In the spring of 1983, I began to assist the newly appointed state medical examiner with the identification of a “John Doe”, whose body had been pulled from the murky waters of the Cumberland River, here in Nashville, Tennessee. The badly decomposed body was bloated, discolored and bore an odor that would choke most. Visual identification would be impossible. Fortunately, the decedent bore a mouthful of expensive gold inlays in his molars that would uniquely differentiate him from any other person. That was my baptism in the world of forensic identification.
Barely two years later, I testified in Tennessee’s first criminal trial where human bite marks would be admitted in a court of law in our state. Opposing my testimony as expert witness was Dr. Richard Souviron, Chief Forensic Odontologist of Miami/Dade County Medical Examiner’s office. Fresh off his testimony in the now world famous Ted Bundy trial. Souviron later became a lifelong friend and mentor. Bundy had become the first person in US history sentenced to death where all evidence was circumstantial except for the damning bite mark he left on his last victim. All Tennessee eyes were on Souviron’s testimony since Bundy was now famous for his serial rampage that killed over a hundred women from Seattle to Tallahassee. The fact that he had been employed at a suicide prevention hotline desk made this case all the more daunting.
Nashville and middle Tennessee now experiences about a hundred cases each year where a mystery man or woman must be identified. Sometimes it is an elderly person, living alone, who passes away and sadly is not missed for several weeks, leaving their bodies unrecognizable. As bad as that seems, most of the others are the result of a horrific fiery accident (planes, trains and automobiles mostly), or frequent homicides where the body is mutilated, burned or partially destroyed in attempt to hide the cause or manner of death or even the victim’s true identity.
This was the case of the most bizarre mystery I’ve ever worked. It spanned over a decade and resulted from a murder of a "John Doe" that was placed in a car, burned beyond recognition, while the killer staged or faked his own death. When his plot was later foiled, it took years to find out who the victim really was. It was perhaps the first time in Tennessee courts of law where a capital murder hearing took place and no one in the courtroom had any idea who the victim was! Hence resulted the birth of my first forensic novel, based on this case entitled ‘Walk of Death’.
There has been another notorious case of identification in middle Tennessee involving the mysterious disappearance of the wife of a prominent Nashville attorney. Janet March suddenly disappeared in 1996 and her body has never been discovered. Missing persons departments have worked tirelessly for decades to try and locate her body. Since media presence had heightened public awareness, any time any bones were found in an unexplainable area, our medical examiner’s team was called to the scene. It was sometimes the remains of an animal, but every time it turned out to be fruitless. After over a decade, her husband was convicted on murder one without ever producing a body. Just when you think it is not possible, then the truth often takes a mysterious turn. It proves that oftentimes, the truth is stranger than fiction.
The rest of the cases I deal with present as rape, assault and battery, or child abuse, where the attacker bites the victim in the midst of the attack. This evidence, when coupled with the many other disciplines of forensic science is key information in solving the mystery of ‘who dunnit, what happened, and who is it’. The identification of a child who has been scalded to death with boiling water, or murdered by a pathologic pedophile is one of the most difficult types of cases encountered.
No experience, however, would surpass the emotional scars left in observing the aftermath of those survivors of victims of the 9-11 attack of the World Trade Center. I had the privilege of assisting the New York Medical Examiner’s office in the identification of those victims. It was an experience that I relive on a regular basis. The unavoidable direct confrontation of those families placed many forensic scientists in situations that had no experience in dealing with before. I still have dreams about that part.