Lifestyle News

Body hunter: Human remains expert solving 500 mysteries

When the man began excavating his backyard in September last year to access a sewer pipe in the northern Geelong suburb of Norlane, he was not expecting the grisly find he uncovered.But underneath an old armchair and catalogues dumped on the fence line of the neighbouring property which backed on to his was a camping-style…

When the man began excavating his backyard in September last year to access a sewer pipe in the northern Geelong suburb of Norlane, he was not expecting the grisly find he uncovered.

But underneath an old armchair and catalogues dumped on the fence line of the neighbouring property which backed on to his was a camping-style swag.

Inside the swag was a human femur, a hip bone and skull still covered in hair, which was shoulder-length and a red colour.

Soon the backyard was a crime scene, with forensic officers digging up a larger patch on the fence line.

Neighbours said a couple who distributed catalogues for a living, had seemingly “vanished” a few months before, although too soon for the remains to have been one of them.

Forensic police filled bags with evidence to take away; just another set of unidentified human remains to add to Australia’s list of unsolved mysteries.

Sometimes bones are found by campers and bushwalkers.

Or they are unearthed during construction work, like the late afternoon a road grader operator spotted something strange while cutting Marble Bar Road in remote Western Australia.

It was a skull and bones, just off the road around 250km south of Marble Bar, dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, underwear and elastic-sided boots.

In a hastily dug grave along with the remains were the male’s possessions, including a hat, sunglasses, pocket knife, car key and comb.

Police would determine the man had been 35 to 45 years old and that he had been murdered; no-one came forward to identify him.

“The fact the deceased was located in a shallow grave and the grave had apparently been concealed leads investigators to believe this person was a victim of homicide,” WA Police told

Then there is the case of Pakenham Man. While police know exactly how and when he died, they don’t know who he is and no-one has come forward to claim him. Grainy CCTV footage captured the moments before his death in 2008, showing him on a train headed for Melbourne’s outskirts.

It was an evening late in winter and the video shows him wearing baggy jeans with a blue and red jacket on his 170cm tall, slightly portly frame.

The footage shows him watching the doors close as the train pulls out and for a few seconds he looks about the empty carriage, at one point rubbing his face.

He appears to be wearing glasses.

Although a pathologist later estimated his age at between 20 and 30 years, the video shows he is already balding, the spot on the crown of his head visible when he sits down with his back to the camera.

Around 9.15pm, the train arrives at Pakenham, a working class suburb 64km southeast of Melbourne, and he disembarks.

He then enters the railway tracks and is struck by one train, and then by another whose shocked driver calls in police and paramedics.

While his death was not suspicious, the deceased man carried no ID, had no tattoos or distinctive scars.

That was Thursday, August 14, 2008. Twelve years later, police are no closer to identifying him.

He is among the more than 500 sets of individual human remains in mortuaries or burial grounds around Australia that remain nameless.

But that is about to change.

RELATED: Mexico now has a backlog of more than 30,000 unidentified corpses

RELATED: Perfect murders: Australia’s nameless and faceless victims

A new initiative will harness modern forensic techniques to allow the advanced DNA profiling and matching of unidentified human remains and missing persons nationally for the first time.

The Australian-first program will run for the next two-and-a-half years, with hopes of it becoming a permanent operation thereafter.

To fund the scheme, $3.594 million has been made available from proceeds of crime – the cashed-in assets of criminals like drug dealers.

Called the National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons, it is an Australian Federal Police (AFP) operation spearheaded by DNA forensic biologist Jodie Ward.

Dr Ward and a small team at the AFP are using the database of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and collaborating with police forces in all Australian states and territories.

An estimated 38,000 people are reported missing each year in Australia.

Dr Ward told the program’s first step was to conduct an audit with the states and territories of the 500 sets of remains.

Forensic anthropologists will examine them to determine age, ancestry and whether there was any evidence of trauma as the cause of death.

Next, she said, forensic odontologists will examine any teeth remains.

“We want to be able to compare them with the dental records of our missing people,” Dr Ward said. Australia has around 2600 long-term missing people, meaning they have been missing for longer than three months.

After that, DNA testing of three different types of DNA will be done by AFP specialists, but that will only make a match if the person’s DNA profile is on their database.

“For long-term missing people, there might be a toothbrush from their home, but some of these cases are half a century old and it might be a relative, the families of the missing donating a DNA sample,” she said.

“With older bones there’s a higher chance of DNA degrading.

“DNA doesn’t last forever and it depends on where the bone was buried, how long, if it was in water.”

Dr Ward said her team will also be consulting Interpol’s DNA database, for remains that might be of people from abroad – as well as to see if remains found abroad are missing Australians.

Other techniques the program will use include phenotyping, to determine ancestry and physical appearance such as hair and eye colour, and forensic genetic genealogy.

The latter, made famous by finding decades later the US serial killer Joseph DeAngelo, known as the Golden State Killer, uses some genealogical databases to find any possible relatives with comparable DNA.

Dr Ward said this multidisciplinary approach was needed to pull all the information together and solve the mysteries.

Her team will also use the existing resources of the AFP, which has craniofacial reconstruction experts for when the remains include a skull, as well as radio carbon dating.

“That is useful to determine the year of death and the year of birth,” she said.

Her team will also employ a tool previously not often used in Australia – isotopic analysis of the chemicals stored in a person’s bone.

“This can help determine where a person was born, where they were for the last 10 years of their life, their major dietary preference,” she said.

“My vision is I believe we can process a lot of the (500) samples in two-and-a-half years.

“I am hoping the program paves the way for a more effective investigative approach.

“There is a long-lasting need for these cases to be solved.”


Discoveries of human remains in Western Australia are more common than its vast area and small population might suggest.

WA Police have dozens of sets of remains still unidentified decades after they were found; some of them murder victims.

Just before 5pm on August 27, 1979, a family was walking through bushland east of Perth when they found the badly decomposed body of a man.

The fully clothed body was partly concealed by branches near the entrance to the Chidlow Rifle Range, just south of the Great Eastern Highway.

A post mortem revealed that the man had died of a gunshot to the chest up to three months earlier.

Aged 35 to 45, he was 171cm to 178cm tall and dressed in smart casual clothing with bone coloured “Yakka” brand jeans, a grey or blue rollneck jumper and a yellow, long-sleeved “Nile” brand skivvy.

He wore a greenish-grey cardigan with off-white stripes, a silver buckled brown belt and red socks.

Near his body were a pair of “Palermo” brown leather slip-on shoes, a “Malabones” pigskin money belt and a men’s Seiko Actus watch.

It is not certain where the man died and police believed he “may have been dragged there” after being killed.


Unidentified bodies cases have been solved, giving names to remains or at least bringing to light the tragic circumstances leading to the person’s death.

The remarkable story of the Wynarka suitcase girl solved two murders in two states.

The discovery of a child’s remains in a suitcase full of clothing dumped on the Karoonda Highway near the tiny South Australian town of Wynarka shocked the nation in July 2015.

By October, police had identified the skeleton as that of two-year-old Khandalyce Kiara Pearce, the daughter of Karlie Pearce-Stevenson.

That was the name of the adult woman whose remains had been found in Belanglo State Forest, NSW in 2010 and dubbed the “Belanglo Angel”.

Daniel James Holdom, 45, who had briefly been the one-time partner of Ms Pearce-Stevenson was jailed for two life sentences for their murders in 2018.


Another sad case reached its conclusion just in July this year, although the victim’s name cannot be revealed police and justice authorities know who it is.

On July 12, 1995, a cleaner found the remains of a newborn baby boy with paper towel stuffed in his mouth in a basin in the toilets at Kambalda caravan park, 600km east of Perth.

Police conducted an extensive investigation but despite screening all the women who lived in the remote, sparsely populated area, neither the dead infant nor his mother was identified.

Detectives gave the child the name “Baby Rijul”, from the Hindu word for “innocent” and he was buried in the Kalgoorlie cemetery.

Then in 2019, Western Australia Cold Case Homicide Squad detectives used DNA to link the baby to a woman who they extradited from Victoria to face a charge of wilful murder.

Soon after, police extradited a 55-year-old man from Queensland and charged him with sexually abusing the woman over several years.

He was her stepfather and had been sexually active with her during and after the time the baby was conceived.

In a Perth Children’s Court hearing this year it was revealed the woman – who is now aged 39 – had become pregnant aged 13, but did not realise until the baby started kicking at around 20 weeks.

She concealed the pregnancy and just after she turned 14, she gave birth alone to the child.

The court heard that when the baby cried, the girl stuffed paper in its mouth to stop the noise and the baby suffocated.

The wilful murder offence was discontinued and she instead pleaded guilty to infanticide and a judge gave the woman a 16-month suspended prison sentence.


One of the oldest unsolved cases is that of the well-dressed man whose body was found on a South Australian beach in 1948.

Two jockeys found the dead man dressed in a suit, shirt, tie and shoes resting on a sea wall on Somerton Beach at 6.30am on December 1, 1948.

A half-smoked cigarette rested on his shirt collar and at first the jockeys thought he was sleeping off a night out on the dry sand.

Pathologist John Burton Cleland could find no signs of violence on the body of the man, who he thought was of British appearance and in “top physical condition”.

He was aged 40 to 45, 180cm tall, with grey eyes and had the pronounced calf muscles of a dancer.

His suit was thought to be of American tailoring, but all labels had been removed.

In his pockets were an unused train ticket, a bus ticket, a US-manufactured metal comb, half a Juicy Fruit chewing gum packet, seven cigarettes in a packet and a box of matches.

The man had an enlarged spleen, congestion of the liver and might have been poisoned, although no poison was found in his system, so the cause of death was inconclusive.

Dubbed Somerton Man, the mysterious corpse was also later called Tamám Shud, after a scrap of paper was found months later in the fob pocket of his trousers.

The scrap, which had been torn from the final page of a copy of the Rubaiyat by 12th century poet Omar Khayyam, had the words “tamám shud”, meaning “ended” or “finished”.

Later, a man would come forward who had found the exact Rubaiyat book with the page torn out, which had been tossed into the back of his car.

In the book was a mysterious sequence of letters, one set crossed out, which look like code but which has never been cracked.

The letters read: WRGOABABD, MLIAOI (crossed out), WTBIMPANETP, X (crossed out), MLIABOAIAQC, ITTMTSAMSTGAB.

With it was written a phone number with a woman’s name, Jestyn, who was tracked down and said she’d had a book of the Rubiayat which she gave to a man.

Police tracked down the man she gave the book to – but he was still alive and still had it in his possession.

Detectives also recovered an unclaimed suitcase full of clothes plus a stencilling brush,

screwdriver, sharpened scissors, a shaving kit and knife from Adelaide Railway Station.

They believed it belonged to the dead man, and it had the name “T. Kean” written on it, but the find did not lead to his identification.

Somerton Man is one of Australia’s enduring mysteries, providing fodder for modern true crime podcasts.


Detective Senior Constable Mick Van Der Heyden from Cardinia Crime Investigation Unit believes someone in the community knows who the man is who died at Pakenham train station in 2008.

“We urge that person to contact Crime Stoppers,” Detective Senior Constable Mick Van Der Heyden told the Herald Sun.

‘Pakenham Man’ is believed to be of south Asian or subcontinental ethnicity and was possibly homeless, because the original owner of the jacket he was wearing – discarded in a clothing bin – came forward to police.

“This man would have had a family. He would have been someone’s son, he could have been a brother, a father, an uncle or a friend,” Det Van Der Heyden said.

Leave a Comment