The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

What Happened to Wilma? Demonstrative Evidence in an FBI Cold Case


1Department of Anthropology, University of Utah, 2Body Donor Program, University of Utah, 3Principal Engineer, Benson Engineering Utah

Saturday Morning, 301D Add to calendar

One of the last forensic cases worked on by Karen Ramey Burns concerned the recreation of events leading up to the unsolved murder of Wilma June Nissen, a 23-year-old women whose body was discovered in 1978. Burns worked in cooperation with a forensic engineer, the Body Donor Program of theUniversityofUtah, and her graduate students to design a novel method of crime scene reconstruction, abrasion simulation. The decomposed remains of Wilma Nissen were found in a roadside ditch beside a gravel road inLyon County,Iowain 1978. The remains were unidentified until 2006, when fingerprints retrieved from the body were matched to a set taken during a prostitution arrest in the 1970s. Wilma’s body was exhumed in 2007 for genetic identity confirmation and further evidentiary analysis. Examination of the skeletal remains uncovered an unusual patterned abrasion to the bones of both elbows. The Federal Bureau of Investigation requested that Brent Benson, a forensic engineer, design a mechanical model to explain the etiology of such skeletal lesions. Dr. Benson contacted Dr. Burns and together they developed an experimental research design to simulate conditions that could have caused the trauma. Fleshed arms were dragged at varying speeds across a large rotating disc surfaced with varying gravel grades to test the distance and pressure under which Wilma’s elbows would had to have been dragged to effect the observed skeletal trauma. The study resulted in compelling evidence that Wilma had been alive when the injuries were sustained.

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