In a lab in Fort Worth, Texas, the skull found in Danby, Vt., is waiting to be tested, while Vermont state police wait anxiously for answers.
"What would help us would be an identification. OK, we know who it was; this is where they were last seen. We just don't have any information to go on. Right now we just don't know," Vt. State Police Lt. Tim Oliver said.
If the lab in Texas successfully extracts the mitochondrial DNA, it will be run through a database of national missing and unidentified persons or NAMUS, and a match could be made in minutes. But that's not the only possibility.
"It's also possible that we would get a successful DNA strand that just doesn't match anything; that we don't have anything in the database right now," Vt. State Police Lt. J.P. Sinclair said.
That would mean the person went missing before the 1980s when collecting DNA samples of the missing became routine. So police hope turning to teeth will bring an answer.
"We'll consult with our dentist and say OK, we've got this type of material that we find in the teeth. Is this even something that is used today?" Sinclair explained.
Then they'll reopen the pile of missing cases that match with that era of dentistry. Police say at this roadblock, having a mitochondrial DNA sample, and not one exclusive to one person, becomes so important.
"It's passed along the female biological tree in that family, so if you accurately trace that back, then it's still helpful for elimination purposes," Sinclair said.
Police could track down relatives of those missing cases, sample their DNA, and begin a process of elimination.
"Well, it's a very methodical process that we go through because we certainly don't want to be wrong. Especially when you're dealing with missing persons cases and the mental anguish that a person goes through with a missing loved one," Sinclair explained.
But of course, police might not be able to find any relatives. That's when they stop leaning on science and start turning to artists to reconstruct the young woman's face. He showed us an example from a different case.
"They will use known exemplar measurements to start to build the thickness of the face and eventually come around to an artist's rendering of what they think the skull would look like with skin and flesh and everything intact," Sinclair said.
Though it's not a method that holds up in court, it could help police narrow down their list of possible cases.
"This might give us a chance to make a reasonable priority list," Sinclair said.
A list of cases, some cold for decades, that police would reopen to try to determine who this young woman truly was. But police say if they exhaust all those options and are still stumped, they'll go back to Danby and begin a very thorough and exhaustive search of the field where the skull was found, which was hundreds of acres wide.
In a press release immediately following the discovery of the skull, police said it could be that of Brianna Maitland who went missing from Montgomery in 2004, or Heide Wilbur who went missing from Middletown Springs in 1991.
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