For any homicide investigator, it is the unsolved cases that never leave your mind. For almost nine years I never passed the crime scene of the inn without wondering who the monstrous individual was that killed a defenseless woman.
Sue Behrens was a forty-four year-old woman, working an extra job at a Red Roof Inn as a night clerk. Being a night clerk was relatively safe since the desk was behind bulletproof glass and the door to the desk was always secured at night. But one night Sue made an error in judgment that would end her life in the most horrible way.
After I arrived at the scene and discussed the protocol for processing the case with my detective, I looked at the fortress-like protection of the front desk. It was clear that Sue had allowed someone she most likely knew into that protected space. The person then beat, tortured her and then stabbed her to death, leaving a macabre painting of blood on canvas of the room.
Her desk had every conceivable pattern a blood pattern specialist studies: transfers, castoffs, medium impact, pooling and droplet. Each pattern showed movement and struggle. At the center of the struggle was the phone. The receiver was off, but there was a concentration of blood over the buttons “911”. I could envision her blood-soaked hands flailing to dial those numbers, even going so far as to grab the blade of the knife in order to defend herself. We catalogued 54 cuts to the face, 43 cuts to the hands, and marks of strangulation and abrasions testifying to her struggle. This was beyond robbery.
A good investigator relies on collecting data (evidence), processing the evidence and then asking the question, “why?” This process is called Crime Scene Reconstruction. It goes beyond identifying the evidence; it gives meaning to the evidence and animates the crime scene. It sequences events, tells the story of the victim and the actions and emotions of the perpetrator. To reconstruct the scene, the forensic team relies heavily on teamwork and communication. By sharing our individual areas of expertise, we tell the story of the deceased and preserve the facts so that they are admissible in court.
It took nearly a decade, but the killer’s scorned ex-wife finally provided the testimony needed to convict the murderer. Life and death can turn on a dime. In a moment of trust Sue let someone into her protected space, a seemingly small decision that cost her everything.
The case is closed. . . but there’s always another story.
The body was discovered in the backseat footwell of a full-size sedan. It looked like a Lincoln sedan but it was hard to say for sure. The charred remains were of a man of slight build, about 5’8” in height. We only knew the height from information received by the police. The most prominent artifacts were a series of broken ribs sticking out of the debris in the floor. The car interior and exterior were incinerated right down to the metal.
Most bodies we recover from fire are in what is called a “pugilistic position” which is sort of a boxer’s stance. The hands of the body are drawn up towards the chest like a boxer protecting himself. The legs are always bent at the knees.
His face stood out; it almost resembled the mask of the Phantom of the Opera. The right side had much less thermal destruction, while the left showed skull and scar tissue. The skull itself was fractured but we could easily determine that the fractures were the result of the fire and not trauma.
As we began the autopsy I thought about how hard it is to burn a human body. Many people try to burn away the evidence of their misdoings but in truth it is difficult to completely cremate a human — I know because I have cremated a lot of people.
The average house fire ranges from 1100 to 1400 degrees Fahrenheit and many times those temperatures are not maintained for hours. A crematory burns consistently at between 1400 to 1800 degrees for several hours. Even after hours at these high temperatures the human bone structure remains to some extent and has to go through a processor to make the cremated dust you see in a cremation urn.
What might surprise you is just how much the body could tell us about his last hours on earth. The scalp showed bruising patterns, the brain and spinal cord indicated actual trauma, muscles were bruised and the ribs had fractures that had nothing to do with the fire. This was confirmed not just in gross observation but also on a cellular level where one could see that the bruising was done while David was alive. Even in his dismal condition David was able to tell me about his death.
The patterns started to form a picture of what happened that night. David had been somewhat intoxicated. He got into an altercation with someone physically larger than him. That person had inflicted deadly trauma on David. David never felt the heat of the fire because he was placed in the back seat floor of the car after he died. He was then driven to an isolated area, an accelerant was poured over his body and the car and everything was set on fire. My guess is that the perpetrator never planned David’s death — he simply became violent past the point of no return. The perpetrator tried to destroy the evidence of his brutality.
The FBI profiler division for training purposes outlines two different types of crime scenes: organized and disorganized. In reality, a scene can be a mixture of both but there is some truth to this dichotomy. This looked like a disorganized scene: tempers flared and David was killed, everything else was improvisation. There is no evidence of a long chain of planning behaviors, no absolute intent to murder, it just happened and the perpetrator reacted.
As a coroner, it is my job to describe what the evidence on or about the body is saying. I don’t make charges. When I certify “homicide” on a death certificate I am simply saying that one human killed another. It is up to the District Attorney to determine the degree of the homicide. In this case the perpetrator was charged with second-degree murder based on our findings from the body.
Even with the killer’s great effort to silence the truth, I could still hear the victim. This case is closed. . .but there is always another story.
Two of the largest crime scenes I have worked in my career were Ground Zero after 9/11 and the landfill that was Joey Miller’s wooded park of horrors. Both had commonalities. They required multiple skills in forensics and due to their size and scope they required an infrastructure called an “Incident Command System”(see Forensic Glossary). Both scenes required stamina, cooperation and meticulous attention to detail.
In the Joey Miller case my team and I utilized multiple areas of forensic science. We first had to establish and execute an effective search pattern. We searched multiple acres over multiple days so we needed a methodology that would assure we covered every foot of ground.
To name just some of the sciences involved:
-Crime Scene Investigation
-Wound Pattern Analysis
-Behavioral Evidence Analysis
It was a big project for our small community. What impressed me most was the team's dedication and how determined everyone was to identify those who were left, but not forgotten, in this wooded graveyard.
As the massive team worked to identify, document and process the evidence at the scene, others were working to piece together what Joey had done over a period of years. Information from the interviews flowed back to the crime scene and aided in the direction of the search. Slowly, bone by bone, a story unfolded of violence and murder. Soon evidence was uncovered that would tell the story of Joey’s deeds, regardless of whether he recanted his statements or not.
Forensic science and teamwork allowed us to speak for the dead and bring a little bit of closure and justice to families that had been in a suspended period of loss and incompletion. I am so proud of the men and women who worked so hard to give answers to the families.
Recently, one more victim was identified. A cold case unit and the advancements in DNA techniques allowed us to identify bones that had been in my office’s possession for about twenty years. The community held a funeral service for this young girl, in honor of her life so that everyone who loved her could come together. How different the world would be if we believed every life is important. To me each person is much more than a random collection of carbon-based molecules; there is a meaning and purpose to each life. Many times we fail (or think we fail) to achieve that purpose. It remains for us to stay on the journey towards meaning.
This case is closed, but there is always another story . . .
Tonight, as in most summer evenings, I sit by the fire pit near my house and look into the woods to the south. I use starter logs made of sawdust and paraffin to give a constant flame to the wood stacked upon them. It is a great way to produce a quick fire. It is impossible for me even to look at the wrapper of those starter logs without thinking of Kevin and Linda.
Thinking back on the Beam double murder I realize how many images are forever seared into my mind—images of Linda Beam’s gunshot wound to the back of the head and the brutal assault to Kevin Beam’s head and neck. While I can’t forget them, it is the disturbance of a pattern, the commonplace or mundane being used in a hideous manner that truly startles my memory awake.
I am transported back to their bedroom just off the living room, where the charred remains of Linda, Kevin’s wife, laid. In the living room, in a circular pattern around Kevin’s body, were partially burned starter logs. The killer or killers had attempted to set the rest of the house on fire as a cover up. I have never, neither before nor since, seen starter logs used for such a purpose. After beating a man to death over a money issue, the perpetrator(s) shot the wife and calmly decided to take a few starter logs from a fireplace basket to try and set the house on fire. It was a matter of convenience.
Kevin was probably unconscious and not dead when the logs were set on fire. His carboxyhaemoglobin was above 37 and his bronchi showed that he was breathing during the fire. His brain was had swelled from head trauma as he slowly lost consciousness due to carbon monoxide entering his blood stream. Tonight, I watch the very same brand of wooden logs alight in my fire pit and think to myself that the killer(s) didn’t realize how much oxygen is need to start a house fire. They should have opened the windows.
In my day-to-day, even the most common and mundane items can remind me of a scene where a dead person whispered in my ear, or a clue was revealed through an everyday item we take for granted. I stare long and hard at this fire burning within the confines of my yard near the silent forest.
Nature shelters me in her peace, a harbor from the chaos and tragedy it is my duty to unravel and decode.
This case is closed, but there is always another story . . .