Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Body Farm

Solving Crime

Madison Rutherford, 34, was a financial advisor from Connecticut. He went on a trip to Mexico in July 1998 to acquire a rare breed of dog and apparently struck an embankment while driving a rental car and died in the resulting car fire. He had been insured for $7 million, so the Kemper Life insurance company, which had the larger share of that money at stake, had a keen interest in determining whether Mr. Rutherford had indeed died in the car.

Bass was asked to go to Mexico to analyze the bone fragments, which, thanks to the intense heat, were all that was left of the victim. He found the car almost completely demolished. To him that meant that he would probably not discover much from the remains in terms of what he had already learned from experiments at the Body Farm. Yet he was willing to do whatever he could.

Bass and his colleagues have made painstaking efforts to learn what happens to flesh and bone during a fire. From their research building bonfires at the Center, they have documented how fire shrivels muscles as water evaporates, and how the stronger muscles bring fingers, arms, and legs into a flexed position—"what we call the 'pugilistic posture' or boxer's stance." If that posture is not evident on a body at a fire scene, then suspicions are raised as to whether the person actually died in the fire.

Then there's the issue of the difference between a normal house fire and one that is begun by accelerant-based arson. Typically, arson fires are more intense. Taking this into account, the researchers at the Body Farm burned body parts in hotter flames and yet still found that the boxer's stance held true.

Yet in this case, Bass had no body with which to make that determination, so he turned to other research that involved the effects of fire on fracture patterns in bone at different temperatures. In short, the changes a body undergoes in a fire will have characteristic patterns.

"Your arms and legs burn off first," Bass said. "Then the fluids inside the skull make the skull expand and disintegrate, and the last part to go is the pelvic area." To a group of experts at the Delaware Medical Examiner's office in October 2003, he pointed out that such remains are difficult to identify, because few people ever have their pelvis area x-rayed, so the usual means for making identifications via comparison with living records are lacking.

In the case of Rutherford, Bass discovered the top of a skull inside the car amid charred debris on the floor. Clearly it had exploded in the fire, but he thought its position in the car was odd, because it suggested that at the time of the fire the victim would have been in a position on the floor that's quite difficult to accomplish. It's true that the driver had crashed into a ditch, but Bass did not accept that such an incident would cause him to land in this position. To him, that was a red flag. There were others, too, based on the story Rutherford had told about his purpose in Mexico. In addition, the fire had seemed inexplicably hot—such as one finds with arson—and there were factors about the crash that did not add up.

Despite the massive damage done to the body, there was sufficient material to determine from fracture patterns that the bone fragments were definitely from a freshly dead body—not some older skeleton tossed into the car. From the cranium piece and from several teeth, Bass believed there was some possibility of getting a DNA analysis, but it proved difficult to acquire a means for comparison. So the teeth provided another means for identification: comparison to Rutherford's dental records. Yet even before the investigators asked for those records, Bass could tell from the still-intact teeth that they had not belonged to an affluent, 34-year-old Caucasian male. They were more consistent with an older native of Mexico.

His insightful analysis provided sufficient cause to open a more involved examination of this case, and the insurance company hired private investigators who eventually tracked down the living, breathing Madison Rutherford back in the United States. He had faked his death, stolen a corpse from a Mexican mausoleum, put it in the rental car, crashed it, torched it, and believed he would walk away a wealthy man.

He didn't. He might have known something about financial matters, but he didn't know much about death.

As Dr. Bass acquired many years' worth of research results and interesting cases like this, he pondered the task of getting it all documented. He was now in his seventies, with thoughts about retiring, so he considered writing a book. Unlike most authors who publish a book and then hope for a movie deal, his process occurred in reverse. Little did he realize, when he was serendipitously approached by a documentary-maker, just what their collaboration would yield.