A jawbone with only a single tooth was plucked from a rock pool at a popular bayside beach.
A painstaking search revealed another 400 fragments of human bones along the shoreline.
But 18 months later, investigators have been unable to uncover the identity of the beachside bones.
Images of the charred remains are too sensitive to be publicly released. Down the long hallways of the state’s institute of forensic medicine the bones have been laid out and numbered, amid fears a killer may still be at large.
Forensic experts have meticulously trawled through every Australian missing persons file, combed science books, and even contacted the state’s crematoriums in the hope of finding a name.
Laboratory testing indicates the bones, found at Ricketts Point in Beaumaris south-east of Melbourne, most likely belonged to a female aged no younger than 20, who died not long before her remains were found in January 2018.
It’s too late to save John or Jane Doe, but for Detective Sergeant Maurie Ryan of the state’s missing person’s squad, it’s a case he cannot let rest.
“Over the past 18 months we’ve done an enormous amount of work trying to determine exactly who this woman is,” he said.
“Was she left here by loved ones? Was she murdered? We just don’t know.
“Some of the best forensic scientists in Victoria have examined these bones and while they have been able to provide us with some information, it alone hasn’t been enough to solve the case.”
For most of the day, the foreshore rock pools at Ricketts Point in Beaumaris are submerged.
But at 5pm on January 11, 2018, two Parks Victoria employees stumbled across what appeared to be human bone fragments just below the salty surface.
They called in local police and with the tide steadily rising, in the critical hours that followed crime scene officers swiftly collected 426 pieces of burned bone from a 10 metre x 10 metre rock pool.
Search and rescue members did a further search of the area, however they were unable to find any clues about how the bones came to be in the shallow pools.
Detectives, considering the possibility the bone fragments had been left by a loved one, contacted crematoriums across the city. But again, nothing.
That’s when the forensic investigation into the bones began.
“From what we received, we believe it to be about 25 to 30 per cent of the skeletal remains,” Sergeant Ryan said.
“We’re missing 70 per cent.”
Months of testing was carried out by staff at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine.
They were able to establish that the bones were indeed human and likely to have belonged to a petite woman measuring between 155 and 159 centimetres tall.
The examination of the recovered mandible by senior forensic anthropologist Soren Blau, from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, revealed that the back teeth on each side of the lower jaw were missing pre-death, indicating the person had undergone significant dental work at one time.
Unearthing more specific information that might reveal her identity however has proved difficult.
The institute used specialist skills borne from the 2009 bushfires to investigate charred bone and even reached out to DNA specialists in the UK but the results have been limited.
“This case was complex,” she said.
“Because of the preservation, our conclusions about sex and ancestry always have to be taken with a slight grain of salt.
“The more you have of the puzzle the better the picture you have. In this case, not only was it highly fragmented but we’ve also seen the effects of fire at some point.”
Associate Professor Blau said science was unable to tell at what stage the person’s body was burnt but investigators could determine the person was quite petite and the remains were “deliberately placed”.
“Living in the bay area we know unfortunately people do get washed off the rocks … but these weren’t found in the rock pool as a result of tidal action, they looked deliberately placed,” she said.
“Unfortunately without a bit more information from the public we’re at a bit of a loss.”
Detective Sergeant Ryan believes that given the location of the bones and the changing tides, the remains were likely to have been placed in the rock pools a short time before they were found, putting the time of death at between December 2017 and January 2018.
“We’re interested in speaking to anyone who has information about how the bones came to be in the rock pool, or who might have left them there and why,” he said.
“We’d also like to speak to anyone who witnessed any suspicious activity in the area around the time the bones were discovered.
“There is definitely a story behind these bones – and there will definitely be someone out there who can tell it to us.”
Anyone with information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or visit crimestoppers.com.au.