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Bone investigation solves 1 mystery, opens another

  • Story Highlights
  • Authorities trying to determine if bones found were result of foul play
  • 8 sets of remains were found in March; only 2 have been identified
  • Police ponder whether serial killer is at work
  • Authorities seek public's help in cracking the case; tip line is 877-667-1296
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By Patrick Oppmann and John Zarrella
CNN
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FORT MYERS, Florida (CNN) -- The woods off Arcadia Street in Fort Myers for years concealed an unmarked graveyard, police say.

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Eight sets of human remains were found in these woods last March.

An ecologist found the first set of human remains there in March 2007 by chance. The man was surveying the area thick with melaleuca trees and scrub brush when he saw what he thought was a human skeleton and called police.

Arriving quickly at the scene, Fort Myers Police Sgt. Jennifer Soto found that other officers had already discovered a second set of remains. Then, there was a third set.

"At that point, things started to slow down," Soto told CNN last month as she recalled the grim discoveries. "We wanted to make sure we were dealing with a crime scene, which was exactly how we were treating it. So we stopped and called in more resources and we started to expand. By 7 p.m. that evening, we had located the eighth set of remains."

In a single day, police had eight new deaths to investigate and few clues other than a wooded area full of human bones. There were no witnesses to interview and no suspects to track down.

It would be an investigation built almost entirely on forensics. Video Watch an expert describe "reading the bones" »

Soto said police were determined to find every scrap of evidence. Crews cleared the forest, cadaver dogs sniffed for more bones and for days searchers sifted through buckets of excavated dirt looking for the smallest fragment of human remains.

Mystery Bones Probe

• March 23, 2007: Police discover eight sets of human remains.

• June 8, 2007: Investigators release descriptions of each of the eight remains. The dead were determined to be between the ages of 18 and 49 years old.

• Summer 2007: More than 50 people submit DNA samples to see if their missing relatives are among the eight set of human remains.

• November 20, 2007: Police identify two of the eight sets of human remains as Erik Kohler and John Blevins. Both men disappeared in 1995, police said.

As a result of the effort, police said, eight "remarkably complete" sets of human skeletons were found.

Medical examiner Rebecca Hamilton hoped the success in finding so many complete skeletons would help determine the causes of death for the eight and whether foul play was involved.

"Bones can actually help us identify those persons as well as any type of trauma, such as stab wounds. Any kind of sharp instrument that leaves tool marks on bones can be interpreted as pre-mortem trauma," she said. She spoke to CNN at her office in June as each bone was being X-rayed and catalogued.

Forensic anthropologist Heather Walsh-Haney was asked by police to examine the bones for potential clues. She calls it "reading the bones."

"There are 206 bones in your body," Walsh-Haney said. "And as you live, those bones change. That speaks, hopefully, to your identification. By reading the bones, I am trying to tell who that person was in life and how they died -- what happened at or around the time of death."

Botanists also assisted by studying the plant and insect life in the area for clues as to how long the bodies had been in the woods off Arcadia Street.

The scientists were able to determine that the eight were men and were either Caucasian or Hispanic. They were between the ages of 18 to 49 years old when they died. Their bodies were left in the woods between the 1980s and 2000.

But there was no evidence on the bones explaining how the men died: Was it the work of a serial killer? Were the bodies dumped by an unscrupulous funeral home?

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While rumors and speculation swirled in Fort Myers, several people looking for missing relatives submitted DNA to find out if their loved ones were among the eight. The DNA samples -- swabs taken from the inside of the cheek -- were analyzed at the University of North Texas in Fort Worth and compared to DNA extracted from the bones.

In late November, the DNA testing gave investigators a major break: the names of two of the eight dead, Erik Kohler and John Blevins.

"It was the day we were waiting for all along in this investigation," Soto said, "because it gave us direction. It told us who they were. From there, we were able to start tracing back the footsteps of their lives, those last dates where we know where they were, who they hung out with."

Tracing Kohler and Blevins' footsteps won't be easy, Soto acknowledges. She says both men led transient lifestyles and had criminal records. Kohler worked odd jobs while moving between relatives' homes in southwest Florida. His criminal record shows convictions for forgery, disorderly conduct and trespassing. He disappeared in 1995 after leaving his grandparents' home in Port Charlotte, Florida, according to a missing persons report that Kohler's aunt filed four years later.

Blevins disappeared the same year as Kohler, police say. A 1988 arrest report lists Blevins' occupation as a salesman and his address as the Blue Lantern Motel in Fort Myers. His criminal record includes arrests for loitering, possession of drug paraphernalia and solicitation for prostitution. Blevins was never reported missing.

Soto said the circumstances of Kohler and Blevins' disappearances and deaths indicate that they were probably killed in the woods or died somewhere else and their bodies later dumped.

But until a cause of death has been determined, she said, it is impossible to know if a serial killer has been at work in Fort Myers.

Soto hopes that more people who had a relative go missing in Florida will provide the police with DNA samples. Identifying the remaining six bodies will put investigators that much closer to solving the case.

Caroline Kohler gave the DNA sample that matched with the bones of her son and solved his disappearance 12 years after he went missing. But the answers she has received provide little solace.

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"Erik chose to live on the streets. He lived a troubled life and he probably died a horrible death," she said. "I had always thought maybe he was off somewhere and just didn't want to contact us. At least I guess now I won't look at someone walking on the side of the road and wonder if that's my son."

Authorities urge anyone with information on the case to call 877-667-1296. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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