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Forensic odontologist says dental records are key to identifying human remains


After human remains were found in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park on Thursday, officials are currently working to confirm their suspicion they belong to a mother who went missing in October 2019.

The Boone/Callaway County Medical Examiner's Office told ABC 17 a forensic odontologist and a forensic anthropologist will look at the remains. Dori D. Burke with the office said the odontologist arrived on Monday and the anthropologist will arrive on Thursday.

Burke said the forensic odontologist, a specially trained dentist that uses expertise to identify unknown remains, started his work on Monday evening. She said the office expects to know whether or not the remains are Ji's by Friday.

The forensic odontologist, in this case, was being contracted out. Burke could not immediately confirm how much it will cost or who the expert is.

A retired dentist and member of the American Board of Forensic Odontology Jim McGivney said the first step in the process is gathering dental records.

"Hopefully, we would contact the suspected missing person's dentist, and hopefully that person had gone to the dentist on a fairly regular basis," McGivney said. "If we are fortunate in this case we would have a nice dental record."

The next step is taking an X-ray of the remains and comparing those images to the dental records if they are available.

"Hopefully everything would match up," McGivney said.

A Columbia Police Department officer at the scene on Thursday said a hiker found badly decomposed human remains. Ji has not been seen since she was reported missing in October 2019 by her husband Joseph Elledge, who was charged with her murder in 2020.

McGivney said teeth can help identify a body regardless of age because they rarely decompose.

"Of all the substances in the body, the teeth are the hardest substance, and they are also the ones that can best resist decomposition," McGivney said. "We can find teeth from people that are thousands of years old; teeth, if they are in a good location, will just remain there."

What could trip up a forensic odontologist is not having sufficient dental records from when the missing person was alive, according to McGivney.

"Studies have shown that even identical twins have different shaped teeth, so we can look that the shapes of the tooth crown, the roots of the teeth, and the positioning of the teeth," McGivney said.

"If we have good antemortem records, if we are able to take the X-ray and compare the two sets of X-rays, it's something that can be done in 2 minutes, 5 minutes," McGivney said.

McGivney said if records are unavailable, the expert can identify the age of the person who was found as well.

The Boone/Callaway County Medical Examiner's Office said an anthropologist will be examining the remains on Thursday.

The anthropologist will examine the bones for signs of injury, compared to any potential animal activity, to see if a cause of death can be determined.

Burke said that expert is a University employee.

ABC17 News has reached out to the medical examiner's office for an update on Tuesday but has not received a response.

Watch ABC17 News at 9 and 10 for the full report.

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Connor Hirsch

Connor Hirsch reports for the weekday night shows, as well as Sunday nights.


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