Identity Crisis, page 1
The Murder, the Mystery, and the Missing DNA
For Joanna Hughes, Graciela Cabana, David Ray, and Jason Eshleman, who—to our immense surprise—worked case-changing, mystery-solving miracles
Chapter One: Reopening a Coffin, Reopening a Case
Chapter Two: Putting a Face on the Dead
Chapter Three: Twisted Ladder, Twsted Case
An Excerpt from The Breaking Point
About the Author
Also by Jefferson Bass
About the Publisher
Reopening a Coffin,
Reopening a Case
FORTY MILES NORTHWEST of Knoxville—deep in the heart of hardscrabble coal country—Redoak Mountain nestles amid the peaks and valleys of the Cumberlands, an Appalachian range angling through Tennessee and up along the Kentucky-Virginia border. As mountains go, Redoak isn’t particularly noteworthy. It tops out at 3,200 feet, less than half the height of the loftiest peaks in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains. Yet somehow—through some remarkable, unfortunate confluence of geology, bulldozing, and paving—the narrow switchback road I found myself navigating one muggy summer morning seemed to hang about 3,199 of those 3,200 feet above the steep, wild valleys below. My view of the valleys was clear and unobstructed. It was also more than a little unnerving, because the invention known as the guardrail—a common sight along many mountain roads in Tennessee—did not seen to have made its way yet into these perilous parts.
Even the place names out here, scarcely a stone’s throw from my ivory tower at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Department, harked back to an earlier, wilder world: Bearwallow Branch. Backbone Ridge. Graves Gap. One-room churches and tiny cemeteries seemed to outnumber the houses, unless you counted the handful of mobile homes, which appeared to have been airlifted into their notches in the steep hillsides. The route we were following over Redoak Mountain (“we” being writer Jon Jefferson, graduate student Kate Spradley, and I) was far off the beaten track. If I hadn’t already noticed that fact on the high, hairpin curves, I’d have surely realized it when the guy we were following—a local who supposedly knew where we were going—got lost, taking us ten miles in the wrong direction before reversing course and turning up a side road.
The threadbare fabric of civilization clinging to the slopes and hollows of Redoak Mountain might logically raise the question, “Why?” Why bother carving roads and snaking trailers into these remote backwoods areas? The answer came from the heavy trucks groaning down the grades. The Cumberlands might be poorly settled, but they’re richly mineraled, and the trucks—laden with strip-mined coal for the power plants of the Tennessee Valley Authority—were an intimidating reminder of the reason for most of the roads . . . and perhaps many of the gravestones.
On this morning in August 2005, I was threading my way over Graves Gap and down the north side of Redoak Mountain to exhume a grave in a family cemetery in a remote, rugged corner of Anderson County. Three months earlier I’d gotten a call from a young woman named Michelle Atkins. A recent UT graduate, Michelle had heard me guest-lecture in her chemistry class, where I talked about forensic anthropology, my postmortem-research facility called the Body Farm, and a few of the cases I had worked during nearly five decades as a bone detective. When she phoned, Michelle—an avid fan of the forensic drama CSI—asked if I might be able to help answer a question that had been troubling her family for more than twenty-five years—ever since the disappearance and apparent murder of her grandmother: Was the skeleton that had been found and identified as her grandmother’s, and later buried in the family cemetery, really who the authorities said it was? Or might the investigators have made a mistake in their eagerness to close the case and to put an end to the family’s repeated inquiries?
It sounded fascinating. “I’ll be happy to help if I can,” I told Michelle. She gave me a bit more background, and a few days later one of her aunts, Frankie Davis—the youngest daughter of the woman in question—called from Texas to offer more details. The story Michelle and Frankie told me was this: Leoma Patterson—Michelle’s grandmother, and the mother of Frankie Davis and three other grown children—went missing from the town of Clinton, Tennessee (about twenty miles north of Knoxville), one night in October 1978. She left a bar with two men—a father and son—and was never seen again. Five months later some kids playing in the woods beside Norris Lake found part of a human skeleton. Animals had scattered or eaten many of the bones; the ones remaining on the wooded slope included a skull, some ribs, a couple of long bones, and part of the spine. The hair mat, which had sloughed off the skull as the scalp decayed, lay nearby as well, along with a tattered dress and a turquoise ring.
The remains had been examined by Dr. Cleland Blake, a medical examiner who served several East Tennessee counties. The bones had come from a middle-aged white woman, Dr. Blake concluded. Given that Leoma Patterson was the only missing person in the area who fit that profile, he tentatively identified them as hers. Frankie Davis—brought to the Campbell County courthouse by Special Agent David Ray, of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation—identified the turquoise ring as Leoma’s. It wasn’t an airtight identification, but it was the best they could do, given the condition of the remains and the lack of a more definitive means of identification. Leoma Patterson had no fingerprints on file, but even if there had been prints on file, the remains had no fingerprints—no fingers at all, nor even hands—thanks to the ravages of time and the teeth of animals. Leoma Patterson also had no dental or medical X rays on file, nor were there other identifying skeletal features (healed fractures, for example) that her family could recall.
The mystery of how Leoma Patterson had ended up dead, dumped on a wooded hillside, remained unsolved for more than five years. Meanwhile, Dr. Blake had held onto the bones, against the possibility that the case might take a turn or investigators might get a break someday. And indeed, both of those events came to pass: In 1985 a great-nephew of Leoma Patterson’s, Jimmy Ray Maggard—the younger of the men she’d left the bar with that night—confessed to killing her. They had quarreled over a drug deal, he said, and Maggard, nineteen at the time of the quarrel, had struck his fifty-six-year-old great-aunt with a tire iron. Maggard pleaded “no contest” to voluntary manslaughter, the case was closed, and the skeletal remains were finally buried in September 1985, beneath a heart-shaped granite headstone inscribed PATTERSON.
But Leoma’s children—three daughters and a son—were never completely convinced by the medical examiner’s report, never entirely sure that the identification was correct. Over the next two decades they would often wonder whether those really were their mother’s bones in that hillside grave. Eventually, as their own children—Leoma’s grandchildren—grew up, a new generation heard the story of Leoma’s death, and heard the nagging doubts about the identification. By the time Leoma’s granddaughter Michelle listened to me lecture in chemistry class, she’d heard the question countless times over the years: “Is it really her?”
Meanwhile, during the years since Leoma’s disappearance, forensic science—especially techniques for human identification—had changed dramatically, thanks to a revolutionary new tool in to the forensic toolbox: DNA testing.
The DNA revolution had begun half a century before, in 1953, when two scientists at England’s Cambridge University—James Watson and Franc
The breakthrough insight won Watson and Crick the Nobel Prize in 1962; it also paved the way, over the next three decades, for the development of analytical techniques capable of isolating any individual’s unique genetic “fingerprint.” But the path from laboratory capability to real-world applicability isn’t always swift or smooth. Prosecutors learned this lesson the hard way in 1995—early in the forensic use of DNA—during the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. Despite DNA evidence strongly linking him to the murders of his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman, Simpson was acquitted, in part because of perceived problems with the DNA evidence. Either the jurors didn’t understand the science or they didn’t trust the integrity of the police who handled the evidence. Or both.
Technology and public awareness advanced considerably after the O.J. trial, and by 2005, DNA testing had become routine, a staple of police departments nationwide—and a mainstay of television crime dramas. Show like CSI had made millions of people—including Michelle Atkins, a CSI fan—conversant with phrases like “blunt-force trauma” and “nuclear DNA” and “mitochondrial DNA.” Hell, according to occasional snatches of dialogue on CSI, the show’s main forensic genius even had a body farm much like mine, where he, too, studied postmortem human decomposition. So the show must be rigorously researched, incredibly accurate, and absolutely authentic, right?
Um, not exactly.
When I’m asked what I think about CSI and similar shows, I usually answer that they’ve done a great job of educating people about the importance of forensic science and the crucial role of combing crime scenes for evidence. They’ve also gotten countless young people interested in forensic careers; if I had a dollar for every student or parent who has come up to me in the past few years and asked how to become a forensic scientist, I’d be a rich man.
But the differences between TV forensics and real-life forensics are enormous. For one thing, TV detectives always solve the crime in an hour (actually, in forty minutes, if you subtract the commercials). The investigators almost never feel the need to ask questions, because they already seem to know everything. And on those rare occasions when they do feel the need to ask a question, they make one quick phone call and get an immediate answer. Similarly, they get DNA results almost instantly. Ask a hundred real-life homicide investigators how quickly they get DNA results, and I guarantee you not a one of them will tell you it’s a swift process; in real life it generally takes weeks or even months, because certified forensic DNA labs are terribly backlogged.
In fact, there’s such a gap between how forensic science is portrayed on TV and how it’s practiced in real life (and real deaths) that beleaguered police officers and prosecutors have given the gap a name—the “CSI effect”—and almost anytime one of them utters the phrase, it’s accompanied by head-shaking and eye-rolling and grumbling. On CSI, DNA testing is always swift and always infallible. But in my half century of forensic experience, swiftness and infallibility struck me as the exception; slowness and fallibility seemed far more common.
Therefore I felt some trepidation as I negotiated the winding road up and over and down the north side of Redoak Mountain to disinter a mountainside grave, and that trepidation wasn’t entirely on account of the road’s switchbacks and dizzying drops. A rural family, hailing from this hardscrabble area, had gotten the idea—partly from a Hollywood-style view of forensics—that science could now shed bright, infallible light on the fate of Leoma Patterson, who had disappeared a quarter century before. I hoped they were right, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t want to give them false hope, and I didn’t want to waste their time or money. This was not an affluent family by any means; in fact, I gathered that they had scrimped and saved for quite a while to pay for the exhumation, skeletal examination, and DNA testing. I hoped their hope was not misplaced, and that I could help resolve their nagging doubts once and for all.
I BREATHED A sigh of relief as our guide led us down the last rampart of Redoak Mountain and onto a short, straight stretch of road running along a valley floor. Not long after that, we turned off the pavement onto a steep gravel track angling up another hillside. A wheel-spinning, gravel-spitting quarter mile up the hill, we pulled off into a tiny cemetery and parked behind a handful of other pickups and SUVs, as well as a heavier truck hitched to a flatbed trailer. Leoma Patterson’s three daughters stood waiting for us; so did three of her granddaughters, along with sundry husbands and boyfriends and possibly a grandson or even a great-grandson or two. I didn’t get a good handle on who the various quiet males were, because the women—two generations of Leoma’s descendants—were clearly the ones running the show.
The flatbed trailer had hauled in a backhoe, and by the time Jon, Kate, and I got there, the grave had already been excavated and the lid of the coffin exposed, though it remained sealed. I shook hands with the family for a few minutes, then described what I was about to do. Next I clambered down into the grave to open the coffin and see what lay within.
The silver metal lid was slightly dented and somewhat rusted, but it opened easily. Inside, the fabric liner was soggy, stained with mold, and coming loose from the lid. There wasn’t much else inside the coffin—a skull, perched on top of a wadded-up plastic bag, plus a few dozen other bones, some of them partially embedded in a thin layer of red mud that had seeped into the coffin over the past twenty years.
Above me, I heard the clicking of a camera shutter. Jon Jefferson had already begun his task of documenting everything. As I started removing the bones from the coffin, naming them one by one, Jon made a list and also marked each bone on a diagram of the human skeleton.
My other assistant, Kate Spradley, was a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology. I’d brought Kate because she was skilled in the use of a sophisticated computer program called ForDisc (short for Forensic Discriminant Function Analysis), developed at UT by Richard Jantz and Steve Ousley. ForDisc was designed to compare an unknown specimen’s skeletal measurements against measurements from thousands of known skeletons—specimens whose race, sex, and stature were known—and then calculate the race, sex, and stature of the unknown. Years before, when ForDisc was in its infancy, I’d been skeptical. Then, in 1991, I went head-to-head with ForDisc: Police had found a skeleton in a Tennessee creek and brought it to me to identify. The skeleton had some interesting, ambiguous features. In the end I decided that it was a white man’s. ForDisc, on the other hand, was ninety-five percent sure it was a black man’s . . . and ForDisc turned out to be right. Ever since that case, I’d had tremendous respect for ForDisc and its capabilities. It wasn’t infallible, but neither was I, and two heads—mine and ForDisc’s—were better than one, given the pressure to resolve the Patterson family’s agonizing doubts once and for all.
To run the program, Kate had brought along a laptop computer and a three-dimensional digitizing probe—a high-tech tool resembling a small robotic arm—that she would use to take cranial measurements. After she plugged these measurements into ForDisc, the program would, in a matter of seconds, compare them to thousands of other skulls in its data base and then pronounce the skull to be white, black, Asian, or some ambiguous mixture of races. The computer and 3D digitizing probe would be powered by a portable generator, which we had hauled with us
One of the first things I do with any case is assign it a number, which makes it easier to keep track of things over time. Years before, I’d adopted a system for numbering forensic cases: the current year, followed by the order in which the case had been opened. This was my first forensic case of 2005—making it case 05-01—but standing there beneath the PATTERSON headstone, in a grave ringed by a dozen or more descendants of Leoma Patterson, I couldn’t help thinking of 05-01 as Leoma.
In identifying unknown skeletons, I always start with the “Big Four”: sex, race, stature, and age. In this case, some of those traits would be easy to pin down; others, not so easy.
The skull could provide most of the answers, so I started there, lifting it carefully from its makeshift cushion. The family members edged closer as I examined the skull and began discussing its features and what they told me. The skull was small in size and smooth in texture—“gracile” is the technical term—as women’s skulls generally are. It also lacked heavy brow ridges and prominent muscle markings—features common in male skulls. The upper edges of the eye orbits were sharp, the mastoid processes (behind the ears) were small, and the occipital bone, at the base of the skull, lacked the protruding bump that is common in men. If the pelvis had been present, its shape would have provided the final confirmation, but I didn’t need it: The skull was clearly, classically female. One trait down, three to go.
Next came race. That, too, could be seen in the skull. The nasal opening was fairly narrow, with a well-defined sill at the base of the opening—features strongly characteristic of whites. Another white feature was a high-bridged nose. Those features, together with a mouth structure that was vertical (“orthognic”) rather than angling forward (“prognathic,” as in Negroid skulls), told me clearly that 05-01 was Caucasoid, or at least mostly so. Two down, two to go; so far, so good.
Other author's books:
- Bones of BetrayalThe Inquisitor's Key: A Body Farm NovelFlesh and BoneThe Inquisitor’s KeyThe Breaking Point: A Body Farm NovelThe Devil's BonesThe Devil's Bones bf-3Identity Crisis
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