Dead men do tell tales
Butte County’s forensic community knows how to listen
For seven days he sat quietly alone in the driver’s seat of his pickup truck. Warm winds rustled through the pine trees that lined the highway. Deer and coyotes crunched softly across the gravel at night, their shadowy forms illuminated by the shifting starlight, but Jack Garcia took no notice. The road he had parked next to was only a few feet away, yet it was lightly traveled, and then mostly by folks driving up to the nearby meadows for barbecues and off-roading.When someone finally became curious enough to call the sheriff, a gruesome discovery was made. Jack Garcia was dead. The cab of his truck was covered in blood and littered with sundries: clothes, toys, empty food containers. The 9 millimeter pistol he had shot himself with was still in his lap.
On discovery, the word got around fast. Pagers across the state began to beep. The news wasn’t good. Garcia had picked up his daughter, 9-year-old Jeanene Bonner, from her elementary school in Altadena nine days before, and she hadn’t been seen since. A search team was called out, but nobody knew where to look.
Butte County’s forensic community went into action.
Garcia’s body was autopsied, which told investigators how long he had been dead and confirmed that the bullet wound in his head was self-inflicted. Crime scene technicians photographed and catalogued everything in the truck, including several items that were clearly Jeanene’s, then methodically combed through the material for clues. They found receipts that told them where Garcia had been, but not what had happened to his little girl.
Finally, in the sleeve of Jeanene’s bloodstained yellow jacket, they found what they were looking for—small fragments of leaves they identified as certain species of pine and oak. Soliciting help from a Chico State botanist, they narrowed the search area down to an exact elevation, the only place where those types of trees coexisted. Soon after, they found Jeanene. She was just a few yards from the truck, halfway down an embankment, covered with a green tarp that had been weighted down and camouflaged with rocks and tree branches. She had been shot with the same 9 millimeter.
As is so often the case with those who work in the forensics field, there was no happy ending. Comfort was taken in the closure that Bonner’s mother would feel upon learning that her daughter could at least now have a proper burial. But for the scientists, medical professionals and law enforcement personnel who work these cases, closure only meant that they could turn their attention to the next most pressing death.
In an existential sense, nobody knows what happens when we die. But in a physical sense, those who make up Butte County’s forensic community have more than a pretty good idea. They are the ones who deal with the aftermath of crimes, who find the identities of the unknown dead, who sift through coyote-gnawed bones someone has found while walking in the woods.
Some work in law enforcement, others in strict science or academia. Most know each other and have worked with each other at some point in their professional lives—they often call each other for help when a question lies out of their expertise. On an individual level, the members of this diffuse community often have little in common. But each of them is bonded to the other in their shared knowledge of some of the secrets of the departed—the grim facts that refuse to die when we do—the tales of the dead.
When a person is killed or dies under unusual circumstances in Butte County, the first person to know about it—indeed, the person to make that distinction—is Lt. Anthony Burdine, the man who runs the Butte County Coroner’s Office. (The sheriff is officially the coroner.)
Burdine, a tall man with a trimmed mustache and disarmingly confiding but rarely seen smile, works out of an orderly office overlooking the Oroville buttes. He has served as deputy coroner off and on for a total of eight years, having worked his way up from patrol officer over the course of a 32-year career. He got the coroner’s job unceremoniously in 1989 from then-Assistant Sheriff Mick Grey, who plopped down a stack of files on Burdine’s desk and said, “I don’t have the time to do this. It is now your job.”
“All the sudden my whole world changed,” Burdine says. He had to learn a new set of laws, codes and skills and was put in the unenviable position of having to decide which, out of hundreds of deaths, were worthy of further investigation. On the Monday following Halloween weekend 2003, Burdine had nine files waiting on his desk, four of which he ordered autopsies for.
“You see everything. You name the type of death, and in this office I’ve probably seen it, worked with it or been around it in one form or another. There are a lot of sensitive cases. My field in the coroner’s division is dealing with families in crisis.”
The last person anyone wants to consult about a family member is Burdine. But he says his method of dealing with families is to be sensitive to their pain yet at the same time brutally truthful. “You’ve got to be totally, 100 percent honest and up front with them, no matter how shocking or tragic the situation, because they deserve that,” he says. “I’ve never had anyone turn me down about wanting to know exactly what I’ve got, up to and including showing them photographs.”
Burdine’s method of determining whether a death is a “coroner’s case” is fairly straightforward. Out of five types of death—natural, accidental, homicide, suicide and undetermined—he looks for “red flags” that denote further investigation. Accidents and homicides are always investigated.
The danger of being a coroner is not just in taking the work home with you; almost everyone who works in law enforcement does that, Burdine says. The danger is becoming numb to the reality of death. With so many files crossing his desk, the individuals who have died can start to seem unreal, as if their whole lives existed only in copied pages tucked into manila file folders.
For Burdine, it hasn’t happened that way. Having spent three long decades working in Butte County, the files that cross his desk frequently bear the name of someone he knows. It happens about once every two weeks.
“Every time you start to get complacent, where it’s just like you’re pushing paper across the desk, there’ll be that one case that really jumps out at you—a kid or someone I’ve gotten to know. Then that shock comes right back up at you.”
Out of the approximately 2,800 deaths in the county every year, about 1,800-1,900 are sent to the Coroner’s Office for review. Out of those, 800 are investigated further, and between 250 and 350 are autopsied.
That’s where Thomas Resk, M.D., the county medical examiner, comes in. Resk, a forensic pathologist who has seen the insides of more people than he could wish to name, is a kind-looking man, a fittingly doctorish type with glasses, a bulbous nose, and graying hair combed somewhat carelessly over a tanned bald spot. He is a modest man, a classical-music buff who enjoys talking about his profession but takes great pains to mention no names, disclose no specific cases, reveal no family’s secrets.
At first, he wouldn’t even agree to be interviewed for this story because he did not want to portrayed as some kind of hero or, alternately, as some kind of ghoul. He takes the position that the people he performs autopsies on are his patients, and he extends the same confidentiality to them as he would to any living, breathing soul under his care.
Most people would not be able to stomach the work Resk performs. In lieu of allowing access to an actual examination, he lent the CN&R an autopsy video intended for medical students and potential forensic scientists. The scenes in it—bile spewing from a freshly slit gall bladder, a clinging and jiggling brain being pulled from an unlidded skull, a bone saw ripping into a person’s chest—are enough to make the average layperson throw up. For Resk, it’s all in a day’s work. He often performs as many as three autopsies in a single morning, yet still, he said, every case is different.
“The default response to that video is disgust,” he agrees. “A person once asked of me, ‘Does Dr. Resk ever show emotion at one of his autopsies?’ and basically I don’t. I have a fundamental problem to solve. I have a person who has died, and I have to find out how they died, why they died, approximately when they died.”
So Resk methodically goes about his business, examining the outside of the body for bruising, rigor mortis, lacerations. He will drain the body of fluids, cut open the chest, remove the ribs, examine and replace the organs. He will poke, prod, measure and weigh, photographing everything, all in the service of finding out why a person who was once alive no longer is. His demeanor is all business when the latex gloves are on, sizing up the cadaver like a pool player planning his next shot, all the while ruminating over the millions of injuries that can cause a body to cease functioning. Sometimes other thoughts creep in.
“Why does a person come in and kill his entire family?” he has found himself asking. “I have to comprehend what is incomprehensible. I have to make sense out of nonsense.” Explaining the results to relatives of autopsy patients is often more difficult than actually performing the autopsies. “This person is remembering Christmas Day at their grandma’s house when they were 8 years old, and here I am talking in detail about how she was exhumed,” he sighs.
When Resk goes to high-school career days to promote forensic science, as he frequently does, the line at his table is never long. But far from being discouraged, he puts forth the maximum effort to educate people about his work. Speaking to a class at Chico State recently, he told the students about his most recent outreach project, educating the Hmong community about the occasional need for autopsies.
The Hmong have traditionally regarded autopsies as a desecration of the human body and an insult to the dead. The Hmong, many of whom believe in reincarnation, think that the body of a dead person must be intact to return to the living world, and if not allowed to return the ghost of that person may curse and haunt those who allowed the desecration to occur.
Resk is sensitive to any suggestion that the science he has dedicated his life to is in some way harmful to people. In an appearance on KZFR’s Hmong Voice program recently, Resk stoically faced questions from a hostile audience comprised of people whose language translates “forensic pathologist” as “guy who cuts up dead people.”
“There was a palpable fear that we were going to steal people’s organs,” Resk says. “The first person to call with a question asked me basically, ‘How can you do this to people?'” Resk had to explain that the law requires an examination of any death that is questionable or curious. “I am the bridge between the science of medicine and the law,” he said. “Ours is a very difficult position. If we can avoid doing an autopsy, we will.”
While Resk attempts to bridge science and the law, there are those who find themselves with their feet planted in both professions. At the California Department of Justice’s Chico crime lab, folks like lab Supervisor Ron Ralston and Criminalist Stephen Bentley experience both the best and worst science and law enforcement have to offer.
The lab, tucked into a nondescript industrial/office park in south Chico, handles crime scene data for every law enforcement agency in Butte and its surrounding six counties. It analyzes fibers, blood and other bodily fluids, paint chips, bullet slugs and casings, drugs, arson accelerants—you name it, the lab analyzes it, all on the dime of the California Department of Justice. (DNA and fingerprint evidence is sent to more specialized labs; generally, Richmond handles DNA and Sacramento does prints.)
Last year, workers at the lab handled 278 requests for services, visited 150 clandestine labs (all producing methamphetamine) and evaluated dozens of crime scenes. The criminalists at the lab say they often prefer to “bag and tag” their own evidence because they generally know how to handle it better than the average street cop.
Ever since that CSI show came out, everybody wants to know if it reflects reality, Ralston said, and as with everything dramatized, the truth is generally both more banal and more horrible at once.
”CSI isn’t any more realistic that any other police show,” he says. “We don’t actually go out and arrest people like they do.”
Bentley agrees, although he doesn’t often find himself watching TV shows about crime and gore—he gets enough of that at work. In the course of his everyday life, he often passes by places where a crime has occurred and is reminded of the horrors he has seen. Where others might see a charming patch of nature just perfect for a nap or picnic, Bentley sees a place where a body was discovered.
When he is on duty at a crime scene, he slips into an entirely different mental state, where emotions take a back seat to rationality.
“You’re Mr. Observation. You’re looking everywhere, and it’s almost a random process,” he says. “You start to key in on relationships, and then all of a sudden you’re getting an idea of what might have happened. That gives you an idea of how to approach the evidence.”
Still, he says, it is not easy to remain detached. The strangeness of the scene often lends a comforting sense of unreality, but when it is particularly gruesome, even that is not always enough.
“I can’t associate, which is good,” he says. “If I started associating it would be like, ‘I can’t take this.’ It’s almost like a [different reality], except for the odor. When things start smelling you can’t detach, and all of a sudden the olfactory kicks in and it just reminds you that it’s real. You can’t make it like it’s a camera you’re looking through.”
Back at the lab, Bentley does a lot of work with guns and bullets. But when asked if he is a ballistics expert, he laughs. “It’s called firearms identification. Hollywood calls it ballistics,” he says. “Ballistics is the trajectory of projectiles, bullets. We might have a single bullet from an autopsy, and they want to know what type of weapon fired it. So just by measuring it, determining the weight, the size, the grooves cut into it from the rifled barrel—the FBI’s got a wonderful database, and you just plug in all your data, and then it’ll come up with a list of handguns, rifles, whatever.”
In one remarkable case of officer-involved shooting that Bentley worked on, the determination that a sheriff’s deputy shot a suspect in self-defense came about in a bizarre and nearly uncontestable way. When the deputy and his partner responded to a domestic quarrel at a south county ostrich farm, they found a distraught woman who told them that her husband had gone on a violent drunk and assaulted her. Upon realizing that police were on their way, the man took refuge in a shed on the property, clutching a bottle of Southern Comfort and a loaded Ruger .22 rifle.
When the deputies entered the shed, they later told investigators, the man emerged from his hiding spot and aimed the gun at them, at which point they shot him dead. All cases of officer-involved shooting are reviewed by a team of experts from different agencies around the region, and this one was no exception.
When Bentley and others at the crime lab examined the dead man’s rifle, they were astounded to find that one of the deputies’ bullets had actually entered the rifle barrel, forcing the bolt to jam open and thus disabling the weapon. For this odds-defying shot to have occurred, investigators concluded, the man must have been pointing the rifle directly at the deputies.
Bentley points to this case as a remarkable curiosity, a what-are-the-odds kind of tale. But the cases he is proudest of working on are often more shocking. The logic is that, when criminalists help catch a person who has committed a particularly awful crime, they often feel that their role in taking that person off the street was worth the mental anguish of burying themselves in the gory aftermath—that is, the evidence—of the crime.
One case that sticks out in Bentley’s mind is one involving a serial killer and pedophile. He worked the case for two years.
"[The killer] took an 8-year-old boy down to the river bottom, down there in Sutter County. He was caught down there because his truck got stuck. They found the little boy a distance away on the river bank. He had been sodomized, throat cut—it was very vicious. It was a case where the boy had been taken from a close-by school—just a parent’s nightmare.”
Bentley found green fiber in a sample of the man’s pubic hair that turned out to be from the boy’s pullover. “That’s about as heavy as it gets,” he says. The suspect pleaded innocent but was convicted and sentenced directly as a result of the evidence Bentley gathered.
“You extract the information out of what’s in front of you, and however it plays out, that’s what you report,” he says. “It’s really neat to have cases that have physical evidence that can shut tight any type of alibi, or in an unbiased way corroborate [one]. If there are very bad people out there—criminals—then science can play a part in catching them.”
The forensic community in Chico has its share of heavy hitters, people who have made national reputations for themselves based on their successes in coaxing stories from the dumb mouths of dead people. Of all of them, none is more widely known than Dr. Turhon Murad, Chico State University’s preeminent forensic anthropologist. Aside from running the school’s forensics program, Murad has built a career on helping solve the identities and mysteries of unclaimed remains.
Sitting in his office with his arms folded, wearing a blue denim shirt with pens and pencils in the pocket, Murad seems oddly bird-like, with sharp, peering eyes and a perfectly round head. He rides a Harley in his off time, yet if you saw him striding across campus, even in his leather biker boots, he would still resemble the very picture of a longtime professor.
At one point, when talking about the various identifications one can make just from examining the bones of dead people, he fidgets with a black paper clamp, closing it on his fingers and clacking the wires around. His speech is soft but rapid as he recounts a 31-year career at Chico State.
“Soon after I arrived [in Chico] there were some bones that arrived here at the campus that turned out to be from prehistoric Native Americans. They were sent to a local archeologist, who was at that time head of the department, and he asked me to write a report on them,” he says. “The word began to spread, and I began to get more cases, and I was of course meeting with lots of different investigators from various sheriff’s departments, etcetera.”
One thing led to another, and soon Murad was fielding calls from investigators all over the Northstate who were having a hard time identifying found bodies. Murad must have filled a niche, because today almost every unidentified body found in California north of Sacramento is sent to Chico State for examination. In addition to receiving every found body in 38 of California’s 58 counties, Murad also handles every state-level case from Nevada.
“Just about a week ago I received some bones … from Alpine County, and they were sent to us in a box. They were shipped here UPS. … When I first started doing this they were disassembled, they would show up in plastic bags, paper bags, garbage bags or boxes. But now, things have gotten different. We not only get bones but we occasionally get bodies here too. These are not just skeletons but people who have flesh on them. We keep them in our lab, here on campus.”
The lab occupies an art-class-sized space in Plumas Hall, where every now and then a coroner’s van pulls up to unload a person who has the misfortune of arriving zipped up in a black, plastic body bag. The bodies are brought in through a set of double doors and loaded onto a metal dissection table in the rear of the lab. Back there, bones are everywhere—in boxes, on tables, peeking from the top of five-gallon buckets. In one corner, a bear skull is stewing in a warm bath to remove its flesh.
Sometimes students and professors also go out and assist in the recovery of the bodies. They try to determine age, race, sex, when the person died and how the person died, and along the way they often make important scientific discoveries.
“It’s never creepy,” Murad says without a trace of defensiveness. “I’ve never been frightened, and I don’t think anyone’s ever been frightened by anything I’ve done. It’s not creepy in sort of a Halloween sense, and I don’t even think it’s necessarily morbid. It has its ups and downs. I don’t think there’s any question that the things I’m more likely to take home with me and think about later are the times I’ve worked with children. To have children’s cases come in is heartbreaking. Nobody likes it. … You don’t have to like it, but the fact is there are people counting on you. You just do what you have to do.”
Out of 11 kids Murad has worked on, nine were girls between the ages of 12 and 15. The average life expectancy of a girl that age who is kidnapped by someone other than a family member, he notes, is only about two hours.
Murad has also done research with dead pigs at the university farm, leaving them out to decompose and closely tracking the process. On a very hot day, a 50-pound pig can be reduced to bones and hide—mostly through the ravenous appetites of maggots—in just four days.
This allows him to demonstrate to investigators how soon a body can be decomposed if left above ground.
“When I talk to investigators I want them to understand that—they have to understand that. If the average life expectancy for a 12-, 13-, 14-year-old girl is two hours, how much more than 50 pounds is she likely to weigh? Well, she probably weighs 65, 75, no more than 80 pounds. That’s like maybe a day or a half a day. So they can be reduced to a skeleton in as little as four or five days. Below the ground would take longer because it’s cooler and the flies are less likely to have access.”
When asked if that’s the kind of thing that he often thinks about, Murad shrugs and says, “Absolutely. Whatever it takes to solve the problem. And the maggots themselves can be very useful because we can reproduce their lifecycle and try to determine how long ago [the body] has been infected by the maggots and therefore how long they have been dead. Other things can be learned from the bugs. You might be able to determine if the body’s been moved from one place to another.”
There is only one place in the United States where experiments of this kind are conducted with human bodies, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. California will soon host the second so-called “body farm,” and if it were up to Murad it would be here in Chico. But university administrators have never been hot on the idea, so the “farm” is slated to be built at UC Davis.
The only thing that worries Murad lately is what the university will do with his department after he retires. At 59, he may work for only a few more years, and when he goes many of the contacts he has made will go with him.
“What’s going to happen? I don’t know. The university needs to make a commitment.”
But then he sighs, full of the forced resignation that perhaps only a lifetime of working with dead people can bring, "What can I do? It’s beyond my control."