Skip Sperber — not your normal dentist

The tooth detective

 In 1987 Sperber was summoned to identify forty-one bodies.
  • In 1987 Sperber was summoned to identify forty-one bodies.
  • Image by Mark G.W.Smith

Let’s say you and I, we’re dealing dope. We argue over price. Say I’m a 300-pounder. You put a knife into me and kill me — unjustifiably. I’m sitting there on your sofa, a 300-pound dead man. Even if you get help, you aren’t going to be able to pick me up and dispose of me in a way in which neighbors won’t observe your walking out with a body. And you have another problem. What can you do to keep police from identifying my body? Hence, what is known by detectives as a ‘bathtub butcher’: the body is placed in a bathtub and sectioned.

In 1978, when the PSA collision above San Diego killed 150 people, Sperber led the team of twenty-five San Diego dentists charged with identifying victims.

In 1978, when the PSA collision above San Diego killed 150 people, Sperber led the team of twenty-five San Diego dentists charged with identifying victims.

“You need, you see, fingers and head to establish identity. And identity is a matter of some consequence.”

So says Norman “Skip” Sperber, a San Diego general dentist and forensic odontologist whose skill at identifying bodies frequently leads police agencies throughout the nation to call on him for assistance. “When you come into the world, you’re given a name,” Sperber continues. “When you go out, it’s important you go out with a name.”

A Marine lance corporal stationed at Camp Pendleton, Martin was accused of strangling his wife to death. Sperber was asked to examine bite marks on the victim’s cheek.

A Marine lance corporal stationed at Camp Pendleton, Martin was accused of strangling his wife to death. Sperber was asked to examine bite marks on the victim’s cheek.

Say mass disaster strikes. Bodies break apart and are strewn across desolate landscape, where hungry animals find and devour them. Or fire. A fire can skeletonize, even “ash” tissue, bones, teeth. Or water — bodies are lost in or tossed into the sea, and fish feed on the flesh. Or “bathtub butchers” go to work, bodies are hacked into 50, into 200 chunks. All these ways to die have in common more than ghastliness; they strip identity.

Say fingerprints do survive. They may not help. Unless a person served in the armed forces, had trouble with the law, or worked as a peace officer or security guard, he or she may not have fingerprints on file.

“Prudential," says Sperber, “is not about to fork over five million bucks on the basis of an identification made by saying, ‘When last seen, he was wearing a green shirt and gray pants.’ ’’ And families, he says, suffer agonies, wondering, “Is Jimmy dead or alive?” And once they are told, “Yes, Jimmy’s dead,” they want assurance that it’s Jimmy they’re burying. That’s when the forensic odontologist — who identifies bodies by means of teeth and jaws — often provides a small bit of solace for these families.

Uncannily close in appearance to tanned, white-haired designer Ralph Lauren, fifty-nine-year-old Sperber has been described as looking as though he spends his days in the Polo Lounge, not in a dental operatory or a coroner’s office. Sperber has been a general dentistry practitioner in San Diego County since his navy discharge in 1958. For almost twenty-five of those years, the Manhattan-born and -reared Sperber, son of a dentist with offices in Radio City and with high-kicking Rockettes as patients, has been a forensic odontologist for San Diego County. He is one of seventy certified forensic dentists, or odontologists, in the United States and Canada.

His involvement in some 600 body identification cases, numerous homicide investigations, and the preparation and delivery of testimony in more than seventy bite-mark and body identifications involving homicide, sexual assault, and child abuse have made Sperber an internationally recognized authority on forensic dentistry. He has been an expert witness for the prosecution in highly publicized murder cases.

In San Diego, Sperber’s match of chewing gum and teeth is believed to be the first anywhere in which gum examination was important to a homicide investigation. Inside Detective made him the subject of a superb, gritty story — “San Diego’s Sherlock Expert: Dr. Norman Sperber, the Whole Tooth and Nothing but the Tooth!” He is author of articles in F.B.l. Law Enforcement Bulletin and Journal of Forensic Science.

Seven thousand Jane and John Doe corpses turn up each year in the U.S. Annually, some fifty “Does” are delivered to the San Diego County coroner’s office. Identifying a “Doe” can be frustrating and not always successful. In any given year, San Diego County buries twenty to twenty-five unnamed individuals, mostly Mexican nationals.

Fewer people than ever have fingerprints on file, while more than ever have dental records. Seventy to eighty percent of Americans have had dental care. And that’s why Sperber has plenty of forensic work. If a corpse is not identifiable by fingerprints or any other method, the coroner’s office calls Sperber. In 1987 he was summoned to identify forty-one bodies. He established identity for more than half. “Like fingerprints,” he says, “human teeth and their related structures are unique for each individual, even including identical twins.” Even a smiling photograph can be enough to make a positive identification of a body.

Friday, late afternoon. Sperber’s dental office in Clairemont. KJOY plays in the waiting room, decorated in a Latin American motif by Sperber’s interior-designer wife. Through the frosted-glass door into Sperber’s inner office, past shelves of color-coded patient files, down the hallway on which hang photographs taken by Sperber — in India, England, Canada, Greece — you find him. He wears a plaid shirt, gray trousers, and a beeper snapped onto the belt. To the day’s last patient, a young teen-age male, he is saying, “I really want you to be flossing between the teeth. We’ll check your progress in two weeks.”

At six, he’s due at the coroner’s office, a low-lying building in the county operations center in Kearny Mesa. For transportation he drives a 1967 Camaro with 285,920 miles on the odometer. People tease him about the car. “They chide me, ask, ‘Can’t you afford a new one?’ But I take great pride in maintaining something, no matter how old it is.”

This second profession — forensic dentistry — has lifted him, he says, “right out of that sanitary, sanitized version of life most of us live in.” As example, he cites this: “Newspapers report, ‘A man was shot and killed by a burglar wielding a shotgun.’ But to see that deceased person with his head shot away, to discover that in fact there is no head, that the head is completely blown open! Or you hear on television, ‘A man was run over by a bus.’ You go where we’re going now. You find this man’s body on the table. You don’t see the head at all because it’s flattened, no higher than this,” Sperber lifts his hand off the Camaro’s steering wheel, indicates perhaps an inch in height. “It’s just been crushed down.” No, probably nothing people do to one another surprises him anymore. Not that he’s become hardened or that he can’t be shocked, outraged. But outrage he tries to get “right out.” Why? “Hey, if I’m to be an expert witness, I’ve got to not get emotionally involved.”

A monthly lecturer with San Jose State University’s Criminal Justice Department, a regular lecturer for law-enforcement personnel, a frequent expert witness before judge and jury, Sperber has honed his rhetorical skills, become adept at engaging interest, quick to draw a listener into participation in the reasoning process. He tells of a man, riding a motorcycle at speeds estimated at one hundred miles per hour. The man loses control of the bike, runs into a telephone pole. Sperber asks, “Now what do you think your face would look like?” I don’t know.

“How about if the face sort’ve fit around the pole? And what would you think if you saw a backwards number seventy-two on the skin of his forehead, which came from the identifying tag on that pole?”

Pause. Let the picture form.

With a bit of scratch in his voice he says, “I’ve seen more mayhem than I truly ever thought existed.”

Slowness of traffic allows time to ask about teeth. Teeth aren’t bone. Far harder than bone, teeth are produced by the same tissue that produces skin, hair, and nails. Whether teeth outlast fire depends upon the fire’s temperature and duration. If the hard enamel crowns are destroyed — enamel is the hardest, most durable material in the human body — even if enamel bums away, if dental X-rays exist, comparison of shape, size, and relationship of roots of the teeth in the bone may make identity possible.

In 1978, when a midair collision above San Diego killed 150 people, Sperber led the team of twenty-five San Diego dentists charged with identifying victims. Two days after the accident, Sperber visited the site. “It was like a war scene, a heat wave. You could smell smoke, decomposing human tissue.... You can’t always pick up all the tissue.”

How do you find tissue?

“You follow the flies."

Again, pause. Let a picture form.

“We identified 120 altogether, through teeth. Many no longer had crowns. We identified those by shape and length of roots and the roots’ relationship to each other in the bone matrix.”

Lips and palate, says Sperber, “are fingerprints of the mouth. Not only are markings on lips unique, but everybody’s lips are different in shape.” He offers a true crime story to illustrate. In Chula Vista, a man disguised as a woman robs a bank. Fleeing, his lips brush a glass door. Police investigate. An evidence tech sees lip prints, photographs them, and lifts them off the glass. Later, another bank robbery, the man apprehended becomes a suspect in the Chula Vista robbery. Says Sperber, “They put lipstick on him, put his lips against glass, compare this print to the Chula Vista prints. A match!”

No, Sperber hasn’t done a lip-print case, simply because many identifications he is asked to make involve decomposed or burned bodies, and lips are among the first parts of a body to decompose. He has, however, worked on “palate cases.” Across the palate are “rugae,” wrinkles or ridges whose patterns, like fingerprints, can establish identity. Although the palate is soft tissue and will decompose, its tissue is tougher than that of lips and not as exposed. As well, mucous membranes and tongue offer some protection to the palate. The tongue may swell in some circumstances, thus further safeguarding it.

In certain cases, no dental X-rays exist, but the family of a victim has the victim’s dental casts, if orthodonture or crown and bridge work had been done. With these casts, a positive identification may be made by comparing telltale ridging patterns of the palate of an unidentified body with those on the dental model.

Sperber’s most dramatic palate identification involved a swimmer, drowned in the ocean a few years ago. The swimmer was reported missing, a search made. No body found. Three weeks pass. A kelp cutter working off Point Loma frees a segment of kelp frond in which the missing swimmer’s leg had become entangled. The body floats to the surface.

A drowning victim who has been in water for some time may be bloated and so badly discolored that it is difficult to ascertain even race. Crabs, lobster, fish will have fed on the flesh. Although no dental X-rays existed in this case, the family did locate dental casts, from which Sperber made a positive identification by comparing the victim’s palate rugae against those on the cast.

Sperber’s visit to the coroner’s office involves an investigation under way. He explains that I may report on it only sketchily.

Stainless steel embalming tables, each, outfitted with its own overhead lamp, with scales for weighing body parts, and hoses and deep steel sink, line the far wall of the main examining room. Suspended fluorescent lights cast a white light. A mortuary attendant quickly snaps a sheet across a bruised corpse. The attendant rolls off his yellow rubber gloves and greets Sperber, who ties on a smock and pulls on his gloves.

In a smaller examining room off the main area (this smaller room is normally used for homicide victims, or for what law-enforcement personnel in their inimitable fashion tend to refer to as “decomposes”), two burly deputies open a cardboard carton and lift out a shirt. Sperber examines punctures in the blood-stained fabric. The deputies and Sperber talk cop-to-cop, easy, offhand, nothing to it.

A dog’s narrow muzzle presses against the glass of a two-gallon jar set on a dissecting table. “He’s been preserved in formalin,” says Sperber, explaining the strong odor that permeates the room. “Let’s get a few shots of those teeth,” he says, taking the formalin-drenched head from the jar. With the animal’s head positioned against a dark green drape, Sperber takes out his camera. Focusing on the teeth, he snaps frontal and profile views.

The next step is to check teeth against torn clothing. “I’d like to do this,” he addresses the deputies, “without having to take impressions of the dog’s teeth.” (It’s better, he will say later, to have the teeth themselves instead of relying on impressions.)

Formalin “sets” and hardens tissue. Sperber can’t pry the jaws as wide as he needs to test the bite. “Would you bring me in a shear?” Sperber asks the mortuary assistant. “We’ll use it for loosening the jaw.” When that’s accomplished, Sperber cuts away the lips to get better access to the teeth.

The larger, gruffer of the two deputies chews a toothpick. He offers a Life Saver. “When I first started coming here,” he says kindly, “I found it helped to suck on one of these.”

The toothpick-chewer grasps the tom shirt. Sperber holds the dog’s head. Sharp white teeth fit precisely into punctures in the fabric. “Oh, is that beautiful!” cries Sperber. Deputies and Sperber agree: The dog did it.

Driving back through the fog to his office, I think about how absolutely excited, almost revitalized Sperber has become in the last hour. Explicable, if he’s a horror-movie ghoul, which clearly he isn’t. I suggest, “Isn’t a stop at the morgue a fairly grim way to start the weekend?” and then pose a series of the lie-on-the-couch questions one asks, trying to figure motivation.

Growing up, Sperber listened to Gangbusters and Suspense on the radio. “But I don’t think I had an overfascination with police work. When I was a little kid, my grandmother — she couldn’t speak English too well — she used to say, ‘The world will hear from him,’ and indicate me. They all said, ‘Skip’s good with his hands.’ But I think if you asked me, ‘What’s your greatest strength?’ I’d answer that it’s analyzing the problem, wanting to solve it, and being extremely tenacious.

“I’m a pretty good tennis player," he says finally. “But I asked myself, ‘Do you really want to train yourself and get a whole bunch of trophies?’ I didn’t. This [forensic dentistry) is more interesting, more important to me.”

Of course, he’s not in it for the money. He doesn’t even know if he’ll be paid for this evening. (Each time Sperber is called to the coroner’s office to identify a body, the county pays him seventy-five dollars. W’hat Sperber does for this seventy-five dollars includes complete examination of the body, dental X-rays, and final formal identification and report.) “No one puts himself through that for money. It’s just expected of me. I’m what they got. And I’m ready to ride with it.”

He adds, ‘‘Maybe I don’t mind the pats on the back.” (Several of his office walls are lined with official letters of appreciation and commendation, ribboned awards, a Congressional appointment.)

Another mile. Silence. Brow furrowed, Sperber, trying to respond to my query about why he does it, says, “Maybe this is corny.” He feels, he says, that it’s “important to be of service” to his profession, his community. If he had to defend or prosecute, sentence the guilty, however, Sperber isn’t sure he would like this work. “But all I have to do is say, ‘Even though this decedent was burned, decomposed, mutilated, whatever, he or she is this person.’ Or, ‘This person was the biter.’ That’s all I have to do. I don’t have to worry about guilt or innocence.”

As a teen-ager, Sperber couldn’t decide whether to be a doctor or a dentist. “I thought, ‘If during summers I could get a job that would be close to these fields, it would help me decide.’ ” A family friend was a deputy medical examiner in the Bronx. The examiner offered then-seventeen-year-old Sperber unpaid work in the New York City medical examiner’s office. On Sperber’s first day, ten bodies, including a female torso with head and legs severed, were out on the tables. “People were performing various tests. The guy who broke me in on the job said, ‘Stay in here and just watch until you get used to it.’ ” That same summer, an Empire State Building jumper was brought in. “I’ll never forget that,” he admits. “Never. He’d jumped off the eighty-eighth floor.” Through college and dental school, during summers, Sperber worked as a forensic toxicologist in that same office.

After serving in the navy, Sperber opened a general practice in San Diego. Among his patients was a funeral director. Sperber mentioned his summertime student work. “ ‘Have you seen the coroner’s office here?’ he asked. I hadn't. I went down, met several deputy coroners. I was asked to help out, and I’ve been there ever since.”

Much of what Sperber does as a forensic dentist he has taught himself. “When you do something with some degree of repetition, you can develop expertise.” Not, he adds, that he thinks he’s made errors. “I’m always looking over my own shoulder.”

A human skull used for demonstration purposes in courtroom appearances, stone dental models, animal jaws — from moose to mice and including a sawfish bill — line the bookcases in Sperber’s private office. The small room is fitted tightly as a ship. From a high shelf on one side of a wide closet, Sperber takes down instant coffee and spoons powder into two mugs. He gazes across the packed shelves. “I’ve been in this office twenty years. Things collect over that time. I need a librarian, and I need more space,” he sighs. “This is an organized mess.” But then he reaches in and takes out the very item he wishes to show me: a newspaper clipping, the story of the chewing gum case.

“A few days before Christmas 1976, two young women who are working as prostitutes for this individual, the pimp, apparently have some beef with the pimp. He wants to party with these guys, and they have different ideas. They dispatch him with a small-caliber gunshot wound to the head, and then they leave two knives in him. They stick one in the chest and one in the stomach. One of the women was chewing some gum — red cinnamon gum — and during this thing, she lays it on the dresser. So he’s lying in bed with these knives, and the women split.”

Acting on a tip, a San Diego police department homicide team force the door to the pimp’s apartment, and there’s his body sprawled across the bed. In the clutter, a detective finds chewing gum on the bureau top. He figures, possible lead.

“A detective on the case, Paul Ybarrando — now a lieutenant in charge of criminal intelligence at the police department, but at that time, a homicide sergeant — came up here, opened the bag, took out this gum, said, ‘Think you can do anything with it?’ ” Sperber wasn’t sure. Chewing gum is not particularly accurate impression material. And he’d never worked with gum before.

Once photographs of the gum were taken, Sperber made a silicone reproduction of the gum that could be placed and pressed against dental casts for comparison purposes.

Meanwhile, two female suspects were arrested and placed in the county jail. One, whose fingerprints were found in the murder room, said, “Yes, I did it,” and implicated the second, Patricia Beebe. But Beebe denied complicity, and no physical evidence placed her at the scene.

At the coroner’s office, Sperber took impressions of the victim’s teeth. "Because he might have been chewing the gum.” Then, armed with a warrant, Sperber went to the jail and made impressions of the two women’s teeth. Three sets of dental casts were readied for inspection. “I sat right here, at this table,” Sperber taps the table, “and looked at that reproduction of the gum and my dental models. Looked at the gum, the models, the gum.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute!’ One of the women had an opening drilled in the back of her upper incisor, consistent with root canal therapy, and the same tooth was missing a filling or had decay on the mesial aspect — the surface of the tooth that approximates the adjacent tooth.

“ ‘Mmmm,’ I said, ‘there’s a bump in the gum and a hole in the tooth. Maybe the two will fit together.’ Then I really got excited. That was one of the most exciting moments of my life. The gum revealed an area that had been forced into and withdrawn from the mesial surface where the root canal had been performed. I said, ‘It fits!’

It did. It was the mouth of Patricia Beebe.

Sperber called up Paul Ybarrando at home. “That was five days after the murder,” says Sperber, with obvious satisfaction. Once Sperber made the identification, both women pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. A San Diego Superior Court judge accepted the plea; the women received a five-years-to-life sentence.

I ask him about the “cheese sandwich” case.

"It's not uncommon with criminals, if they're not in a big rush, it nobody's around, they'll help themselves to something out of the kitchen. In a Chula Vista burglary, the burglar found a sandwich, took a bite out of it, then went back to what he was doing and laid down the sandwich.” Police found the sandwich and picked it up as possible evidence. After the suspected burglar was arrested, a court order was acquired, models made of his teeth and of the sandwich. “His teeth,” says Sperber, “fit right into the cheese in the sandwich.”

Teeth are a convenient weapon. Victims of child abuse, sexual assault, homicide, or barroom brawls are often bitten by their assailants. In self-defense, a victim sometimes bites an attacker. Sperber can conclusively identify the biter in thirty percent of bite-mark cases and can give “probable” testimony in another fifty percent.

Until 1975 in California and 1978 in U.S. military courts-martial cases, bite marks were not admissible as testamentary evidence. Sperber’s testimony, in the 1978 murder case U.S. versus David L. Martin, resulted in the admissibility of bite marks. A Marine lance corporal stationed at Camp Pendleton, Martin was accused of strangling his wife to death. Sperber was asked to examine bite marks on the victim’s cheek. Investigators believed the bite occurred at the time of the murder. But Martin, insisting his wife was alive when he last saw her, claimed the bite was made earlier during lovemaking.

A bruise left by biting teeth goes through the same discoloration stages as any other bruise. Physical evidence developed by Sperber indicated that the person who bit the victim also strangled her. If the bite had happened at the earlier time claimed by the accused, the bruise made by biting teeth would have had a different color than bruises made by strangulation. Martin was convicted of second-degree murder.

There are two basic steps in preparing evidence for a bite-mark case: gathering evidence from the bite and from the suspected biter.

Bite marks should first be examined without being touched or washed. Preliminary orienting photographs are taken with a scale or ruler placed near the bite mark.

“If anything is going to have saliva in it, it’s a bite. You try and bite somebody, and you can see, saliva is going to be there.” Therefore, bites are swabbed for saliva and swabs sent to a lab for analysis. A saliva “swabbing” reveals blood type in about eighty percent of all cases.

If biting teeth leave sizable indentations, impressions are taken and models made from impressions. “Normally,” says Sperber, “if there isn’t much indentation, then I only take photographs. I can, from the photograph, ‘read’ ridges on the teeth.”

Since bite marks, like bruises, may become more distinct over time, photographs are repeated at twenty-four-hour intervals for five days on live and dead victims. The latter are refrigerated, not embalmed, as embalming tends to “wash out” bite marks.

Part two of bite-mark evidence preparation involves the suspect or suspects. After obtaining a court order, impressions are taken of suspects’ teeth and blood and salivary samples are acquired. Once models are made of any bite mark impressions and the suspects’ teeth, matching begins. Sperber presses the model onto Styrofoam or wax, comparing model-made bite marks to the original. Then he traces the edge of the teeth on clear plastic and sets the tracing over a life-size photograph of the original bite mark. Models of suspects’ teeth are also matched against life-size photographs of bite marks on the victim.

“Some bites," says Sperber, “leave excellent marks, give superb detailing, with little or no distortion. Others don’t. When you bite skin, there can be a twisting.” Sperber twists the skin on his own arm. “This twisting may occur when a victim and attacker struggle. It will leave a blurred mark.”

Bite marks are tricky. A bite mark made on firm tissue — for instance, on a chin or shoulder — will look different from a bite made on a woman’s breasts while she is standing up at the time she is bitten. If that woman dies and the bite mark is examined when she is laid flat, the bite mark will be distorted.

“I worked on a rape case like that. It wasn’t a murder. The woman lived. She’d been bitten on the breast. I requested that subsequent photographs be taken, because I believed the bite would become darker with time, which it did. Unfortunately, when they photographed her, they didn’t have her lying down in the position she was in when the bite occurred. They sat her up. In that position, the breast wasn’t flat as it was when the attack occurred.”

The Florida trial of Ted Bundy, a suspect in the rape and murder of some forty women, established Sperber’s name nationally. Sperber entered the case after Bundy was arrested in Florida in 1978 . Impressions had been taken of Bundy’s teeth and models made. There were photographs of bite marks on the left buttock of a Florida State University sorority sister, whom Bundy was accused of raping and murdering. Duplicate models of Bundy’s teeth and photographs of the bite mark were sent to Sperber. In Bundy’s trial, Sperber provided conclusive physical evidence showing Bundy’s teeth made the bite marks.

When Sperber first entered the field of forensic dentistry, one dental expert claimed he could ascertain the difference between a bite of passion and a bite of defense or attack. Initially, Sperber accepted that, but as he began to see many so-called militant bites — bites made, says Sperber, “when two people were clashing heads in a barroom brawl’’ — he began to doubt the difference existed. After Sperber was appointed by the American Board of Forensic Odontology as the first chairman of a committee whose function is to establish guidelines for bite-mark comparison and analysis, he and three members of this committee set up an experiment to decide, once and for all, whether or not a discernible difference existed between the bite of passion and the militant bite.

During the annual meeting of board-certified odontologists at Anaheim several years ago, says Sperber, “there we were, fifty-six forensics experts from all over the United States and Canada, using mechanical jaws to bite one another’s arms, legs, backs, and abdomens ” The “jaws” were made by affixing dental models to grip-lock pliers. “We were able, with the mechanical jaws, to produce the ‘suck mark,’ which formerly had been associated only with the ‘hicky’ or ‘bite of passion.’ As the teeth affixed to the mechanical jaw came together on the skin, they literally milked the blood toward the center of the bite — which belied the expert’s assertion that this suction took place only with a bite of passion.”

Most bite marks result from an attacker biting a victim. But when evidence is sought, just as implicating is the bite of the victim on an attacker. Disclaiming any expertise in advising rape victims as to whether they should or should not fight their attacker, Sperber does say, “If a woman chooses to scratch and knee or punch her assailant, please, I saty, bite your attacker. Because if you do, you will leave a very telling bit of evidence.”

As to where to bite, Sperber suggests that if choice is possible, choose a firm part of the anatomy — the upper chest, for instance. “On a lean person, a bite mark made almost anywhere will be fairly telling. Right up on solid shoulder muscle on a nonobese individual: that’s the best spot to leave a good, solid, identifiable bite mark. If the attacker is obese, however, no area is very good.”

This is a fascinating case,” Sperber reads from a chart. “Canadian woman, apparently a homicide.” In 1972, Sperber examined the woman’s remains — no more than a few bones. “This is all I had to go on.” Sperber takes from his shelf a plaster casting of segments of an upper and lower jaw. There are three teeth in the jawbone. “She’d been beaten, busted up with something. All I had was this section of the upper and lower jaw. All the other teeth were gone.”

Initially, in the early Seventies, the woman’s mother, a resident of Vancouver, B.C., reported her daughter missing. Years passed, the mother heard nothing. Then, recently, the mother, believing her daughter had been in California at the time she reported her missing, hired a lawyer to determine if the daughter were dead or alive. The lawyer began to canvass coroner’s offices in California.

In 1987 the local coroner’s office received a letter from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. What the coroner’s office learned from this letter, says Sperber, holding up a photograph of a woman with shoulder-length hair, “is that she is this young lady right here!”

Each of the three teeth in the jawbone had been filled by a dentist. Sperber hands over a strip of X-ray negatives. “Now look at this,” he says, excitement rising in his voice. “Hold this film. Now, compare these three fillings in the film to these fillings in the teeth. You can see, the fillings are exactly the same.”

Sperber continues, his excitement unflagging. “See how precise that is? There’s no question. I could have done this on the basis of one tooth. So that’s a positive ID.” He puts the X-ray film back in its envelope and the plaster castings up onto their shelf. “I didn’t think we’d ever solve this case. We’ll never find who did it, who murdered her. But her mother can finally say, ‘There’s no hope. She’s gone.’ ”

To improve the odds of establishing identities, Sperber and two other dentists developed a dental identification system to be used statewide. In 1979 the passage of Assembly Bill 81 made the system a reality. The bill mandates that thirty days after the filing of a missing-persons report, the dental and medical records of the missing person should be sent to the Missing Per-sons/Unidentified Unit, Department of Justice, in Sacramento. If foul play is suspected, records may be sent before thirty days elapse.

“Prior to 1979,” says Sperber, “suppose we had a body out here in the woods. No ID. Body skeletonized. If you’re down to skeleton, you have no hair color, no eye color, no skin color. You don’t know height, weight. You’re down to dental. Before 1979 you could take X-rays of those teeth and send the X-rays to the 16,000 dentists in California. Now, that was quite a logistical problem. And were most dentists going to recognize their work from the X-rays? Probably not.

“When we developed the system, we said, ‘All right, we’re going to match unidentified persons to missing persons.’ ”

Therefore, Assembly Bill 81’s second part provides that all sheriff-coroner offices and all medical examiner and coroner’s offices must forward dental records of all unidentified dead in their jurisdiction to the Missing Persons/Unidentified Unit in Sacramento. (Sperber is chief forensic dentist for the division of California’s Department of Justice, which administers the system.)

“This is my baby right here,” says Sperber, handing over the dental record form now used in California. “With this, we can describe what is in a person’s mouth, tooth by tooth — missing teeth, bridges, crowns, root canals, restorations.” Using these charts, agents in Sacramento, trained by Sperber, compare records of unidentified dead and missing persons. “Often it’s just like that,” Sperber clicks his fingers. “Two charts will match.”

To date, this system has established identity of seventy-three people that Sperber believes would otherwise not have been identified. “What is particularly significant,” he adds, “is that fifty-seven of the seventy-three were murder victims. As a result of knowing the identify of the murder victims, we’ve been able to find who knew the person and in some cases rewarded by arrest and conviction of murderers of these persons.... I feel, sometimes, like an engineer when he sees the bridge he designed driven across by the first car.” The system is not perfect. “If no one reports the unidentified body as a missing person — and that often happens — then that body will likely never be identified.” If the missing person went to a dentist who has retired or died, records may not be available, because, typically, when a dentist dies or retires, his records are disposed of. No law exists to keep records intact, but, asks Sperber, “Who is going to store all these records?”

Sperber looks beyond his field of odontology for fail-safe solutions to body identification. They’re futuristic answers. You could decide, he says, to identify everyone at birth. “Tattoo everybody. It needn’t be disfiguring. You could tattoo the bottom of a foot. That would work if we could guarantee every unidentified decedent would be found when they are still fresh. But skin will burn and decompose, so a tattoo could quickly go. Teeth are ideal for identification through dental records, but even teeth can go, and there may be no dental records or it may not be possible to find what records there are.

“Certain parts of the body don’t rapidly disintegrate — the lower jaw and bones of the leg. If we could design capsules microengraved with identification data, then shortly after birth an air gun could shoot these capsules into what, at that point, would be very soft bone. Pop it in.

“The capsule would have a certain shape — T-shape, perhaps. It would be metal so as to show up on an X-ray. Then, say you had a Jane or John Doe whom you were pretty sure was a U S. citizen. Say the legs were lost, but the chin was still there. You could X-ray that chin, you’d see this T-shaped gadget. You dissect it out, put it under the microscope, and bang-o! you’ve got the identity.”

Microdiscs engraved with name, address, social security number have been designed. These can be bonded onto teeth. Sperber has put these in several people’s mouths. “But this notion,” he says, “hasn’t exactly captured the public fancy.”

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