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Thirty-three years after their skeletons were found down a steep embankment in Mendocino County, two apparently slain children may be closer to being identified.

On Wednesday, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children released new, computer-generated, three-dimensional images of the teenagers based on medical scans of their skulls. The children are believed to have been about 13 and 15 years old when they died.

"The new ones are a lot more accurate" than earlier facial reconstructions, said Mendocino County Sheriff's Detective Dustin Lorenzo, who's currently in charge of the unsolved case.

Images released in the 1990s were of clay sculptures based on photographs of the skulls, he said.

Authorities are hoping the pictures, coupled with other advances in technology, finally will resolve the identity issue, if not the causes of the deaths, which also remain shrouded in mystery. Technology also carries the possibility of finding their killer.

The earlier images prompted hundreds of inquiries to investigators, but none panned out, Lorenzo said.

The Center for Missing and Exploited Children initiated the reopening of the case, which has included taking another look at all the evidence, Lorenzo said. The center annually chooses an unsolved case for a thorough review, he said.

The re-examination includes new DNA tests, which are yet to be completed, Lorenzo said. Twice as much information can now be reaped from DNA testing compared with the 1980s, he said.

The center also is testing a tooth that does not belong to either child. It could belong to a killer or it could have somehow fallen into the evidence box, Lorenzo said. The children's bones were exhumed from a Ukiah grave to ensure there was not a third victim that had been overlooked, he said.

The tooth is an extremely rare shape that usually is found only in Asian or American Indian people, he said. Based on the shapes of the children's skulls, both were Caucasian, Lorenzo said. It's possible a killer lost a tooth in a struggle or while discarding the bodies on the steep hillside, he said.

The latest identity quest began in January when the Center for Missing and Exploited Children flew Lorenzo, another detective and some bones to Virginia, where the organization is based. The skulls were run through a CT scanner at an area hospital and re-examined by a forensic anthropologist.

He narrowed the ages to 13 to 15, with the boy being younger than the girl. But conceivably they could be as young as 10 and as old as 19, Lorenzo said.

The remains were found in July 1979 by a couple who had stopped alongside Highway 20, about 21 miles east of Fort Bragg. They'd had an argument and the man had gone for a walk to cool down when he spotted a skull. They left a soda can to mark the spot and drove on to Willits, where they phoned police, Lorenzo said.

Deputies found hair, scattered bones -- the work of wild animals -- and an earring. They found no obvious cause of death, but no clothing could be located, indicating foul play. Some duct tape also was found at the scene, but it was unclear if the children had been bound, Lorenzo said.

They could have been strangled, which would not have been apparent with just skeletal remains, he said. The bodies had been there about six months.

The children could have been passing through, making it more difficult to match them with known missing children, Lorenzo said.

"It was the '70s. It was the big hippie movement. There were thousands of kids hitchhiking through our county on their way to San Francisco. It was not uncommon for a 15-year-old child to be on the road hitchhiking," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or Glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com

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