“How long was he out there?” I asked my assistant, who was unzipping the body bag. An aroma of mildew mixed with the sour tang of blood assailed me. The man was face down on the gurney, left in the same position in which he was found.
“Two weeks,” Paul answered. “The trooper said the 15-year old son found the body after returning home from Bible camp.”
I stared at the remains. They were fully clothed in a thick, long-sleeve shirt and denim pants. Overdressed, if he was out in the midday summer sun. Evenings cooled off a bit though in August. Dark, curly hair was attached loosely to the dried and hardened scalp. Not much else was visible. Silt and mud covered the hands, feet, and head.
“What else did the trooper say?” I asked. This decedent had been brought in from a county more than 40 miles away for my examination. As the only forensic pathologist serving a 20 county region in River City, I was in high demand. Information was relayed to me by the state police for the coroners sending me their cases.
“The man usually went out every morning, to check on the crops. The corn was blunted from the drought. Maybe he was worried about the harvest,” Paul said. He picked up the camera and photographed the corpse with a time stamp that documented the arrival at our morgue.
“Where, exactly, was the body?” I said. Paul held up a single polaroid.
“See for yourself,” he said.
In a ditch at the edge of a cornfield, the man was prone in about a foot of murky water. A majority of the husks were brown-yellow with only a few green ones interspersed. Owning 350 acres of corn would make this a depressing site for the farmer. It had been a brutal summer with daily highs in the nineties, well above the norm, and a relative humidity that made the air feel more like 100. Even the autopsy room was sweltering. The air conditioning was only just turned on when we arrived at the funeral home.
The severe weather had accelerated the decomposition of the body. It usually takes a few months to turn a human being into a skeleton. For him, it had been a mere two weeks. The flesh had been steamed off with only bone and sinew remaining. Only the heavy clothing had kept the skeleton intact.
The photo showed something else — a Remington rifle near his feet.
“What’s the verdict from the coroner?” I asked.
“Suicide,” Paul replied, now putting X-rays up on the light box to display any bullets that might still be inside the body.
The chest and abdominal films lit up with meteorite streams of lead fragments. Two distinct wound tracks were visible. This man had been shot twice. Although it was not impossible that the injuries were self-inflicted, it was starting to feel suspicious.
I put on surgical gloves and helped roll the body up to see the face. Not much was left of the skin. The eyeballs had collapsed into deflated sacs. A strip of unshaven skin marked the upper lip. Cigarette-yellowed teeth appeared grotesquely large. The skull was intact. There was no shot to the head.
As we angled the body further, a fragment of deformed projectile dropped from the front of the shirt. An exit wound ripped outward in the fabric over the chest.
“Here,” Paul said, holding up a second bullet, “stopped at the belt.” It had been obscured by the large Caterpillar-logo buckle. This man was not only shot twice, but both times in the back.
I picked up the magnifying glass and examined the clothing, finding the entrances and the exits of the gunshots. There was no soot or powder deposition to indicate that the weapon was fired any closer than 3-feet. Ballistics testing would later confirm this. Scrutinizing the radiographs, I noted that the rib fractures followed the path of the bullets from back to front, as well.
“Not a suicide?” Paul asked as he watched me walking back and forth between the body and the x-rays.
“No,” I said, “I’m going to call the trooper.”
It took many weeks to sort out what had happened out in the corn field. Each interview with the son resulted in a different version of the event, which would be presented to me for its plausibility. In one scenario, they had struggled for the weapon when the son wanted to go hunting. In another, he had shot his father in self-defense. The evidence refuted these claims proving that the son had shot the man twice in the back from long range.
The boy had told the truth about going to Bible camp for two weeks, while his father’s body rotted in the field. There was another element of truth in the fabricated tales — the rifle belonged to the teen. It had been a Christmas present from his father.