You’d never know that, for an otherwise unassuming family dentist, Dr. Randolph Mitchell ’77 has seen his fair share of crime.
Since 2009, Mitchell has been working as the forensic odonatologist for the Monroe County, N.Y., Medical Examiner’s Office, where—much as in a scene from “CSI: Miami”—he is called in to determine a deceased person’s identity through dental and X-ray examinations.
Mitchell has made close to 100 identifications since he started as a dental odonatologist eight years ago—working on everything from fires to murder cases. Often assisted by his wife, his daughter or his office assistant, he compares and contrasts his findings to pre-existing dental records in his attempt to identify each body. When fingerprints aren’t available, or when a death occurred from a fire, his skills are especially important. “They’re usually not friendly to the eye. It’s a puzzle and you have to work out how you’re solving the puzzle,” Mitchell said.
He was recently involved in a high-profile murder case where he conducted a dental exam to verify the identity of Craig Rideout. The murder trial surrounding Rideout’s death made national news, and was recently featured in the “Dateline” episode called the “Devil’s Bathtub.”
“The Craig Rideout case is my personal OJ Simpson case. I will never see another case as diabolical or fascinating, in a forensics way—monstrous in a human way,” Mitchell recalled.
Mitchell’s dental forensic work, essentially a side job, is rooted in his decades of work as a dentist in New York State. After graduating from SUNY Potsdam 40 years ago with a degree in chemistry and biology, Mitchell went on to get his Doctor of Dental Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Dental Medicine. After dental school, he worked at a clinic for low-income patients in Philadelphia—refining his skills as a dentist, while learning some valuable life lessons along the way. “It taught me to keep great records because the guy that was running the welfare clinic was crooked and it was raided,” Mitchell recalled. That’s where the future odonatologist saw a different type of crime—fraud—up close for the first time.
The clinic manager would often ask Mitchell to upcode his dental work, a process that assigns an inaccurate billing code to a patient’s bill in order to increase reimbursement. Mitchell always refused to go along with the scheme and made a point to keep immaculate records to protect himself. One day, the welfare clinic manager was arrested and charged with 810 felonies for his fraudulent activities.
“They hit the place like a ton of bricks and seized all the records…He was a good example for me, as to, if you do it, you’re going to get caught,” Mitchell recalled.
Following his roller-coaster first job, Mitchell settled into a dental practice in King of Prussia, N.Y., before moving to Lyons, N.Y., in 1983, where he joined Dr. Arthur N. Santelli’s practice. Santelli retired just seven months later, and Mitchell bought the business and has operated the dental practice ever since. “I like the rural environment better. You know the people. I’ve watched generations of people come through my office,” he said.
In addition to his work as a dentist and dental forensic specialist, he is also a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine and he has visited SUNY Potsdam almost every year since 2008 to discuss his forensic odontology work with students on campus. He has made some connections with SUNY Potsdam students over the years, even befriending Joseph Friedel ’12, who he helped get into medical school by writing him a letter of recommendation.
Mitchell is nearing retirement and is in the process of selling his dental practice before pursuing his passion for the culinary arts, an interest that he shares with his wife Lisa. The couple has made special trips to King Arthur Flour in Vermont for three-day long cooking classes, skills that they parlayed into teaching a cooking class at their home as part of a charity fundraiser. They have also helped with other fundraising events, where their specially prepared meals are auctioned off to a winner who is treated to one of their catered dinners. “You name it, and we’ll take it on the road,” Mitchell said.
Once he sells his dental practice, the Mitchells plan to open a bakery and bistro in Lyons, N.Y., the same town where he has been fixing teeth for over 30 years. The new restaurant will feature handcrafted pasta and bread, as well as an education center where they will offer cooking classes. “I just feel like I’ve been very fortunate to have my life unfold like it did,” Mitchell said.