ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Three grains of pollen might help solve a 27-year-old murder mystery.
To try to unmask the identity of a teenage girl found slain in a cornfield in western New York in 1979, investigators have turned to a pollen-analysis technique rarely used in the United States in hopes of pinpointing where she once lived.
A forensic botanist in Texas determined that three microscopic pollen grains from an Australian pine that were recovered this summer inside the girl's red jacket and her pants pocket could have come only from Florida, Arizona or most likely southern California, provided she didn't leave the country.
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"The chances of one of those pollen grains reaching that area of New York on air currents might be, I don't know, a billion to one," said Professor Vaughn Bryant, director of the Palynology Laboratory at Texas A&M University. "But three of them, unh-unh, I'm sorry, it's not possible."
Based on an assortment of about 40 other pollen types that were also found, the girl seems to have resided in or at least traveled through coastal regions in southern California such as San Diego, Bryant said, adding that "with more effort, it's possible we could narrow this down further."
The girl, believed to be about 15 years old, was shot in the forehead beside a country road in Caledonia the night of Nov. 8, 1979, then was dragged into the field and shot again in the back, police said. The next morning, a farmer spotted her brightly colored jacket and walked over, thinking a hunter was trespassing.
John York, the first police officer on the scene, has since combed through more than 10,000 leads, interviewed two notorious serial killers who claimed responsibility, saturated the South and Southwest with thousands of fliers and got the case profiled repeatedly on "America's Most Wanted."
"It was not only a very difficult case, especially when a child's that young, but it's become personally quite difficult. We don't have many open homicides here," said York, who's been sheriff of largely rural Livingston County since 1989.
"I think every homicide investigator will tell you the same thing: You go to the scene, conduct the investigation and it's only a matter of just a short time before you can identify the victim and, in turn, it will take you to a perpetrator; 27 years later, we're still trying to do that."
Forensic palynology is used regularly as evidence in criminal trials in Britain, Australia and New Zealand and has helped unlock wartime mass-murder riddles in Bosnia and Hungary. But it's been tried fewer than a dozen times in U.S. crimes, said Bryant, one of only two such specialists in the country.
The idea for applying the method came from Paul Chambers, an investigator at the medical examiner's office in Rochester who studied forensic archaeology during his years as a police constable in England.
"The reason it's not used more often in this country is it's just not well-known," Chambers said.
"It's just like DNA, blood analysis, mineral studies, a tool that in some cases has proven extremely useful," Bryant said. "I've been beating the drum since 1975 trying to get people interested, but most of it fell on deaf ears until 9/11. This is just one of many new techniques the federal government has become interested in to try to prevent terrorism."
It rained for 11 hours before the girl's body was found, obliterating most of any physical evidence.
Her clothes, however, "have been pretty much kept contamination-free since the murder," Bryant said. "What happens in a lot of places is they repeatedly open and shut the bags containing evidence and the potential for atmospheric pollen contamination is usually so bad the results wouldn't stand up in court."
The girl was white, 5-foot-3, 120 pounds and had tan lines, suggesting she'd recently been in warmer climes. Her key chain bore the inscription, "He who holds the Key can open my heart."
A slug from the murder weapon — a .38-caliber handgun — was tested against hundreds of others fired from guns seized by police as far away as Europe and Mexico, but to no avail.
Ottis Toole, a one-time companion of mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas, claimed he picked up the girl in a park near Philadelphia, traveled with her for a while and was with Lucas when he killed her in Caledonia.
York said he interviewed them separately and "both told me the same thing without knowing what the other said."
But he couldn't confirm the pair, now dead, were involved, he said.
"We're using every means available," the sheriff said. "This kid has a right to an identity."