Books: Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Tales from the Crypt

A forensic scientist lifts the veil on some of the country’s most infamous crime scenes.


Forensic scientists have gone from nerds to superstars — at least judging from the popularity of shows like Cold Case, Without a Trace, and the various C.S.I. spin-offs. Almost without exception, the protagonists solve their cases with incredible speed. Real-life forensic scientist Dr. Emily Craig, like most of her peers, knows that ferreting out the truth of a case can take years — if ever.

In her new book, Teasing Secrets from the Dead: My Investigations at America’s Most Infamous Crime Scenes, Craig spends some time explaining her unique background and how it propelled her into the forefront of forensic anthropology. She began as a medical illustrator, dated a homicide detective, and pioneered in the area of forensic sculpture. She was such a pioneer, in fact, that her first attempts at three-dimensional reconstruction were greeted with contempt — not for their quality, but on general principle. “We’re not running an art gallery here,” scolded one former employer. Soon, however, law enforcement agencies from across the country were contacting her at her home base in Tennessee with difficult cases. Craig quickly realized that it was time to change careers (at the age of 43) and went back to school to become a forensic anthropologist. She turned out to be one formidable case-breaker, much in demand by police detectives — including some from Texas.

She easily clarifies her job description, distinguishing it from that of the forensic pathologist: The forensic anthropologist’s field of investigation consists of bones and teeth and charred human remains. The forensic pathologist deals with “the squishy stuff.”

Had enough? If so, you probably won’t like the book. Although Craig never dwells on the macabre, it is ever-present. She approaches it with calm reason. Just as she learned early on to verbalize her thought processes to give the other team members insight into her deliberations, she talks the reader through a series of fascinating cases, from discovery to solution (if indeed there is a solution). Even her accounts of graduate school studies are riveting, especially the descriptions of how she learned to rely on her fingers as much as her eyes. This habit also leads to a rare laugh, as she thoughtfully strokes a leg bone, “listening” to her sense of touch while totally unaware of the image she presents to her observers.

Fans of Patricia Cornwell will shiver in delight at Craig’s accounts of her studies at the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Readers of high-profile memoirs will respect her lack of ego: Craig simply enjoys her triumphs and relates her setbacks, missteps, and stark terrors with remarkably little drama.

Despite the book’s subtitle, not all of the cases covered are well known. It is to Craig’s credit that she involves us in these investigations as deeply as in those that have captured headlines. Unidentified corpses are the major characters here: Baby Lollipops, an emaciated 3-year-old found under a hedge in Miami Beach; the wealthy Connecticut tax evader whose body lay in a Kentucky riverbank for more than 30 years before being found and traced; the murdered mother and her children; the mummified remains hidden in a collapsing coal mine.

Craig wouldn’t have gone on her first high-profile case but for the fact that her professor — a noted forensic anthropologist — was unable to travel and sent, instead, three graduate students. That case was the smoldering ruins of Mount Carmel in Waco, the compound of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. The shoot-out and subsequent conflagration in 1993 remain a hot topic with scholars of civil rights, religious freedom, and government intervention. None of that concerned Craig, however, as her only job was to collect enough body parts to constitute a human being and then to identify that person.

Although the catastrophe had taken place in McLennan County, the medical examiner’s office in Tarrant County was under contract to do McLennan’s autopsies. So Craig and her colleagues arrived in Fort Worth at 6 a.m. after an all-night drive from Tennessee. They knew they were supposed to meet Chief Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani but had no way of knowing the horrors ahead of them.

For the next several weeks, Craig and her fellow students worked in the morgue. Readers looking for local color will be disappointed: The forensic anthropologist found no time for sightseeing. Only once, when Craig was near the breaking point, does she leave the morgue, to collect herself in the Botanic Garden.

A local hero was involved, in that scenario, however. When the graduate students arrived in Fort Worth, they had no place to stay and no budget. They would either find a cheap motel room to share or would camp out. It wasn’t until after a full, harrowing day at the morgue that they turned to that practical matter. They were directed to Harold Elliott, chaplain for the Arlington Police Department. “He immediately invited all three of us to stay with him and his wife, Norma, in their home in Arlington, Texas, a crucial refuge from the insanity we faced each day,” she writes. It was Elliott who took Craig to the Botanic Garden when the horror overcame her.

Craig’s involvement in the identification of Koresh’s corpse, along with her performance under pressure, put her in the front ranks of forensic anthropology. She went on to work on the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. For several months, she processed bodies at Ground Zero in Manhattan, during which time her own father died. Her stories of the aftermath of that national tragedy are exceptional. A dazzling read for mystery fans and students of humanity who aren’t put off by stink and grit.

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