Authorities on Thursday were trying to identify the skeletal remains of a woman found buried in a secluded area a few feet from the Tuolumne River near John Thurman Field in west Modesto.
Investigators believe the remains are of a homeless woman who has been missing for two years and spent time near the river, where there are numerous homeless encampments, said police spokesman Sgt. Brian Findlen. Detectives have not determined whether the missing woman had lived in one of encampments, he said.
The woman's death is being investigated as a homicide. Detectives have questioned "persons of interest" in the case, though no arrests have been made.
The missing woman was last seen by family members in 2007 and was reported missing to Modesto police this year.
Identity still uncertain
The detectives met with the missing woman's family Thursday afternoon, but the investigators would not say whether the family is from the Modesto area. Police also did not release the missing woman's name.
"We think we know who it is, but thinking we know is not enough," Findlen said. "We would like to wait for a definitive answer from the coroner's office before we release a name."
He said it could take weeks to identify the remains.
Stanislaus County coroner officials had the remains Thursday. Coroner officials said they ask family members or use fingerprints to identify a body. When only skeletal remains are found, coroner's officials said they use dental records or DNA.
Findlen said there was extensive decomposition. He said investigators have not determined how long the body was buried.
"What we're dealing with here is bones," he said.
Detectives would not say how deep the bones were buried or whether clothes were found on the remains. Findlen did say they collected other evidence at the burial site, but he declined to be specific.
The investigation started Sunday morning when Modesto police detectives received a phone call from the Reno Police Department.
Dispute in Reno led to tip
While interviewing two people involved in a domestic dispute there, Reno police learned a possible homicide had occurred in Modesto and the location of the victim. Findlen said the dispute in Reno is not related to the death of the Modesto victim.
Police would not say how the witness knew about the body, but Findlen said the witness was not in custody. Police did not release the witness's name to ensure his safety.
Monday, Reno police brought one of the two people in the domestic dispute to Modesto. The witness directed investigators to the burial site.
Dogs couldn't find body
About noon, Modesto police used cadaver dogs to search the area, but the dogs could not find the body. Authorities then used a backhoe to uncover the remains.
After investigators found the bones, they used their hands to sift through the dirt, working for about 12 hours late into the night.
"They did it systematically and very carefully, so they would not disturb the remains," Findlen said. "It was more like a surgical procedure. We wanted to preserve the crime scene as much as possible."
Investigators ask anyone with information about this case to call Modesto police at 572-9500 or Crime Stoppers at 521-4636. Tipsters also can e-mail tips through the Crime Stoppers Web site, www.modestopolice.com/CrimeStoppers, or text tips to CRIMES (274637) by typing "Tip704" plus the message. Callers to Crime Stoppers can remain anonymous and are eligible for a cash reward.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.