Known by his colleagues as “the Bone Man”, Detective Garda Gerry Kealy was directed to meet skipper Jimmy Devlin when he docked at Kilmore Quay the following day.
“The station rang me and told me ‘we’ve got one coming in for you’,” said Det Garda Kealy. “They told me about a skull in a bag.”
When he met Jimmy Devlin, he could see he was holding a plastic bag. Inside was the skull. It had been caught up in the nets of the Willie B about 50km off the coast.
Det Garda Kealy, a seasoned member of the Wexford Crime Scene Investigation Unit, was used to seeing such remains and had expertise in forensics. Holding a master’s degree in forensic science, he was a lecturer in the force and in third-level colleges and he quickly determined what he was dealing with.
He explained that “every race has its traits”. By examining the eye, the bone over the nose and the width and height of the nasal bone, he could tell it was a Caucasian.
And from examining the brow ridge and the bone under the ear he could tell it was a female.
He was also able to estimate roughly the amount of time the skull had been in the water.
“The body tissue hydrolises in water — it goes fatty and waxy. I knew the skull had been between a few months and less than two years in water.”
He took the bag, packed the skull in ice and sealed it before taking it to the mortuary at Wexford General Hospital. He contacted the coroner and the state pathologist, along with anthropology expert Dr Lorraine Buckley.
Marie Cassidy conducted the postmortem examination in Waterford Regional Hospital on April 6.
“It turned out the pathology findings were consistent with the actual circumstances of the woman’s death,” said Det Garda Kealy.
He said there had been some damage to the skull. He pointed out that it is quite normal for a skull to become detached from the rest of the body in water.
At this stage, all Det Garda Kealy knew was that he had the skull of an adult white female or, as he named her, the “Kilmore Quay Woman”.
The detective’s next step was to take the skull to Dr René Gapert, a forensic anthropologist at UCD.
He carried out a maceration process, removing all the tissue from the skull to prepare it for facial reconstruction. He said that during this process, Dr Gapert discovered that the first two bones of the neck were still attached to the skull.
An examination showed signs of arthritis, which meant when the woman was alive she had a stiff neck and problems turning her head to the left.
When she was eventually identified, it emerged that the woman’s medical records did show she had been to the doctor complaining of “terrible pain” in her neck.
The examination also showed that ligaments in the base of her skull had ossified (or turned to bone) and had been compressing on her carotid artery and nerves. This would have given her symptoms of fainting and headaches — which were also later confirmed in her medical records.
A dental examination gave other clues, indicating she was over 40 (she turned out to be 45). Her second molar hadn’t formed, which was unusual. But in addition she had an unusual crown — made of porcelain — on another molar.
“This was unusual because people can’t see it but, as it turned out, she had a broad smile so you could see her back teeth,” said Det Garda Kealy.
They also recovered three small reddish-brownish hair fragments, which again matched the woman when she was identified.
The next stage was to get a DNA profile. Det Garda Kealy said Dr Gapert removed a tooth and from this Dr Steven Clifford, a DNA expert at the State Forensic Science Laboratory, generated a profile.
Dr Gapert also sent skull measurements to Professor Richard Wright at Sydney University, who determined the woman was European.
Det Garda Kealy said the investigation went off on a long tangent following a stable isotope analysis by Professor Wolfram Meier-Augenstein of Dundee University.
This analysis, which examines differences in atoms, can indicate where in the world a person is from, as each region has a different rate of stable isotope to atoms. This analysis pointed to the east coast of the US.
Det Garda Kealy carried out extensive work there and used several missing person databases, but was able to eliminate them all. He ended up identifying a missing person who didn’t want to be found. He also had families of missing people in the US writing to him to see if he had found their loved one. “I had to write back to them all to say ‘no’.”
As it turned out, the woman suffered from a medical condition which affected the nutrients in her body, skewing the isotope analysis.
Det Garda Kealy also drew on expertise at Dundee University, which had developed a system of digital facial recognition. There he dealt with Dr Chris Rynn and Professor Caroline Wilkinson. They reinserted teeth into the lower jaw and scanned it.
They also factored in other information, including her hair colour, from which they developed a digital reconstruction of her face.
Det Garda Kealy gathered all the information and fed it into the Interpol black list, which holds details of unidentified people across the world. He also emailed 600 doctors and dentists in Wexford, sending them facial reconstruction images, dental charts and medical information to see if this woman had attended any of them.
A dental technician contacted him, saying he recognised the crown and that it could possibly be his work. Det Garda Kealy went through 8,500 receipts at his office to see if it could be his woman, but to no avail. He also went through details of 14 adult white women who had been missing in Ireland for the past three years. Again, no match.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, he got a reply from Interpol, saying British police had a potential match.
He was given a name and told she had been missing since late 2009.
“I got her picture and compared it to the reconstruction and everything fitted. I could see the crown, that really helped.”
He contacted Dr Rynn, who told him it was indeed a possible match. He contacted Interpol, which gave him contact details of police in Wales. He rang them and asked for the woman’s DNA profile, which they had extracted from her glasses.
He sent the profile to Dr Clifford in the Forensic Science Laboratory.
The breakthrough came last Tuesday, when Dr Clifford rang him and said: “That’s a match. I’ll write a report.”
After 18 months of gruelling work, Det Garda Kealy described the moment: “I felt relief. Happiness tainted with sadness. I felt at last somebody would find closure. It was a successful end to the investigation, which was a long, hard slog.”
He told the police in Wales and they contacted the woman’s family.
Her husband then rang him. “I tried to put him at ease,” the garda said. “It gave him some closure, and to her mother. This woman was a wife, a mother and a daughter.”
He said the coroner had authorised him to release the body as there were no suspicious circumstances to the woman’s death.
Whether her death was the result of suicide or not, Det Garda Kealy won’t comment, nor, for that reason, is her identity being revealed.
At the weekend, Det Garda Kealy was to meet the woman’s husband when he arrived to take her remains home. “We’ll put her remains in a coffin, a proper coffin. It will allow them to have a proper burial. All the paperwork is done for them to bring the remains out of the jurisdiction.”
The case is a fitting tribute to a garda who, on 11/11/11, retires after 34 years in the job.