How DNA and Forensic Science Failed to Identify Headless Body for 40 Years

A body without a head or hands that was found hidden in a suitcase in New York state has finally been identified, 42 years after the victim was killed.

According to a statement from the New York State Police, the murder victim was identified as Anna L. Papalardo-Blake thanks to advances in DNA analysis.

Papalardo-Blake, 44, was found on March 20, 1980 in a travel trunk near a dumpster on the grounds of the Hudson View Apartment Complex in Fishkill, New York. She had last been seen leaving her receptionist job 60 miles away in Manhattan two days previously. For the past 42 years, police have been unable to identify the body—until now.

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Stock image of DNA analysis. A body was finally identified after 40 years thanks to advances in DNA forensics. iStock / Getty Images Plus

"Because of recent advances in genetic technology, an identifiable DNA sample was obtained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation Investigative Genealogy Team, in partnership with Othram, a private lab that specializes in cutting edge forensic DNA analysis," the police statement reads.

It remains a mystery who killed Papalardo-Blake and the police asked for anyone with information to get in touch with them.

The human body begins to decompose about four minutes after a person dies, and proceeds to go through several stages of decay, including autolysis, bloat, active decay, and skeletonization.

Autolysis involves the cells starting to die and burst, causing skin slippage. Then, gasses produced from bacterial decomposition within the gut cause bloating, which eventually ruptures the skin. Insects colonize the body, laying eggs inside orifices which hatch into maggots that eat the body. Eventually, there is nothing left but bone.

"The major things that drive [rate of decomposition] are temperature, humidity and insect activity," Patrick S. Randolph-Quinney, an associate professor of forensic science at Northumbria University in the U.K., told Newsweek.

After recognizable features like the face or fingerprints have been decomposed, it can be difficult to identify a body.

Papalardo-Blake was found by police two days after her disappearance, so the condition of the body would have depended heavily on the conditions, and how well-sealed the suitcase was.

"I've seen bodies that are in Samsonite suitcase, the sealable ones, where you can't get oxygen in it and can't get access to insects, and basically it hermetically seals it," Randolph-Quinney said.

"That creates a different pattern of decomposition than you find if a body is allowed to decompose naturally. So you know, a body could be in a Samsonite suitcase, and it will be decomposing, but the fluids will be inside the suitcase, the skin will go through various changes, and start to decompose. Even if it's in a sealed suitcase, it will have a slower rate of decomposition than many other environments. "

"If a body was in something that's a little less hermetically sealed, then generally what you would get is you maybe get some insects in there. You would certainly have an exchange of gas. Even if it's only a few days, then you would potentially have quite advanced decomposition, especially if you get an insect in there."

The lack of head and hands would have made it extremely difficult for forensic scientists at the time to identify the body, as in the 1980s DNA identification was crude and forensics relied mostly on facial, dental and fingerprint records.

"Forty years ago we didn't have forensic DNA analysis," Randolph-Quinney said. "So they might have had blood serology in Europe and some blood group somebody was, but it wasn't till the 1980s that you had that the first use of forensic DNA and it was relatively coarse what we could do in this early, early period."

"These days, if somebody goes missing or something or body turns up and you have a suspected potential missing person, then very often what happens is you'll have the family liaison ... who will take things like the toothbrush, hair brushes, anything that might provide traces of their DNA, they may well take objects from the house that have got fingerprints on, that kind of thing," Randolph-Quinney said.

"We can also do things like familial DNA searching, where you might not be looking for an individual but you might get a hit on say, a sibling, or a parent or grandparent who's in the system. But again, that's a relatively recent phenomenon."

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Stock illustration of DNA. iStock / Getty Images Plus

In modern times, DNA identification technology is a lot more sophisticated, so upon obtaining a new DNA sample that they could match to the body, they identified the body as that of Papalardo-Blake.

If a body is left outside, as Papalardo-Blake's was, the DNA will be degrading at the same time, which can interfere with results.

The rate of body and DNA decay is studied by forensic scientists using body farms, or human taphonomic research facilities, which place cadavers in different situations and measure how various processes go about.

"A lot of experimental work that goes on is about differences between bodies that are in the open, bodies in built structures, in collapsed buildings, that are buried, that are in cars, and underwater," Randolph-Quinney said. "They provide a lot of information about the rate and tempo of decomposition: what survives and what doesn't, what biomolecules survive, how DNA degrades, and what you can do with degraded DNA."