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Offutt lab has identified remains of 242 who died on USS Oklahoma. Now come the harder cases

Four years after they were exhumed from a military cemetery in Hawaii, oil-soaked bones from the sailors and Marines who perished at Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Oklahoma still take up more than half of the exam tables in Offutt Air Force Base’s forensic laboratory.

Femurs and tibias, patellas and skulls, radiuses and ulnas, organized into incomplete skeletons. They are laid out respectfully, feet toward the American flag.

Now all they need is names.

“We’re not going to stop as long as we can still individually identify anyone,” said Carrie LeGarde, the forensic anthropologist who is leading the Defense Department POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s USS Oklahoma identification project.

Four years ago, the accounting agency exhumed 61 caskets from a military cemetery in Hawaii containing the bones of as many as 394 sailors and Marines who died when the battleship was sunk at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. They couldn’t be identified and were buried as “unknowns.”

They were brought to the accounting agency’s then-new lab at Offutt. It is the largest identification of group remains undertaken at the lab.

So far, 242 of the Oklahoma men have been identified, the remains returned to families who were left grieving and scarred by the loss.

Like the family of Gerald Clayton of Central City, Nebraska, who died within minutes of his best friend and cousin, Bob Clayton, a sailor killed on the USS Arizona. They were honored last summer not only by their descendants, but by the whole town of Central City, when Gerald’s body was returned home for burial.

Or the family of Joseph Maule of Bloomfield, Nebraska, whose older brother, V.K. Maule, never forgave himself for signing papers allowing Joseph to enlist at age 17. V.K., his wife, and their 13 children would pray every night for “Uncle Joe” to come home. He was buried in Bloomfield last June.

Or the family of George C. Ford of Carroll, Iowa, whose family rarely mentioned his name after he died aboard the Oklahoma — but whose brother named a son after him six years later. George Ford was buried alongside his parents in a cemetery near Carroll last summer.

“At first I was just shocked, to know that somebody cared enough to keep researching,” Ford’s grandniece, Rhonda Maurer of Omaha, told The World-Herald in 2018. “It’s just been exciting. And really unbelievable.”

Of 22 USS Oklahoma crew members who lived in Nebraska or Iowa, 12 have so far been identified. The most recent was Petty Officer 2nd Class Daryle Artley, 21, who grew up in Maywood, Nebraska (south of North Platte). He moved with his family to Washington state while he was in high school. His brother, Richard, also served on the Oklahoma but survived.

The Offutt anthropologists sorted more than 13,000 bones, and took DNA samples from 5,000 of the larger ones. Those bones have yielded more than 300 unique DNA sequences, said Carrie Brown, a forensic anthropologist and the co-manager of the Offutt lab.

The pace of identifications has picked up in large part because of a program developed three years ago by a University of Nebraska at Omaha information and technology science professor, Sachin Pawaskar, and one of his students, Ryan Ernst.

They developed the program, called the Commingled Remains and Analytics Ecosystem, or CoRA, to simplify the process of matching bones belonging to the same skeleton.

The program analyzes the size, appearance and other characteristics of individual bones to determine the most likely possible matches.

“It’s hard, when you have 300 commingled bones, to figure out which bone goes with which other bone,” Pawaskar said. “(CoRA) streamlines the process of identifying the bones.”

He said matches that used to take a week can now be done in seconds.

“All the searching is pretty fast,” Pawaskar said. “It makes the life of an anthropologist that much easier.”

Brown and LeGarde said only one anthropologist at a time could use the old spreadsheet system. CoRA allows for multiple users.

“It’s very helpful for data management,” LeGarde said. “I use it almost every day, in some way.”

With a year to go and 152 Oklahoma men left to identify, the hardest work may still be ahead.

Brown said the easiest matches, using mitochondrial DNA passed down through female relatives, have nearly all been made.

About 50 of the DNA sequences are common to more than one of the missing sailors. One sequence is linked to about 25 different men.

“They are almost all of European ancestry,” Brown said. “They have a very common DNA lineage.”

That means doing additional types of DNA testing, such as finding a match through the father’s side of the family as well.

To complicate things further, the accounting agency is missing family-reference samples for 52 of the Oklahoma sailors and Marines, though detective work continues to find matches.

“We’re at the tough cases now,” LeGarde said. “The goal was to identify 80% (of the sailors), or about 315. I think we’ll be able to do that.”

Brown said that overall, the Oklahoma project has gone remarkably smoothly. Often it is difficult to extract DNA from samples that have been long buried. But 95% of the bones sampled have yielded useful DNA samples.

DNA recovery has been much tougher from unidentified bones recovered from two other battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor, the USS West Virginia and the USS California. Those remains are being processed at the accounting agency’s other main laboratory, in Hawaii.

The West Virginia project, begun in 2017, has yielded eight identifications among 35 missing crew members. The California project, which started a year later, has yet to produce any identifications from 25 missing crew.

Photos: Bringing home the unknowns from Pearl Harbor

MUD bills to go up about $6 per month in Omaha starting Jan. 1

People who live in the Omaha area will need to squirrel away a little more in 2020 to pay for water, natural gas and sewer service.

Higher costs for those services will start showing up Jan. 1 on bills sent out by the Metropolitan Utilities District.

Average residential customers should plan to pay nearly $6 more a month, or about $70 a year. Those who use more water or natural gas face bigger increases.

MUD says it intends to use about $20 of the average customer's annual increase to accelerate how quickly it replaces aging water mains.

Officials have said an increasing number of breaks of older water mains are costing the district too much money and interrupting service too often.

That's why the MUD board in 2018 phased in an increase in water rates. Costs increased by 7% in July. They'll jump another 12% Jan. 1.

All but one of the projects planned for 2020 are east of 84th Street, but MUD says it expects to do similar work citywide in the years to come.

"We're redefining our methods as we go forward in our approach to aging water infrastructure," said Mark Doyle, MUD's president.

MUD will use $16 a year of the increase to cover the higher cost to buy and pipe natural gas from elsewhere to Omaha.

Officials expect natural gas prices to rise in 2020 and say Northern Natural Gas has let MUD know that the company is charging more for pipeline delivery.

The city says it needs the remaining $34 of the average $70-a-year increase to pipe and treat waste, and pay the latest costs from $2 billion in sewer separation work.


People who receive a bill from the Metropolitan Utilities District should plan to pay more in 2020 for water, natural gas and city sewer service. Here's a breakdown of what's expected in the monthly bill of the average residential customer:

Sewer bills can vary widely, with higher bills charged to people who use more water, said Jim Theiler, assistant director of Public Works.

The city's 5.25% sewer rate increase for 2020 is the second of five rate increases the mayor and City Council approved in 2018.

City charges for sewer service show up on MUD bills because MUD officials decades ago agreed to bill city residents to save administrative costs.

One bit of good news: you won't get sticker shock in 2020 from the Omaha Public Power District. The average residential electric customer should not pay more.

The OPPD board has in recent years committed to no general electric rate increases through 2021. For 2020, it didn't increase the fee portion of the bill, either, officials say.

The utility is shifting toward more renewable sources of energy, including wind power contracts and building the state's largest solar power project.

aaron.sanderford@owh.com, 402-444-1135 twitter.com/asanderford


Defender of apostrophe's place concedes defeat

For nearly two decades, John Richards dedicated his life to protecting an endangered species: the correctly placed apostrophe.

As the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, he waged war against signs advertising "ladies fashions" or claiming that "Diamond's are forever." But last month, the 96-year-old admitted defeat.

"The ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!" Richards wrote on the Apostrophe Protection Society's website. Given the lack of interest in correct apostrophe usage and his own advancing age, Richards recently announced that he is shutting down the group.

"When I first set it up, I would get about 40 emails or letters a week from people all over the world," Richards told the BBC on Friday. "But then two years ago it started to tail off and nowadays I hardly get anything."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Richards previously worked as a copy editor. For years, he was bedeviled by public messages that lacked necessary apostrophes or added gratuitous ones. In 2001, after retiring from his job at a newspaper in eastern England, he founded the Apostrophe Protection Society "with the specific aim of preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark," as the group's website puts it.

To kick off his campaign, Richards created a form letter that could be customized and sent to offending businesses, alerting them to their misdeeds. "Dear Sir or Madam," it began.

"Because there seems to be some doubt about the use of the apostrophe, we are taking the liberty of drawing your attention to an incorrect use."

Initially, the society counted just two members: Richards and his son, Stephen. The response to the form letters was lackluster, and one butcher summed up the prevailing ethos when he told the New York Times, "Sounds to me like this man wants a bleeding job." Richards told the paper that in its first few weeks of existence, the group claimed only one victory, which was getting a local library to correct its sign for "CD's."

But after the Daily Telegraph published an article about his quixotic crusade, Richards developed a small but devoted following. Several hundred people signed up to join the Apostrophe Protection Society, he told the Times in 2001, and others sent letters of support or unsolicited donations of cash.

Many were waging their own ineffectual campaigns against grammatical atrocities, and one man even admitted to carrying around tape and printed-out apostrophes to correct signs on the fly. A seventh-grade English teacher in America who grew apoplectic at the sight of errors on billboards founded her own offshoot, the Apostrophe Protection Society of Southwest Montana.

"Why did the Apostrophe Protection Society not have a militant wing?" grammarian Lynne Truss wrote in her 2004 bestseller, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation." "Could I start one? Where do you get balaclavas?"

After achieving some mild level of celebrity — he was once featured as "Mr. October" in a calendar that purported to celebrate the most boring men in Britain — Richards began taking on larger targets. He unsuccessfully protested retailers like Harrods, Selfridges and Waterstones that dropped apostrophes from their names, as well as government bodies that followed suit.

In 2013, Richards and the Apostrophe Protection Society scored a major coup when the Mid Devon District Council reversed its decision to ban apostrophes from all street signs. The government body had claimed that GPS devices would melt down when confronted by the punctuation mark, an argument that Richards deemed "appalling."

"It set a bad example for local children who were being taught about apostrophes in local schools," he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

For the most part, though, officials tended to ignore the society's complaints, saying that they had more pressing matters to deal with than a missing apostrophe here or there. And experts in language and cognition concurred, pointing out that a misplaced apostrophe was unlikely to confuse anybody and, in fact, apostrophes could likely be eliminated from written English altogether with no ill effect.

But for years, Richards remained dedicated to defending the humble punctuation mark's honor.

"People do tend to look on me as a little bit pedantic but I don't mind — I think we need pedants," he told the Sunday Express in 2012. "The apostrophe is a vital piece of punctuation and grammar. To do without it would be confusing, as well as inelegant."

Though his days of lobbying on behalf of the apostrophe are over, Richards wrote last month that he plans to keep the society's website up "for reference and interest." In addition to a defunct message board and helpful guidelines about the correct use of apostrophes, it hosts a hall of fame of sorts, dedicated to some of the most egregious offenders.

Over the years, fans have submitted examples such as a cafe advertising "light bite's," a warehouse offering storage for "boat's" and "car's" and a restaurant selling "snow pea's."

And Richards told the BBC that he might once again return to campaigning, though this time for a different cause.

"The use of the comma is appalling," he said. "When I read some newspaper websites they just don't understand what it is used for."

Cocaine overdoses rise as fentanyl is mixed in
14,000 DEATHS IN 2017

CINCINNATI — A pain pill prescription for nerve damage revived Gwendolyn Barton's long-dormant addiction last year, awakening fears she would slip back into smoking crack cocaine.

She'd done that drug and others for about 20 years before getting sober in 2008. But things were different back then. This time, the 62-year-old knew she needed to seek treatment before it was too late.

"If I used today," she said, "I'd be dead."

The powerful opioid fentanyl is often mixed into cocaine, turning the stimulant into a much bigger killer than the drug of the past. Cocaine-related overdoses took the lives of nearly 14,000 Americans in 2017, up 34% in just a year, the latest federal figures show. And they're expected to soar even higher as cocaine's popularity resurges.

Barton, who is African American, is wise to be wary. Deaths are rising most precipitously among African Americans, who are more likely to use cocaine than whites and fatally overdosed at an 80% higher rate.

But the scourge is festering quietly, overshadowed by the larger opioid epidemic that kills tens of thousands each year, the vast majority of them white.

More than 30 states have seen cocaine death rates rise since 2010, with Ohio leading the way. Overdoses from crack and powder cocaine killed 14 of every 100,000 Ohioans of all races in 2017 — seven times more than in 2010, according to the University of Minnesota's State Health Access Data Assistance Center.

Colin Planalp, senior research fellow at the center, said deaths have risen steeply in rural and urban areas across America since 2000, and the increase is directly related to the national opioid crisis.

Most of the time, fentanyl is the stealth culprit, posing a particular danger to longtime cocaine users who may be older, sicker and unaccustomed to the effects of opioids.

"Your whole system is kind of thrown a curveball," said Katherine Engel, director of nursing at the Center for Addiction Treatment in Cincinnati. "You're an opiate virgin, so to speak."

Tom Synan, police chief in Newtown, just outside Cincinnati, said the risk extends to cocaine users who also have used older opioids such as heroin because fentanyl is 50 times more potent.

"In the '70s, a 'speedball' was a mix of cocaine and heroin. I call this 'speedball 2.0.' Fentanyl has made it much worse," he said. "It's made every drug people are addicted to into a crisis."

In May, in Cincinnati's Hamilton County, cocaine overdoses killed six people over 10 days.

The crisis is growing as more people use cocaine.

A federal survey showed about 2 million Americans used the stimulant regularly in 2018, up from 1.4 million in 2011. One in 100 African Americans used the drug regularly last year, a rate 40% higher than among whites.

Supply helps drive use. A 2018 report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says record cocaine production in Colombia, the primary source for cocaine seized in the United States, has widened the market and pushed down prices. The agency expects the trend to continue.

Synan said the supply has ebbed and flowed over the years and cocaine never went away. What's different now, he said, is the intentional and unintentional addition of fentanyl.

Sometimes, law enforcement experts said, dealers spike cocaine with the inexpensive synthetic opioid to hook people. Other times, it gets mixed in through sloppy handling or packaging somewhere along the way. "The reason they're putting it in is it's cheap," said Thomas Fallon, commander of the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition Task Force. "Also, they're not chemists. They don't always know what they're doing."

Still, longtime cocaine users often trust their dealers. They're less likely than heroin or pill users to carry the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone, treatment professionals and police said, because they don't think of themselves as opioid users and don't believe they'll need it.

While some users overdose and die from cocaine mixed with fentanyl, others come to crave the potent combination for its high.

"Instead of being a deterrent, it's an incentive for some," said Evonne Stephenson, a nurse practitioner at the UrbanMinority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Program of Cincinnati. "Everyone thinks they're invincible."

Actually, drug use makes them more vulnerable to serious health problems or death, especially as they age. The steepest rise in cocaine-related overdose deaths nationwide was among people 45 to 54 years old.

William Stoops, a University of Kentucky professor who studies drug and alcohol addiction, said longtime cocaine use causes cardiovascular problems, which raises the risk of dying from an overdose even before fentanyl is added to the mix.

Barton likens doing cocaine these days to a game of Russian roulette.

"One person might get super high," she said. "The next one may take it and die."

Efforts to reduce these deaths face several obstacles.

Long-simmering resentment among African Americans of the criminalization of cocaine addiction in the 1980s and '90s fuels an ongoing mistrust of law enforcement and public health efforts.

Back then, possessing 5 grams of crack, which many associated with low-income African Americans, brought the same prison sentence as possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine, which many associated with middle-class or affluent whites. The way people think about and tackle drug use has been "influenced by who we think uses them," said Jeffrey Coots, who directs John Jay College of Criminal Justice's "From Punishment to Public Health" initiative in New York.

And though African Americans use opioids, too, today the drugs are typically associated with white users.

"There's a thought that no one cared until a bunch of white people started dying," said Stephenson, the Cincinnati nurse practitioner. "That's so tragic."

Synan said he's heard this sentiment. People ask: " 'Why do you care now if you didn't care back then?' " he said. "So you have to overcome that. Whether it's real or perceived, it doesn't matter, because it's still an issue."

Synan said he understands the concerns and acknowledged that society sees opioids more through a medical lens. But he said that's partly because of an evolving understanding of addiction and the sheer numbers of overdose deaths in recent years, which require urgent action.

To be sure, overdoses involving opioids kill more Americans: 47,600 in 2017, including 5,513 African Americans. Overdoses involving cocaine killed 3,554 African Americans — although categories overlap because deaths may involve more than one drug.

Another challenge: There's less in the treatment arsenal for cocaine addiction. While medications such as Suboxone and methadone treat people hooked on opioids, there are no federally approved medications to treat cocaine problems, even though researchers were testing promising medications nearly 15 years ago.

Public health officials say they're focusing more on cocaine addiction in light of today's deadly overdose threat and trying to address the larger issue of addiction in general.

"What we'd certainly like to see more of is community-level interventions that go at the drivers of drug use in the first place — seeing it as the symptom of a problem," Coots said.