Diane France lugged a human brain in a bucket of formaldehyde on a rainy East Coast day, headed to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where she planned to make a mold of the specimen.
She was dressed up – in heels and a silk blouse – and hitching a ride into Washington, D.C., in a friend’s new car. But as she stepped into the car with its new leather seats, the bucket top flexed, the lid came off and the brain popped out, landing in her lap.
“Formaldehyde really burns when it lands. Oh my gosh, really burns,” France said. She pulled off her contaminated clothing and borrowed a colleague’s gym shorts, diverting to her hotel room with one hand on the brain bucket and the other holding up the much-too-large shorts. She regrouped. The next day, she made her mold.
“The brain survived, the car seats survived, I survived,” she said.
Now, a hard plastic cast of that brain sits on a shelf in her Front Range laboratory. France, 67, has for more than three decades worked as a board-certified forensic anthropologist based in Colorado, examining bones to help determine the circumstances around death. She can look at a skeleton and determine the person’s gender and age when they died. She helps authorities identify bones of the long-dead or long-missing, and she’s worked in the aftermath of airplane crashes, an explosion, the 9/11 attacks.
This year, she testified in two high-profile Colorado cold cases: the murder of 13-year-old Dylan Redwine, who went missing in 2012, and the 1984 killing of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews. In both cases, the children’s bones were found long after they went missing. In the Redwine case, the suspect was convicted. In the Matthews case, the jury was hung on a murder charge. But the verdicts mean little to France.
“This is going to sound really weird to say, but I am disinterested in the outcome,” she said. “My part in testimony is not to put somebody in jail…It’s none of my business what the jury decides. I just speak to the evidence, I speak to the science.”
France won’t talk about any of the ongoing criminal investigations she’s involved in to avoid jeopardizing the cases. But she has a reputation for being fair and methodical when testifying in court, those who’ve worked with her say. She exudes confidence, said Chuck Heidel, an investigator at the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office.
“She doesn’t go out on a limb,” he said. “She knows people’s lives depend on these results and on her opinions.”
That strong sense of professional ethics continues outside the courtroom, said geologist Jim Reed. Once, in the 1990s, he and France traveled to Russia to help authorities there search for the bodies of two missing members of Czar Nicholas II’s family. The Romanov family was murdered in 1918, but there were rumors that a daughter, 17-year-old Anastasia, had somehow survived the slaughter.
The Russians believed Anastasia’s bones had been found. But France looked at bones they’d collected and was not convinced, Reed said. The Russians wanted the scientists to sign papers essentially declaring the bones to be Anastasia’s, but France refused, Reed said. The Russians weren’t happy. One Russian official berated France and Reed, yelling and red-faced.
“The pressure on her to lie was tremendous,” Reed said. “It was one of the joys of my life to watch her do battle with these people and refuse to compromise her integrity.”
Diane France paints a skull with a latex solution in this Feb. 19, 1976, photo. When dry, the solution is peeled from the skull and is used as a mold.
On the job, France must separate the emotions of death from the work of examining bodies and bones.
If she’s dealing with a decomposing body, full of bugs and odors, she’ll put that reality in the far background of her mind, and focus instead on finding clues, she said.
“That’s when I just have to say, ‘OK, I’m looking for the gunshot wound, I’m looking for the sharp force injury, I’m looking for clues as to this person’s identity,” she said.
She looks past the bugs; maggots don’t have much to offer her.
“Not me,” she said. “A forensic entomologist would be looking at the maggots. Actually, I had a conversation about this with a forensic entomologist, and I said, ‘I don’t know how you can deal with all these maggots.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know how you can deal with everything else.’”
France has for years been part of NecroSearch International, a nonprofit organization staffed by volunteers in a variety of disciplines who help law enforcement search for hidden graves and missing bodies. G. Clark Davenport, a founding member of the group, said France can compartmentalize even when others can’t.
“She’s capable of taking some things that if you and I saw them, it would probably give us PTSD right away,” he said. “She’s capable of taking those images in the case and putting it on a shelf.”
And she’s practical, he said. Once, Davenport and France responded to a scene where human remains had been found under a mattress. The whole time they worked there, a dog stood close by, he said.
“Someone made a comment that this is probably the dog’s lunch pail,” Davenport said. “So Diane said, ‘You have to find out who has that dog, and if the dog brought anything home, like a bone.’ (It was) just a common sense thing that law enforcement wouldn’t think of.”
France doesn’t suffer fools, Reed said, and the detectives and cops who work with France are no exception. She seems to cut through egos and misogyny, he said.
“She is quick to set ground rules,” he said. “When she walks into a room, it’s a matter of how you carry yourself. I think just the professionalism that she radiates is so palpable, that seems to diffuse it.”
France said she early on sought advice from a professor, Alice Brues, about dealing with misogyny, and Brues, a pioneer in the field who was forced to listen to her classes at Harvard University from the hallway because she was a woman, told France not to acknowledge such behavior.
“She said, ‘Just do your work and get on with it,’” France said. From then on, if a gun-toting officer at a scene asked what a “little thing” like France was doing in such a job, she’d reply, “The same thing you are.”
Investigators learn from her, said Shane Walker. In 2011, he bought most of a casting business France founded in 1985 to create replicas of bones and other specimens for universities, museums and other places that need realistic-looking copies, either for display or study. He works from France’s lab.
“There was a detective in here the other day (working with her) and it was so cute, he was just like, “I’m so damn happy I met you,’” Walker said, and laughed. “Because she’s a great teacher.”
A textbook France authored on comparing human and non-human skeletal remains is considered fundamental, said Michala Stock, a board-certified forensic anthropologist who heads the Human Identification Laboratory at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She called France “a giant in the field.”
“It’s been instrumental for helping guide, when we find fragmentary skeletal remains, of helping to sort out whether the remains we are looking at are human or not,” Stock said. “…She definitely helped shape the field.”
Diane France sits in front of casts of skulls and discusses the holes in a cast at the Human Identification Laboratory at Metropolitan State University on Nov. 30.
The lab where France works is filled with casts of bones. Human skull casts are lined up on shelves against one wall. Boxes are labeled with phrases like “Human head,” “Chimp left hand,” “Pelvic girdles,” and “Feet originals.” There’s a cast of a polar bear skull, a fin whale brain, a tiger tongue and 80,000-year-old bone harpoon points.
During a recent visit with The Denver Post, France bounced from cast to cast, spilling their origin stories in a rush.
“Feel that,” she said, thrusting out the tiger tongue cast. “It’s extremely rough.”
On the counter under the tiger tongue sat a skull cast with two gunshot wounds.
“He was, as I understand it, involved in the drug trade and was executed,” France said, picking up the cast and pointing to a gunshot entry wound at the base of the skull. “This is a pretty typical location for an execution.”
Over the years, France has seen an increase in bones with gunshot wounds.
“Bones reflect society,” she said.
These days, France is moving toward retirement, though she expects to keep volunteering with NecroSearch for the long haul. She’s written five books — technical books and textbooks — and may publish some different work going forward.
For a long time, France was the only board-certified forensic anthropologist in the state. But there’s another based in Denver now, Stock, and knowing she is there has given France some peace of mind about retirement.
“I was not willing to, and am not willing to turn over my clientele to somebody who isn’t board-certified,” she said.
When everything is said and done, and France herself becomes nothing but skin and bones, she hopes her own skeleton will be sent to the Smithsonian.
Scientists there could examine her bones, her broken neck and arthritis. She’s kept her medical records, too, to supplement her bones. It’ll be a research packet, a lifetime in the making.
“That way,” she said, “My contributions to the field will never stop.”
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