Learning from the dead

Forensic anthropologist Turhon Murad uncovers secrets of the dead

Turhon Murad stands in front of hundreds of journals he’s donated to Chico State’s Anthropology Lab, a place he operated for decades.

Turhon Murad stands in front of hundreds of journals he’s donated to Chico State’s Anthropology Lab, a place he operated for decades.

Photo By melissa daugherty

For decades, Turhon Murad has been telling the stories of the dead.

Murad is a forensic anthropologist who has worked quietly on the Chico State campus as a sort of detective whose specialty is studying the deceased. He’s worked with dozens of municipalities on the remains of hundreds of people to determine things such as identity, sex, race and cause of death in cases that otherwise would remain mysteries.

Most recently, the Chico Police Department called upon him to study bones found in the back yard of a Verbena Avenue home. Murad, a retired Chico State professor, spoke enthusiastically about the case during a recent sit-down interview in the Chico State Anthropology Laboratory in Plumas Hall, recalling how he and his wife, Jackie, were cooking dinner on a recent Thursday evening when he got a call from the department.

She didn’t flinch when he rushed out of the house to check out the bones. “She’s used to it,” he said. Murad retired fully last spring, but he’s in no way given up his work.

He described walking up to the house and chatting with an officer who told him the situation looked like a false alarm—that the bones were most likely that of an animal, probably a dog. The residents at the home had unearthed the bones during work to plant a garden and did the right thing, he says, by calling the authorities. Inside the home, he stood listening to the police and the residents as they discussed the partial skeleton, including a skull, resting before them.

“After things quieted down, I said, ‘Guess what? It’s human,’ ” he recalled, wryly.

Murad went on to describe how he determined that the bones—“a large part of a skeleton”—were that of a child between the ages of 3 and 5 years old. He explained how the absence of the first permanent molar, plus a lot of wear on the last tooth in a full set of deciduous “baby” teeth, led to that conclusion.

Other aspects about the discovery aren’t as clear. It’s impossible to tell the sex of the child without DNA analysis, since the death occurred during pre-pubescence. The same testing would be required to determine the race of the child, and carbon dating is the only sure-fire way to reveal how long ago the child died. In the absence of those tests, and based on some artifacts found in the area of the shallow grave, a best estimate is that the bones are those of a Native American child who died about 150 years ago.

Murad has many similar stories to tell, as well as others that are disturbing. He’s retelling one in particular this week in Chicago during an annual conference of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

About five years ago, law enforcement officials in a neighboring county asked him to exhume an infant who was thought to have died of sudden-infant-death syndrome (SIDS) back in 1979 while in the care of a babysitter. As Murad tells it, more than 25 years later, the same sitter confessed to authorities that her ex-husband actually killed the baby. Upon examination of the remains, Murad found evidence of head and rib fractures consistent with shaken-baby syndrome, something never before reported.

In other words, the pathologist decades earlier had failed to determine the correct cause of death, and the man responsible for it subsequently went on with his life without reprisal. That man pleaded guilty to manslaughter, Murad said, but he was given probation having lived with a clean record since that time.

That doesn’t set well with Murad, who minutes later choked up while discussing the hardest part of his old job: working with the remains of children, especially crime victims. He remembers each one in vivid detail, such as the case of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, whose murder back in 1993 was covered prominently in the national news.

Murad studied her remains, looking for evidence of sexual assault and a cause of death. Such cases come to him when a pathologist is stumped. The work requires the bone expert to deflesh the bodies. There are a number of ways to do that, including using the lab’s colony of dermestid beetles. That work has left an indelible mark on Murad, who wiped tears from his face while discussing just a few of the cases.

He’s spoken with many of the parents of those victims. Telling them how their children died is another tough but necessary part of his work. “They want to know,” he said. “They want closure just like everyone else.”

At several points during a three-hour conversation with Murad, he noted that it’s cathartic talking about his work. It’s clear that he’s found his career extremely rewarding, but that he also has some unfinished business.

When this reporter suggested he should write a book about his career, he quickly confirmed that one is in the works. Matters of Life and Death is the working title, said Murad, who admitted he’s not made as much progress as he would like on the project.

As someone who has taught classes for the FBI at Quantico, Va., and who continues to teach homicide classes to law enforcement for the California Department of Justice, Murad has plenty to write about. While his book will chronicle many of the fascinating cases he’s worked on over a 40-year career, it also will chronicle parts of his fascinating life: his upbringing in the steel-mill and oil-refinery town of Whiting, Ind.; the insistence of his immigrant father, and his mother, to pursue education.

He’ll most definitely tell the story of hearing his eldest brother, Ferid Murad, and his friend Al Gilman discussing what it would take to win the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine during a dinner party back in 1970. The conversation at the time seemed ridiculous. Not so in hindsight, considering Gilman went on to do that very thing in 1994, as did Ferid four years later for his discovery on how nitric oxide affects the dilation of blood vessels, leading to a host of medical breakthroughs, including Viagra.

Murad also will write about the fluke that led to his long and storied career. When he came to Chico State as a physical anthropologist back in 1972, he was hired to teach such classes as human evolution, not forensic anthropology. Then he was asked to write a report on some bones found along the shoreline of Lake Shasta. That fluke led to one case after another and to a reputation as the go-to source in the state for identifying remains.

“My life has never been the same,” he said.