LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Using the forensic science mimicked on television crime dramas, investigators in Kentucky revealed evidence of a gruesome crime: A woman shot to death and scalped, the only evidence the telltale markings on what remained of her skull.
Detectives in a lab determined she was a tall woman, likely of Native American descent. And she was killed in modern times — her teeth showed evidence of fillings and other dental work far too advanced for this to be a pioneer-era killing. But that's where the trail runs cold.
Kentucky State Police Detective Chad Winn isn't even sure where the woman is from or how she got to a remote area of Barren County, about 95 miles south of Louisville. He speculates she was dumped there.
Such an unusual killing has authorities wondering if the woman was the victim of a hate crime, Winn said. Mexican drug cartels are also known for beheading and scalping people in turf wars south of the border, though that kind of brutality has yet to be seen in rural Kentucky. Without more evidence, those theories remain pure speculation.
"I'm not saying there's no connection tying violence here to the cartels," said Jim Balcom, the Drug Enforcement Administration agent overseeing Kentucky, who is not involved in the investigation. "I'm just saying we can't do it at this point."
The mystery began about a year ago when a group of students, searching the woods for a rare tree, found the top of a skull in a drainage ditch near the Cumberland Parkway about eight miles east of Interstate 65. Investigators then found bones scattered across a 100-foot area — Winn guessed that was because of animals and water runoff moving them.
Since then, Winn and a team of investigators have been trying to identify the woman, where she came from and how she ended up on the side of a road. What little they do know was determined by forensic anthropologists who helped gather and examine the bones.
The woman was unusually tall, standing at least 5 feet 9 inches and perhaps as tall as 6 feet 1 inch, said Dr. Emily Craig of Georgetown, Ky., who works with NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Craig said enough bones were found to determine that the woman was of Native American descent, between 20 and 50 years old, and was killed and exposed to the elements sometime between 1999 and 2010.
However, that doesn't necessarily mean the woman identified herself as Native American. And she may have been from outside of Kentucky, Winn said. The state has no federally recognized tribes, and only 0.3 percent of the population — about 12,000 of the state's 4 million residents — identify as Native American, according to U.S. Census figures.
"There are features in the bones that have racial characteristics," Craig said. "We're pretty sure of her ancestry. How she self-identified, we don't know."
The practice of cutting off someone's scalp dates back centuries and is known in the U.S. for its role in warfare between some Native American tribes and settlers. Modern scalping cases are rare in the U.S. but not unheard of: In 1997, a man was convicted of killing and scalping a mentally disabled friend in Massachusetts. And in 2005, a woman in Idaho was sentenced to 10 years in prison for scalping a teenage friend. The victim in that case survived.