Where is Sandy Rea? Oklahoma state anthropologist helps piece together mysteries of the unidentified and missing

by Juliana Keeping Modified: August 12, 2012 at 9:17 am •  Published: August 12, 2012

Sandy Rea left a friend's house one September night to visit her cousin, who worked at a Shawnee bowling alley.

From there, the 17-year-old with wispy dark blond hair and a smattering of freckles across her nose called a friend to ask for a ride to a party. The friend's parents wouldn't allow their daughter out that night.

That was 1984. Sandy's family never saw her again.

Almost three decades have passed. Since that phone call, she has remained silent to all who loved her.

But for the missing, like Rea, there is a voice.

Angela Berg is an anthropologist with the state medical examiner's office.

Through science and old-fashioned detective work, her goal is to connect unidentified remains with the faces and names of those who have been reported missing.

“I'm the last voice for these victims,” said Berg, who was hired in 2010.

Her predecessor and mentor, Clyde Snow, is a forensic anthropologist and longtime consultant to the office approaching his mid-80s and inching slowly toward retirement after a productive and storied career.

Snow splits much of his time between Latin American countries, helping teams identify — via anthropological and DNA analysis — thousands of victims of political unrest. Their bodies lay in mass graves inArgentina, Guatemala and elsewhere.

Back in Oklahoma, Berg has begun to take over where Snow left off.

The smell of decomposing remains in the aging facility wafts into the hallway near the morgue as Berg talks about the backlog of unidentified remains more than 40 years and 128 cases deep. Some of the mostly skeletal remains are stowed in labeled boxes in a hallway closet in the medical examiner's cramped Oklahoma City office.

In an office that considers itself chronically underfunded, ordering new boxes to organize the older, skeletal remains was not an insignificant victory, she said.

There is new science to be applied to the remains, new databases in which to enter the data collected from these lonely dead.

On any given week, about 10 newer bodies at the medical examiner's office require special attention because each lacks an identity.

And then there are cases like Rea's. There is no body. There are no answers.

Making connections

A piece of a human skull found in the bottom of the North Canadian River is what connected Berg to Sandy Rea's family in July. A high school friend of Rea's was searching for anything that could help the case on the National Missing Persons and Unidentified database. Also called NamUs, the public database was launched in January 2009 to help law enforcement, the community and medical examiners connect those reported missing with unidentified remains.

The partial skull was pulled from the river in November 2007 in Pottawatomie County, the county from which Rea disappeared. It most likely belongs to a female age 14 to 30 years of age, Berg said.

The database entry on the skull listed contact information for Berg. That led to a string of emails and connected Berg to Rea's family members.

She collected DNA samples from Rea's mother and sister in July by swabbing the insides of their mouths.

Berg's demeanor is not what one might expect from someone who spends her days with the dead. She smiles easily, and she listens.

Rea's family members appreciated the warmth she exuded as she listened to their ordeal, said Brandy Davis, Rea's sister.

Berg also asked for copies of Rea's dental X-rays, and details like clothing size, shoe size and medical information to enter into the NamUs database.

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by Juliana Keeping
Enterprise Reporter
Juliana Keeping is on the enterprise reporting team for The Oklahoman and NewsOK.com. Keeping joined the staff of The Oklahoman in 2012. Prior to that time, she worked in the Chicago media at the SouthtownStar, winning a Peter Lisagor Award...
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That really makes it all hit home. It's not just boxes of bones. These are real people.”

Angela Berg

anthropologist with the state medical examiner's office

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