'Bone Woman' Digs Up Remains to Foil Killers

ByABC News
July 13, 2005, 7:32 AM

LOS ANGELES, July 16, 2005 — -- At first glance, Clea Koff, a beautiful young woman with the height and grace of a fashion model, does not look like someone whose passion involves digging up bodies from mass graves.

But as a forensic anthropologist, that is where her work takes her.

"It's important that people who may be dead, lying by the side of the road or in a clandestine grave, be allowed to incriminate their killers," Koff said.

Author of a book called "The Bone Woman," Koff was only 23 when she went to Rwanda with the first forensic team ever dispatched to collect evidence of war crimes. The crimes were committed by people who probably never dreamed they'd be caught.

"I know this from having seen the bodies in the graves," Koff said, "having seen the arrogance with which people were killed and their bodies left with their wrists still tied behind their back, that those who organized these crimes never expected to be in the courtroom."

As part of the team that investigated mass killings in Bosnia and Kosovo, Koff had to reconstruct the way people died, even as she tried not to think too much about the horror of their last moments.

"This is a 2-year-old child," she said of one set of remains. "How did it get over here on this hillside by itself? Did its relatives know that they were going to be separated? Did the relatives see the baby being taken away and know they couldn't protect it?"

She broke down only once, she said, while looking at a bullet lodged inside the leg of a teenage boy in Bosnia.

"I could almost picture him being shot, perhaps while he was standing next to his father," she said. "I actually felt pain in my own knee, which was bizarre."

After nearly a decade of documenting massacres abroad, Koff now wants to help solve mysteries for families in the United States. She's creating a missing persons program to help identify the enormous backlog of bodies in U.S. coroners' offices. There are as many as 2,700 such bodies in California alone, and 40,000 nationwide.

"When there's a disappearance, people are living with loss and grief and not knowing what's actually happened to their relatives," Koff said. "That is what people in our communities here in the U.S. are actually dealing with. It's a disappearance."

All the bones have a story, according to Koff. All they need is someone to tell it.

ABC News' Judy Muller originally reported this story for "World News Tonight" on July 10, 2005.