May 31, 2009

Inland desert power line projects unearthing possible murder mysteries

The Press-Enterprise

As energy officials begin surveying Southern California's deserts to prepare for solar power development, they are making some unexpected discoveries: human remains.

The bones of at least two people were found last month by biologists conducting wildlife surveys required for solar projects in the Mojave Desert, a sparsely populated region that covers thousands of square miles. The survey crews found one set of bones near Baker and another on the extreme edge of California near the border town of Primm, Nev.

Both finds are being investigated. The identities and causes of death have not been determined.

At least one of the biologists, far from being creeped out, said finding human remains is "interesting."

Alice Karl was surveying land May 18 just outside of Primm and west of Interstate 15 when a member of her crew came across the skull and other scattered bones, along with some clothing.

Karl, whose home base is Davis, was working for Southern California Edison, which intends to improve power lines to transmit electricity from solar plants planned in the area.

She said finding human bones isn't much different than finding the skeleton of a large animal.

"No, it is not creepy. ... We are biologists," Karl said. "It is a little unusual."

Not all that unusual, though.

Karl said she has found four sets of remains in her 31-year career. She figures at least one, discovered about eight years ago near Desert Center in Riverside County, had been murdered: The skull had a bullet-sized hole in it.

In the Primm case, Karl said the crew identified the bones' location and called authorities.

Four days earlier, another wildlife survey crew came across a human skeleton near Interstate 15, about 10 miles east of Baker.

On April 2, college geology students doing field work near Interstate 10 about 20 miles east of Desert Center found a human jawbone, triggering an investigation into a possible homicide, Riverside County sheriff's Sgt. Dean Spivacke said.


So far, not much is known about the remains found in May, other than both were men, said David Van Norman, a deputy coroner investigator for the coroner's division of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

It takes a state laboratory more than four months to analyze DNA from skeletal remains and seek matches with DNA records kept in a national database, Van Norman said. In California, state law requires close relatives of people missing more than 30 days to submit DNA samples for the database.

A skeleton found last year in an off-roading area south of Barstow was identified this week through DNA analysis as a missing San Diego County man. Officials are now working to track down his next-of-kin, Van Norman said.

Law enforcement officials said they expect more remains to turn up as energy companies prepare to build solar plants in the desert.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is processing 78 applications to put solar plants on more than 1,000 square miles of public land between Ridgecrest and El Centro. Each would require surveys to determine what sensitive plants and animals are in the project's path.

Having so many people on the ground finding remains will help solve murder and missing person cases, Van Norman said.

The sooner a body is found, the more evidence can be gathered from bones, such as DNA samples, clothing and personal effects, he said.

"I am just delighted by this," Van Norman said. "These remains are people who otherwise would not be found."

Wildlife biologists offer more than just additional sets of eyes scanning remote places.

They are trained scientists who can tell the difference between animal and human bones, Karl said. They walk specified grids. And they carry global positioning devices that can pinpoint the locations of what they find.

Karl said she's happy to help authorities.

"We could close a few cases," she said.