Remains of a body, with or without DNA evidence, can offer evidence, prosecutors say

09/05/2010 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 9:59 AM

It's logical to assume that whoever killed 14-year-old Alicia DeBolt was trying to hide evidence by burning her body. But over the years, case after case has shown that authorities can get convictions even when key evidence has been damaged, destroyed or withheld.

In reality, it's difficult to destroy a body. Even after a severe fire, bits of evidence remain, maybe a distinctive mark on a bone. When fit together, the bits tell a story. Prosecutors often gain convictions without direct, scientific evidence like DNA and fingerprints. Even when DNA and fingerprints exist, they don't always prove guilt.

In 2002, 2003 and 2004, Butler County Attorney Jan Satterfield dealt with three homicides where a defendant was accused of burning the body after killing someone. The victims were Patty Self, Cheryl Diane Romero and Carol Mould.

In all three cases, Satterfield or one of her staff obtained first- or second-degree murder convictions.

Satterfield said it appears to her that as DNA testing has become more common, killers have become more apt to try to destroy bodies.

Intentional damage to a body — from burning or dismemberment — can obviously limit the amount of evidence, Satterfield said.

For example, she said, burns might obliterate bruising that could be partial evidence of a rape.

But burning often doesn't destroy all evidence. Depending on the degree of damage, there could be DNA under fingernails, said Jaime Oeberst, Sedgwick County's chief medical examiner.

In a case involving a rape, some DNA evidence might survive a fire, said Kevin O'Connor, a former deputy district attorney in Sedgwick County.

Prosecutors usually rely on piecing together circumstantial evidence. They often try to let potential jurors know during jury selection that they can't expect to rely on lots of direct, scientific evidence — that real cases aren't like the "CSI" shows where investigators perform one forensic trick after another.

Evidence is fleeting. DNA from body fluids can degrade. Suspects often don't leave readable fingerprints even when they touch something. Weapons and blood-stained clothing get discarded. Killers cover their tracks.

Satterfield said her sense is that jurors don't hold it against prosecutors when some evidence doesn't exist because a body or crime scene has been burned.

The good thing for authorities is that "evidence comes from all kinds of sources," said Kim Parker, chief deputy district attorney in Sedgwick County.

Modern technology can help provide evidence. But the key for a prosecutor is being open-minded to all sources of evidence in putting the puzzle together, she said.

"Many cases are solved by other types of evidence — maybe the good old-fashioned witness.... You just need to let jurors know that this is not going to be TV... and people understand that," Parker said.

"I have a lot of faith in jurors' ability to do that — using their common sense and common knowledge."

Most recent case

On Aug. 24, an employee at an asphalt plant west of Great Bend found Alicia DeBolt's burned body more than two days after she disappeared. It took dental records to identify her. The 14-year-old never returned after being seen getting into a vehicle outside her home late on a Saturday night.

Attorney General Steve Six said he expects to file murder charges in the case. Six has identified Adam Longoria, 36, who has been living in Great Bend since being released from a Texas prison in May, as a "person of interest" in the case.

Longoria is being held on a $150,000 bond on charges that he stole an SUV from his employer after investigators searched his home.

A case in point

A Wichita murder case, known as the Club Mexico killings, illustrates that even when someone dismembers and burns bodies, investigators can still piece together evidence to tell a jury what happened.

Peer Moore-Jansen is the anthropology chairman at Wichita State University. His specialty is reading bones.

In 2003, police Lt. Ken Landwehr, head of the police homicide unit, brought Moore-Jansen a bone in a small Tupperware container. Landwehr wanted to know what it was.

Moore-Jansen knew right away — a human vertebra.

"There's lots more (bones) out there," Landwehr told Moore-Jansen. Landwehr was referring to a burn pit authorities were investigating in a remote area in Cowley County. At the time, Moore-Jansen couldn't go out and see for himself, so he directed authorities in how to systematically collect the bone fragments and other debris so he could examine them.

Investigators divided the burn pit into quadrants and carefully collected up to 30,000 pieces, which Moore-Jansen sifted and sorted with help from students.

After Moore-Jansen's examination began, "The first thing Kenny says to me is, 'How many people do I have?'

"I tell him three — a minimum of three."

Moore-Jansen had found the bones of three left cheeks.

From the mass of ashes and fragments, he found things besides bones: An eyeglass stem. Bottle caps. Part of a disposable lighter. Shoe staples. A metal piercing. Computer wire. Metal pliers. A box knife. A cleaver. A saw blade. And charred but still partly readable bits of various publications, including a Spanish-language newspaper and an anatomy journal or magazine.

Some of the bones he found showed marks and cuts that appeared to be made by the various tools found charred in the pit.

He could tell that the bone fragments belonged to someone who was old enough to no longer have growth plates between bones.

He could tell by the size and shape of some bones that the victims were men.

"You build a puzzle," he said.

He reconstructed parts of three male skulls. It took months.

One skull showed a bullet hole.

Some of the bones had brown stains. Moore-Jansen concluded that the stains marked where computer wire had been wrapped around some body parts.

The painstaking work became part of the prosecution of Club Mexico owner Arturo Garcia. Wichita police said Garcia shot three men at the club in 2003 and burned their remains.

From DNA gathered from some of the remains, investigators determined that the three male victims were Clint Jones and brothers Oscar and Nicolas Ramirez.

Jurors convicted Garcia of two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Clint Jones and Nicolas Ramirez and second-degree murder in the death of Oscar Ramirez. In sentencing Garcia to more than a century in prison, a judge ruled that his crimes were committed in an "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel manner" because he cut up the bodies and burned them.

Bone break is key

Defense lawyers also know that a body can sustain extensive damage and still be used as evidence.

In 1985, Wichita lawyer Jay Greeno helped defend Deanna Hollis, a live-in housekeeper for 65-year-old Noel Barber.

Barber's body had been allowed to decompose, it had been burned and it had been subjected to a caustic cleaner, Greeno said.

Still, a WSU anthropologist, Kim Schneider, was able to piece together a nasal bone with a break. An X-ray of the break matched an X-ray of a nasal break that Barber had suffered years before his killing, Greeno said.

It helped show it was Barber's body.

It became a key piece of evidence against Greeno's client, who was found guilty of first-degree murder.

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