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Naming the Dead at Ground Zero

Remains are unearthed after 9/11. A corpse is found under John Wayne Gacy’s house. Rhonda Roby goes to work. Those bones, to her, are families, waiting.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Few people know that while New York was burning on September 13, 2001, one of the few private planes flying the empty skies that day carried a band of the nation’s top scientists and businesspeople. Dr. Rhonda Roby was among them, shooting through the clouds toward the grimmest mission of her life.

She didn’t balk. She didn’t even pack. She was asked to drop everything and go identify the missing, and it never occurred to her to say no. It is, she says, what she was put on earth to do. When Roby and her colleagues landed that day in White Plains, New York, they were quickly escorted to the office of the chief medical examiner in New York City.
A police car drove them the rest of the way to hell. 

Roby remembers death, everywhere. A cloudy haze of incinerated debris. Burning fires. Smells that, even as a forensic expert, she will never forget. Papers drifting listlessly downward. She doesn’t know why, but she grabbed two of those papers falling from the sky, an email and spreadsheet, and jammed them in her pocket.
Standing there in the middle of the smoking apocalypse of the Twin Towers, she pushed aside emotion and forced the scientist part of her brain to click. “I kept thinking, ‘These people are walking on my crime scene.’ ” She checks herself. “Well, not my crime scene, but the crime scene. Of course, I wanted to identify as many remains as possible.” 

While firemen and policemen all around her desperately searched for signs of life, Roby was doing math. At the time, she was the forensic manager for Applied Biosystems, a private biotech company. She stepped into the scene at 9/11 as one of the world’s leading experts in mitochondrial DNA, with hard-core experience identifying victims of mass disasters from tiny fragments of bone. There were thousands of dead. It would be necessary to sequence about 1,000 bases of DNA information on each sample of human remains, the painstaking process required to order the building blocks of a person’s unique DNA. 

In the end, Roby led a team that processed 21,000 DNA samples dug from the rubble of the World Trade Center. She will go down in history as one of the scientists who rushed to Ground Zero, including superstar biologist Craig Venter, famous for his work deciphering the human genetic code. Venter, instrumental in tapping her expertise for 9/11, became a friend through the experience.

Roby now operates out of the UNT Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth as part of a team of experts who have quietly built the organization into one of the foremost forensic DNA labs in the world. When it comes to identifying old bones, UNTCHI has become known for its tenacity in bringing closure to cold cases. Late last year, the lab garnered national headlines for matching family reference samples with bones of one of the victims of Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was put to death almost 20 years ago. Hundreds of bones from hopeful law enforcement agencies are shipped from across the United States and processed here every year, half of them victims of murderers who think they’ve gotten away with it forever. Many of them have.

Roby sees all of these bones as families, waiting. She doesn’t consider herself any kind of hero or focus on the graphic nature of her work. At 9/11, she does recall one of her personal frustrations, and it had nothing to do with lab work. 

On a few occasions, when the identification of a victim relied heavily on DNA, she was called in to explain the science to grieving families. She remembers sitting across from relatives of victims who worked in the kitchens at the top of the World Trade Center as dishwashers and cooks. The families couldn’t speak English. Roby couldn’t speak Spanish. She was sharing a painful, scientific truth that would change these families forever, but a middleman, an interpreter, was relaying it. This bothered her immensely. So Roby, in her late 30s, set a new goal for herself: to learn Spanish.

There’s not much she won’t do for the sake of the families. She is quick to tell you that her work is not about the victim but about the mothers, fathers, and siblings who are still alive. Yes, she says, Ground Zero exacted its price on her soul, but she will never regret her time. “I would have done anything. And I did, for three years. Day and night.” 

The email she pulled out of the air on September 13, 2001, is now framed behind glass and hangs in her house in Fort Worth, exactly as it was, crumpled and dirty.

It bears the words “Talk to you soon.”

If anything good came of the horrible night in 1977 that a monster roamed the woods of Camp Scott in northeastern Oklahoma, it took root in Rhonda Roby. 

Roby was a shy junior high school science whiz tucked safely in her bed 150 miles away the night that three Girl Scouts she did not know, would never know, were raped, murdered, and dragged out of their tents at a group camp-out and dumped in the brush. A counselor found their bodies about 6 am. 

Lori Farmer, 8. Denise Milner, 10. Michele Guse, 9. Their bright, beautiful faces were printed alongside the stories that chronicled the brutal way they died and the manhunt for their killer. Their innocence was in the details: the bow-shaped barrette, the dog-ear ponytails, a grin with a gap tooth. Fourteen-year-old Rhonda Roby was reading almost every word. In a way, those girls staring out from the page were speaking to her. Roby had once worn the Brownie uniform, too.

Thirty-five years later, the Girl Scout Murders remain unsolved, but the case still hangs in the back of Roby’s mind. It is the traumatic event that lit her passion for forensic science. There is something wishful in her voice when she talks about it. Attempts to identify DNA from that long-ago crime scene have been made by other labs as recently as 2008, but the sample has degraded too much. “I really wanted to get involved,” Roby says. “But I was thinking, ‘It just sounds like there isn’t the evidence … and the major suspect is dead.’ ” 

On an ordinary day free of gore and death, she sits in a cramped, windowless conference room at the UNT Center for Human Identification, drinking Diet Coke from a giant Styrofoam cup. She has squiggled a DNA molecule in pen on the side of her cup, her habit, so everybody knows that it’s her Diet Coke. Don’t drink it. Please return if found. The same squiggle hangs around her neck, a gold charm. 

“I sign everything with a DNA molecule,” she says, grinning. “I draw this guy a million different ways. He’s dancing. Bending over.” 

Roby is funny, which is unexpected for a world-respected forensic DNA expert whose life is a steady diet of the grotesque and the immense sadness that lies in a set of unidentified bones. There is no fancy office for the project coordinator of this state-of-the-art crime lab that sits off Camp Bowie Boulevard. No patronizing in her slightly twangy accent when explaining the science of her pioneering work into extracting mitochondrial DNA, technology now used by the FBI and many crime labs across America. No sense at all of the ego that should be attached to such a talent. 

This is an Oklahoma girl and daughter of a lay preacher, driven to identify the missing by the belief that “everybody is loved by someone, even the street person.” She grows emotional often and without apology.

“I think there is something wrong if it doesn’t bother you,” she says. “Some scientists are kind of stoic about it. But I can’t tell you that I don’t go home and think about semen stains on a 6-year-old’s SpongeBob underwear.” She pauses for a second. “What I can do is see the grotesque and not be grossed out by it. The finger. The guts. That’s the gift that I have.”

Her résumé, a litany of horror, reads like the plot lines to the ubiquitous forensic TV shows that have caused her field to explode with wannabe young scientists. Roby even programmed the DNA instruments and provided props for the first episodes of CSI, although the scientists in stilettos achieve much speedier results than she does.

In real life, Roby wears sensible shoes, and the sky is not so sunny. She has examined the DNA of women snuffed out by Seattle’s Green River serial killer and the casualties of high-profile airplane crashes, including the one carrying Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown in 1996. She has put names to the bones of Vietnam and Korean MIAs, to the burned remains of Branch Davidians at the Waco compound, to those buried in Chile in mass graves after the 1973 coup by Augusto Pinochet. Yet she seems not the slightest bit weary or discouraged about the evil that lurks in human nature, about terrorists and serial killers who will keep scientists like her busy for the rest of time. 

Dr. Arthur Eisenberg, the scientific virtuoso who founded the UNTCHI lab, recruited Roby as an associate professor and researcher six years ago and easily ticks off the reasons why: her big heart, impressive casework, and a shared passion to speed up the chemistry, robotics, and computer analysis of the DNA identification process so that families of the missing get their answers sooner. “She’s an amazing woman,” Eisenberg says.

Roby shrugs off praise, saying that she doesn’t have the ingenuity or intellectual ability of some of the contemporary greats in her field, although she has been “one of the luckiest people in the world” to work beside them. She considers herself more of a workhorse, with an admitted knack for hooking onto interesting cases. 

Even before she landed in Texas, Roby had a significant impact on an infamous Texas case known as the KFC Murders. She spent her early career setting up the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, identifying MIAs and pioneering methods to extract mitochondrial DNA from degraded bones. So it was a surprise one day in 1995 when a team from Texas Attorney General Dan Morales’ office showed up out of the blue. They wanted her help in identifying the killer who had abducted five people from a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kilgore and shot them to death in an oil field in 1983.

It was even more of a surprise that the sole piece of evidence they’d be handing off was a fingernail fragment found in the belt loop of one of the victims. The murders had happened years earlier, but a major suspect was in jail. 

Roby had never attempted to extract mitochondrial DNA from a fingernail, but Texas law enforcement and politicians pleaded their case. Roby went to work. She got a result, all right. The fingernail matched a victim, not James Earl Mankins Jr., the son of a Texas state representative who sat accused of the crime. Mankins was freed. Years later, in 2005, two other men were convicted of the crime through lab work conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Every now and then, she has dabbled in romanticized history, helping put to rest the folklore that Princess Anastasia escaped when the rest of the Romanov royal family were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The mitochondrial DNA work proved once and for all that Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, and their five children were murdered and buried in two graves near each other. Roby mentions, as an afterthought almost, that she was one of the students in a lab who consulted briefly on the case of the bones thought to be those of Christopher Columbus. Ultimately, the remains were too degraded to prove it. 

“I’m just a forensic scientist,” she insists. “It’s in my blood.”

When 14-year-old Rhonda Roby scoured newspaper stories about the Girl Scout Murders, she frequently happened upon the name of a forensic scientist, Ann Reed, who was working the case for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. Roby, extremely shy, worked up the nerve to call her. She got a tour of the lab for her efforts and was hooked.

photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Another case at that time, the kidnapping of a girl, also stood out for young Roby. She was fascinated by a very tiny clue. A single red carpet fiber found in the suspect’s pickup truck matched the carpet in the abducted girl’s home. It sounds so rudimentary now. Little did Roby know that, years later, she’d be using bits of bone to identify women strangled and dumped by Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer in Washington, who has admitted to at least 49 murders.

At the time Roby graduated from high school, DNA as a common identification tool was a speck in a wheat field. The energetic, straight-A student charged headlong out of Oklahoma, landing first at Washington University in St. Louis and then UC Berkeley for graduate school. UC Berkeley, she says, “opened my eyes to a whole new world,” building her confidence and sweeping her shyness away for good. At UC Berkeley, she fell in love with her specialty: mitochondrial DNA. 

Two kinds of DNA reside in most human cells: nuclear and mitochondrial. Nuclear DNA comes from both parents, half from the mother, half from the father. But the mother provides 100 percent of the cell’s mitochondrial DNA, and it remains identical in ancestors for many generations. That is why it is critical in identifying old bones, like in the case of the Romanov family. And its determination to stick around makes it a godsend for skeletal remains that have been buried and exposed to dirt, bacteria, and water, bones that not so long ago couldn’t give any clues.