Not many people can emphatically say that they love bones, but Lauren Zephro can—and does. And as a forensic anthropologist, it is an important part of her job.
“I’ve always been fascinated with bodies and anatomy,” Zephro said. “I can’t explain it. Dead bodies don’t bother me. I love bones.”
For some, forensic science and bodies may be the stuff that makes good TV, but it is all too real for Zephro. Since joining the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office in 2008, her skills have, among other things, helped to solve a 1972 Capitola homicide cold case and given investigators a better picture into who Pogonip Jane, whose remains were found in Santa Cruz in 1993 and to this day remain unidentified, might be.
“When , those people are not forgotten and those cases are constantly being reevaluated,” Zephro said. “That’s pretty special about our role of scientist and the role of investigators. Those people are constantly being looked for.”
The Road to Forensics
Zephro, who received her bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology with forensics as a sub-discipline from UC-Santa Cruz and her master’s degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, home of the famed original body farm, didn’t realize in the beginning that her calling was in forensics.
“I wanted to be Jane Goodall and study chimpanzees in the wild,” she said “Then I took my first forensic anthropology class and I said, ‘No, this is my calling, pure and simple.’”
After graduate school, Zephro returned home to Santa Cruz where she eventually landed a job with the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office, though not doing exactly what she wanted to do. Since there was no forensic anthropologist position available in Monterey at that time, she had to fall back on a secondary skill to get her foot in the door.
“Luckily, in grad school I learned how to do autopsies,” she said. “It’s that secondary skill that people like and it got me in the door and got me working.”
In Monterey, Zephro was moved around a bit, from autopsies to the forensic services unit to property and evidence and then to what would become her second calling and specialty—fingerprint examination.
“Fingerprinting is an important part of crime scene investigation,” she said. “And I came to the conclusion that I love fingerprints as much as I love bones. It’s not like it’s one or the other. It’s the same part of my brain that I’m using, and it’s the same contribution to the public. I found that I really love that aspect of forensics.”
Today, Zephro works as the county’s latent print examiner and she knows that it is as important a piece of the puzzle as the forensic work she also does.
“The role of forensic anthropology in everyday law enforcement is an expanding one. Only time will tell how it expands, but it’s an exciting area of expertise,” Zephro said.
New Technology Brings New Discoveries
There is no questioning that science plays a tremendous role is Zephro’s day-to-day job, but technology and its rapid advancement is also key to putting the pieces together.
“Technology has really changed the landscape because there’s another way to get that information,” she said. “But anthropology still has a role, so it’s kind of interesting to see how things change but the pieces of the puzzle stay the same.”
In the 1972 Capitola homicide cold case, it was new technology that helped Zephro identify the suspect, even though the case had been looked at by dozens of investigators over the years. With ever-changing technology, details that were once missed were brought to light by Zephro.
And it’s not just the technology that is getting better, Zephro says that forensic science is also rapidly advancing.
“As DNA advancements are occurring, so are advancements in other areas of forensic science,” she said. “This is science and science is built on a body of knowledge which is constantly changing as more information becomes integrated into that body of knowledge, so our methods are better than they were even 10 years ago.”
Zephro knows that forensic science can seem boring to some people, but with stakes so high it’s a job that means a lot.
“It’s meticulous and it’s slow and deliberate. You’re insuring that every step is done the correct way and to the best of your ability so that you don’t make mistakes,” she said. “I would be no good at running down suspects, and I don’t particularly like dealing with the living. This is my role. This is my contribution to public safety. Dead bodies don’t bother me, dead goldfish on the other hand, I can’t deal with.”
This is the first in a three-part series on the forensic anthropology and latent fingerprint departments at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. Check Patch on Oct. 11 for a more in-depth look at the breakthrough cases Lauren Zephro has worked on, and on Oct. 14 for a look at the new fingerprint technology the county is now working with.