Final Words: Reflections of a Forensic Pathologist

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The Backpack

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The backpack had been buried for seven years. Interred under layers of soil against a thick root of a maple tree, daffodils flowering above. It might have remained there—time slowly eroding the polyester fibers. But that’s not how it happened. The father confessed. The rucksack contained his disintegrating newborn son.

The parents had been young teenagers at the time of the birth; the mother, 13 years old, the father a year older. What would I have done at that age? My only knowledge of sex had been gleaned from the Daughters of Chastity (my term). If a boy touched or kissed you, then a baby grew inside. It sounded confusing, messy, and full of germs. At 13, I still preferred to play with my Barbie doll creating adventures as a stewardess, her little blue Pan Am bag promising world travel.

In 2001, at 45, I sleuthed the cause of death from each body I examined. On rare occasions I disinterred clandestine graves. That’s how I got involved with the search for the knapsack.

The call to find the infant had come into my office on a spring afternoon. A young man had informed the police that he knew where a homicide victim was hidden. Prior experience taught me that most of the time these tips on past crimes yielded nothing.

Once, an inmate had claimed that he knew where a murder had happened five years earlier. He led me to what he claimed to be the exact location of the disposal of the corpse, specifying a gully with remarkable acuity. I supervised the operation. His story resulted in weeks of digging in the mud and an aching back. In the end, the prisoner had gone back to jail having enjoyed some time in the sun. No body was ever recovered. 

After the telephone call from the police about the backpack, I responded to the site of the possible burial. The lead detective, Tom, and I stood on the back porch of a suburban home. A green expanse of lawn stretched about a quarter-acre to a deciduous tree line. Boxwoods and ferns hugged the deck with yellow bulbs lining the perimeter of the yard. 

“This feels impossible,” I said. A tiny human being was purportedly submerged in this bucolic vista. 

“I don’t know, Doc,” Tom said. “The boy told me where he put the baby. Sounded pretty sure.” He nodded toward the forest. “Over there at 10 o’clock near that big maple.”

I stared at the row of identical trees.

“He may feel confident, but it’s been a long time,” I said, “and besides, this is a large tract of land. If he’s off by one tree, it could take days, no, make that weeks to search.”

Tom looked at the woods, 50 feet away. He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets.

“Why now?” I said. “I mean, why come forward after so much time?” 

Seven years—wasn’t that number supposed to be lucky—wonders of the ancient world, the sabbath day of rest, pilgrimage around Mecca, days of the week, continents. 

“Who knows?” Tom shrugged. “Maybe he felt guilty. Maybe he was trying to impress the guys in group therapy. Maybe it was part of his 12-step program. Anyway, the girl corroborates his story.”

The girl to whom he referred was the mother of the dead infant, herself now 20 years old. At 13, she had delivered a baby alone on a towel in her bedroom while her parents were asleep in the house. No one knew she was pregnant. Not even her boyfriend, the father of the child, now a parolee who had recently admitted this crime. 

She cut the umbilical cord with sewing scissors then wrapped her son in sweatpants. He cried and she wadded tissues into his mouth to cover up the sound. Eventually he stopped. The next day, she called her beau to come over. Handing the backpack to him, she told him to take care of it. She had never spoken to anyone else about it. The family had moved two years ago. Tom had told me this on our drive to the scene. 

The wind rustled the forest canopy bringing a breeze with a sweet aroma reminiscent of the fresh smell of a baby’s skin. I had three sons. Each time I gave birth, I had been ensconced in a hospital bed, free to wail as I roller-coastered between contractions. An epidural arrived just when the pain reached its worst and dulled the unbearable. My husband and doctor coached me through the agony of pushing. Our sons’ first cries felt miraculous—sounds of life, survival, continuance.

This mother had been all alone.

“Dr. J?” Tom said, interrupting my reverie. “Should we go ahead and mark out where to dig?”

We walked to the area the young father had indicated. I studied the periwinkle ground cover dotted with purple blooms. Gentle slopes of land mixed with rugged clumps. All appeared undisturbed; I didn’t see any sign of a secret grave. There might not be much to see even if I stood on top of it. This would be the smallest cadaver for whom I had ever searched. 

“Let’s talk with the homeowner,” I said. 

“Already spoke with him,” Tom said. “I didn’t give him details, just general info. He knows we’re looking for something but that’s all. Not who or what or why. He’s okay with us going ahead with the investigation.”

“Even if it means digging up most of his yard?” I said. I had seen excavations go from small holes to the size of in-ground pools. As searches continued without finding the grave, it became difficult to know when to stop.

“Sure,” Tom said, “he told me to do what we need to do.”

Everything the youth had told police might be well-intentioned yet misremembered or half-truths. Maybe there was no backpack or sweatpants; the body dumped by itself in a shallow grave. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be much left. It could have been dragged off by a coyote, fox, or neighborhood dog. Even if the skeleton remained, it might not be intact but scattered throughout the forest. A newborn had fragile, tiny bones that could easily look like bits of rock or twigs. I worried that the archeological foraging for the child would be in vain.

“That’s fine for you to say; you guys are setting up the perimeter. We’re doing the digging. I want to talk to the homeowner,” I said. We walked back to the house.

Tom knocked on the screen door and called to Mr. Clemons. He joined us on the porch. We shook hands and introduced ourselves.

I went over the basic questions already covered by the detective. The homeowner confirmed that he moved in about one year ago, had done no major construction or landscaping on the property, and didn’t know the people who had lived here before.

“Oh, I did add all those bulbs over there,” he said. We turned to look at the hundreds of daffodils standing against the edge of the tree line. A cloud dimmed the floral display making it as gray as my mood. I turned to Tom, prepared to talk him out of this Sisyphean hunt.

“I found some bones once. Is that important?” Mr. Clemons said.

I held my breath as if someone had just yelled “red light” in a children’s game.

“Could be,” Tom said.

“They were real small,” Mr. Clemons said. He looked from me to Tom, our faces like statues. “I thought it was an animal. They were wrapped in some cloth and inside a rucksack.” He took a deep breath. “I thought it was someone’s pet that they buried in the yard. I put it back.” He sniffed. “Did I do anything wrong?” 

“No, it’s probably nothing but every piece of information can be important in an investigation.” Tom auto-piloted the answer to calm the man. The description of the burial exactly matched the young man’s statement.

“Do you remember where you found them?” I said.

“Over there,” he said, pointing to 2 o’clock at the far end of the yard. Far from the area the young man had indicated.

“Would you mind showing us?” I said.

We walked to the opposite side of the property. The homeowner pointed to a maple tree, appearing like every other one in the woods.

“I’m sure it’s right about here,” he said. “See how the bulbs are spread?” Some of the daffodils looked like they had strayed from their chorus line. 

“I tried not to disturb the grave. Beloved family pet and all,” he said. “It wasn’t far down. Two, maybe two and a half feet.”

The location Mr. Clemons provided seemed more viable for a search than the young father’s recollection from his teen years. We planned to begin at this spot. 

It took the rest of the day to coordinate the anthropology team, forensic investigators from my office and a university anthropologist. The police set up a crime scene perimeter and guarded it that night.

The next morning at dawn we set up a tent as a shelter from the elements and onlookers. We marked out a ten-foot by ten-foot grid. Four of us worked; each starting in a different corner. We used hand trowels to uncover the top coating of soil. Then we sifted the dirt through fine mesh. This scientific technique conserved any fragment we might find of such a tiny person. The digging progressed slowly. Each bit of stone or stick required professional examination.

One of my investigators specialized in skeletons and had received advanced training. Ron led many of the MEO excavations. He spearheaded the identification of any bony material brought to our office. His dedication made this work a little easier.

After 11 hours, Ron said, “I got something.” 

He placed a small stake to identify the spot. The team formed a huddle. Something dark poked up from the exposed ground. Two workers bent down and brushed away the residue, unmasking the shoulder straps of a knapsack. It took another hour to clear away debris to see the pack clearly. A portion of the backside had disintegrated but enough of it remained to cushion the baby. 

The contents peeked through. The sweatpants had been reduced to threads, dulled cotton fibers that clung to white bone. I recognized the sections of skull—frontal, temporal, parietal, occipital—definitely human.

We excavated a space beneath the backpack and moved a wood panel under it for support. Ron helped place the wood and the bag into a cardboard box. We sealed it with tape, signed and dated it, all to maintain the evidence. 

The next part of the examination would take place at the morgue—x-rays, toxicology testing, and DNA studies. The anthropologist and I would look for trauma in the skeleton and attempt to identify the 300 newborn bones that had laid in the earth for seven years, longer than my youngest son had walked upon it.

I carried the box past the homeowner, the police, and the neighbors gathered on the sidewalk. Spring break had brought out an assortment of children, dog walkers, and strollers. A news reporter snapped a photo. The box felt impossibly light. Even with the knapsack and the brace, it weighed less than each of my sons at birth. 

Ron opened the trunk of the car and we laid the carton inside. The long dead remains were surrounded by fabric, wood, and cardboard—sheets of protection for a life never lived. I looked at my hands, dirt under the nails, grime smeared on my watch face obscuring the time.

Triumph over finding the body frayed like the child’s fabric coffin. My sense of fulfillment, of a job well-done, collapsed. 

This unexpected family reunion would result in a trial and more sorrow. The young girl and her son had been linked in pain and separated by desperation. I drove to the office with the infant cocooned in the back of the Jeep.

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