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Guest Blogger: Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D.: Killer Pen Pals

 

Killer Pen Pals

Whenever I give talks about my work, people sometimes ask how they can be pen pals with a serial killer. They’ve gotten hooked on true crime shows and they have the idea that because offenders are behind bars, they’re no longer dangerous. This would give the would-be correspondent a “safe” form of titillation and something cool to tell friends.

Sometimes, people just want to ease someone’s (or their own) loneliness. So, they look for an inmate who seeks connection.

I’m not talking about criminologists and journalists who correspond with killers to acquire information to improve our comprehension. I’m talking about people – especially kids – who think it would be fun to write to a killer. Often, they don’t grasp the potential consequences of having an offender focused on them. Not only do inmates know people on the outside whom they might persuade to be their proxy, but some of them eventually get out, too.

There are plenty of stories about pen pals becoming so enamored that they turn into prison groupies. In fact, in British news this week, a young pen pal from Poland supposedly became engaged to the ailing Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe. He’s 72. She’s 17. This kind of bond can make a person more vulnerable to manipulation.

It doesn’t take much searching to find examples where such relationships have ended in murder. Phillip Carl Jablonski murdered his wife in 1978. He was serving a sentence for it when he placed an ad for a pen pal. Carol Spadoni answered it. In 1982, they got married while he was still in prison. He got out in 1990. A year later, he sexually assaulted and shot Carol’s mother and suffocated Carol with duct tape before stabbing her to death. (That same month, he also murdered two other women.)

These potentially violent inmates can hook people by talking about how lonely they are and how they’re looking for love. They promise that they’ve reformed, they’re “spiritual” now, and they just need a friend. Some pen pals want to give them a second chance. Laura Jean Torres offered a helping hand to violent ex-con Robert Hernandez, who’d served time for aggravated battery. Torres ended up fatally stabbed.

David Goodell, 33, murdered pen pal Viviana Tulli, 22. They’d met when she was 16 and began a relationship through correspondence when he went to prison for assault. Once Doodell was out on parole, they reunited. Their mutual affection was short-lived as he soon strangled her to death. Hoping to avoid prison, he decided to fake a fatal car crash. Putting sunglasses and a hat on Tulli’s corpse, he placed it in the front seat of her car. His staging failed and he was arrested. In 2013, he pleaded guilty.

Darren Pilkington, convicted of manslaughter at 18, had a reputation for being a troubled kid. From prison, he put out word that he wanted a pen pal, which got the attention of 15-year-old Carly Fairhurst, five years younger than him. When she was 16, she visited him in prison, and after he was freed, he moved in with her. He soon began to abuse her. In 2006, after they came home from a pub, they argued. Pilkington hit Carly and she fell down the stairs. He covered her, waiting until morning to call for help. She died a week later from her injuries.

And it’s not just females who are vulnerable.

In 2014, Scott Kratlian fatally strangled 82-year-old Harry Major, a former high school teacher. The men had become pen pals while Kratlian was serving a sentence for manslaughter. Upon his release, Major invited Kratlian to move in. That was a fatal mistake.

Then there was Thomas Knuff, on parole in Ohio after serving 15 years for armed robbery and home invasion. He’d become acquainted with John Mann, 65, and his girlfriend Regina Capobianco, 50, through a prison pen pal program. He’d asked them to pick him up. Since he had nowhere to go, they brought him to their home, where he tied them up and stabbed them, killing both. He then lived in their home, with the bodies, for a week.

Edward Andrews started a correspondence with Thomas Jeffrey Brooks, nearly forty years younger than him. Upon Brooks’ release in 2007, he moved into Andrews’ mobile home. They became lovers, or so Andrews believed. Brooks had other ideas. With an accomplice, he killed Andrews, wrapped his body in duct tape, entombed it in a cement egg in a former employer’s rock garden and drained Andrews’ bank accounts.

“It’s not shocking when inmates behave like criminals,” says former U. S. Probation Officer Sally Keglovits. “It’s what most people expect. Manipulation comes with the territory and it’s not difficult for them to project a sympathetic image while in prison. What is somewhat shocking is the number of people who invite and encourage manipulation. They fall in love with an image that an inmate created. Reality can slap them in the face, often literally, upon the inmate’s release.”

Although many offenders do benefit from a kind word and a helping hand, those people who wish to assist (or acquire a more serious friend) should learn the behavioral red flags. Past violence is among the best indicators of future violence. So is a lack of remorse for harming others, a history of deception, a lack of respect for others, and a tendency to blame others for one’s own behavioral issues. Convictions for murder, sexual or physical assault, home invasion and crimes involving deadly weapons all foreshadow a dim future with such offenders. Often, they have poor skills for inhibiting impulses and for negotiating in relationships.

More to the point, what they’re like behind bars is no indication of what they might be like once free. Those who seek to become an inmate’s pen pal need to educate themselves about risk factors.

Follow Katherine on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/katherine.ramsland

Originally posted on Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shadow-boxing/201807/killer-pen-pals

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Cancer Isn’t a Modern Disease

What is cancer? You know the term and odds are great that you know someone personally who has suffered from a member of this constellation of diseases. But what exactly is it?

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Cancer is basically a genetic disease in that something changes in the DNA inside certain cells and this, in turn, disrupts their normal functions. These changes might result in uncontrolled growth and this can cause problems simply by the tumor’s size and location. The cancerous tissues might obstruct a bowel or a bile duct, or compress brain cells and increase the pressure inside the cranium, or erode into nearby organs of blood vessels. Others changes within these cells might alter their internal workings so that they no longer function as intended or they might produce chemicals or hormones that alter the function of other cells within the body. Cancer comes in many forms.

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What causes cancer? This has been the subject of debate, as well as a tremendous amount of research, for many many years. We have some answers, but there are even more questions. We know that things such as cigarette smoking, exposure to the sun, certain chemicals, and many other things can trigger these genetic changes within cells that can lead to cancers of various types.

Medicine has made tremendous strides in our understanding of cancer and in our methods of early detection, diagnosis, and treatment. There are programs for the early detection of breast and colon cancer and newer treatment protocols have revolutionized the approach to these malignancies. The progress in leukemia and lymphoma treatment, as compared to when I was in medical school, has been nothing short of astounding. 

We often think of cancer as a modern scourge, but cancer is not a new disease. Not by a long shot. It’s been around for many centuries. Evidence for cancers have been found in Egyptian mummies and a recent report from Live Science underscores that.

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Beware the Rabid Dog—-and the Homeopath

Remember the scene in the classic “To Kill A Mockingbird,” where Atticus confronted and shot the rabid dog to protect Scout and her friends? A very dramatic scene and one that had played out in other communities during that era. A rabid dog roaming the streets was indeed a community emergency.

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But, I don’t remember anywhere in my medical training where the saliva of a rabid dog could be used to treat emotional problems, or anything else for that matter. Maybe I missed that day, though I doubt it.

Homeopath is a word everyone knows. You’ve heard it thousands of times. But, what does it mean? “Homeo” means “the same.” if something possesses homeostasis it means that it remains in a state of stability rather than one of flux or change. It’s static. “Path” means disease or a pathological state. So, homeopathic means a stable state of wellness that is unchanging.

A homeopath is someone who, by definition, practices medicine where nothing changes. No good, no bad, nothing. Homeostatic. Since most of what they do makes no difference, causes no changes in the body, their treatments also cause no harm. Well, except to your wallet. This is what keeps them from being more tightly regulated, or run out of business altogether. 

But that’s not always the case.

Jonah was a four-year-old boy who obviously had emotional if not truly psychiatric problems. He apparently was fearful of werewolves and would crawl around on the floor and beneath furniture and growl at his classmates. Odd behavior for sure. The proper course would have been for him to see a physician in order to determine if there was some infectious process, neuropsychiatric problem, or perhaps drugs involved in his behavior. If none of these were found, then psychiatric evaluation and care should follow.

Instead, he visited a homeopath. One Anke Zimmermann. Apparently, the treatment of choice under Zimmermann’s care was to give the young man a concocted medicine that contained the saliva of a rabid animal. Really? Odds are that this beyond bizarre treatment would do no harm, be homeopathic, but you just never know. The rabies virus is a hardy creature.

Rabies Virus

The key point here is that these types of treatments are neither regulated nor investigated and are far outside scientific thinking or procedure. The take-home lesson is, be careful out there. There are a lot of folks who, under the guise of being a so-called “health care provider,” do crazy stuff.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2018 in Medical Issues, Uncategorized

 

Coffin Birth: An Ancient Egyptian Mystery and the Solving of a Famous Case

Coffin Birth is a term used to describe the delivery of a baby postmortem. That is, the mother is dead and sometime later the child is expelled from the uterus. How does this happen?

During human decomposition, which begins almost immediately at death, the bacterial destruction of tissues leads to the formation of gas within the tissues as well as within the abdominal cavity. Most of the bacteria of decay reside within the G.I. tract so abdominal gas accumulation would be expected. As this accumulation progresses, the intra-abdominal pressure rises. If the victim is a pregnant woman, this pressure can collapse the uterus and force the fetus through the cervix, the vaginal canal, and out into the world. This is called a coffin birth. This can occur days or even weeks/months after death. The timing mostly depends on the speed of the decay process, which in turn depends on the ambient temperature.

Italian researchers have recently found a medieval grave that suggests exactly that. From the arrangement of the maternal bones and those of the near-term child, it appears a coffin birth may indeed have occurred.

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Remember the famous Scott and Laci Peterson case? This is what happened to Laci and her unborn son.

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Laci Peterson

Once the eight-month pregnant Laci was dumped into the San Francisco Bay, the decay process began. The coldness of the water caused a slowing of the decomposition so it took several months before enough gas accumulated to cause two important events that ultimately led to solving the case. First, her corpse became buoyant and floated to the surface and washed ashore, where it was found. The second is that a coffin birth occurred and her unborn child, Connor, was delivered and also washed ashore nearby. The location was near where Scott had said he had gone fishing on that Christmas Eve day. Locating the bodies placed him squarely at the disposal site. Gruesome and sad. Fortunately, Scott now resides in San Quentin.

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The Recovery of Laci and Conner

 

Guest Blogger: Sharon Torres: 7 Crime Novels That Show the Horrors of Addiction

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7 Crime Novels that Show the Horrors of Addiction

Addiction has been a re-occurring theme in many works of fiction. It is a common human experience shared by many across the world, so it is no surprise that the theme appears in a large number of books. One genre that is partial to portraying addiction is the classic crime novel. Usually centered on detective characters with humanizing flaws, like Sherlock Holmes, crime novels make no attempt to shy away from the realities of addiction. They can take you on a journey that is both frightening and interesting at the same time.

When it comes to these all too common scenarios, many people find they may know someone who’s dealing with the horrors of addiction that are portrayed in these novels. If you know someone or you yourself are dealing with this, whether it’s an alcohol or opiates rehabs you’re looking for, you can get help. Let’s take a look at seven crime novels that show the horrors of addiction and see what happens to the main characters of each story.

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7. Dope by Sara Gran

Dope revolves around an ex-heroin addict and prostitute turned jewelry thief named Josephine Flannigan. She has quit heroin and prostitution, but still steals jewelry from local department stores in New York City to get by. A strange and wealthy couple searching for their estranged and addicted daughter offers Josephine thousands to track her down and bring her back. She must navigate a maze of addict houses, whorehouses, and dance halls in order to solve the mystery. This book provides a harrowing portrayal of the dangers of heroin addiction and how it can ruin someone’s life, but it also illustrates a heroine who is human and has conquered her addiction. Opiate rehabs offer help for those addicted to opiates, such as Dope’s Sara Gran.

6. Inspector Morse by Colin Dexter

The Inspector Morse series of crime novels by Colin Dexter also feature an addicted protagonist. In this case, the eponymous Inspector Endeavor Morse solves murders in a series of investigations. The books were so popular a successful detective drama television series, Inspector Morse, was spawned and ran from for 13 years from 1987 to 2000. Inspector Morse himself is a flawed character, and he is addicted to alcohol. As we will learn later on further down the list, the alcoholic detective is a trend in literature. This is the result of many factors, but the primary factor is likely the fact that giving a character a tragic flaw makes them more human and realistic. Alcoholism is a believable and common flaw that many have, and by no coincidence, writers are infamous as alcoholics.

5. The Next Right Thing by Dan Barden

More likely a novel about addiction than crime, The Next Right Thing by Dan Barden tells the story of a Californian carpenter named Randy Chalmers. Randy Chalmers, a recovered alcoholic, owes his life to his Alcoholic Anonymous sponsor and ex-police officer, Terry Elias. Terry Elias helped Randy Chalmers quit alcohol and take control of his life, but he is suddenly and mysteriously found dead of a heroin overdose after fifteen years of assumed sobriety. Randy is launched into a fact-finding quest to solve the mystery of the death of the man who saved his life. This book provides a terrifying portrayal of the horrors of addiction and an all-too-human tale of redemption and intrigue.

4. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

A community of Jewish Holocaust refugees in the Alaskan panhandle is home to homicide detective, Meyer Landsman. Landsman leads a life of utter disrepair. He is addicted to alcohol, his marriage with his wife is a total disaster, and his career as a detective is fraught with lost cases and unsolved murders. After learning of a murder that occurred in the very hotel he is languishing in, he is spurned into a detective quest to redeem himself and solve the murder. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union offers the reader a sobering tale of alcoholism, a tale of love, a tale of redemption, and a tribute to classic noir novels. This book carries with it a gritty and realistic story of addiction and redemption that is sure to shock, intrigue, and enlighten the reader.

3. Flaggermusmannen by Jo Nesbø

Flaggermusmannen or The Bat is the first in a series of novels revolving around a Norwegian police investigator and alcoholic named Harry Hole. A young and famous female celebrity named Inger Holter has just been murdered in Australia and Harry Hole is called down to help solve the mystery. They eventually learn that the suspect is a serial killer and strangler who specifically targets women with blonde hair. As the plot thickens and more questions come up un-answered, Harry Hole falls deeper and deeper into alcoholism. The story, which was originally written in Norwegian and then translated into English, depicts a harrowing portrait of addiction and entertains with a suspenseful tale of murder and addiction.

2. A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Any list of crime novels would not be complete without at least one Sherlock Holmes book. A Study in Scarlet is a classic detective novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that provides a gripping tale of a murder investigation by the famous detective. One striking feature of this particular Sherlock Holmes novel is the exploration of the detective’s addiction to an injected cocaine solution. Perhaps a more obscure flaw of detective Holmes is his addiction to cocaine. In this novel, Doyle describes Holmes lying about immobile for days and days on his sofa in the throes of cocaine addiction. His ever-faithful companion, Dr. Watson, eventually helps Holmes defeat his cocaine addiction, but he underlines his successes by saying, “the fiend was not dead, but sleeping;”

1. The Shining by Stephen King

A classic American horror novel and perhaps an even more famous Stanley Kubrick film, The Shining comes packaged with surreal, mind-bending horror, domestic abuse, family dysfunction, and the perils of alcohol addiction. Jack Torrance is an alcoholic on the road to recovery who must watch over a remote and enormous property with the company of his wife and children. As time progresses, Jack falls prey to a supernatural terror, relapses on his beloved gin martini, and is sent into a murderous rampage against his own family. There is no doubt that Stephen King has incorporated themes of alcoholism and the destructive effect it has on families.

Sharon Torres is a freelance writer who focuses on addiction and recovery. Her favorite author is Phillip K. Dick. You can find her blog here:

https://sharontorreswriter.blogspot.com/

 
 

Guest Blogger: Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D.: Redheads and Serial Killers

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Redheads and Serial Killers

Several killing sprees have targeted women with red hair.

Last week came news that police in Texas and Louisiana are investigating whether a serial killer is killing and decapitating redheaded women. The heads were discovered in plastic bags, tossed near lakes 150 miles apart. On March 1, one was found in undergrowth near Lake Calcasieu, and the other turned up three weeks later near Lake Houston. Witnesses described a man who got out of a pick-up truck and stood on a bridge to toss a trash bag over the rail. Investigators hope to track him down. 

If it turns out that the same person is responsible for both, the case might be similar to a few others, like trucker Charles Floyd. On July 1, 1948, he broke into an apartment in Tulsa, Oklahoma, attacking a woman and her two teenage daughters. He raped her, but a neighbor interrupted, so he fled before he killed anyone. Down the street, Floyd cut a hole into the door of another home, entered and bludgeoned a woman to death. The victims all had red hair.

A witness outside the second house described Floyd to police and they traced him to where he worked at a trucking company. Under arrest, he admitted that redheaded women triggered an overwhelming lust in him. In fact, he said, he’d killed before. Six years earlier, Floyd had murdered the redheaded pregnant wife of a fellow trucker. Later that year, he’d raped and murdered a mother and daughter, both redheads. Two and a half years later, he’d killed a redhead he’d seen undressing in her apartment. Due to Floyd’s low IQ, a judge sentenced him to life in a mental institution.

Glen Edward Rodgers also seemed to have a thing for redheads. The “Cross Country Killer” traveled from state to state between 1993 and 1995. He’d cozy up to women and ask for a favor. He even moved in with one, briefly. He was convicted of five murders, but bragged that he’d murdered more than 70 people, including Nicole Brown Simpson. Four of his victims were women with reddish hair. It turns out that his mother was a redhead and Roger’s brother says that she’d rejected and abused him.

Then there’s a series of incidents known collectively as “the Redhead Murders.” You’ll find different ideas about who should be counted among the victims, but according to one source, this set of murders started in 1978 and possibly continued until 1992. Some people identify three victims, but others say there are more (between 6 and 11). Most were strangled and their bodies dumped along major highways, as if they’d been hitchhiking or offering services to truckers. One young mother who disappeared from her home, mentioned on some lists, was found years later in a river. Most of the victims remain unidentified.

Many believe that a serial killer is responsible for all of the victims, and some have suggested links to Glen Rogers. Two truckers became suspects, but both were cleared.

The FBI got involved in 1985 to investigate possible links among victims found in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. Linkage analysis turned up significant inconsistencies, such as their state of dress and evidence of sexual activity. The agency also ruled out a victim in Ohio and four in Texas. They did not solve the cases.

Jane Carlisle published a brief e-short, The Redhead Murders. She believed that the killer targeted victims who had no one who might come looking for them. This would suggest that the killer picked up redheads, queried them, and then decided to kill them based on satisfactory responses. Carlisle starts with a body discovery in 1983 in Virginia. The next one was in Arkansas. Several turned up in Tennessee in 1985. Only a few have been identified.

The murder in 1992 in Tennessee that some believe is linked involved a nun. An arrest was made, which undermined any link to the other redhead victims. Since most of the “Redhead Murders” remain unsolved, it’s not possible to know if a serial killer with a preference for redheads committed them, but it’s an intriguing mystery. 

Follow Katherine on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/katherine.ramsland

Originally Posted on Shadow Boxing on the Psychology Today Blog

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shadow-boxing/201805/redheads-and-serial-killers

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Crime and Science Radio Rewind: Dr. Mike Tabor: Taking A Bite Out Of Crime

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This show originally aired on Crime and Science Radio on 7-26-14. This transcript is courtesy of Suspense Magazine.

To listen to the original podcast go here:
http://www.dplylemd.com/csr-past-details/dr-michael-tabor.html

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Dr. Mike Tabor: Taking A Bite Out Of Crime

Dr. Michael Tabor has a long list of talents, from being a respected suspense/crime author, to a doctor, and a public speaker. Beginning his career as a family dentist, the good doctor’s work took a unique turn in 1983 when he delved into the highly specialized field of forensic dentistry. Being one of only a handful of forensic dentists in the U.S., Dr. Tabor became a highly sought after expert in this field, performing identifications/examinations on homicide victims, as well as aiding police officers and medical examiners in the prosecution of thousands of crimes.
Dr. Tabor sat down with D.P. Lyle, MD and Jan Burke, to be interviewed on “Crime & Science Radio.” He talks in-depth about everything from his early background and how he got into the field of forensic odontology, as well as his work on some high-profile cases, such as the autopsy of James Earl Ray. He speaks poignantly about his work helping to identify victims of the 9/11 tragedy, and tells readers what to expect from his upcoming titles. 

D.P. Lyle, MD (D.P.L.): Welcome Mike. Being a forensic odontologist (which is a big word for dentist), can you tell people what attracted you to this field in the first place?

Dr. Michael Tabor (M.T.): In addition to dentistry I also have a passion for football, and for 25 years I have been a back judge for high school football in Tennessee. One day, while in my officiating role, our new state medical examiner at half-time came up and said, “You know, I’ve got an interesting body that’s just been pulled out of the Cumberland River here in downtown Nashville that has numerous gold fillings in their teeth, and I have no clue where to begin. Would you like to help me?” And 20-odd years later, here we are on “Crime & Science” radio. True story.

D.P.L.: There’s a big difference between doing fillings and extractions in the office and then moving into forensic odontology, did you have any special training (like they do now) at that time; or did you just kind of learn by the seat of your pants the things you needed to know and how you were going to approach this field?

M.T.: Actually, there weren’t many training programs at that particular time. I had the good fortune, however, to be mentored by three good friends—all of whom were giants in the field then. One, Doctor Richard Souviron, in particular, I had the pleasure of meeting when he served as my opposing expert witness in the first bite mark case ever admitted into a Tennessee court of law. This was just a few years after he testified in the Ted Bundy case, which literally made this “David vs. Goliath” in the Nashville court case. What was strange about it is that afterwards we became the best of friends and have enjoyed a great relationship since then. 

Jan Burke (J.B.): You’ve obviously had a long and storied career. I wanted to bring up that you have served as a past president of the American Board of Forensic Odontology. It is clear you’re dedicated to high standards in your field. Could you tell us a bit about the recent study/report by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences that spoke about how to maintain these high standards? In other words, what’s in and what’s out in forensic odontology? 

M.T.: I have to start by saying I certainly respect the Academy and certainly appreciate all suggestions they have for the field of forensic odontology. It’s important to note that forensic odontology is not a specialty of dentistry, it is a specialty of forensic science. When it comes to jurisprudence, everyone from toxicologists to document examiners…we all want to get it right. We want the best possible chance of solving a mystery using our specific field. We have many recognized disciplines within the realm of forensic science and anytime the American Academy comes out with concerns, ideas or suggestions the American Board of Forensic Odontology, as well as the odontology section of the Academy, pay very close attention. 

We’ve made several changes when it comes to the ways our diplomates consider and come up with their opinions for courtroom testimony. We’ve seen roughly 10 cases or so during the last few years that involve people on death row, who have been found guilty of a capital offense, have their conviction overturned since the refinement of DNA analysis. In other words, the wrong opinion was given at the onset and a person was falsely imprisoned as a result. We still maintain that bite mark analysis, when used by a properly vetted expert—and that’s the key term right there, a properly vetted expert witness—adds value to the case. Yet, we are going a step further now, because we want to make sure that we don’t have ten more of these cases appear over the next decade. 

I think one thing that happens, take The Innocence Project, for example, is that people are quite quick to point out these ten cases and fail to mention scores and scores of other cases where bite mark evidence was used properly,  and as a result was a key tool in achieving the right verdict that the jurors came up with. We pride ourselves in knowing this very small niche of forensic science, but there are lots of other witnesses, evidence, and factors that jurors have to consider. It was not the forensic dentist that put this person on death row. Jurors will also review the medical examiner report and one side will have an expert stating that a death was the result of, say…shaken baby syndrome, while another well-respected expert offers the opinion that it is not SBS but death by SIDS, for example. Then jurors have to decide if this is a homicide, suicide, and the list goes on. We recommend that every board certified forensic odontologist seeks a second opinion before trial, and we’re really trying to make sure we adhere to the recommendations and principles the Academy has suggested.

D.P.L.: Can you speak about what is required in order to enter the field?

M.T.: Interestingly enough, only knowledge in the profession of dentistry and an interest in the field of forensic odontology is required. Most of my training, and even up to this day, a lot of it has been on-the-job training. I am proud to announce for the first time however, on this show, that we are getting ready to change that because the field is linking arms with forensic anthropology. And, what better place to have it done than at The Body Farm in the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Starting soon we will offer the first post-graduate degree program in the U.S. where you can earn a masters degree in forensic human identification. We are actually linking arms because we do have a lot of overlap between the fields; forensic anthropology focuses more on age, sex, and race, whereas odontology deals with comparing a known to an unknown, which is how forensic dentistry really started out. There are 32 teeth in the human body and each tooth has five sides, the possible combinations according to what the math professors tell me is five to the thirty-second power which equals a number bigger than the actual number of people living on earth. So let’s just say that the field is going to be around a long time. 

As these programs grow and develop, hopefully forensic dentistry will increase and there will be more courses available to take. Right now we have one in San Antonio and another in Detroit, with a new one starting in Las Vegas. But this in Knoxville will be the first of its kind, and not just for dentists. This is available to dental hygienists, crime scene investigators—anyone with an undergrad degree who wants to further their education in human cadaver identification. We are pretty excited about it.

J.B.: That is worth being excited over, and we are honored that you chose to announce it here. Now, some people are not really sure what a forensic odontologist does, so can you give us a brief overview of what the work entails?

M.T.: I’d be happy to. First off, most all major cities are affiliated with or have a certified forensic odontologist on staff. We only have 105 in the U.S., so there aren’t a whole lot to go around. But the National Board of Medical Examiners, which is the credentialing service for all medical examiner offices in the U.S., recognize the importance of having a forensic odontologist in their morgues. As a result, when each office has to get recertified, one of the points the Board checks on is whether the office is affiliated with a board certified forensic odontologist. If they’re not, they get a ‘ding’ and you can only have so many of those before losing your credentials. It’s like a medical school not being accredited with the AMA; they might just as well not exist.

When it comes to the job requirements, we compare knowns to unknowns. Basically, there are three ways to identify a person: DNA, fingerprints, and dental records. So, say we have a body brought into the morgue. We have to know from the investigator, before we can lend some credible info, who they think the person might be. If they have no idea, we start at the end of the fence and work backwards by making a chart of each of the 32 teeth, and each of those five sides and record any type of fillings there are, what surfaces have been fixed or altered, etc. We x-ray and photograph and make a complete record, just like when it’s a live patient. Our next step is to enter this information into NCIC or NAMUS. These are national databases, with NAMUS being accessible to the general public and NCIC being for law enforcement officials only. These databases record any and all distinguishing characteristics on a body that is currently being held in medical examiner’s offices. We keypunch in our data which goes into national and international databases and searches for a match. It also calls up information on missing persons across the country to attempt to locate a match. 

More often than not we are trying to identify victims from auto accidents, house fires, plane crashes, etc., where the body has been harmed to the point where age, sex and race cannot be determined. That’s where dentistry becomes so valuable. Teeth are virtually indestructible, yet even if a body has been lying on the bottom of the ocean for a hundred years, when they are brought up the teeth will look exactly the same as the day they died. You can’t say that for fingerprints or DNA. We can compare the knowns that come from teeth analysis with the unknowns and use this to identify a victim.

D.P.L.: You mentioned anthropologists earlier. Are both forensic dentists and forensic anthropologists called out to a crime scene at same time? Do they work in tandem? 

M.T.: When it comes to bones that are discovered, say, in the woods, often the anthropologist is called upon first. They are such bloodhounds they can find things no one else can. We wait and take the info the anthropologist gathers, such as the person was six-foot-two, African American, male, etc., and we will use that to try and match their data with a missing person. From then on, we work together. 

Along these lines, the book I wrote is the story of the most bizarre case I ever worked on in my career, which was actually at The Body Farm in Tennessee. I was working there with Dr. Bill Bass (the founder), and Dr. Murray Marx, and his contingency. It was there that they were actually able to develop the age, race, and sex characteristics of a body yet it still remained a John Doe for decades. At the farm what they developed was a system/program called TSD (AKA: time since death.) They have studied and honed their skills for identification by taking a body that has been donated to science and placing that body in a field (inside a protected area, of course), subjecting the body to all environmental conditions. They study and photograph the body on a regular basis to determine even more information such as, what it looks like in the decomposition process (i.e., the insects, the maturation levels of the insect larvae). They record wind speeds, humidity, temperature changes, etc., and from all that they are able to provide a very valuable tool to investigators; in addition to the norms of age, sex, and race, they are able to determine how long this body (or discovered bones) has been there. The time since death is very important to everyone from investigators to crime writers. 

J.B.: You were involved in identifying the 9/11 World Trade Center victims. How did it come about that you got involved with that? What did you do as part of the team? 

M.T.: That was the year I was serving as president of the American Board of Forensic Odontology. A member who held the same position in NY that I held in TN spoke to me and addressed the enormity of the aftermath. Death investigations were going on just like always, before and after 9/11, and these facilities were quite taxed. Quite a large percentage of experts volunteered their time to assist New York’s medical examiner with this task of trying to identify the victims. 

We first worked to accumulate accurate flight manifests so we could attain various medical and dental records for those on board the planes. When you reach a number of victims north of 25 to 30, you need to use a computerized system to organize records and data. We utilized a software program called WIN ID that was written by one of our diplomates, Jim McGivney. We entered all the information we collected and the antemortem (before death) records into the database, and began identifying remains. We had information from the manifests, port authority records, data given from wives and husbands whose significant others didn’t come home that night, firefighters and police officer records, etc. We also had people who jumped from the buildings, choosing to end their lives instead of having to experience the inferno that would have taken them. We ended up identifying approximately one-third, 1,000 out of the 3,000 who died that day, with many being identified from just the dental records. 

We had rehearsed being on what is called a Mass Disaster Dental ID team, and learned how we would grid off an area and how we would set up ID logistics if a 747 went down and hundreds of people perished. There were days, if you remember, where we didn’t know if we were going to find 3,000 or 30,000 people in the aftermath. In fact, if the planes had hit 30 minutes later, the total would have been even more horrific. It took us approximately 11 months to a year before we had the chance to sift through each bit of evidence and enter it into the postmortem database and let the computer do its’ work. Amazingly, we were pleased to be able to identify a third of them. People will ask, “How come the other 2,000 weren’t identified?” But, to be honest, some just didn’t even exist; they were vaporized by the crash. And, as you might imagine, there was a lot of comingling of remains…but we were (and are) just trying to get it right. To put this into perspective, jumbo jets have two black boxes on board. These are nearly indestructible and yet no black boxes were recovered. 

J.B.: The 9/11 tragedy was horrific. How did it effect you personally?

M.T.: Well, I have given about two or three talks a month for the past 13/14 years. Yet it took quite a while for me to even be able to talk about this without getting choked up. We have little to no training when it comes to dealing with the emotional impact of such a tragedy. I have seen lots of things in my 39-something years and most have been pretty ugly. But I never saw or experienced anything like 9/11 that stayed with me, and still won’t go completely away. 

Buddies would talk about PTSD and their time in Vietnam and I had a hard time getting my arms wrapped around that emotionally. But after spending time at Ground Zero, I can say that it is for real. We were not used to dealing with this; having to walk through a sea of people holding up pictures of their missing husbands, wives, or their only sons and daughters…people coming up to us, pulling on our arms and saying, “Please help me.” 

After our work was done, we were told to prepare ourselves for when we returned home and our close family members commented on changes they saw in us, changes in our spirit. And they were exactly right. They did send us all through a psychological debriefing workshop before we left. Part of it to address the enormity of the situation and part was to help us deal with the emotional aspects that we were ill-equipped to deal with. The last thing is that red, white, and blue that still flutters among all of us and having to deal with the fact that a foreign entity came to our country and did that to us. 

I had a dream many times in that first year after 9/11 where I was driving on a certain road in Nashville and saw a 727 going, nose-down, behind a hotel. I woke up when it hit the ground and exploded. This is a prime example of PTSD. Like opening the body bag and seeing the firefighter still clutching his axe…it gets to you.

D.P.L.: Sobering. Thank you. I hope everyone appreciates you sharing that information. Moving on to your writing, you worked with Dr. Cyril Wecht on a case with quite an infamous name attached to it, that of James Earl Ray. 

M.T.: I’ve actually worked on two cases with Cyril. My third book “Grave Mistake” will focus on one of those. I think the one you’re referring to, however, is the forensic autopsy of Ray. In a nutshell, Ray was serving his life sentence after confessing, recanting, re-confessing and re-recanting to killing Martin Luther King, Jr. 

He actually died in prison of Hepatitis C that he had gotten from being stabbed by a fellow prisoner with a broken Coke bottle. Tennessee law states that if you die in prison you have to have an autopsy done by the state medical examiner. I was called one day by our local M.E. and asked to come down to the office. I thought it was a little odd, needing me to confirm the identity of someone everyone already knew. Of course, just a few years before, there were so many naysayers and conspiracy theorists dwelling on the JFK assassination that a court order was finally gotten to exhume the body of Oswald so it could be re-identified using forensic dentistry. Oswald was in the military and had records on file, so this wasn’t a difficult process. Ray’s family had decided that as soon as the autopsy was complete, they would cremate the body. The family hired Dr. Wecht to oversee the autopsy on their behalf.

The second case I worked with him on was a tragic accident; a van holding six prisoners was in an accident and all were burned alive when the van caught fire. A wayward medical examiner ended up misidentifying bodies based on seat locations. These victims lived all over the United States, so Wecht and I worked together to sort out which body really belonged to which family. It is a true puzzle that we had to solve backwards. It was a wonderful experience getting to know him, work with him, and I cherish the time I get to spend learning more from him.

D.P.L.: Time to talk about the book. Please tell us about “Walk of Death.”

M.T.: “Walk of Death” came from me finding my most favorite thing to do in the world, write down exactly what happened on a case. 

I had a cold case murder that I worked on for over a decade before finally solving. It began in 1998 and wasn’t solved until Christmas of 2010. That’s when my wife told me, “You’re gonna write a book on this.” It was actually bizarre. You cannot make this stuff up. The case involved a staged death utilizing a pair of killers, a hitchhiker, and a life insurance policy. The plan gets a little sloppy, and law enforcement does not know who is buried in a grave. The next ten years are spent trying to put a name with an unknown face. 

This was the first time in a Tennessee court of law (and I believe in the entire U.S.) where a jury has to find someone guilty, without anyone in the courtroom knowing who the victim is. That will get you an upside-down jury. After all, you usually have someone weeping, yelling, angry about killing “Uncle Joe,” and talking about the family. Here, you have a body but it’s very hard to get emotional sympathy from jurors. Using forensic dentistry helped solve the crime, but I can’t tell you the whole thing or you won’t want to read the story. 

J.B.: And you are now working on your third title?

M.T.: Actually, I just finished the second one which is called “Out of the Darkness” and involves a bite mark case in a murder trial that I testified at in Arkansas, and the controversy around the evidentiary value of that bite mark evidence in this particular homicide. The third, based on the case with Dr. Wecht, will be “Grave Mistake.” 

Talk about sending readers running to the library. Dr. Michael Tabor is an unforgettable interview; a man whose background and incredible work on cases has not only created amazing thrillers, but has also made the realm of forensic odontology one of the most fascinating to learn about. For more information, check out http://www.drmiketabor.com or listen to other fantastic interviews from “Crime & Science Radio” with Doug Lyle, MD. and Jan Burke at https://crimeandscienceradio.com.  

Originally aired on Crime & Science Radio; July 2014. 

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