September 27, 2012

Forensics team investigates decades-old mystery


COLUMBIA, Tenn. -On Thursday, September 20, Maury County Sheriff’s Department (MCSD) Detective Jerry Williams met with members of the media to ask help in identifying the victim of a homicide that took place in Columbia more than 30 years ago.

It was on Valentine’s Day of 1975 that two hunters discovered the body of an unidentified black female in a field off Joe Brown Road in rural Columbia. More than three decades later, members of the sheriff’s department, the Maury Regional Death Scene Forensics Investigation Team and the Maury Regional Medical Center (MRMC) Imaging Department joined forces in an effort to identify the victim.

Danny Cupples, a supervisor at Maury Regional Emergency Medical Services (EMS) has been the lead investigator of the death scene forensics investigation team since 2007. EMS employees Doug Vineyard, Danny Simmons, Jason Griggs, Randall Young, Will Gibson, Danny Fleming, Tim Davis and Cupples make up the unit whose job consists of doing the things that viewers of television shows like CSI and other crime shows have become familiar with — photographing the scene and the body and documenting all signs of death, including body marks, that may assist in identifying the decedent and/or the cause of death.

“We work under the guidance and direction of Maury County Medical Examiner Dr. Harold Ferrell and are the eyes and the ears of the forensic pathologist who conducts the autopsies,” said Cupples. “Our job is to help preserve and protect evidence at the scene of a death, whether natural or criminal, as well as identify decedents, arrange proper transportation and assist the decedent’s family.”

During a conversation earlier this year with Cupples, MCSD Detective Jerry Williams mentioned that if there was a way to get a CT scan of the woman’s skull at no cost, he could get a digital reconstruction done in an attempt to identify the remains. Learning this, Maury Regional EMS Assistant Director Danny Fleming approached MRMC’s Imaging Department Director Pam Williams about the possibility of having the scan done at the medical center.

“We have the technology to help. I could not see why we would not help them to perhaps bring some closure to the family of this person,” Williams said. “I was glad that our administrators agreed. In 1975, I was a 14-year-old girl. When I was told the victim could have been a 15-year-old girl, it really impacted me. It held some significance.”

When hospital administrators approved the project, Williams’ and Cupples’ next step was a trip to Knoxville and the University of Tennessee (UT) Anthropology Research Facility.

Known internationally as “the body farm,” the UT facility is the first of its kind to permit systematic study of human decomposition and how bodies interact with the environment. Its forensic data bank contains more than 3,400 forensic cases. Nearly 1,000 skeletons, including that of the Columbia victim, make up the largest collection of contemporary human skeletons in the United States. With the approval of the research facility’s administrators, the two returned to Columbia in custody of the victim’s skull which was subsequently scanned and digitally photographed in the MRMC Imaging laboratory. Once the CT scan was completed, Cupples and Williams returned the skull to the UT research facility. While there, the two were also allowed to examine and photograph the rest of the victim’s remains.

“It’s now a waiting game,” said Cupples. “Now that the digital reconstruction is complete, it will be broadcast over local television news and released to the media with the hope that someone will recognize this person. Maybe we’ll be able to bring some closure to the victim’s family.”

Williams would also like to solve the mystery of who may have killed the girl.

“I’ve worked these cases before and it does mean a lot that families find closure. This is also an open homicide case and the reconstruction will allow us to continue our investigation,” said Williams. “Once we get the girl identified, we will be able to go to her family and do DNA comparisons — something that could not yet be done in 1975. Thanks to Danny, Pam and Maury Regional Medical Center, we may be able to move ahead and solve this case. Without their help, that would not have been possible.”

The death scene forensics investigation team is on track to have worked approximately 180 cases in 2012.