Forensic Legend in Our Own Backyard

By:
Jeff Harrison

In September 1984, an 8-year- old girl mysteriously disappeared from her Tucson neighborhood in a case that baffled investigators and riveted the community’s attention. While a suspect in her disappearance was found shortly after in Texas and extradited back to Arizona, what happened to Vicki Lynn Hoskinson remained a mystery.

Then, seven months later, searchers combing through the desert near Tucson found what they thought might be the girl’s remains, reduced by then to a skeleton heavily damaged by exposure to the weather and animals.
Authorities took the remains to Walter H. Birkby ’73, the curator of physical anthropology at the Arizona State Museum and widely regarded as one of the nation’s preeminent forensic anthropologists. Birkby was able to match the teeth found in the desert to the dental records of the missing girl.

As in many dozens of other cases across the country, Birkby was called to testify about his analysis. But in what should have been a straightforward murder trial, there was a remarkable twist. Rather than accept Birkby’s conclusions, the defense attorney instead challenged the legitimacy of his professional credentials.

He proposed that Birkby take a “quiz” to prove his qualifications by matching sets of X-ray images of several children.

When the trial broke for lunch, Birkby gathered his “homework,” and two hours later turned in his assignment.

“He scored 100 percent,” says Bruce Anderson, one of Birkby’s students at the time and now the forensic anthropologist for the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office and an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona. “Walt was up for the challenge and knew he knew how to do that. It was really remarkable.”

For Birkby, it was “just another day at the office,” although Anderson speculates that had he failed the test, more than just a murder trial would have been jeopardized.

“Had Walt not gotten that right, it could have soured forensic anthropology for quite a while. Who knows? Frank Atwood (who was convicted of the murder) might have walked. The medical examiner here might have said, ‘we can’t touch Birkby.’ Walt had 10 or 12 students at the time and it could have adversely affected them.

“None of this might be here today had he failed that exam,” Anderson says.

“Here” is the forensic anthropology laboratory at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, which is now named for Birkby, who was a presence there for 40 years before retiring at the end of 2009. Anderson is just one of a remarkable number of students that Birkby trained in forensic anthropology, the intersection of physical anthropology and the law.

Birkby came to the UA in 1963 as a graduate student. His college career at Creighton University was interrupted by his Marine Corps service in the Korean War. After the war he worked for several years as a medical and X-ray technician before enrolling at the University of Kansas.

There, he studied under William Bass, a pioneer in modern forensic anthropology, and an authority on osteology and decomposition that made him a nationally sought-after expert for law enforcement. Birkby decided to model his own career after Bass’s.

After finishing his master’s degree at Kansas, Birkby was drawn to the UA by Frederick Hulse, another nationally prominent physical anthropologist, second only to Bass in graduating doctoral students in forensic anthropology. Birkby became a graduate assistant and taught osteology in Hulse’s classrooms while working on his doctoral degree.

James Ayres, a Tucson-based archaeologist and adjunct instructor in what is now the UA School of Anthropology, started at the UA that fall with Birkby.

“Walt had helped me on projects identifying excavated human remains in downtown Tucson. And both of us worked at the Arizona State Museum. If someone called about finding an archaeological site, Walt and I would try to get out and record it for the museum,” Ayres says. “When I was on staff at Grasshopper (the UA archaeological field school), he always came to give a lecture on human remains.”

Ayres later collaborated with Birkby and two of his students on an excavation that brought them worldwide attention. They exhumed the remains of four bodies in Colorado that allegedly had been cannibalized during the winter of 1874 by Alferd Packer. The project, led by George Washington University law professor James Starrs, drew dozens of reporters from around the world, and, over a nearly two-week period, generated a level of publicity that Birkby and his colleagues had never before experienced.

For the self-effacing Birkby, it was a distraction from the real work at hand — that of putting names to the otherwise unidentifiable fragments, found in varying states of decomposition, of what used to be living human beings. Birkby’s laboratory at the UA became a destination for police investigators in Arizona and well beyond.

Homicide detectives in California routinely sent cases to Tucson when time was a critical factor. “They had their own ‘air force’ of planes seized from drug traffickers and said they could fly to Tucson faster than they could drive to Los Angeles,” Birkby says.

The importance of his work went beyond aiding law enforcement in criminal cases. His identifications often helped grieving families resolve the fate of family members either missing over time, or in some instances, misplaced by careless funeral homes.

A new and often horrific aspect to Birkby’s and other’s work is the deaths of immigrants crossing illegally into Arizona. Those deaths have spiked dramatically in recent years, paralleling changes in U.S.-Mexico border policies, and straining the facilities at the medical examiner’s office. Their goal is to find out who these people are and notify their families.
Dr. Bruce Parks, a pathologist and the chief medical examiner for Pima County, calls Birkby “indispensable.”

“I first met Dr. Birkby in 1985 during my pathology rotation in medical school at the UA and had a year of specialized forensic training with him. He’s one of only a handful of skilled forensic anthropologists in the country, really one of the fathers of forensic pathology, so having him here in our office was a real coup for us,” Parks says. “His work behind the scenes has been remarkable. The families of the loved ones he’s identified would be very appreciative of him if they knew his role here.”

Birkby retired from the UA in 1996 and from the medical examiner’s office in 2009, but left behind an extraordinary cadre of students who earned graduate degrees in forensic anthropology out of what became known as Birkby’s Body Shoppe.

One of Anderson’s classmates, Laura Fulginiti, is the forensic anthropologist in Maricopa County.

Anderson, along with former students David Rankin, Richard Harrington, and Medeline Hinkes and others have worked in other countries to identify the remains of missing U.S. military personnel and human-rights abuse victims.

Others became the next generation of teachers, like Alison Galloway, now a vice provost at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Maria Czuzak, who teaches anatomy in the UA College of Medicine, and Todd Fenton, an associate professor at Michigan State University.

Robin Reineke, one of Anderson’s current graduate anthropology students, says she admires the balance Birkby brings to his life and work as a forensic anthropologist.

“He is a legend, tough as nails, and one of the funniest, most kind-hearted people I know,” Reineke says. “I watched Dr. Birkby handle bones with the care and respect of a doctor examining a patient. Despite his tough, USMC-veteran, NRA, buzz-cut exterior, inside he is a deliberate, caring, and highly principled scientist. I think the balance is something that has helped him to do what he did for so long.”

Anderson says Birkby “created a kind of farm system for what we do. Our climate and our proximity to the border has created an atmosphere where it is a prime spot to train students in the medical and legal aspects of physical anthropology.

“As one of Walt’s students, you could be guaranteed that you would see a wide variety of cases,” Anderson says. “I tell students all the time — we’re going to expose you to dry bones and decomposed bodies and everything in between, not just plastic skeletons. I don’t know when it’s going to come in, but if you’re here a semester, you’ll see a variety.”
“You don’t have to fake it,” Birkby says. “You don’t need plastic or plaster mockups to present to students for them to practice and learn. Here, it’s the real deal, real cases, active cases. Every case is different, because it’s always a different person, in a different place, in a different manner.  It never gets dull,” he says. “It’s been fun.”