No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America's Oldest Skeletons - Jeff Benedict (2003)


Anxiety as to which body bag contained David Koresh increased as the number of unopened bags decreased. With only a few remaining in the medical examiner’s walk-in freezers, rumors swirled that Koresh had escaped the fire and had been seen fleeing from the compound. Dentists working with the medical examiner ended the rumor, though, when they found a charred body, its legs and arms extensively burned in the fire. The body’s skull was charred black and shattered into pieces, but the teeth were intact, and dentists were able to match them with dental X rays of Vernon Howell—aka David Koresh.

Medical examiner Dr. Nizam Peerwani asked Owsley to assist him in the autopsy to determine cause of death. It was apparent to everyone that Koresh had died as a result of fire, but Peerwani and Owsley weren’t taking anything for granted. They knew that a shot fired by ATF agents had struck Koresh’s hip region on February 28. Owsley had studied videotapes of Koresh holding small children on his lap inside the compound and vividly remembered Koresh wincing when one of the children accidentally sat against his hip. Sure enough, Peerwani and Owsley detected a fracture area with a marble-size circular hole in Koresh’s hip. But it was quickly apparent that the bullet, although removing a large piece of bone, had missed Koresh’s vital organs and did not cause his death.

The autopsy also revealed extensive charring on Koresh’s legs, his left arm, and his genitalia. His head showed evidence of charring too, but the skull’s extensive fracturing is what grabbed Owsley’s attention.

While Peerwani completed the autopsy, Owsley took Koresh’s skull fragments to a separate table for examination. Warped from burning, the size and shape of the fragments were distorted. Turning the pieces over in his hand, Owsley was intrigued that the edges were sharp and clear. This indicated some kind of trauma. Fire can cause skulls to fracture, but this did not appear to be a result of the burning.

His curiosity aroused, he spread out all twenty-eight pieces, which ranged in size from a quarter to a computer disk, in order to reconstruct the skull. Fitting and matching pieces together, he discovered a small round hole in the center of Koresh’s forehead. A bullet hole, he immediately thought. When a bullet punches through a skull, it usually leaves a smaller opening on the exterior. Continuing to reconstruct the cranium with the aid of his two assistants, Owsley discovered a larger hole in the back of the head. It was the exit wound, he thought. Exits are usually larger openings, and there’s external beveling. The back of Koresh’s skull appeared as if something had been punched through the bone from the inside of the skull out. The hole at the back of the head also showed signs of charring and had fracture lines radiating away from it, both indications of a bullet exiting.

The wound in the forehead showed no signs of charring around it.

The evidence was clear. Koresh had been shot in the forehead.

Owsley stopped. Was it possible that he was dead before the fire? he wondered.

Owsley quickly reached for his calipers. As he began measuring the size of the wounds and the length of the fracture lines, he knew this would raise questions. Who shot him? Was it self-inflicted? Was it something the FBI did?

Suddenly he noticed an unusual characteristic in the bone around the exit wound. He was shot before he burned, Owsley realized. He either shot himself or he had someone shoot him before the fire had reached him.

Stone still didn’t see how Owsley could tell.

He showed her how to read a bone. The skull, he pointed out, is made up of three layers: the outer surface, the inner surface, and a layer in between called the diploe. “You see this?” he said, pointing to the exit wound. All three layers of bone were visible. “The bullet that killed him traveled through the skull, exposing the inner surface and diploe layers of the skull to the exterior.” He put the tip of his finger on the two internal layers of bone. “This is normally protected, internal bone, meaning it’s inside the skull, not exposed,” Owsley said. “The bullet has opened these inner bone layers to the outside of the skull.”

The internal bone layers were blackened. The burning of the beveling told Owsley that the bullet came before the fire. These areas wouldn’t be exposed to burning by a fire of this intensity unless a bullet first exposed them. The rest of the skull was only charred on the outer surface. No inner bone was charred—except where the bullet hole existed.

After carefully studying the trajectory of the bullet’s path through the skull, Owsley finally speculated that Koresh did not shoot himself. It was more likely that he had one of his lieutenants, found dead with gunshot wounds near Koresh, pull the trigger. Owsley suspected that the man shot Koresh, then killed himself.

Owsley’s findings became part of the final medical report that was turned over to the FBI.

Owsley’s ability to convert the Waco death scene into a teaching situation impressed Joe DiZinno. To cope with human tragedy, many FBI agents, like police officers, resort to black humor at crime scenes. It’s a sort of defense mechanism that divorces the humanity from the barbarism, enabling the law enforcement community to do its job. Owsley, however, never told morbid death jokes. He coped by trying to learn or extract as much information from a scene as possible. So DiZinno asked him to deliver a lecture to the FBI fingerprint team, thinking it might take the edge off of what had been a very difficult three weeks. Owsley agreed, and agents crowded into the morgue amphitheater to hear him.

An introvert by nature, Owsley could get instantly comfortable in front of large groups of strangers if he was talking about skeletons and the lessons to be learned from them.

DiZinno took his place at the rear of the amphitheater in the morgue, fingerprint experts flanking him. Owsley turned down the lights and flipped on the X-ray box light. One by one, he put up X rays of the remains of women and children he had just rebuilt with his team. Then he turned to face his audience.

“One adult was found in Bag B,” he said. “She was lying facedown in the bag.” He explained that he had opened the woman’s badly decomposed hand to see if her fingers still contained fingerprints. “Her clenched right hand,” he said, putting an X ray of it on the view box, “held the disassociated hand of a one-year-old child from Bag A.”

“Whoa,” one agent gasped.

Goose bumps shot up on DiZinno’s arms as he and his colleagues stared solemnly at the X ray.

Owsley explained that at the instant the adult found in Bag B was killed, she was squeezing an infant’s hand so tightly that she completely enveloped the smaller hand. But with both the woman’s and infant’s arms separated from the hands by the explosion, there was no clue to indicate the infant’s hand was present inside the adult’s hand. On the view box, tiny little fingers appeared under larger ones.

Only the gentle hum of an overhead-projector fan broke the silence in the amphitheater. FBI agents who thought they had seen it all shook their heads in disbelief.

When Owsley finished, DiZinno pulled him aside and informed him that one more task remained before he left Texas. All of the fire victims had already been removed, and the forensic scientists and most of the Texas Rangers had been released from the Waco compound. “But there are still four bodies that haven’t been recovered,” DiZinno said. “We’ve got information that leads us to believe they’re buried in an underground bunker. The Texas Rangers have been down there digging and using cadaver dogs for days and have come up empty. Can you assist them?”

“Let’s go look at the bunker,” Owsley said.