MIAMI, Fla. – Eight people whose skeletal remains were discovered last year in a wooded area just outside downtown Fort Myers were the victims of homicide, police said Friday.
Investigators had been weighing a number of theories, including whether the skeletons could be the work of a serial killer or remains dumped by a crooked mortician.
Authorities would not say how the victims died, citing the ongoing investigation.
A surveyor found the first skeleton in March. Police soon discovered seven others nearby. No flesh remained on the bones, which appeared to have been chewed on by animals. There were no clothes or personal items, either, and police have been struggling to identify them.
Detectives have so far identified two of the victims through DNA.
Erik D. Cohler, 21, of Port Charlotte, and John C. Blevins, 38, of Fort Myers, were identified by comparing DNA from the bones to DNA from their relatives, said Fort Myers police Detective Sgt. Jennifer Soto.
Authorities know precious little about the remaining skeletons, other than they were white men between the ages of 18 and 49 and died as far back as 1980.
Cohler and Blevins disappeared in 1995, Soto said. Both lived transient lifestyles.
Their family members contacted Fort Myers police after hearing of the case through news reports.
Up to 50 other families from across the country have submitted DNA for testing, but none of the other victims have yet been identified.
Authorities delivered the skulls last year to a forensic sculptor in Wyoming who recreated the faces of the victims. Police displayed the facial sculptures on Friday in hopes that someone will recognize them.
"We're hoping this will be used as a tool to hopefully spark a memory of a friend or loved one," Soto said. "We're just trying to retrace the last steps of these peoples' lives."
The television show "America's Most Wanted" planned to air an episode about the case Saturday.
Detectives have not ruled out the possibility that the skeletons are victims of Daniel Conahan, who was sentenced to death in 1999 for the strangulation of a drifter.
That man's body was found in some woods in neighboring Charlotte County. Conahan is also suspected in at least five other slayings of young men dubbed the Hog Trail Murders because of the swampy, wooded locations where the nude bodies were found in the mid-1990s. Those cases remain unsolved.
Conahan was also once accused of kidnapping a man in Fort Myers in the early 1990s. The victim accused Conahan of luring him into a wooded area — within miles of where the eight skeletons were found — and trying to strangle him, but he escaped.
"We certainly can't exclude him at this point," Soto said. "We're very well aware of the similarities in this case. It's one avenue that we are actively pursuing."
Still, Soto stopped short of calling the murders the work of a serial killer.
"We base our investigations on facts and evidence and at this point, we can't come to that absolute conclusion," she said.