Now that Gail Palmgren's remains likely have been found, a forensics team and sheriff's office investigators will try to find more answers.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said Friday that the case is no longer a missing persons case and has turned into a recovery operation. However, investigators still are trying to determine if there are any signs of foul play, he said.
The challenge is collecting the remains of the 44-year-old Palmgren, whose bones have been damaged by the elements, from rainfall to scavenging animals.
"There's not a whole lot left other than bones up there," Hammond said. "There's enough remains with DNA to confirm it's her. ... I'm 98 percent sure it's her, but only the doctor can say for sure."
The bones are strewn over a couple hundred feet from Palmgren's red Jeep Rubicon, which went off East Brow Road along the side of Signal Mountain after she was last seen April 30.
On Friday, a five-member all-female team from the University of Tennessee's Anthropological Research Facility in Knoxville, commonly known as the Body Farm, were marking and tagging evidence at the site, including bones. They used a lift truck and ropes to reach the area.
Lawrence Kobilinsky, chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the forensic examination of the bones must discriminate animal bite marks and crash trauma. The exam also must look at the trauma pattern to determine whether foul play was involved, Kobilinsky said.
"Certainly the biggest thing they are going to analyze is the fracture of bones," he said. "If you see massive fractures, they are probably going to determine it was instant death."
Kobilinsky also said it will be challenging to conduct toxicology tests if there is no tissue remaining.
"They're not going to be able to find out if she was on some legal or illegal medication," he said.
Seven months later, there may not be absolute answers, Hammond said.
"The only thing we have to go by on her physical health is when she left the house 20 to 30 minutes ago [before the crash], she seemed fine physically. Whether she was under stress is another story," Hammond said.
On April 30, Palmgren drove back from the family's lake home in Wetumpka, Ala., to their Signal Mountain house on Ridgerock Drive with her two children, then 9 and 12. Arlene Durham, a close friend who lives next door to the lake house, said Palmgren had seemed upset the night before.
Using data from Palmgren's cell phone, which was recovered at the crash site, investigators said the Jeep veered off East Brow Road just 23 minutes after she dropped off her children, at 12:25 p.m. The reason is unknown.
The roadway was straight, not curvy, in the 1400 block where the Jeep went off the cliff. According to the Morristown-based National Weather Service reports, there was no precipitation; April 30 was a warm, partly sunny day.
As it veered toward the edge of the mountain, the Jeep struck a small boulder about the size of a tire. The boulder, weighing a couple of hundred pounds, also was found near the crash site.
"It would have taken a crew to move it," Hammond said. "We have every reason to believe the Jeep hit it and carried it over."
The Jeep went over a couple of rock bluffs and rolled, damaging the roof and front end, officials said. It came to rest about 150 feet from the W Road.
It appears Palmgren wasn't wearing her seatbelt, and authorities said she was most likely thrown from the vehicle.
Authorities are still brainstorming ways to remove the Jeep and her remains without damaging either. And the weather is a factor, because rain is expected to move in Sunday and last about three days.
Hammond said he expects to get an answer on using an Army aircraft to remove the vehicle, which could be airlifted out as soon as today.
"If not, we'll have to figure out a way to harness it and zip-line it down," Hammond said. "It would be much cleaner and neater if we could just airlift it."
The rain puts an extra layer of urgency to move and preserve the evidence.
"The rain's moving in. We need to move as quickly as possible," Hammond said.
Much of the evidence already has been damaged. From April 30 to Friday, the National Weather Service has recorded 31.34 inches of rain at the Chattanooga Airport.
That rainfall has continually washed over the Jeep and Palmgren's remains on a steep incline, carrying away possible evidence and, in some cases, moving her remains.