A forensic dentist and dogged crime solver who habitually saves old dental records in his basement has helped Mercer County law enforcement officials identify a decomposed skull and in the process clear a major hurdle in a 16-year-old mystery.
The skull is that of Gina Marie Gallo, 22, who disappeared from a Bordentown motel in 1981. Its identification has elevated what had been a missing-person case into an active ''suspicious death investigation,'' Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Cosgrove, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Police, said today. The skull, in three pieces, was found by hunters atop a trash heap in Hamilton Square Township on Friday.
The identification was made by Dr. Haskell Askins, a forensic dentist in nearby Brick Township in Ocean County, who had consulted with investigators on the original missing-person report on Ms. Gallo. At that time, he said, he had obtained her dental records and saved them.
When investigators brought him the skull early Wednesday morning, Dr. Askins said, he X-rayed it and retrieved the old dental records from his basement.
''I was able to tell them by noon that the two matched and that it was Gina Gallo,'' he said.
Sergeant Cosgrove said the authorities planned a more careful search of the area where the skull was found in the hope of finding other bones. Kathryn Flicker, a deputy assistant prosecutor in Mercer County, refused to say whether the skull had given investigators any clues to the cause or time of death, but she cautioned that it was an old case and probably would not be solved soon.
The fact that Dr. Askins had such old records handy was more necessity than serendipity, he said. The Gallo case dated back to the time before dental records of missing persons were routinely entered into the National Criminal Identification Computer database. So Dr. Askins had a habit of keeping records himself. In the investigation of Ms. Gallo's disappearance, he said, he used the records at least a dozen times, to compare with unidentified bodies found in the early 1980's.
Dr. Askins is a consultant to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner and a member of the Vidocq Society, a private organization of law enforcement specialists that is named after a 19th-century French detective. Members work on long-unsolved disappearances and murders.
When the sun-whitened skull was found in Hamilton Square last week, investigators initially thought it was that of a man and that it had been lying there much longer than 16 years. But Donna Fontana, a forensic anthropologist with the state police missing persons unit, analyzed the facial characteristics and found that they belonged to a white woman. She also determined that the skull had been decomposing for more than a year, but less than 20 years.
With that information, Dr. Askins, said, investigators immediately thought of the Gallo case and contacted him.