Previous articles introduced a case involving the driver of a semi-trailer truck with a route that takes him through five different states. Once or twice a year he picks up a young girl a prostitute working a rest stop or a runaway hitchhiker and eventually gets her into the back of his truck. Once there, he chains her up, and over several days repeatedly rapes her and uses small fish hooks to peel the skin from every inch of her body. He keeps the skins as a trophy. When the girl finally dies from shock and loss of blood, he picks a secluded wooded area along his route and buries the skinned body in the woods. After a heavy rainstorm, a father and son out deer hunting in the deep woods come upon a skeletal hand sticking up from a grave and notify police.
Skeletal remains pose extraordinary investigative problems. In my last column, I discussed the need to form an investigative team from a variety of scientific fields. In addition to the medical examiner, such a team would consist of evidence technicians (to record the crime scene and recognize, collect and preserve physical evidence) a forensic anthropologist (for body identification and reconstruction), a forensic entomologist (who uses insect identification to determine approximate time of death), a forensic odontologist (to analyze dental evidence) and forensic laboratory personnel (to collect DNA and other probative evidence). An investigator can usually obtain the medical examiner and evidence technicians from local or state government. However, most homicide investigations don't require the services of a forensic anthropologist, forensic entomologist or forensic odontologist, so an investigator probably won't find these team members on a police department's staff or readily available via telephone in the wee hours of a weekend morning to be summoned to some remote location in the woods. It's up to the investigator to recruit, retain and motivate scientists to join these types of investigations for little or no money.
How to Recruit & Retain an Investigative Team
Start with your local medical examiner and evidence technicians who may know of experts in forensic anthropology, entomology and odontology. Call the FBI crime laboratory still the oldest and most respected forensic experts in the world to obtain their assistance or references to experts in your area. Use the Internet. Type in any of the above key words and you will find a host of organizations (e.g., the American Board of Forensic Odontology) and experts in the above areas. Fine-tune your search to your state and locality. Make a list. Don't be surprised if your local college or university has a professor on staff who has studied entomology for many years, or if a dental school in your area has a dentist who specializes in reconstructive odontology. All of these people watch "CSI" and "Law and Order," and the mystique of working with the police on these types of high-profile cases will work to your advantage.
Make them feel important. Visit them at their places of work so they can tell their colleagues the police are asking for their help. Buy lunch. Provide them with a police ID card that says, "Police Forensic Expert." Get them a miniature badge for their wallets. Provide them with a tour of the station and introduce them to the chief. Invite them to provide in-service or police-academy training in their area of specialty. Provide them with a special police decal for their cars. When they do show up at a crime scene, stop everything and make a big deal of their presence. Send letters of commendation for their services. Invite them to police awards ceremonies. Stay in touch with them between cases. Most of these things don't cost a dime, but you'll be surprised what people are willing to do if they know you appreciate their service.
Once all of the evidence from the scene has been recorded and collected, and evidence integrity is established by maintaining the chain of custody, the skeletal remains go to the morgue for examination and autopsy by a medical examiner/forensic pathologist.
The term "autopsy" derives from the Greek autopsia, "to see for oneself." A death may occur due to natural causes, suicide, accident or criminal act. An autopsy, also known as a post-mortem examination, is a medical procedure conducted to determine the cause, manner and circumstances of a person's death.
Experienced investigators are well-versed in interpreting standard on-scene body indicators, such as postmortem lividity (helpful in determining if a body was moved after death) or rigor mortis (chemical changes within muscle tissue helpful in establishing time of death). However, with skeletal remains, we may need the assistance of all members of our investigative team to reconstruct what happened. Obviously, a decomposed body found buried in the woods is highly suspicious, but if no unnatural cause of death is found, can the investigator prove a crime exists?
Remember: In our hypothetical case, the girls die from blood loss and shock. Decomposition begins at death, and rates of decomposition vary greatly depending on environmental conditions. In our case, preliminary trauma analysis of the remains on-scene provides no evidence of bullet entrance or exit wounds through the skull, broken or fractured bones or scattering of the remains by animal activity. There is no clothing or jewelry. So, what investigative leads can the autopsy and work performed by the collaborative efforts of our investigative team provide the investigator? Read on.
Only the reader knows the killer's victim died from loss of blood and shock as the killer used fish hooks to peel away the victim's skin. Any hunter knows that removing the skin from an animal is a time-consuming, arduous task requiring a high level of skill. Our killer was not skilled, and when muscle, tissue and organs got in his way, he used a boning knife, which left hundreds of tiny scrape marks on the victim's bones. Under a microscope, these marks were as telling as a contact bullet wound, and the medical examiner/forensic pathologist determined this was an unnatural death. Also, the removal of the skin prior to internment sped up the body's putrefaction. In addition to identifying a murder although we don't have an exact cause of death the investigator now has a type of weapon to look for.
On the basis of the overall size of the bones and skeleton, pelvic relation to body size, cranial features and examination of the teeth and dental development of the skull, our medical examiner/forensic pathologist, forensic anthropologist and forensic odontologist determined the following:
Our forensic entomologist was certain the body had not been moved after death, but even with observations of the condition of the skeleton, regional and seasonal insect soil habitation and meteorological variations, our entomologist could conclude only that the death occurred a minimum of a year ago, and the victim was probably buried in August September.
Mitochondrial-DNA analysis from bone marrow produced a DNA-typing profile, and dental radiography provided a dental basis on which to establish ID if a comparison can be made.
Now what? What does an investigator do with this type of information in order to identify the victim?
Many government databases collect information on missing persons, convicted felons and DNA profiles. Start locally. Search your local and state modus operandi, cold and unsolved cases, and missing persons files. Expand your search to adjoining states. The FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) has a comprehensive database of missing and unidentified persons. Place a file of the seven variables listed above (race, gender, height, age, weapon, time of death and DNA) in the unidentified persons database and in a query to the missing-persons database. As previously mentioned, investigators should also use NCIC to provide the above information to law enforcement agencies throughout their own and adjoining states. The FBI's DNA database, CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), links DNA-typing from unresolved crimes with cases in multiple jurisdictions and also with unknown forensic-typing profiles found at crime scenes. CODIS also has a missing persons index, an unidentified persons index and DNA profiles from relatives of missing persons, which can be matched with found remains.
My next column will bring this case to its surprise conclusion. Hint: The sun shines on the bad and the good.