In November 2005, in a burn pit behind a garage in Mischicot, Wis., officers recovered 58 skull fragments and 24 tooth pieces: remnants of a brutal and inconceivable crime. With the assistance of top forensic specialists, law enforcement investigators were able to piece together a case against Stephen Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, for the rape and murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach.
The process of identifying her remains was a crucial aspect of this large case. It was a situation where we knew we couldn t do it by ourselves, says Sheriff Jerry Pagel of the Calumet County (Wis.) Sheriff s Department. It didn t take a rocket scientist to realize we needed help.
Halbach s mother, Karen, received a phone call from her daughter s boss telling her Halbach had not shown up for work. This was unusual for the freelance photographer who worked for Auto Trader Magazine, snapping pictures of local used vehicles to post for sale in the publication.
On Nov. 3, 2005, with no word from Teresa, Karen called the sheriff s department and reported her daughter missing. A search ensued. When the search began, we were still hoping to find Teresa alive, says Pagel. As the case progressed, we realized this was going from a missing person to a criminal investigation.
Two days later, volunteers found Halbach s car at the Avery Auto Salvage Yard, owned by Stephen Avery, where she was known to have had an appointment on Oct. 31. Her car was covered with branches and car parts, and the license plates were missing. A run of the VIN number proved the Toyota RAV 4 belonged to the missing woman.
A search warrant was issued immediately, and the car was taken to the state crime lab for further inspection. Blood in the car was identified as belonging to Avery and Halbach. With the assistance of forensic experts, you can narrow the investigation to a particular area and hopefully a suspect, explains Pagel. With blood samples narrowing the case to Avery and the salvage yard, the victim s remains were eventually found.
Calling All Resources
This was a huge, huge crime scene, says Pagel, with 27 acres, more than 3,800 vehicles, numerous ponds and quarries surrounding the property. We had to call upon as many experts as we could. We knew we needed help and needed it now.
That Saturday, after finding Halbach s vehicle on the Avery property, Pagel placed a call to Jim Warren, head of the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation. I told him what I had, he immediately got on the phone and 10 agents were by us that same afternoon, he adds.
The large search for Halbach now had a starting point. As the investigation continued with no sign of the young woman, authorities began to wonder if her body had been moved from where her car was found.
The first day, police dogs tried to find a scent in the salvage yard with no luck. On the next search, officers opened every vehicle trunk in the yard. The Toyota s license plates were found inside a different vehicle. In addition, officers located a burn barrel near Avery s house that contained remains of Halbach s cell phone and camera.
With the scene in full search mode, Pagel knew the next step was to find Halbach. The burn pit was overlooked at first because a large, vicious German Shepherd deterred both search dogs and men. It worked, Pagel says of the guard dog. But eventually, he short-chained himself and couldn t get to the pit any longer, and we were able to take a look. They found what many were looking, though not hoping for Teresa Halbach s remains.
One of the agents who responded was Tom Fassbender, who would become the lead investigator on this case. Fassbender knew forensic specialists were needed and called on Dr. Leslie Eisenberg, a forensic anthropologist in Madison, Wis., to help identify the charred remains. Fifty-two boxes of charred and burned items were given to Eisenberg throughout the Halbach murder investigation, which continued for the better part of a year. Her first task was to distinguish human bones from any other evidence. It was fortunate we had her at our disposal because of the way this crime scene unfolded, says Pagel. We didn t have a body, per say, to analyze. We only had small pieces of bone fragments, and to me, they looked like pieces of twig.
When Eisenberg confirmed the fragments were human bone, we realized we probably knew the demise of Teresa Halbach, recalls Pagel.
Not enough of the bones were intact to reassemble an entire long bone. There were, however, enough pieces of the face to determine the remains came from a young adult female, and the few fragments of the skull fit together to show defects consistent with gunshot wounds.
Eisenberg points out that fire and heat may darken and sometimes warp bones, but flames don t change the signatures, namely gunshot or stab wounds, blunt-force trauma marks or even surgical procedures.
Ken Olson, a forensic scientist with the Wisconsin State Crime Lab, was also able to confirm the presence of lead in the burn pit where the remains were recovered. This lead, he testified, was consistent with that from a high-energy projectile, such as a bullet.
Eisenberg measured an arm bone remain and determined it was within the standards for a female skeleton. She also estimated the age as no older than 35 because of a lack of arthritis in the bones. Not enough was left of Halbach to determine race.
Nearly every bone of the body was represented in those 52 boxes, except the kneecap, Eisenberg told jurors. DNA analysis also confirmed the charred fragments matched Halbach s. This piece of the story eventually put Avery and Dassey behind bars.
A Tooth s Tale
Another piece of the tragic tale came in the form of teeth. Teeth, as easily as they break down throughout life, will outlast all other body tissues after death, says Dr. Don Simley, a forensic dentist from Madison, Wis. They re basically indestructible, except for in a fire.
Of the 52 pieces of evidence handed over to him during the investigative process, Simley found 24 tooth fragments, three bone pieces, 24 pieces of wood and one piece of plastic.
Simley explains the investigators in the Halbach case worked tirelessly, collecting all possible clues, even if they didn t know teeth. Undisturbed evidence and accurate collection of the residue is imperative; if a tooth fragment is lost, stepped on or broken, that evidence is gone forever and could preclude identification, he notes. More is always better than not enough, and it proved true in this case.
Even Simley admits due to the near-cremation of Halbach, he at first didn t know the wood pieces from the real teeth remnants until x-rays confirmed otherwise. When you re looking, it may seem there s nothing there, but you never know, he explains. Odds are, there is [something there], even in the worst fire. You just have to find them.
Once he had the evidence, it was time to work. Brittleness is a real issue when dealing with burnt dental remains. If he feels 100 percent comfortable that the fragments reveal a common source, he will glue them together and even add glue to strengthen the tooth itself.
In Halbach s recovery, one tooth root was discovered. On Nov. 11, Simley received two pieces of bone and two root fragments from investigators. He fracture-matched the root pieces together and was able to identify them as originating from the lower right second molar.
This was his key piece of evidence to take to trial. He obtained both antemortem and postmortem x-rays of the molar and superimposed them it was a match. Though he was reluctant to say it was a positive ID of Halbach because of one tooth, his final opinion was that it was very consistent. When I put one x-ray on top of the other, it looked like one tooth.
Body in 3D
The forensic animations done by Wisconsin State Trooper Tim Austin, an accredited crash reconstruction specialist, proved invaluable to the forensic team, law enforcement investigators and the jury at trial. In a case where the body didn t resemble anything near three-dimensional, Austin was able to use his skills to bring a feel of reality to what happened in the salvage-yard burn pit.
To create this detailed, animated exhibit, Eisenberg and Austin spent many hours collaborating on the phone and in person. Austin was able to highlight those parts of the skeleton so the jury could actually get a sense of what we had, but even more importantly, what we didn t have, Eisenberg says. In other words, someone tried really hard to get rid of a body.
The project started with an anatomically correct skeletal model obtained from the FBI s Structural Design Unit in Quantico, VA. Austin took this model, textured it in a 3D forensic software program and rendered it to match Eisenberg s forensic findings.
Today, he explains, the population relies heavily on visual learning. To help a jury sort through hours and hours of testimony, these animations were able to bring a face to a person who no longer exists. Every slide Eisenberg showed was made into a 4''x6'' photo, placed in an album and given to jurors for further examination and reference.
Most people can think of a person with skin and bones, walking around in 3D, she says. He has software that actually can turn a flat skeleton around, as if it s moving. That really brought it home to a jury.
Pagel s # 1 piece of advice for small agencies in big crime investigations: Don t be afraid to ask for help. Don t feel you are belittling your investigators or your agency, he says. What you have to realize is your ego can t get in the way.
The other issue Calumet County officers faced was the need to continue service in their jurisdictions while handling the murder investigation in the neighboring one. We couldn t just grab everybody and haul them over to Manitowoc County, the sheriff emphasizes. We still had citizens in Calumet County to ensure protection for.
Camaraderie was high, he says, and everyone involved wanted the same outcome for the Halbach family the answers about Teresa s disappearance. Eisenberg echoes this sentiment, saying, Ask for help and don t rush a crime scene. An extra two or three days, doing it right, documenting the recovery, photographing the recovery, that s all stuff you can take to court. But, if you don t have it, you will be challenged. And, you can never go back.
If a case can be nearly perfectly executed, this was it, Pagel says. All the right resources fell into the right places in locating and identifying Halbach s remains. Because of these forensic capabilities, law enforcement efforts and a caring community, two men sit behind bars serving life sentences.
Forensic anthropologist Dr. Leslie Eisenberg from Madison, Wis., stresses the benefit of using forensic experts in complex cases, such as the Teresa Halbach murder in 2005. Most people, even law enforcement, have no idea the kinds of information we can tease from a skeleton, she says. From age, sex, height and even ancestry, bones tell a story.
The important part for law enforcement is to first ask for help when you need it. Set up a Go team, Eisenberg says. Find your nearest forensic anthropologist, dentist, entomologist and soil specialist. You may never need these people, but it s a good idea to have their contact information.
Second, investigators must collect the appropriate evidence all of it. Knowing what to collect is imperative, Eisenberg notes. For example, a skeleton from a child isn't the same as an adult s. In the adult body, she says, there are 206 bones, but in a child s, 406. If you re at a crime scene looking for a child s remains, with the mindset that a child s femur is just a smaller version of an adult s, you re going to walk right past what you need to collect, She explains. The femur in a child has many more parts to it.
Though it seems obvious (the more bones the better) Eisenberg stresses how important this is to telling a complete story. If a person was struck with a heavy object a couple of times, she can tell investigators how many blows were distributed. Additionally, based on the radiating fracture patterns, she can tell which blow was first, second and so on. This is stuff most people don t even know is possible, which is why recovery is so critical, Eisenberg explains. Unless there are enough fragments to piece together, you can t tell a complete story.
With forensic dentistry, Dr. Don Simley, also from Madison, recommends officers utilize a dentist s knowledge. This proves most helpful when collecting pre-death x-rays of the victim. We know what type of records to obtain, how to look for them and can explain to the dental offices what we need and why, he says.
Many forensic capabilities, whether anthropology, entomology, dentistry or even animation, combine to tell a tale. This tale aids law enforcement investigators, district attorneys and juries in doing their jobs, but most importantly, this story is for the victim s family.