May 22—It's not figurative to say there are skeletons in the Berks County coroner's office. John Fielding said he was surprised to learn early in 2022 after being elected coroner that there were human remains — mostly boxes of unclaimed cremated remains but also some partial skeletal remains and...
Steven Henshaw, Reading Eagle, Pa.
Mon, May 22, 2023 at 6:57 AM EDT
Rebuilding the case
About five years later the coroner's office started with the same playbook to identify "Pinnacle Man," a process that was set back a few years due to a disruption in funding.
The contemporary attempt to identify the man using DNA technology has followed a long and twisting path.
In 2009, after NaMUS launched its public website, the coroner's office was asked to upload the case files of its unidentified remains.
Although "Pinnacle Man's" remains were buried in the potter's field in 1977, he wasn't initially on the coroner's office radar. Someone brought to their attention that the long-buried man was still unidentified.
The problem, said Bonilla, a longtime deputy in the coroner's office, was there was no case file to upload.
"We had to reconstruct the case file because we knew he existed," Bonilla said. "And now we had people telling us this guy in 1977 was never identified. We found the autopsy report and sort of rebuilt the case file."
They uploaded the profile to NaMUS in 2009 with what limited information they had and started to get hits on missing people who matched his descriptors, though most were ruled out because they didn't match his height, for example.
According to records, the man found in the cave was about 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed about 155 pounds. The autopsy did not determine when he died but indicated the body was fairly well preserved.
Bonilla said a state police cold case investigator identified two potential matches, both men from other states who were in their early 20s when they went missing in 1975.
A forensic odontologist affiliated with NamUs, Dr. Richard Scanlon, compared the dental records of two missing men to "Pinnacle Man" and found several similarities but was unable to make a positive identification.
Although the dead man's fingerprints were taken, the original copy of those prints could not be found and the quality of the copies was too poor to be used for identification.
State police and the coroner's office began discussing exhumation around 2016.
From their experience with the Stiver case, they knew what was involved, and it is not something to be taken lightly.
To get a court order for exhumation, the petitioner needs to make a good-faith attempt to contact the next of kin of the decedents buried in the adjacent graves, one on each side. That's because there's a chance of disturbing the wrong grave.
All the necessary steps were completed in 2019 and in July of that year, following a hearing, county Judge Jeffrey K. Sprecher approved the exhumation.
The coroner's office shipped bone samples to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for DNA testing to determine if there was a match to either of the missing men. The CHI Forensic Unit provides screening and DNA testing services of biological evidence related to criminal investigation.
To the frustration of the coroner's office, the plan never materialized.
After languishing for two years on a waiting list behind more pressing cases, the lab abruptly shipped the remains back to Berks in 2021, saying it couldn't do the DNA extraction because its funding grant had dried up.
Since "Pinnacle Man's" death isn't a criminal case — the 1977 autopsy ruled he died of a drug overdose — it was low on the pecking order of government-funded labs offering DNA testing, officials said.
Hess retired before his third term as coroner ended in 2021. Fielding was elected that November and his office was left with the decision on how to proceed with "Pinnacle Man."
"So we decided to just go ahead and take it from our budget," Chief Deputy Coroner George Holmes said.
Last year, Holmes contacted Bode Technology, a private Virginia lab. Bode offers forensic genealogy, which uses traditional genealogy research with advanced DNA testing to help identify potential links to unknown profiles.
The county will pay about $11,000 for the work, which goes beyond what the Texas lab would have performed. Unused funds set aside for DNA testing in the 2022 budget were diverted to cover the expense.
Officials shipped the remains to the Virginia lab early this year and are awaiting the results.