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Coroner to Seek Outside Help Examining Bodies at Storage Site : Autopsies: In a rare move, a forensic anthropologist will be hired to help identify three decomposed corpses and determine if they were murdered.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Because autopsies on three decomposed bodies found in a Northridge storage facility were inconclusive, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office said Friday it would take the rare step of hiring an outside forensic anthropologist to identify them and determine if--and how--they were murdered.

Saying the case was of the highest priority, the coroner’s office dispatched three separate forensic experts to independently examine the bodies Friday.

Police are eager to learn the identities of the corpses of two men and a woman, so they can talk to friends and relatives who may be able to provide clues to the identity of whoever left them sealed in two steamer trunks and a cardboard box inside the storage room.

The autopsies conducted Friday supported police contentions that the bodies had been decaying for at least a year inside the locked storage unit on Parthenia Street.

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But forensic experts offered some hope that there was enough of the fingers left to obtain at least partial fingerprints, said Scott Carrier, a spokesman for the coroner’s office.

Dental work also was found and will be scrutinized, Carrier said. Because the lab work on teeth and fingerprints will take at least several weeks, Carrier said the coroner’s office plans to bring in a forensic anthropologist as quickly as possible.

Such specialists mix forensics, anthropology and detective work. From a single thigh bone, for instance, they can often determine a dead person’s sex, race, height, approximate age and time of death, and sometimes even how they lived and died. Their work can be critical in sending police off on the trail of a serial killer, or in convincing them that they can close their murder books on people who died of natural causes.

Forensic anthropologists have been used in several high-profile cases worldwide, from a 1990s revisitation of the 1947 Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles to the efforts to identify those killed in a 1981 wartime massacre at El Mozote in El Salvador.

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Carrier said the county has used several of them in the past, but that it had not yet been decided which one to hire on this case.

Although authorities have been investigating the case as three homicides, some sources close to the investigation speculated Friday that there may be other possibilities for the mystery that has stymied police and forensic experts since the three corpses were discovered Wednesday.

Among the theories: The three people may have died of natural causes before someone left them in the U-Haul Company storage unit so they could ultimately be shipped elsewhere for burial.

But officially, authorities have said they are operating under the assumption the three people were murdered, in part because efforts by police to track the person who rented the room for the past several years have proved fruitless, because the renter gave false identification to U-Haul employees.

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Homicide detectives “are still investigating it as a homicide, but they are trying to track down where the boxes came from,” said Officer Sandra Castello, an LAPD spokeswoman. “Perhaps that way they can get some clues as to who these people are and what happened.

“It is one of those interesting cases where we have to wait and see as it unravels,” she said.

The bodies were first discovered by a man who bought the contents of the abandoned storage unit at an auction. The buyer, Ed Zaharoff, called police to say he had smelled a bad odor coming from one of two steamer trunks in the room, and authorities ultimately discovered three bodies, each in its own container tightly wrapped with plastic and duct tape.

Sources said Friday that the renter had been using the unit for at least several years. Zaharoff said he found shriveled room deodorizers and mothballs in the unit, presumably placed there to mask the stench of the bodies.

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Zaharoff also said he found three guns in the cluttered rental unit, including two .22-caliber rifles and a chrome-plated .38 revolver. He described the guns as new and looking untouched.

Times staff writer Abigail Goldman contributed to this story.


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