SALEM — It was a cold morning to try to crack a 43-year-old cold case.
A crowd of police officers, people from the state medical examiner’s office, Department of Public Works employees, vault company staff and others gathered around an unmarked grave in the back of Pine Grove Cemetery yesterday morning.
Dr. Jennie V. Duval, New Hampshire’s deputy chief medical examiner, was there, too, for the exhumation the remains of an unidentified homicide victim, whose bullet-riddled body was found in a drainage ditch beside Interstate 93 Aug. 7, 1969.
The man, believed to be between 28 and 40 years old, was never identified.
The exhumation yesterday was the start of what could be a very lengthy process to finally identify the victim and, perhaps, solve the crime.
Salem police Capt. James Chase, who is leading the effort to solve the cold case, was optimistic.
“It went a lot easier than anticipated,” he said yesterday.
While last week Chase was less optimistic about the possibility of a forensic artist doing a facial reconstruction of the victim, his hopes were higher yesterday.
“The remains looked like we might get some DNA,” he said, “and it looks we we can proceed with reconstruction of the face.”
Police will get some expert assistance with that.
Forensic artist Harvey Pratt, who helped solve the BTK case in Kansas, has offered his services — at no charge.
Dennis Rader was convicted of killing 10 people near Wichita, Kan., between 1974 and 1991. He was known by his signature, BTK, which stood for “Bind, Torture, Kill.”
Pratt also worked on cases involving the Green River Killer, Ted Bundy, the 1993 World Trade Center bombings and other high-profile cases.
He works out of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
His offer to help came about pretty simply.
“I reached out to Pratt through an email and he responded and was more than willing to help,” Chase said. “We’ve got one of the best guys in country. We hope he can recreate this guy’s face, and hope a family member or other relative will recognize him.”
Yesterday, the victim’s remains were taken to the medical examiner’s office to be re-autopsied.
Police already know the cause of death. The victim was shot four times — twice in the head, once in the torso and once in the back of the neck. His body had already started to decompose when a road crew discovered it in a water-filled ditch 43 years ago.
But forensic technology has advanced significantly since then and police hope those technological advances will lead them to the man’s identity.
The re-autopsy yesterday could yield more information about the man — a more exact age, a better sense of his height and weight.
Investigators also hope it will eventually lead to the victim’s DNA being entered into the FBI missing persons database.
That could all take months, Chase said.
“From here, everything slows down,” he said.
After the reautopsy, some remains will be sent to the FBI laboratory, where investigators hope DNA can be extracted, then entered into the nationwide database.
If they’re lucky, a match will be found and the man finally identified.
At the same time, Pratt will begin reconstructing the victim’s face from his skull, ultimately providing police with images of what his likely appearance before his death. Police will distribute those images to the media in hopes a family member or acquaintance recognizes him.
“Obviously, we’re trying to bring closure,” he said.
If and when the victim is identified, he said, detectives would begin to actively work the case.
“We’re waiting for a lead,” Chase said. “Now, we don’t have a lead.”
But if they are able to identify the victim, the 43-year-old case will become a higher priority.
“We can start a full investigation,” Chase said. “With an ID, it pretty much becomes an active homicide investigation.”
Deputy police Chief Shawn Patten said police always aim for 100 percent solvability.
“I would think it would go without saying, any time there’s an unsolved murder, there’s someone out there who committed murder and has not been not charged,” he said. “We’ll do anything we can to solve a crime, especially a homicide. Anything we can do, we’re going to do it.”
After the remains had been removed yesterday, the grave recovered, the crowd dispersed, Chase dug his hands into his pockets and looked across the wind-swept cemetery.
“John Pond is buried right other there,” he said, pointing to a nearby grave.
Ironically, Pond was the victim of another cold case, one Chase played a key role in solving earlier this year. Using DNA and other evidence, investigators were able to name Mark Craig as the man who killed Pond in 1990.
Craig died long before he was named as Pond’s killer, but the case was finally solved and offered his family some resolution.
Chase was optimistic yesterday.
“It went as well as it could have gone,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how old it is. Homicide is a priority. You work it until you hit a dead end.”