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Investigators release new facial images of unidentified bodies in Allenstown cold case

  • A composite made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from unidentified remains found in a barrel in Allenstown a generation ago; June 13, 2013.

    A composite made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from unidentified remains found in a barrel in Allenstown a generation ago; June 13, 2013.

  • A composite made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from unidentified remains found in a barrel in Allenstown a generation ago; June 13, 2013.

    A composite made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from unidentified remains found in a barrel in Allenstown a generation ago; June 13, 2013.

  • A composite made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from unidentified remains found in a barrel in Allenstown a generation ago; June 13, 2013.

    A composite made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from unidentified remains found in a barrel in Allenstown a generation ago; June 13, 2013.

  • A composite made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from unidentified remains found in a barrel in Allenstown a generation ago; June 13, 2013.

    A composite made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from unidentified remains found in a barrel in Allenstown a generation ago; June 13, 2013.

  • A composite made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from unidentified remains found in a barrel in Allenstown a generation ago; June 13, 2013.
  • A composite made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from unidentified remains found in a barrel in Allenstown a generation ago; June 13, 2013.
  • A composite made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from unidentified remains found in a barrel in Allenstown a generation ago; June 13, 2013.
  • A composite made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children from unidentified remains found in a barrel in Allenstown a generation ago; June 13, 2013.

At least 27 years after a woman and three young girls were killed, stuffed into garbage bags and dumped in the woods near Bear Brook State Park, investigators are still struggling to determine the most fundamental detail: Who were they?

Remains of the woman and one girl were found spilling from a barrel in 1985. The remaining two were discovered 15 years later inside a similar barrel about 100 yards away. Authorities have never identified the victims, and no missing person’s report has ever been positively linked to the deaths. According to their Department of Justice case profile, experts believe the four were killed sometime between 1977 and the date the first pair was discovered.

The lack of information has long crippled one of the state’s most trying homicide investigations. But local authorities and specialists at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hope updated facial sketches of the victims released yesterday will spark a memory in someone who knew them.

The images are similar to those produced by the center in years past, but they also include evidence not previously known by the center about the shape and structure of their hair and teeth, said Joe Mullins, the forensic imaging specialist who drew the digital sketches.

Mullins said he designed the earlier iterations using the victims’ skulls and dental records. But some of the features did not match photographs of the remains taken closer to the date of discovery and later shared by the police, he said, such as teeth that had been removed or had somehow gone missing over the years.

Like their predecessors, the updated images are depicted in grayscale, because features such as skin tone or eye color are not known, Mullins said.

“We want the public to look at them with some level of ambiguity,” he said. “Ambiguity is the big word. They’re not meant to be photographic.”

State investigators have in recent years been working with national authorities, organizations such as NCMEC and advanced forensic technology to revisit evidence from the Allenstown case. Through improved DNA testing, they have confirmed some previously speculated details, such as that the victims were all female.

According to Dr. Angela Williamson, who leads the center’s unknown victims identification team, scientists have also determined that the woman, who was between 23 and 33 years old, is maternally related to two of the girls, meaning she could be their mother or an older sister or aunt. The third child, who was between 2 and 4 years old, was not maternally related, Williamson said.

Kim Fallon, a forensic investigator with the state medical examiner’s office who has helped with the case, said the victims would have appeared Caucasian, though they had some dental features that resemble those found in Native American populations.

The girl found with the woman was between 6 and 10 years old, had brown hair and double piercings in each ear, Fallon said, noting that the piercings were an odd feature for a child so young and given the time period.

The youngest child was between 1 and 3 years old, had a large gap between her two front teeth and fine blond hair between 8 and 12 inches long. The 2- to 4-year-old had brown wavy hair and a noticeable overbite.

Though uncommon in New Hampshire, unidentified homicides are more typical nationally, with some 40,000 sets of anonymous human remains known to exist across the country, Williamson said. But cases involving multiple unidentified bodies is much less common, she said, because the likelihood of a relative or friend or any former acquaintance coming forward is greater.

“What surprises me is there’s been a lot of media attention on this case and no one has come forth and said, ‘Hey, I know them,’ ” she said. “Did they live in complete isolation? Otherwise, why didn’t someone come forward and say they were missing?”

It’s possible that someone did report the four missing but that it didn’t get picked up nationally, Williamson said; a national missing persons database was created long after the murders are estimated to have taken place. Still, as experts do more DNA testing – which they will do, Williamson said – the chance of uncovering some bit of information that aligns with something recorded in a search engine increases.

Until further testing, though, state investigators are hesitant to make many conclusions in the case. Sgt. Joe Ebert of the state police Major Crimes Unit, who is involved in the investigation, said authorities still don’t know whether the victims were living in New Hampshire at the time of the murders. If they had been, it might explain the lack of acquaintances.

“There are some very remote areas of New Hampshire and some very private people,” he said.

Ebert added that authorities have and continue to trace leads in the case, both domestically and internationally, particularly areas in eastern Canada.

Asked about the significance of the updated facial images, he said they can only help.

“We’ve exhausted the traditional criminal investigatory means,” he said. “Now we’re really relying on the public for help.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319,
jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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