Forensic dentist helps identify remains of the missing, murder victims

parellaSEATTLE -- "Fingerprints decompose and teeth don’t." Those words are from Dr. Gary Bell, one of only a handful of forensic dentists in Washington state. His primary role is to help police get a name for missing or unidentified persons through dental records. “A lot of the identifications that we do are dependent upon doing a pattern-matching, much like fingerprint comparison,” Bell explained. And much like fingerprints, teeth are unique,. “You have 32 teeth that are individual teeth to you and, as you get older, some teeth are chipped, some teeth are filled, some teeth are worn -- no two teeth are going to be the same,” Bell said. When detectives don’t have DNA or even fingerprints to help identify the unknown, they turn to Bell for his help. “We did the, actually identified, the latest Green River victim that was found and identified,” Bell said. But what if there’s no fingerprints, no DNA and no teeth to analyze? "The other thing that, what we’ve been doing also is pictures. If we can’t find a dental record, what we do is we try to ask the families for photographs of  the individual smiling. And if you look at the alignment of the front teeth, the shape of the front teeth, the wear on the front teeth, if you can blow that up enough to see the fine detail, you can do an identification off of that.” Bell has helped develop a computer program that’s now part of the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC. “And so if we have a missing person, we look at your dental records, we code a profile of teeth -- much like fingerprints,” Bell said. He then uploads it into the system and looks for a match. Sadly, there are more unidentified remains than dental records in the system. Washington state has about 14% of dental records submitted for missing and unidentified persons. That’s compared to only 3-5% in most other states. Bell believes it’s higher here because this state has had serial killers such as Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway, so there’s a bigger emphasis placed on all methods of identification. Still, he would like to see this number increase. “What I’d like to see is get the families more involved," he said. "I mean, they’re the ones that are really concerned about their missing loved ones, and they could do a lot of help for the agencies by procuring the information that the agencies need.” It is one of the best methods for identification and one of the strongest sources in the human body. “The skin goes away, the muscle goes away -- but the teeth stay,” Bell said.