What happens when people find bones?

Every once in awhile, people in Snohomish County find bones in their proverbial back yards.

You hear the reports on the police scanners, or see them in the blotters, or people call us.

I got a frantic call awhile back about someone finding a human foot near some train tracks in north Everett. It turned out to be a bear paw.

If bones turn up that are human, that obviously could be a big news story. Those cases hold the potential to bring answers to families who’ve lost loved ones, or solve other mysteries.

Also, human remains could mark an important archaeological find, one that could hold significant cultural meaning for local tribes — like the discovery of ancient skeletons in Oak Harbor during a major downtown road construction project in summer 2011.

More often than not, though, the bones that turn up belong to animals. I know. I check.

I was curious. What happens when someone reports finding bones? Who has jurisdiction in something like that? Who decides what kind of bones they are?

One of the great things about being a reporter is having the access to satisfy little curiosities like that. So I reached out to the police departments in Everett and Mukilteo for some answers.

(For some background on human remains cases in Island County, and what to do if you find possible remains, see this story I wrote in April about one of their cases involving a foot.)

Here’s what Everett police officer Aaron Snell had to share:

Officers at the scene generally can make a reasonable distinction between human and animal bones, he said. They often consult with a supervisory sergeant. If there’s any indication bones are human, detectives are called out.

“Detectives would assess — if they believe it is human, the area would be treated as a crime scene. Experts could be called to the scene to determine if the bones are human,” he wrote.

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner typically handles that part of the investigation.

Here’s a similar answer from Mukilteo police officer Cheol Kang:

Mukilteo police coordinate all calls dealing with bones with the county Medical Examiner’s Office, he said. They had at least one case of animal bones being reported as possible human remains earlier this year.

“I don’t think we’ve had very many calls dealing with bones,” Kang wrote.

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