the dig, along with Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at the University of South Florida.
“We have found fragments of jaw and fragments of skull, and so far indications are that it’s one person,” Staly said, though the sex had not yet been determined. But both Staly and Kimmerle said that evidence so far place the skeleton as having died in the last 20 years or so–very possibly before ground broke at Toscana, a 200-home gated development that built its first model homes in 2010. Until proven differently, that timeline is the guiding assumption. It is also the skeleton of a single person. But no clothing, shoes or jewelry were uncovered. There had not been enough research done yet to identify the sex, an indication that DNA analysis had not yet been conducted.
“We have found two femurs,” Staly said. “If we find a third one, we have a problem. But at this point there is no indication that this is a dump site for a killer. It may be a dump site for a killer, but hopefully just one individual. And again, until we can excavate and find more of the skeletal remain, we really don’t know what happened to this individual.”
The dig had begun on a very small scale, until the arrival of the USF team, which Staly brought on because of its experience with the dig at the Dozier School for Boys. The state-run institution, or reform school, operated in Marianna, in the Panhandle, from 1900 to 2011. It was as notorious a reform school as Angola in Louisiana is as a prison–a site of abuse, torture and killings that USF’s anthropologists began unearthing in 2012. USF identified some 100 deaths at the school through its techniques.
That’s the expertise it brought to the Palm Coast dig. “They clearly have the expertise, and no one else that I know of has that kind of system in the state to be able to move this kind of dirt so quick and make sure that you don’t lose evidence or fragments,” Staly said.
“It’s a little bit different than if you know there’s a burial, you’re excavating a burial in a confined space,” Kimmerle said. “So here it’s just a matter of covering a lot of ground, you need to do all of these mounds of soil and try not to miss anything, whether that’s bone or any other evidence.” Teams would take bucket-fulls of dirt and sift it through two two screens, one a quarter inch and one an eighth-inch screen, with dirt pushed through with water.
The dig involved USF, the Palm Coast Fire Department (water use was high during the sifting), Flagler County government’s public works equipment, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Crime Scene Investigations unit, the sheriff’s CSI, and the medical examiner’s office.
“The developer did not bring any dirt into the site, so we know that everything occurred here,” Staly said.
The Sheriff’s Office is eying some of its missing-person cases, Staly said, “but until we can identify the remains we won’t know that for sure. So we’re not focused on one or two individuals. It’s not the way you do an investigation. But we have some evidence when those missing persons were investigated that would lead us to believe in this area, there might be some evidence.”
“I would like to thank our partners,” Staly said, “including Dr. Erin Kimmerle and her team from USF, the Medical Examiner’s Office, FDLE’s CSI, PCFD and Flagler County General Services for their assistance and collective herculean efforts during this excavation. I would also like to thank the developer for his patience, understanding and support, which delayed his project while we conducted this investigation.”
If anyone has information on this case, please call 386-313-4911 or CrimeStoppers of Northeast Florida at 1-888-277-TIPS (8477), where you could be eligible for a reward of up to $5,000. You can also email: [email protected]. FCSO Major Case investigators are continuing the investigation.