Mystery of human skull found inside 370kg shark
A human skull, arm and pelvis found in the stomach of a massive shark caught off the NSW coast have become one of the great challenges of a new elite police team charged with solving missing persons mysteries.
The 370kg tiger shark was caught 18 years ago when it took a baited hook sent to the depths by a fanatical team of game fishermen drifting about 26 nautical miles off Blacksmiths, on the NSW central coast.
After the four men from the Lake Macquarie Game Fishing Club weighed their catch back at the local yacht club, they cut open its stomach.
"The body parts consist of a skull, the pelvic area with part of the backbone, (and) one arm that looked like it was sort of chopped off right at the top area near the shoulder," fishing club president Henry Vanagshe said at the time.
"There was part of a thigh bone and there was some bone with cartilage that the coroner believed last night was probably small pieces of rib with some cartilage on it."
Police were called, the bones sent to Newcastle morgue and so began years of investigations into the origins of the bones and matching them with a name and a face and an individual's life story.
But initial enthusiasm - Lake Macquarie police Detective Sergeant Murray Lundberg said back then police would "look at DNA, dental records, perhaps facial reconstruction" and "search unsolved homicides … find experts to tell us the digestive rate of food in sharks, tiger shark patterns, currents, tides" - faded as the mystery remained unsolved.
A DNA profile from the bones hasn't successfully matched against missing person records or databases in Australia and in neighbouring countries.
The bones may be the remains of a shark attack victim, but are more likely to be the result of the tiger shark taking the opportunity of a free feed when it discovered the body floating in the water.
Tigers are famed for their habit of eating anything - car number plates and entire car tyres, a fur coat, a chicken coop, complete with chickens, a video camera, and several times human bones - have been found in their stomachs - earning them the nickname Garbage cans of the sea.
The skull and bones in the tiger shark is one of about 330 unidentified NSW remains files and a new crack team of police investigators is pushing to put a name to every single one of them.
To mark the start of National Missing Persons Week, The Sunday Telegraph was granted exclusive access to the newly minted Missing Persons Registry (MPR) at Parramatta.
Established last year, the MPR has been responsible for overhauling the way missing person reports are handled across the police force.
With the help of NSW Pathology, the registry has also overseen an exhaustive review of unidentified remains cases in a bid to match any to NSW's 765 long-term missing person cases.
And the Tiger shark caught 18 years ago isn't the only shark case on their files.
Earlier this year, human remains were also discovered inside a shark caught off the NSW Far south coast.
DNA testing was carried out but the bones haven't been identified.
"At least two sets of human remains have been recovered from sharks so trying to work out where those people came from can be quite difficult, "MPR manager Detective Inspector Glen Browne said.
He said matching the human remains with missing person cases was a "massive undertaking".
"The reality is some of those people we have may not have come from NSW or Australia," he said.
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said: "Since its inception last year, reviews conducted by the Missing Persons Registry have led to 57 long-term missing people being located."
That includes people who set up new lives under new identities and 18 sets of human remains that have been identified through DNA.
Last December, a human leg washed up on Mylestom Beach on the North Coast.
Police tracked down the manufacturer of a surgical plate attached to the ankle bone, which led them to identify Queensland man Andrew Page.
He disappeared while diving off the coast some 700 kilometres away in Queensland on November 22.
The MPR was created after an investigation found poor results from the way missing persons cases were handled, including a failure by multiple agencies not to join the dots with unidentified human remains.
NSW Health DNA experts now work with police on extracting DNA profiles from unidentified remains and pick cases suitable for phenotyping.
That involves using DNA to create a picture of what a person may have looked like from hair and eye colour to geographic ancestry.