Field Museum Assists in Murder Investigation

It sounds like a scenario straight out of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: “A father stands accused of murdering his baby daughter. A vital clue to where her body may be buried? The clump of plant-filled mud found on the bottom of his shoe. To identify the unique combination of species embedded in the muck, investigators call in botanists from The Field Museum....”

But this is no TV episode: the story is true. Over the weekend, a team of Field Museum scientists and their colleagues from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University worked together with volunteers and Ludington Michigan police, as well as the FBI and regional law enforcement agencies, to search for the final resting place of four-month-old “Baby Kate” Phillips.

The small mud sample analyzed months earlier by researchers helped narrow down the possibilities. It contained remnants of 11 plant varieties—mostly mosses, sedges, and other wetland species—that targeted several prospective locations capable of harboring such intense diversity.

The seeds from two grass-like sedges proved to be particularly revealing. After planting these seeds and waiting for them to mature, researchers at the University of Michigan and Michigan State were able to identify the species as Carex Interior and the very rare Carex Atlantica. The two typically grow in completely different types of soil, so finding a plot where they thrive side-by-side was key.

To increase the likelihood of finding the gravesite, the team postponed the search until early summer, when these wetland plants are most recognizable. The hunt commenced on June 28-29, 2013—the two-year anniversary of Baby Kate’s disappearance.

Lines of qualified volunteers trained and supervised by Field Museum specialists in mosses combed the selected habitats, marking locations where plant populations matched the botanical fingerprint.

The collected moss specimens will undergo a final analysis at The Field Museum, but Dr. Matt von Konrat reports that “now, rather than looking for a ‘needle in a haystack,’ we’ve narrowed the likely locations to a few potential hay bales. As tragic as this story is, it has highlighted the real-world application of museum collections and the expertise that resides in institutions such as The Field Museum.”

Investigators hope that identification of plant material coupled with other evidence will help lead them to the remains of Baby Kate, who was left in a “peaceful place,” according to a letter allegedly written by her father.

To learn more, check out recent local coverage by CBS Channel 2 at Yahoo News.