The bare bones: How WA State’s only forensic anthropologist does it all

For King County Forensic Anthropologist Katherine Taylor and her team, attempting to identify missing persons or unidentified bodies can be a slow, painstaking exercise that can take years to complete.

For some cases the technology just hasn’t caught up to assist in the identification of the person, and in other cases the information doesn’t seem to piece together. There was one specific story that Katherine recalled where her team tried everything they could before finally catching a break.

“First we found the cranium. Over the course of a couple months we found more of the body,” Katherine said. “We didn’t have the whole body. Unidentified female – young female, and we couldn’t get her ID’d.”

The unidentified female was in the middle of a root canal, and they sent a mass bulletin to all of the Washington State dentists in the dental society to see if a patient never came back to finish their root canal. The search yielded no results. She decided to continue her search on a new missing persons website at the time called North American Missing Persons Network.

“I pulled up a crime stoppers bulletin out of another county,” she said. “It was the only time I’ve ever had a gut feeling in my life; I knew instantly it was her.”

After pursuing her gut instinct, law enforcement was able to pull dental records for the missing person. It was a match. She called the family to let them know. The mom was hysterical, and Katherine was able to help calm her down. The family later invited her to the funeral where she was brought in front of the crowd and introduced to everyone.

“Afterwards all these people were coming up to me and hugging me and thanking me,” said Katherine. “I thought ‘this is why I do my job.’”

Katherine is both the forensic anthropologist for Washington State and King County’s Medical Examiner’s Office. The work her and her team are completing is rewarding, but also emotionally taxing.

“You need an outlet, so I watch a sad movie once a month or so and just cry,” she said. “Everybody who works at this office deals with that. It is emotionally very draining to do this job.”

If you look at The American Board of Forensic Anthropology’s map, which details where all their board-certified forensic anthropologists are located, there is only one pin sticking out of Washington State, representing Katherine.

“As an anthropologist I am on call pretty much 24/7, because I am the only one in the state,” she said. “One time they found me when I was on vacation at Disney World. I can carry a cellphone, and law enforcement can text me a picture of a bone. I can turn around immediately and say ‘that’s not human dispose of it, and clear your scene.’”

While identifying missing and unidentified persons is a large part of Katherine’s job, she also does biological profiling, DNA sampling, works with law enforcement and identifies bones, performs dental and body X-ray comparisons, conducts mass fatality planning, speaks with missing persons families, testifies on court cases, works on the cold cases team, provides specialized training to King County law enforcement, search and rescue, cadaver dog handlers, crime scene responders, and teaches a buried body school twice a year. While funded by the entire state, many of her trainings are unique to King County since that is where her office is located.

“I am getting to the point where I can’t do it all by myself,” she said. “Thankfully I have an intern right now, and I am hoping that I will hang onto an intern position because it is overwhelming.”

“Working under her and alongside her has been a dream come true,” said Laura Digman, forensic anthropology intern. “She is extremely smart. She used to be a professor, which works in my favor because she is able to explain things in a way that I understand.”

Between training the future of her career field and all of the specialized training that she does to support King County’s law enforcement officials, Katherine has made a lasting impact.

“She says, ‘We’re just a spoke in the wheel of justice’,” Laura said of her mentor. “We just do whatever we can to help.”