KENNEWICK — Skeletal remains found a month ago at Duffy's Pond near Clover Island still are unidentified, although Kennewick police believe they have an idea of who it is.
Confirming the identity, however, has been a challenge because of federal medical privacy laws.
Dental records are being sought to confirm the dead person's identity, and investigators have found records from two different dentists, but they declined to release the records without proper permission, said Kennewick police spokesman Mike Blatman.
The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) states that if a person dies, a personal representative designated by will or appointed by a court can get access to medical files, and a relative can also have access if the medical information has a bearing on the relative's health, according to information from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer organization.
Police, however, don't have a simple way to obtain records to confirm an identity, Blatman said.
"It's a Catch-22," he said.
Benton County Coroner John Hansens said based on Washington law, HIPAA doesn't apply to his office when it's investigating a death.
State law allows information held inside the state to be disclosed without a patient's authorization to county coroners and medical examiners conducting death investigations.
Hansens was uncertain if that exemption applies at the federal level, however. In this case, the dental records were found in another state, so officials had to obtain a subpoena to compel release of the records.
They could arrive in Kennewick today, and a local forensic dentist will be called to help Hansens make the identification, Hansens said.
DNA also could be used to make an identification, but dental records usually provide a quicker answer, officials have said.
The skeletal remains were found Feb. 7 by a survey crew mapping the water's edge around the pond for the Army Corps of Engineers. They called 911 after finding cowboy boots, leg bones, a coat and a partially buried skull.
Hansens said the autopsy showed the remains are of a man who was killed by a gunshot to the head, but the manner of death won't be determined until an identity is made.
Results also showed the man was at least 35 years old, right handed and died in a "cool weather environment" at some point in the past 18-30 months.
Although the Duffy's Pond remains might soon be positively identified, there is a skull and two sets of remains discovered in the Tri-Cities that still are unidentified.
The oldest goes back to 1994, when a skull was found in Pasco near the City View Cemetery. Two young men sitting on a bench shooting a pellet gun looked down at a pile of sand and spotted a skull, said Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel.
The skull was sent to anthropologists in King County, who determined it likely was several decades old. Officials theorized the skull probably was from an old grave that had been accidentally dug up a couple years earlier when a new gas line was put in between Oregon Avenue and the railroad tracks.
The skull and other bone fragments found nearby were estimated to be at least 75 years old, and all records from the cemetery were lost in a fire in the 1940s, so there's no way to identify the man, Blasdel said.
He also has another set of remains that likely will remain unidentified because they were burned beyond recognition in a fiery crash on June 21, 2009, near Othello.
A man was speeding on Radar Heights Road in a stolen van, went down a 30-foot embankment and stuck a concrete block. The van rolled and burst into flames.
Blasdel said all investigators know about the man is that he went to a house in Basin City to purchase a van. The van's owner went along on a test drive, then got out when the man asked to look at the engine. The man took off in the van, sideswiped a couple of cars and lost control on the top of Radar Hill, he said.
The victim is believed to be a Hispanic man from Mexico in his 20s who was in the Basin City-Othello area picking cherries. Blasdel has listed him as Juan Doe.
"He was cremated as an indigent and ... his remains were put in a public crypt," Blasdel said. "I don't suspect there's any way that we're ever going to identify him, even if his family came forward and says, 'We're missing this guy and we know he was up in the Pasco area.' "
In Benton County, Hansens also has an unidentified skull in the evidence room. He said there might be records in the coroner's office about the skull, but all he knows is it was found in 2007 in a cabinet in the office.
-- Paula Horton: 509-582-1556; email@example.com