Exam of remains may reveal cause of death

Evidence markers at the scene of where the Evidence markers at the scene of where the remains believed to be Shannan Gilbert were found at Oak Beach. (Dec. 14, 2011) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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The examination of skeletal human remains found Tuesday near Oak Beach, besides determining whether they belong to a missing Jersey City woman, can also point to the cause of death, an expert said.

Key forensic clues can survive in bones and teeth even over the 19 months the remains -- if they are Shannan Gilbert's -- would have been exposed to the elements, said Michael Baden, a former New York City medical examiner.

Police theorize Gilbert drowned in a wetland thicket. Baden said water contains diatoms, a type of phytoplankton that if inhaled, can later be detected in bone marrow.

"If they are present and they match what's found in the water, that will indicate she was alive and breathing when she went into the water," he said.

Other causes, such as strangulation, may be difficult to determine. The soft tissue around the windpipe deteriorates faster than bone, Baden said, but fractures of tiny bones could still be indicators.

Baden said the bone marrow could also detect if drugs or alcohol were in the body's system before it expired, because the drugs would actually stay in the marrow and not be metabolized. "Once you die, metabolizing stops," he said.

Police found the remains off Ocean Parkway in an exhaustive seven-day search. Gilbert, 24, who worked as a prostitute, was last seen May 1, 2010, running frantically from the house of a client who answered her Craigslist ad. Police believe Gilbert ran in an agitated state into a marshy area and drowned.

The Suffolk County Medical Examiner's office referred all calls on the examination of the remains to the Suffolk police, who did not respond to questions for comment.

Shannan Gilbert's mother, Mari Gilbert, who drove to Long Island Tuesday after the searchers' find, said she was returning home to upstate Ellenville Wednesday night.

Mari Gilbert said she's waiting for autopsy results but doesn't buy the theory that her daughter ran into the marshy land, which police have said would have been under two to three feet of water at the time.

She said her daughter was afraid of water and did not know how to swim.

"If she would've felt wetness, she would have turned around," Gilbert said.

Gilbert's disappearance sparked a search that led police to find 10 sets of remains in the brush along the north side of the parkway. Police believe all were victims of a serial killer who targeted sex workers.

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