THE CASES THAT HAUNT ME
As I sat in one of my graduate classes last week, it dawned on me what the
difference was between myself and my classmates. For those not in the know, I'm
in my second year of a forensic science degree, which means that I've spent the
last three semesters or so learning more than I ever thought about instrumental
analysis (chemicals with pretty colors), presumptive tests for blood (things
turn into pretty colors), polarized light microscopy (really cool crystal
shapes!) and toxicology (drugs, drugs and more drugs) just for starters.
And this is all really cool, but it's all a means to an end. And as I was
sitting in class, hearing what other people had to say about their research, I
wondered if I was the only person with the particular driving force that made me
want to get into this field and, presumably, will keep me in this field for the
rest of my professional career.
For me, it's all about cases.
The most common question I get asked is why I decided to pursue forensics as a
career path. A valid question, certainly, but one I find myself answering fairly
flippantly, to the point where my stock answer these days is that "I always
liked crime, so it seemed like a good fit." But in a sense, that's the
basic truth. I can probably date it back to being a passionate baseball fan as a
child, cheering on the Blue Jays and Expos and devouring the boxscores the
following morning. At the age of 8, my older brother received the Encyclopedia
of Baseball as a birthday present, but I found myself reading the book from
cover to cover, over and over. A big fat book with tons of statistics dating
back from the beginning of baseball. I was enthralled. But soon I realized that
mere stats weren't terribly compelling. That is, until I realized that all the
ballplayers' death dates were listed, along with the causes of death.
Most of them were of the heart attack/cancer/stroke troika, but a select few
really caught my eye. There was Marty Bergen, someone whose baseball career was
hardly noteworthy, but who will always be immortalized in my mind as the man who
killed his wife and two children with an axe in 1900. No other reason given.
Then there was the curious case of Ed Delahanty, who was actually Hall of Fame
material. But the summer of 1903, faced with financial and marital difficulties,
he took a northbound train, got sufficiently intoxicated that the train
conductor threw him off near Niagara Falls, and ended up either jumping or
falling into the falls. Delahanty's body washed up a week later, and the mystery
of what precipitated his death still remains elusive.
My baseball geekdom has waned considerably, but not so for crime stories. As I
grew up I watched shows like America's Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries
religiously (speaking of unsolved mysteries, what the hell did Robert Stack do
to his face? But I digress.) I'd go into shopping malls and stare at the posters
of missing children and wonder why they were lost, and what chances there were
of them ever being found. I inhaled true crime books written by egotistical
profilers, and trawled the 'Net for the latest stories around the world. Close
to home, there was the Bernardo/Homolka affair, the still-unsolved murders of
two young Ottawa women who had the misfortune of being prostitutes and thus easy
targets, and the 10 year old who went missing while skateboarding in her
suburban Montreal neighborhood. The more I read or watched, the more I let my
mind form idle theories. Sometimes I'd share them, much to the consternation of
friends and family. Most times the thoughts would rattle inside my head. All of
them boiled down to two basic questions: Why, and How. Why would someone kill?
Why that victim or set of victims? Why take that particular trophy? How did the
killer elude detection for so long? Or most frustratingly, how and why was this
case never solved?
When alternate plans of possible biological academia fell through, forensic
science came through as an option. Finally, a way to combine my love of science
and crime, and to apply all this knowledge to actual cases. And to understand in
more precise ways the whys and hows.
Not surprisingly, there are many that crowd my mind, make me toss and turn in my
sleep. They aren't necessarily the most famous or notorious. Frankly, if I never
hear about OJ or Jonbenet again, I'd be a happy woman. Talk about media
saturation too soon. But I'd like to share two stories that will probably haunt
me for the rest of my days-unless, miraculously, they are solved in my lifetime.
Whenever I bring up the first case to people, I'm still kind of surprised that
the vast majority of them have never heard of it. Probably because I'm so
steeped in knowledge of her that I just assume everyone else is, too. Among
those as obsessed as I, she's known as "Cali"-though it's not her real
name, of course. The name comes from the town she was murdered in, Caledonia,
NY. This month is the 23rd anniversary of her death, and her identity still
remains unknown. Which, considering her story, is disturbing and appalling. She
was found a few hours to a day after she was shot in the back, then once in the
left temple, and left out in the fields for those to find her. There are so many
clues to her identity-the deep tan unusual for upstate New York, her frosted
hair, the upturned nose, the distinctive race-car apparel. Her age could be as
young as thirteen or as old as twenty-one. I've spent many, many hours looking
at her post-mortem and reconstructed photos, comparing them with missing people,
wondering if somehow, some way, there could be a match.
Others have wondered, too, and given their theories. Maybe she ran away from an
orphanage and hooked up with truck drivers. Maybe she was a race-car circuit
groupie who met a bad end. One person claimed to have seen and talked with her
in Arizona. Another avenue of investigation involved a missing Italian girl
whose picture was a dead ringer for "Cali." And maybe she was never
reported missing because her parents, or some loved ones, were the killers. So
many theories, and they all add up to nothing.
"Cali"'s story has invaded so many hearts, and yet so few. Will she
ever have a name, and will her killer ever be identified? I certainly hope so,
but after twenty-three years, hope is certainly fading. And she's only one of
many souls who died without a name, without a proper burial or memorial. It's
one of the saddest parts of our society. Of course, the victim doesn't have to
be nameless to merit my attention. Not by a longshot. But when a case has so
much forensic evidence, so many clues that point to a killer but still no
solution, it frustrates me.
Wichita, Kansas, 1974. Police respond to a frantic call placed by the eldest
child in the Otero family. He's just come home to find his parents and younger
siblings savagely murdered. Police are horrified to discover the father and son
strangled with the venetian blind cords, and bound at the wrists and ankles. The
mother is found in similar fashion, while the daughter, Josephine, is strung up
on a basement pipe, lynch-like. There's evidence of torture, and a single
fingerprint is found on one of the kitchen chairs.
Three months later, a young woman is found dead in her apartment, also bound but
strangled with further evidence of torture. The case stalls until a Wichita
newspaper reporter gets an anonymous tip to check out an engineering book at the
public library. The reporter finds a letter, carefully misspelled, claiming
responsibility for the Otero murders, along with a chilling promise of more
victims. The letter is signed "BTK Strangler." BTK standing for
BTK would prove to be one of the most egotistical killers in years, maybe ever.
Dormant for 3 years, he resumed killing in 1977, even going so far as to call in
to the police to point them to a woman he'd just murdered! When the
investigation was revisited a decade later, there were possible suspects, DNA
and semen samples, handwriting samples from the letters BTK continued to send,
voiceprints from that 911 call, and much, much more. 1987 brought more murders
that bore a too-eerie resemblance to the previous crimes, so Wichita residents
immediately suspected BTK. Another person was tried (though eventually
acquitted) of this set of crimes, but BTK made himself known in a letter to the
mother of one of the victims, where he denied responsibility but "was a fan
of whoever did the crime." Then, nothing.
Not surprisingly, police still rack their brains on how they couldn't solve the
case. With all the evidence pointing to a possible suspect, how did BTK elude
detection? Was he a criminal justice professor at a nearby university, or a cop,
as some theories have postulated? What happened between 1974 and 1977? And why
did the murders stop? Many assume he's dead, or in jail, or a mental
institution. Or perhaps he was satisfied with the terror he'd wreaked on a city
and felt no need to resume his crimes. Or he was incapacitated in some manner
and had to contend himself with his memories and trophies. So many questions,
with frustratingly few answers.
It's probably not so healthy to be spending so much energy dissecting crimes of
the past and to anticipate those still to be committed. But there's only so much
satisfaction I can glean from Polymerase Chain Reactions (PCR) for DNA analysis,
identifying potential drugs in particular quantities, looking at optical
properties, and matching fingerprints. By themselves, they can get pretty
tedious. But knowing that they are somebody's prints or DNA or fiber that can
lead to victim identification or arrest of a potential suspect, and to a
possible solution of a difficult case-that'll always be my raison d'etre. Even
if I lose a few night's sleep every now and then.
3 November 2002