BANGOR, Maine — Forget what you’ve seen on television. Murder mysteries never are solved in an hour, Marcella Sorg said Monday during a speaking engagement at the Bangor Public Library.
Sorg, a University of Maine forensic anthropologist, is a consultant to the state medical examiners in Maine and New Hampshire. She’s also among more than a dozen forensic and law enforcement experts tapped to speak at the library as part of this year’s Penobscot Reads program.
The book chosen for the 2009 edition of the program is “Finding Amy” by Kate Flora and Portland Police Chief Joseph Loughlin. It chronicles the 2001 murder of Amy St. Laurent, 25, who went missing in Portland’s Old Port area after a night out with friends, and those who worked tirelessly to bring her killer to justice.
Because of her involvement in that investigation, Sorg declined to address the case’s specifics.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to do that,” she said. “I believe that it’s a sensitive, local, private kind of thing.”
That said, Sorg presented a history and overview of the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, one of more than 3,200 medical examiner or coroner jurisdictions nationwide, some of which are county- or city-based.
Because death investigation is a state’s right, no federal dollars are available to fund them, she said.
In Maine, the medical examiner’s office looks into many different kinds of deaths, including violent, unexpected, suspicious and any that may have resulted from a criminal act.
Despite a tiny budget that hasn’t increased in a decade and cramped quarters, the office is dealing with an ever-increasing workload — including a 600 percent increase in accidental drug overdose deaths during the past 10 years.
Drug overdose deaths, including those resulting from taking prescribed medicines, are difficult to investigate because of their complexity, she said. Sometimes, multiple drugs are involved. Often, there’s also an illness.
In terms of the leading causes of death in Maine, accidental overdoses now are running “neck and neck” with motor vehicle fatalities, each of which account for 150 to 160 fatalities each year, she said.
Sorg also discussed her own specialty, which involves recovering and examining human skeletal remains for law enforcement agencies to determine the identity of the deceased.
Simply put, Sorg’s role is to tell the dead person’s story.
As Sorg sees it, you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their bones, including the person’s sex, approximate age, height and build, whether the person was right-handed or a southpaw and, in some cases, even the person’s ancestry.
While the medical examiner’s office is charged with determining the manner of death, not all of the remains brought to the medical examiner involve foul play, she said.
Maine has many old, abandoned cemeteries, so skeletal remains often are dug up during road and other construction projects, she noted.
In other cases, the remains aren’t even human.
During a PowerPoint presentation she prepared for Monday’s lecture, Sorg showed a slide of a pair of skinned bear feet found in a trash container outside a KFC somewhere in Maine.
With the fur and claws removed, the bear feet closely resembled human feet, though a bear has small toes where a human’s big toes are located.
For more information about Penobscot Reads and the lineup of speakers, visit the Bangor Public Library’s Web site at www.bpl.lib.me.us.