Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Explorations Below Ground: Profile James E. Starrs

Ordinary Folk

In the Midwest, a woman with little money heard about the work that Starrs had done and sent him a letter asking for his help. Her daughter's death had been pronounced a suicide but she believed it was murder. "She contacted me," he recalls, "because she saw my name and she wanted me to investigate the death of her daughter, who was 23 or 24. Her daughter was a troubled person in many ways whose death had been written off as a shotgun suicide. She wasn't a drug addict but she had been on medications and had been confined in an institution. She and the boyfriend had a rocky situation, and she had left him six months before. The mother came home one day to find the daughter gone." She apparently had gone off with her former boyfriend, who reported the suicide by shotgun.

James Starrs prepares for exhumation
James Starrs prepares for

Starrs discovered that there had been no autopsy, and that the manner in which this young woman had supposedly shot herself was problematic. "She was a hunter, so she knew guns." But she had shot herself awkwardly in the shoulder, in a way that would make her bleed to death. The weapon belonged to her former boyfriend. The case had a sufficient number of troublesome aspects to warrant an exhumation, but the body had been buried for 10 years. Nevertheless, it was preserved well enough for an examination and, when her arm was measured against the rifle, it appeared that she could have pulled the trigger. Suicide could not be ruled out, but the questions remained.

"We made a presentation," says Starrs, "and there was quite a split in an audience of professionals over whether it was suicide or homicide. There were indications that she could have been depressed but also that the boyfriend had homicidal intent." His own opinion was that it could not be definitely considered a suicide and should, at the very least, have been classified as undetermined. Yet in the end, the team of scientists can only report their results and leave such cases in the hands of a jury for the final decision.

An open grave
An open grave

Another such case involved Carl Williams, 38, in York, Pennsylvania. On November 11, 1965, he was found dead in a small athletic field, two days after he was seen being picked up by city police officers during racial riots. A coroner's inquest ruled that he had died of natural causes, a pair of heart attacks, during the last few days of his life. However, family members suspected foul play, especially in light of the fact that the officers had lied about having seen him. When Williams was found, his face was swollen and looked like it had been beaten, and a police Billy club was found nearby. Williams' daughter and son asked Starrs to exhume him to find clues about how he had actually died.

Team preps for autopsy
Team preps for autopsy

"We did find that Carl Williams had two fractures of the jaw," he notes. "The question was whether the fractures had occurred at the time of death or afterward. Since the coffin had collapsed on top of his head, it might have caused the fractures." Given the poor state of the grave, it was not possible to determine the manner of Williams' death, but the family felt better that they had done everything possible to learn about their father's demise.

In Scranton, Pa., in 2002, there was the case of a man who had died in prison the day after he was arrested, leaving an alleged suicide note. (Because the case is in litigation, he remains unnamed here.) His mother contacted Starrs and, after consideration, he decided to help - and pay all expenses. Supposedly, the man had died by tying a shoelace around his neck and hanging himself from the top bunk in his cell. After exhuming the remains, which had been interred for more than a year, Starrs' team found that the hyoid bone (in the throat) and neck organs had been removed but not replaced. These structures are key to any examination involving asphyxia. Since many of the man's bodily scars had not been documented, there was no clear evidence of a ligature furrow on the neck, the shoelaces were missing, and the significant organs had been removed, the original autopsy appeared to be shoddy and the case retains a suspicious cast.

"We found that the original autopsy was incomplete and erroneous," Starrs commented for the History Channel documentary on the case, "and we found things that should have been found in the original procedure but were not noted. We lifted the eyelid and saw these little starburst hemorrhages. They were not noted anyplace on the original report. They're very important in making determinations as to manual strangulation or ligature strangulation, or both, for that matter. In addition, there were no X-rays taken of the hyoid bone under the chin, for the purposes of determining whether it was fractured or not, and indeed, there was no hyoid bone there. All of the organs from the neck were missing. And no documentation or notations any place that they had been taken for further analysis or for some other legitimate reason... I'm not saying that there was hanky panky involved in his death or it was not in fact a suicide. I'm simply saying that there are enough features for us to go much further in our investigation, and to get more data for the purposes of coming to our conclusions."

It's not always an ambiguous death that gets Starrs' attention. Sometimes it's just a quirky incident or claim, such as the ghostly handprint in a prison cell in Jim Thorpe, Pa.

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