KANSAS CITY, Mo — So far much of the evidence in Kylr Yust's double murder trial has revolved around witness testimony, including former friends who claim Yust confessed to strangling Kara Kopetsky and Jessica Runions.
However, by the time their remains were found in 2017 they were badly decomposed.
41 Action News wanted to know if there's any way to determine a cause of death in cases like these.
Anchor Caitlin Knute talked with Dr. Alexandra Klales, the director of Washburn University's Forensic Anthropology Recovery Unit.
Although she was not involved in this particular case, she said she has experience analyzing skeletal remains, and explained there is a bone that can yield some clues as to cause of death.
"In cases where strangulation is suspected, the hyoid bone is really important to look at. It's a small, u-shaped bone that hangs in the front of your neck region, and in about a third of homicide cases involving manual strangulation," Klales said. "With the hands, we see fracturing to that bone."
However, Klales noted that just because a bone is fractured doesn't mean manual strangulation is definitely the cause. It could also indicate ligature strangulation, a hanging, or even a motor vehicle accident. Likewise, she explains it's possible to be strangled and not fracture your hyoid bone. So, it is only a piece of the puzzle.
Still, it's a starting point for forensic anthropologists. The problem is, this small bone isn't always easy to recover, especially when remains aren't quickly discovered in outdoor locations.
"So, it's hanging in your neck and it's attached to soft tissue and muscle. So when the body is decomposing, soft tissue decomposes faster than tendons and ligaments or the bones," Klales said. "What happens is the hyoid becomes dislodged from the other portions of the body at a faster rate, which means it can be more difficult to locate at a scene, especially at outdoor scene."
She also explained external factors such as water, soil erosion, and animals can disturb the area and make it hard to locate the hyoid bone. She said that's why it's crucial to have trained experts come in to process these types of scenes.
At this point, it's unclear if investigators in the Kopetsky and Runions case found either of their hyoid bones.
Meanwhile, there's one aspect of their case that Klales said is quite common — and that's who found their remains.
A mushroom hunter located their bodies in a wooded area near Belton.
"Remains [which] are skeletonized or badly decomposed are often found by hunters, and frequently by mushroom hunters," Klales said. "Essentially, any time you have people walking in remote areas, looking closely on the ground, whether it's looking for antler shed or mushrooms, they're more likely to encounter these remains that are deposited in remote locations."
41 Action News is committed to bringing you complete coverage of the trial of Kylr Yust, the man accused in the murders of Kara Kopetsky and Jessica Runions. Visit kshb.com/yusttrial for all our stories, case details, timeline and more.