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

Chapter 7. BUILDING PEOPLE

April 19, 1993
Zagreb, Croatia

Exhausted, Owsley flipped on the television in his hotel room and sat on the edge of his bed. For the past week, he had been touring medical facilities and universities throughout war-torn Croatia, lecturing and assessing the scientific community’s inability to handle the country’s new, large-scale human rights dilemma. The recent breakup of Yugoslavia and the ensuing Croatian civil war had left the tiny country with fourteen thousand war dead. Croatian government officials wanted Owsley to help design a system for identifying the dead and determining their cause of death. For Owsley it meant helping families find out what had happened to their missing loved ones. And evidence of any atrocities would be forwarded to the international war crimes tribunal.

Owsley figured that the techniques and protocols he had relied on to identify scores of North American skeletons for the Smithsonian could be applied to identify the corpses in the Balkans. By studying the bones, Owsley could produce demographic data on age, sex, stature, and other physical characteristics on hundreds of war victims. The bone analysis would also shed light on cause of death. Owsley also advised the Croatians on how to inventory and code the deceased, and how to store and process the data on computers. The biggest obstacle Owsley foresaw was the lack of premortem records—documentation, photographs, or X rays from doctor or dentist visits that reveal injuries that would explain changes to a person’s bones or teeth during his or her lifetime. While crucial for comparing and identifying the dead, most medical and dental records had been destroyed during the war. However, the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Croatia had been interviewing thousands of survivors and family members of the war dead in an attempt to obtain before-death characteristics of the deceased.

The idea of examining large numbers of war victims, properly identifying them, and creating an index was daunting. Owsley had no experience in such a large-scale project. But the trip to Croatia had helped him understand what would be required. Ready to return home, he had promised the Croatian government that he would return to their country and help train people to identify bodies.

Suddenly Owsley’s attention was directed to the bright orange color on the television screen. An international news station was broadcasting a raging fire and billowing black smoke. An English-speaking commentator said something about a Waco, Texas, compound on fire.

Owsley stood up and raised the volume. The Branch Davidians, an American cult led by David Koresh, had been holed up in the compound since February 28, when agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) had raided the property in an attempt to arrest Koresh for weapons violations. The failed raid had left six people dead and led to a fifty-one-day siege. Then on April 19, the FBI used tanks to deliver tear gas into the compound in an attempt to end the standoff. The compound was soon engulfed in flames, with as many as eighty people believed inside. No one survived.

Owsley knew he would be needed back home.

Three days later

FBI Forensic Science Research and Training Center

Hairs and Fibers Laboratory

Quantico, Virginia

Seated at his desk, his wavy brown hair neatly trimmed and parted on the side, thirty-nine-year-old special agent Joseph DiZinno reviewed his latest research aimed at helping the FBI develop a means to extract and characterize DNA from hair. Trained as a dentist, DiZinno left private practice in 1986 to work as a criminal investigator doing dental comparisons for the FBI. Working alongside fingerprint experts, he developed evidence from crime scenes and helped positively identify both criminals and deceased crime victims through dental X rays, photographs, and the ridge counts in fingerprints and footprints. When the FBI decided to add DNA as a fourth means of developing evidence and identifying bodies, it asked DiZinno to act as a laboratory examiner overseeing mitochondrial DNA research.

Since beginning the research assignment in 1989, DiZinno had left the lab only twice to work on criminal investigations. In 1991 he worked on the kidnapping and murder investigation of the CIA’s station chief in Beirut, Lebanon, William Buckley. And in 1992, DiZinno investigated the kidnapping and murder of Exxon executive Sidney Reso in Morristown, New Jersey.

He was about to leave for the third time.

The phone rang and DiZinno recognized the voice of Danny Greathouse, the chief of the FBI’s Disaster Unit. Greathouse was in charge of the scene at Waco, and chiefly responsible for overseeing the removal and identification of all victims from inside the compound.

DiZinno asked how he could help.

Greathouse explained that there were a lot of bodies badly burned. They were going to have real difficulty in trying to identify them because of the fire and the ammunition it had set off. The compound had contained 1.8 million rounds of ammunition, 1.5 million rounds of which exploded in the fire. In addition to being burned beyond recognition, many victims’ bodies were blown apart, leaving behind a human jigsaw puzzle of charred flesh and broken bones, many of which were severely fragmented by shrapnel. Used to handling disaster scenes resulting from plane crashes, train wrecks, and natural disasters, Greathouse had never seen such wide-scale human carnage in his fourteen-year career. With fingerprints an unlikely method of identification, he needed DiZinno’s dental expertise.

Twenty-four hours later, DiZinno arrived at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office in Fort Worth, Texas, where a team of medical examiners was receiving body bags full of human remains. Texas Rangers and FBI field agents had begun removing bodies from the Branch Davidian compound and transporting them the approximately one hundred miles to the medical examiner’s office. Surviving family members were desperately calling to find out the fate of loved ones inside the compound, a virtually impossible task. The human remains in the body bags were so commingled that before identifications and autopsies could take place, bodies had to be put back together. And the medical examiner had only one anthropologist on staff. DiZinno thought he knew someone who could help.

When the FBI had been asked to help Ohio authorities solve a grisly murder in 1991, the authorities had brought in Owsley. A plastic bag with 286 bone and teeth fragments was sent to Owlsey at the Smithsonian. The bones were badly splintered, warped, bent, and mutilated. Nonetheless, Owsley identified the bones as the remains of Steve Hicks, an eighteen-year-old white male who had disappeared in the late 1970s. Owsley concluded that his bones had been cut and then broken by blunt force. After Owsley’s analysis, Jeffrey Dahmer confessed to hitting Hicks on the back of the head with the rod of a barbell, then strangling him, dismembering his body with a Bowie knife and pulverizing his remains with a sledgehammer before scattering the bone fragments in the grounds around his parents’ residence. Owsley’s identification of Hicks led to the first murder conviction against Dahmer, for which he was sentenced to life in prison on May 1, 1992.

DiZinno picked up the phone and dialed Owsley at the Smithsonian.

April 27
Fort Worth, Texas
Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office

“This is command central,” DiZinno said, ushering Owsley through the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office and into a conference room bustling with FBI agents wearing white shirts, ties, and dark slacks. Food provided by the Red Cross covered a table at one end of the room. Empty foam coffee cups filled a garbage can beside a cart with a VCR and television mounted to it. Videotapes of David Koresh holding children on his lap during the standoff played on the television screen. Banks of computers and phones lined the walls.

Working off a growing list of names of individuals believed to have been inside the compound before the fire started, agents telephoned immediate family members, attempting to acquire photographs, dental X rays, and medical X rays. The agents also asked whether the individuals had ever served in the military or worked for the government, a bank, or as a teacher—all professions that typically fingerprint personnel. In instances where possible sources of fingerprint cards were identified, FBI field agents in various parts of the United States fanned out to obtain them. The fingerprint cards were then shipped to the medical examiner’s office, where FBI fingerprint examiners were prepared to verify a match. Since many of the victims were children and had not likely been fingerprinted, footprint cards were solicited from hospitals where Branch Davidian children had been born.

As DiZinno showed him the operation, Owsley immediately appreciated the burden he had inherited. With many of the bodies too dismembered to be identified by fingerprint analysis or to be compared to photographs and X rays, the FBI needed Owsley to put hands and feet with the right bodies, a process that would require him to sort out body bags full of twisted flesh and commingled bones. A systematic method of inventorying and matching remains had to precede any attempt to reconstruct people for identification purposes. Besides reconstructing the Waco victims, Owsley needed to generate a profile that included the age, race, sex, and height of each individual. That information, coupled with the premortem records being gathered by the FBI, would confirm the victims’ identities.

Sizing up the task, Owsley decided to use the same research methods that he had learned under Bill Bass at Tennessee. As a graduate student, he had been to many burn scenes with Bass to recover charred remains. At that time, Bass, besides being the chair of Tennessee’s anthropology department, was a deputy for the state of Tennessee’s Medical Examiner’s Office. Since Tennessee operates under a medical examiner system rather than a coroner system, every county has a physician—many of whom are in private practice—serving as medical examiner. The physicians were seldom available to visit crime scenes. Bass became an on-call medical examiner with statewide jurisdiction, employing the same techniques that he used to analyze historic skeletons recovered from archaeological digs.

Through trips to burn scenes with Bass, Owsley had learned how to identify charred human remains. With Bass, however, he had never been to a burn scene with so many bodies. He would need his team to join him.

The following day

Owsley’s assistants Kari Sandness and Pam Stone followed the morgue technician into the walk-in freezer reserved for Waco victims. Inside, gurneys supporting black body bags lined the walls. Underneath the gurneys, body bags were stacked on top of one another. “When we receive the bags, we store them in here,” the technician said. “The process is slow because we have to X ray every bag that comes in to make sure there are no live rounds in them.” Once X-rayed, the bag would be turned over to Sandness for sorting. “Be real careful when you open the bags,” the technician said. “If you find anything that looks suspicious or you’re not sure what it is, tell somebody.”

Leading them out of the freezer, the technician walked past the ambulance bays at the rear of the morgue to a garage with its door propped open a few inches. Inside, the walls were unfinished, lined with cinder blocks. Owsley stood between two rows of gurneys, each holding a black body bag. To Kari Sandness and Pam Stone it looked like a MASH triage unit. Both of them had seen their fair share of skeletons, but neither had been to a mass disaster site. It was grim business.

“Hi, gang,” Owsley said, sweat beaded up on his brow. The garage had no windows, no vents, and no air-conditioning. The partially opened door and the large circular fans positioned strategically around the room to circulate air were hardly a match for the stifling ninety-degree heat that fueled the stomach-turning odor of rotting human flesh.

“This is gonna be pretty dirty work,” said Owsley, his white lab coat smeared with mud and blood. He looked like a butcher. “It’s not gonna be pleasant.”

Listening, Sandness pulled on a white lab coat and latex gloves. Stone set up her black IBM laptop on a small metal surgery cart and plugged it in. “A lot of our time is going to be spent dealing with women and children who came out of the aboveground munitions bunker,” Owsley said. “The human remains are so jumbled and mixed and incomplete that in a given body bag you might have four bodies.” He let it sink in before he went on to explain.

Identifying a skeleton is relatively easy. But in this instance, the bones of each skeleton were separated and intermingled with others. They had to match bones together by identifying matching fracture lines and by relying on skin color, hair patterns, and socks, shoes, and other articles of clothing. They faced a giant task of matching.

“Basically, we’re building people,” Owsley said.

Few people could withstand even a snapshot of the horrific scene before Owsley’s eyes, much less stare at it for days on end. The visual imprint that such carnage can leave on a person’s memory would produce nightmares for many. But Owsley’s focus was the daunting task of rebuilding the skeletons of so many blown-apart and burned people. His analytical faculties immediately became razor sharp, his senses and emotions all directed toward accomplishing his mission.

With Stone at the computer, Sandness slowly unzipped the first bag and gingerly pulled back the white sheet that lined the interior. Peering over Sandness’s shoulder, Stone jolted her head back. A charred chest moved on its own. Maggots holed up in the chest’s cavity created the illusion that it was “breathing,” as it normally would when housing a properly functioning lung. “This is an active bag,” Owsley said, looking on.

Sandness had previously handled skeletal remains, including some skeletons that still contained soft tissue. But she had never worked on so many children—children who were alive only days before. Delicately, she reached into the bag, then hefted out a mud-caked torso. One by one, Sandness removed human body parts, spreading them out on the gurney. The maggots started jumping and landing on her and Stone.

Suddenly Sandness pulled out a toddler-size red Keds tennis shoe. The toddler’s foot was still inside it. “Now look for another child’s foot with a red Keds sneaker on it,” Doug instructed, before noticing that Stone’s eyes were fixed on the shoe, her hands frozen at the laptop computer keyboard.

“This is hard-core forensics,” Owsley said softly. “Lots of soft tissue. Lots of children. You need to numb these things out. You’re doing a job. And you’re doing the job to the best of your ability.” Whether dealing with ancient skeletons or crime scenes, Owsley was primed to provide the facts to the best of his ability. He coached his assistants to do the same. “We don’t have a vested interest,” he told them. “We just have to learn from the remains and let them tell the story. We just need to be as factual as possible.”

Sandness set the toddler’s foot down on the table. A couple hours later, in a different body bag, she found the matching sneaker. It too had a foot inside it, making a match.

As the day wore on, a stray dog approached the garage door and stuck its nose under the opening. Stone and Sandness turned just in time to see the dog sniff and jerk its head back before scurrying off. “Even a stray dog doesn’t want to be here,” Stone said.

After days of sorting and matching the commingled bodies, Owsley had reconstructed the bodies of nearly two dozen women and children. With the aid of videotapes of the children taken shortly before the fire erupted, Stone and Sandness were able to match more than one hundred tattered clothing articles—from shoes to diapers to hair barrettes—with the reconstructed children. Limbs missing and vital organs charred by fire and mutilated by shrapnel, the children and their clothing articles lined gurneys, ready to be inventoried by Owsley in preparation for autopsies. An identification number had been assigned to each victim.

With Stone at his side on the laptop, Owsley lowered his white medical mask over his nose and began with MC47C, the smallest victim recovered from the Waco compound. Arranged on a white linen sheet, MC47C stood out as the only victim without any recovered clothing items or remaining flesh. With a metal ruler, Owsley measured one of the femurs: barely over one inch in length.

“Based on the measurement of the long bone diaphyses, this is a fetus in about the fourth month,” Owsley said, placing the tiny femur back on the gurney. “The fetal remains include the frontal, right humerus, radius, and ulna, left and right innominates, left and right femora, and left tibia.”

The fetus had been recovered with a twenty-four-year-old female (MC47), whose long brown hair was found twisted around the fingers of another child (MC47B) recovered next to her. “Measurements of the radius and ulna suggest that the age of the child is approximately three and a half years.”

Moving to the next gurney, Owsley stood in front of a body identified as MC73. “Age one point five,” he said. “Body is in an advanced stage of decomposition. A foot found in a stocking was separate from the rest of the body. The infant is wearing a snap cotton undershirt and diapers saturated in urine, now crystallized. The waistband of the diaper is decorated with Disney characters. The child’s pants are ankle-length, thermal underwear, with the brand name Young Stars.”

“Doug, stop,” Stone said, struggling to type fast enough to keep up.

“Tell me when you’re ready,” he said.

“OK.”

“An extra pair of pull-up diapers was associated with this child,” he continued. “The child is female.”

The senseless killing of children angered Owsley. The only way he knew how to keep his emotions in check was to keep working. Shuffling his feet a few inches, he moved to victim MC74 without pausing. “This is a seven-to eight-and-a-half-year-old child,” Owsley began. “The child is wearing dark cotton long underwear pants.” With his index finger, Owsley cleaned off the clothing label. “The brand name is St. Michael,” he said. “Maroon socks with rocket ships, gold stars, and the words ‘lift off’ embroidered on them. Black and purple tennis shoes with a basketball on them.” He flipped the shoes over. “And the name Patrick Ewing is inscribed on the sole.”

The next victim was a child less than two years old. “The diaper is filled with fecal material,” Owsley observed.

Stone stopped typing. “Every diaper we’ve seen is dirty,” she said. “Which means every kid was scared, scared shitless, quite literally.”

“It’s a natural human response when you’re scared,” Owsley said, practically whispering. “And there’s no doubt these kids were in awful fear.”

Owsley paused, sensing Stone needed a breather. In order to match clothing items with the bodies, Stone had spent days watching videos of animated children talking and playing—alive. She knew their voices, their names, and what they were wearing moments before they were hoarded into a munitions bunker loaded with grenades, .50-caliber machine-gun bullets, and heavy explosives. The compound had other underground facilities that were far removed from the munitions bunker and did not experience any fire. Yet the children were not brought there.

“Pam, how are you doing?” Doug asked, thinking momentarily about his own daughters back home as he watched Stone struggle. “Do you need anything?”

“No,” she said. “It’s just that you realize these people were making choices for these kids that didn’t have a choice. They were making choices for little people.”

Patiently, Owsley waited for her to put her fingers back on the keyboard.

“I’m ready,” she said.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“The child had on white stockings,” he continued, slowly, “folded down at the top, and size-five tennis shoes.”