MIAMI, Fla. – For years skeletal remains lay hidden in the woods near an industrial park in Fort Myers, Fla.
They were discovered last March, when a surveyor inspecting the often-swampy area for potential land development thought he saw human remains sticking out of the ground.
Police were called to the scene, and within a single day they uncovered the remains of eight people believed to have ranged from 18 to 49 years old when they died.
The victims’ bodies were clustered closely together, within 1 acre of another, and were not buried, according to Fort Myers Police Detective Barry Lewis, who is leading the investigation. He said the bodies went undiscovered because they were covered over the years with falling leaves and other natural debris. "These were basically surface-type deposits," Lewis said.
Was this the work of a serial killer? Police don't know, and they have few clues to go on, other than a wooded area full of human bones. No witnesses have come forward and they have no strong suspects.
Investigators still have no indication of how the victims were killed. There were no signs of trauma to the eight skulls. There were no bullet holes, either.
What they do know is that the killings are by far the biggest crime to hit Fort Myers.
Hoping to gain a foothold into solving this mystery, Fort Myers police called on a well-known forensic artist named Sharon Long to use the skulls to "rebuild" the faces of the unidentified victims.
The skulls were sent to Wyoming, where Long went to work creating the faces of the men, using latex and clay to create a life-like interpretation of victims.
Police hope someone will recognize the "rebuilt" faces, and on Friday they will hold a press conference at which they will unveil the clay-molded faces.
Long said the case presented some challenges, especially in determining the size and weight of the victims. Crime scene investigators were able to conclude that the time frame of the killings likely was between 1985 and 2000. But by the time she got the bodies, there was nothing but bones.
"There was no clothing or belts with these bodies, so that was hard," she said.
But she said she "was 90-95 percent accurate" in the reconstruction of the faces.
Forensic anthropologists were able to get more clues. They determined that one of the victims appeared to have Caribbean or African-American traits, while another appeared to have Hispanic traits.
The others were believed to be Caucasian.
Meanwhile back in Florida, investigators began matching DNA samples provided by relatives of missing persons to DNA extracted from the bones.
In late November there was a breakthrough. Police were able to identify two of the bodies as Erik Kohler and John Blevins.
Both were in their early 20s when they disappeared, and they had criminal records for misdemeanor violations such as drug possession and solicitation of a prostitute. Both seemed to be more "street-savvy" than the average person, Lewis said.
Both men disappeared in 1995, though Kohler's family did not report him missing until four years later.
Hoping to solve the mystery of the scattered bodies and in an effort to determine if there is a serial killer in their midst, Fort Myers police also are working with producers at the television program "America’s Most Wanted," which will air a segment on the case this week.
Lewis said he welcomes the help of any media who are covering the case.
"This is certainly one of the only ways we can get this out nationally … we’ve exhausted a lot of the local media attention," Lewis said.
DNA samples from six unidentified victims are in the National Crime Information Center database. According to Fort Myers police spokeswoman Shelly Flynn, the samples are cross-referenced with those of reported missing persons.
"It could take days, weeks, even months to determine if anyone reported missing is one of the bodies discovered here," Flynn said.
Lewis said officials are getting closer to identifying the victims, but they still have little information on how the bodies got there.
Authorities are reluctant to name a suspect in the case, but one man is leading the list of possible perpetrators.
In neighboring Charlotte County, Daniel Conahan is on death row for killing a man in 2000. He is believed to have killed five others.
He was convicted of picking up a man on the street and taking him into the woods to take nude bondage photos. He then tied his victim to a tree and killed him.
Local media suggest that Conahan may be responsible for the uncovered bodies because he carried out his murder at the same time that the Fort Myers victims are thought to have been killed and dragged into the woods.
Authorities appear reticent to finger Conahan, but they aren't discounting him, either.
"The media has suggested the possible connection," Lewis said. "Well, obviously, he’s already proved that he was a murderer, so I’d think he would be in the mix."