It was 3am when my phone rang. My deputy called to report a slashing in a backyard of West Hanover Township, a peaceful, suburban area, west of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—a place people go to experience a little bit of country. The fact that there was a murder there seemed highly unusual.
The victim, Darlene Ewalt, was a 42-year-old female who had been sitting on her back patio, having a conversation with a man on the phone, around 2am. Suddenly, she cried out, “Oh my God!” The man on the line heard the phone drop and then silence. It was so sudden and her voice was so filled with horror, that he immediately called 911. Police were dispatched for a welfare check. Her husband, who didn’t know exactly where his wife was in the house, allowed police full access to the home for a search. The police found her dead body in the back patio.
When I arrived, I found her slumped over in a chair. An incandescent patio light shined an eerie a spotlight on the gruesome scene. Her left leg was sprawled out and her right leg bent. In front of her on top the white patio table was a notebook and a full ashtray. I could see that the attack had been swift, purposeful and skilled. I sensed that the stealthy killer had come out of the darkness of the backyard, and not from inside the home.
In a case like this, however, it is common that someone who knew Darlene was the killer. Both her husband and son were in the house at the time of death. Who was the man she was talking to at such an hour? What was her marriage like? Who would have known that she would be on the patio in the middle of the night? Why was the attack so clean, with no real confrontation or struggle from the victim? It seemed more like an assassination. This case didn’t fit any profile for domestic violence nor was this kind of assault even remotely expected in the realm of West Hanover violence. Inductive reasoning seemed to reach a standstill.
As it turned out, the murderer was a statistical outlier, outside the bell curve. He was a married truck driver. For reasons unknown to anyone, he hunted women. Not for sexual assault, only to plunge a Rambo-style knife into the victim. A video was found in his possessions on how to hunt humans.
The murderer was a serial killer, later known as the "Highway Killer." He had no connection to Darlene whatsoever. She was randomly chosen. Sporting dark, almost Ninja-type clothing, he had gone into a cul-de-sac, checked doors and sniffed out his prey. At the end of the street, he heard the voice of a woman talking on the phone. He climbed over a split-rail fence and entered Darlene’s backyard.
Darlene was prey simply because she was female, alone and vulnerable. He mostly likely enjoyed stalking her, the quick, quiet attack—just one plunge and then the slash. I imagined he felt the warmth of her blood on his hands. I imagined him standing there a second afterwards, watching her slump back into the chair, the slow decent of her arms towards the ground. I imagined him stepping back, just two or three feet into the curtain of darkness, admiring his handiwork.
I imagined him slowly walking away, occasionally glancing back at the lit stage, and what he considered a magnificent performance.
All it takes is an instant for horror to ensue. Death does not discriminate.
This case is closed, but there is always another story . . .
Some people remember others by their name. I remember people by the way they died. To me each case is a story about that person. Once I have investigated their death, I have an intimate relationship with them. I remember past cases by the images of the scene, not by their names or where they lived, or the date they died. When I think of those cases everything comes back to me: the smell, the colors, and rooms—heavy with the energy and emotion of a life.
In this case, Iris communicated with me—not in words or movement—but in patterns at the scene, in her bedroom and on her body. An arm with the hand sticking up in the air told me the body had been repositioned. The sooting and stippling on the two gunshot wounds to the face told me this was a crime of passion, and not a random act.
The marks on the skin made at close range are telling. The sooting is the dirt from the burnt gunpowder coming out of the barrel of the weapon. Stippling is the collection of little red dots that encircle the gunshot wound. The red dots are the result of partially spent grains of gunpowder burning the skin of the victim. The sooting and small dots on the skin told me the most about her story.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “they were getting close”? This death was about a relationship. She was shot twice in the face and at close range —that’s getting close. One doesn’t inflict pain and then dispatch someone in such an intimate way if they are simply entering a random house for burglary. This death cried out intimacy and passion. It was the snapping of the cord of two people who knew each other on very personal terms.
Nothing, not even death, happens in a vacuum. It was four days before Christmas. Most people were shopping on that particular Friday and streets were jammed. I had received a call from the Harrisburg police and headed out towards the crime scene as the car radio blared “Joy To The World.”
I met with the identification detective who led me to the lower level of the house, which was the kitchen. A burnt smell filled the air. On the stove was a large amount of potato biscuits and cornbread that had been cooking and in the oven, which had been turned off. There was also what could best be described as a cremated chicken. A holiday meal had been interrupted, mid-preparation.
I started to look around, and discerned blood transfer patterns on the refrigerator. We photographed them and calculated their height from the floor. This could tell us the body position and often an approximation of the height of the person making the transfers. There were a few areas in which it seemed that someone had been walking through some of the blood droplets on the floor. A bleeding person had been moving around the room— first at the refrigerator, then at the center of the sink and finally a more diminished droplet pattern leading of the stairs and into the living room area. The droplets were fewer going up the stairs, indicating that the victim had possibly been attempting to stop the flow of blood.
When I reached the top of the landing I remember thinking that the house was in good condition from a housekeeping standpoint. People who clean and care for where they live and sleep are people who want or seek order within their own lives. On this floor the story of a young girl’s life and tragic death unfolded.
I turned to my right and entered a bedroom area just off the living room was her body. She was supine on a carpeted floor, with one hand pointing in the air. I knew that this was a post mortem artifact or rigor mortis, when the body stiffens after death. I knew that she had been at one time prone and then rolled over several hours later. She was already communicating with me. Blood patterns around her also gave evidence of her movements.
We processed the room and found the clothing that she must have worn downstairs when the altercation began. That clothes were off her body and that the body had been moved told us the story would have many twists and turns.
I started to examine her and immediately saw two small caliber, very close range gunshot wounds. One shot was to the right cheek and went through the mouth into the left side of the jaw. The second wound was to the mouth and had taken out her central incisors or the front teeth. This shot destroyed her brain stem and was the lethal blow. There was blood and soot on the lower lip. Her face had multiple bruising on both her cheeks and around the eyes. I could see these wounds were the result of blunt and brutal trauma rather than artifact of the two gunshots. I also found defensive wounds on her arms and bruising. There were fractures on her hands. This had been a terrible combat. She had fought hard for her life.
The two close up gunshot wounds to the face called out to me. These wounds were close. These wounds were personal. They were the final act of someone’s rage against someone they knew intimately.
I discussed with the detective my thought that this was a crime of passion by someone who had a close relationship with her. I saw items around her room that told me this was a woman trying to change her life for the better. There were textbooks from a nursing program and the house was clean, organized and well kept. She was trying to improve her life, and possibly change some of the people she had associated with; it was all part of her struggle that day. The body was removed and one day later we cataloged in fastidious detail each hit, each scratch, each fracture, all mapping a tremendous struggle by this young woman.
I drove home from the lab that day thinking about what I saw. It was the story of a broken relationship. I felt I knew this person when I left the scene that day. I received her secrets, and pieced together elements of her life and her efforts, communicating them to others, so they could bring an evil man to justice.
I still see her face and most likely always will. Iris is an example of how wounds of the heart can appear as wounds on the body through love, loss and rage. Now she speaks to many.
The case is closed, but there is always another story. . .
It is now public that I am doing a series for Discovery ID. I have been doing many interview and one of the most frequently asked question is’ Why are you doing this show?” It reminds me of an old Chinese say; “The how is easy but the why is difficult.”
For twenty-five years I have been the coroner for Dauphin County. Over the years I have tried to have a transparent office. I have held many press conferences. I hold them not to promote myself but to inform the community of what the deaths I investigate tell us about how we live and how we should live.
Each death I investigate tells me something about the nature of death. Every day I face the details of how took someone met the dark angel. All the deaths I investigate are sudden, maybe from an unknown cause, an accident, a homicide or even a self-inflicted suicidal action. Most long term illnesses never reach my forensic center because their history of physical demise well documented.
Over the years I started to realize that the I was becoming a spokesman for the dead. Through the pathologies, patterns and the scene investigations they spoke to me of their most intimate details. They reveal their mistakes, their victories and what caught them unaware. I intern have attempted to tell the community the importance of their stories and what we can learn from them. I most cases I have found that when tragedy happens we lose ourselves in the superficial causes and miss the greater philosophical questions. We debate back and forth about gun control but seldom ask the question; “Why does life seem so cheap that one can kill another for so little reason?” We speak of a heroine epidemic but seldom discuss; “Why are the richest, the freest people in the world anesthetizing themselves? These and other greater questions about the meaning of life are not often discussed and that is the real story of death.
Asking these questions goes well beyond the physical cause of death to the very nature of man. It is my hope that this series, “THE CORONER: I SPEAK FOR THE DEAD” will allow a broader and more significant discussion well beyond my own community. Discovery ID has a perfect format to do just this. I will blog about each episode and discuss those greater stories the victims want to tell me and you.
It gives meaning to their loss and the loss of the victim’s families to ask these greater questions and Discovery ID has given me this opportunity. Come with me and listen to what the dead have to say.