"We couldn't have asked for anything better than this," said forensic anthropologist Stephen Nawrocki on the condition of the bones of a 5-year-old boy found in one of the metal caskets. "This is going to come out just beautifully."
The exhumations were part of a broadening quest to shed light on the mystery of Belle Gunness, a wealthy widow accused of murdering as many as 30 men, women and children, often dismembering the bodies at her hilltop farm in LaPorte, Ind.
The fire occurred 100 years ago last month, and there has been suspicion that Gunness staged her death because her murder spree was about to be discovered. After the blaze, shocked authorities found at least 11 dismembered bodies buried on her farm.
Although still awaiting the results of DNA tests that could irrefutably identify the decapitated woman, members of the university's forensic team hoped to unearth a few more clues about the killer by exhuming the children's bodies.
Found with the headless woman in the basement of the burned farmhouse, they are believed to be the remains of Lucy and Myrtle Sorenson, ages 9 and 11, and Phillip Gunness, 5. Belle Gunness was raising all three on her farm.
Andrea Simmons, the researcher leading the team, said they want to do DNA testing to determine if the children were Gunness' biological offspring.
"I think it gives more insight into who she was if any one of them were her biological children," said Simmons, an attorney-turned-forensic anthropologist, who has spent years delving into the murky past of a woman known as "Lady Bluebeard."
The children's bones might offer yet another clue, Simmons said. By reconstructing the skulls, the researchers should be able to learn if they were bludgeoned before the fire.
"I think it provides more evidence about what went on that night," she said.
The decision to exhume the children's bodies came only after researchers discovered a surprise in the headless woman's casket.
Mixed with adult remains were several bones from two juveniles, Simmons said. If the three children that Gunness was raising are not missing those bones, it's likely she killed more children than originally believed.
"If we had just found an adult, we wouldn't be here today," Simmons said. "We felt compelled to come back this spring. Whose children's bones do we already have in our lab?"
Finding those juvenile bones put the team in a quandary, Nawrocki said. It wouldn't feel right, he said, to rebury them with the adult. They would prefer to place them with their original remains, if possible, he said.
"I think the right thing is to try to reassociate those remains," Nawrocki said. "I sort of see it as a humanitarian effort to make things right after 100 years."
At first, it was thought Gunness was an innocent victim of the fire, but then a man showed up searching for his brother. Like many of the other victims, the brother had come to La Porte in hope of marrying Gunness, according to historical records. The man insisted his brother had met with foul play and that authorities needed to search the farm. They quickly began finding dismembered bodies. One victim, a child, was Gunness' teenage adopted daughter.
Witnesses at the time said the burned farmhouse reeked of kerosene.
Over the years, suspicion grew that Gunness escaped the fire and that another woman, chosen as her double, was killed and decapitated in a coverup.
It was determined that Gunness, who was from Norway, lured many of her victims through lovelorn ads placed in a Norwegian newspaper and with sexually suggestive correspondence.
Researchers are trying to compare the saliva on sealed envelopes she sent one suitor to the DNA in the bones removed from the casket in November.
For most of Tuesday, the forensic students shoveled dirt aside with gloved hands, paint brushes and wooden pottery tools. They removed the decaying wooden crates that contained the caskets, layers of glass possibly used as viewing screens at the time and finally zinc linings to expose the bones.
After meticulously photographing the site, the team placed every bone into labeled paper bags to take back to Indianapolis.
By Tuesday evening, it was apparent the answers Simmons and her crew sought would not be revealed until the bones were further analyzed. Simmons would not guess where it all would lead, what new revelations about Gunness might be just around the corner.
"With her, you never know what you're gonna get."