An anthropologist examining the skeletal remains of a Tallmadge woman and her son said Thursday that some of his work centers on confirming suspicions of how the mother and child died.
Dennis Dirkmaat, a professor at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., said he expects the examination of the remains of Wendy Ralston and her 5-year-old son, Peyton, to continue through the weekend.
He declined to speak specifically about the preliminary findings as to the manner of death, such as strangulation or gunshot or stab wounds, that already have been made during an initial autopsy the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office performed.
Police have said they believe the causes of death to be homicides.
“Some of [our work] is confirming what they found in the autopsy,” Dirkmaat said.
Local authorities contacted the anthropologist this week after the decomposed remains were located in a wooded area behind Ralston’s home. The two bodies were wrapped in what appears to be a bed comforter and a dark blue sheet, an investigator’s report showed.
Dirkmaat said he and the university staff are examining the mostly skeletal remains closely for signs of trauma or damage to bones — distortions that could have come from a knife or bullet.
“We will look at all the surfaces of the bone to corroborate what was found earlier,” he said in a Skype interview. “It’s a case in which forensic anthropology will allow us to talk about and corroborate some of findings that the forensic pathologist found.”
Once the examinations are completed, Dirkmaat will prepare a report on the findings and offer a “precise, accurate assessment of the trauma,” if any is found.
“Even something as small as a fractured rib, we’ll make a call on that,” he said. “If there’s a gunshot or any manner of trauma to the bone that is out of the ordinary, we will write up the report, present it to the forensic pathologist and the medical examiner.”
Mercyhurst anthropologists are sought out eight to 12 times a year to assist law enforcement in western Pennsylvania and New York as well as Northeast Ohio.
Police have not identified a suspect in the deaths. They have questioned those close to Ralston, including Daniel Tighe, her longtime boyfriend and Peyton’s father.
Tighe moved into Ralston’s duplex earlier this year, according to friends.
Police believe Ralston, 31, and her son were killed inside the home and the bodies were dumped in the woods, about 100 yards away. Ralston was last heard from July 23, when she posted a Facebook note about an odd dream she was having.
“Thank god [sic] my son woke me up and saved me,” Ralston wrote.
A neighbor, who remembered hearing Peyton crying, “Mommy, wake up” called police July 31 after not seeing any movement from the family. Officers spoke to Tighe, who said Ralston talked of taking a vacation, a report showed.
Family members said Ralston often left her home for days at a time and her mother, Marie Ralston, and Tighe did not report her missing until they made separate calls to police minutes apart on Aug. 7.
Three days later, Marie Ralston went to the home and searched the back yard. She discovered the remains, then drove to the police station.
Police records show Tighe and Wendy Ralston have a history of domestic violence incidents against each other dating back to 2005. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The Ralston family has been beset by tragedy the past 10 years. Wendy Ralston’s 27-year-old brother, Ryan, died in 2004. Her 13-year-old daughter’s father died in 2009. Marie Ralston now is raising the girl.
Tallmadge police Lt. Ron Williams said Thursday there have not been any new developments in the case. Detectives continue to await a manner of death.
A team of six students in Mercyhurst’s master’s degree program in forensic anthropology is assisting Dirkmaat.
“I’m 100 percent confident that we will be able to tell the medical examiner whether we have trauma or not,” Dirkmaat said. “And then if there is trauma, we can characterize it more completely, whatever it turns out to be, if there is any.”