When Did They Die?
"Estimating the time of death is one of the most important responsibilities of the person conducting the autopsy." (Scientific Crime Investigation, by Jenny Tesar, pg. 51.)
The Autopsy Reports of the Branch Davidians contain no estimate of the time of death. The omission is stunning, considering that much of the work of forensic anthropologists and medical examiners is directed to answering this very question.
"One of the first questions the police ask a forensic anthropologists is how long a subject has been dead. It is also one of the most difficult to answer." (Ubelaker, pg. 108.)
Surely the concrete room was the crime scene of the century. Here we had just witnessed the biggest, best publicized US military attack on US citizens in history. This attack was excused in large part by charges that David Koresh had been abusing children in the Mt. Carmel Center. FBI spokesmen called Koresh a madman at almost every daily press briefing. The FBI said the Davidians had started the fire and murdered each other on the final day. Arguably, David Koresh could have been killing the children one by one over a long period, with the help of the Davidians who survived the fire.
We would expect the expert evidence handlers from the Smithsonian and one of the world's foremost investigative agencies to give A-1 handling to these remains so that the dead could speak, tell their stories, and convict the murderers. Let's look at what happened instead.
A corpse decomposes over time—the longer the time since death, the more decomposed the corpse. Because time since death questions are so important, decomposition of corpses over time is studied by forensic experts. The studies are conducted in the field and under controlled conditions.
Dr. Ubelaker describes field studies of the impact on decomposition of such factors as rain and snow, sunlight, plant growth, summer heat and winter cold, water, insects and insect larvae, corrosives and solvents. As victims' bodies are found at various recovery sites, forensic scientists note the state of decomposition and environmental factors associated with recovery. Dr. Ubelaker says that the recovery of bodies from thousands of field locations comprise much of "the collective wisdom from which we have developed our forensic standards." (Ubelaker, pg. 108.)
A close associate of Dr. Ubelaker, Dr. Bill Bass, conducts controlled studies of the decomposition of human remains. Dr. Bass, director of the Anthropological Research Facility at Knoxville, Tennessee, runs an open-air ("al fresco") mortuary. Unclaimed or unidentified bodies from the city morgue are donated to Dr. Bass's project, and allowed to rot under a variety of conditions in a wooded area at his facility. The process of decay is recorded. The bodies, rotting with the interplay of the natural conditions of sunlight, rain, and insects, are photographed at regular intervals. Bodies buried in shallow graves are exhumed periodically and examined. Changes in vegetation and the composition of the soil are also noted and recorded precisely as a guide to the recovery of bodies in the field. (Ubelaker, pg. 110.)
Discussing time of death estimates, New York City Chief Medical Examiner Michael M. Baden, MD says "The sooner we get to the body, the more accurate we are." Dr. Baden says heat, cold, and the presence of drugs in the body can hasten or slow the process of decay and confuse the time and cause of death. (Unnatural Death—Confessions of a Medical Examiner, by Michael M. Baden, pg. 37.)
Climate plays an important role in the rate of decomposition. All other things being equal, the hotter the weather, the faster a corpse decomposes (Ubelaker, pg. 215). When the body of a victim is found, all efforts are made to refrigerate the remains at once, so that the process of decay does not confuse the inquiry into the time and cause of death. That is why refrigerated trucks are among the first things to arrive at the scene of a mass disaster.
Many of the corpses found in the concrete room were severely decomposed. But a review of the photos of the ruins of the Mt. Carmel Center show persons on the scene wearing jackets and long pants (figure 5, Time, May 5, 1993, pgs. 30-31, figure 7, Time, July 24, 1995, figure 10, courtesy Linda Thompson, and figure 11, donated to Museum by unofficial source). This was April and the weather was not hot. Thus, the advanced decomposition of so many of the bodies in the concrete room can not be explained by warm weather.
Dr. William R. Maples, another renowned forensic anthropologist and colleague of Dr. Ubelaker, points out that decomposition rates also depend on where the body is stored after death. "The general rule of thumb for the rate of decomposition is: one week in the open air equals two weeks in water, equals eight weeks underground." (Dead Men Do Tell Tales, by William R. Maples, Ph. D., and Michael Browning, pg. 47-48.
The inferno at the Mt. Carmel Center was largely burned out by 1:00 pm, April 19. The methods for handling the remains of victims of such disaster have been established for decades (as we saw in How the Pros Handle Mass Disasters Scenes. Yet, if we are to believe Dr. Peerwani, the first set of bodies was not recovered from the concrete room until April 22-23, and the second set were left rotting in the elements until April 27-29.
The excuse given for the delay, as we have seen from Dr. Peerwani's testimony (The Locals Speak), was that roof of the "collapsed bunker" needed to be shored up for the safety of the recovery workers. This excuse does not work.
First, we have already seen that Sgt. Coffman worked in the concrete room under the damaged roof day after day. The laws of physics would have been the same for Sgt. Coffman as for Dr. Ubelaker or Dr. Peerwani. If the damaged roof of the concrete room was not appreciably endangering Sgt. Coffman, why would it to pose a danger to our forensic experts?
Second, as Sgt. Coffman's testimony shows, the roof was never shored up. This fact is verified again by The Dallas Morning News (Saturday, May 1, 1993 pg. 24A): "Also Friday [April 31], authorities bulldozed the concrete bunker that was the compound's last standing remnant. 'We had determined that it was structurally unsound because of a support beam in the middle of it had become detached [sic],' said DPS (Department of Public Safety) spokeswoman Lauren Chernow."
Third, had the recovery team considered the evidence important, the roof could have been shored up hours after the fire, before the first bodies were recovered. Recall that 33 to 43 bodies were found in the room, and nine on the roof—the roof was an important part of the crime scene. Recall that there were 250 lawmen on the site. Some of those 250 could have been spared, and armed with plywood and beams, they could have shored up the roof. If that task was too complex for the Texas Rangers, the FBI, the ATF, and the US Army, the Smithsonian Institution anthropologists were on hand. If the task was too complex for them, they surely could have called the Smithsonian Institution and asked to speak to a staff archaeologist who had been on archeology digs …
No, Dr. Peerwani's excuse holds no water. If the recovery dates that Dr. Peerwani cites are accurate, there is no excuse for the bodies to have been mishandled in this manner. What was the result of the delay? Why, the further decomposition of the bodies, and the greater the interplay of nature's forces on the remains, the greater obfuscation of the time of death. As the corpses rotted, the flesh on the faces rotted, so the delay also accomplished the blurring of identities. When world class evidence handlers like our Smithsonian experts are advising on recovery of bodies, and the bodies are abused in such a fashion as to destroy or degrade the evidence they contain, what must a reasonable person conclude?
Recall that Texas Ranger Raymond Coffman, who was in charge of the crime scene in the concrete room, testified that the concrete room was completely cleared out by April 25 (see Tainting the Evidence). His testimony obviously conflicts with Dr. Peerwani's; if all corpses were removed by April 25, the rate of decomposition is all the more remarkable.
While the Autopsy Reports do not give an estimated time of death, let us recall Dr. Peerwani's courtroom testimony. Dr. Peerwani said: "I think they died within a short while, yes. Minutes, I can't really be certain." (Transcript, pg. 6033.)
Note that in this statement Dr. Peerwani does not give an estimate of time of death—he says only that the people in the concrete room died at approximately the same time.
Let's have a look at the rates of decomposition for those found close to the surface, those buried deep beneath the spent cartridges, and those exhumed from shallow graves. List of Decomposition States contains this information as well as the dates of autopsy.
When reviewing the Autopsy Reports, you will find that remains of many who allegedly died on April 19 were severely decomposed. Internal organs were no longer recognizable. They had turned into a brown amorphous mass, or had totally liquefied; the severe decomposition was often used as a reason to terminate closer examination. Unidentified, Mt. Carmel Doe 65 is typical. Under "Internal Examination," Gary Sisler writes: "The internal organs consist of amorphous brownish decomposing mass of tissue … and precludes further examination."
Some (not all) children's corpses were so decomposed that sex organs were no longer recognizable. See Paiges Gent, Mt. Carmel Doe 64; Cyrus Howell, Mt. Carmel Doe 67-2; Hollywood Sylvia, Mt. Carmel Doe 67-4; Bobbie Lane Koresh, Mt. Carmel Does 67-5 and 69; Unidentified, Mt. Carmel Doe 67-7; Mayannah Schneider, Mt. Carmel Doe 70.
Compare those reports to the reports of the five Davidians who died on February 28. These five bodies were buried in shallow graves and recovered on May 4. On date of autopsy, the decomposition of these five bodies is described as "moderate." With rare exceptions, the internal organs could be recognized, and indeed were removed and weighed. Four of these bodies were in a shallow grave or "tunnels" and spent 51 days there, and then spent a week or two inundated by rain water and human waste (The Washington Post, April 30, 1996). Given Dr. Maples's dictum, "one week in the open air equals two weeks in water, equals eight weeks underground," we might expect the exhumed bodies to be in approximately the same state of decomposition as the bodies of those who died on April 19. Yet there are great differences.
Speaking of those exhumed bodies, Dr. Peerwani said: "We were very surprised. The bodies had been buried for approximately two months, and we were expecting the worst, since there was no embalming; however, the bodies did show a moderate decomposition." (Transcript, pg. 6034).
Perhaps the moderate decomposition of those five was surprising, but even more surprising were the differences in the rates of decomposition among the corpses found in the concrete room—all of whom we are told died on April 19 "within minutes" of each other. Julliete (Mt. Carmel Doe 54) and Crystal Martinez (Mt. Carmel Doe 57) showed only moderate decomposition, yet they were found in close proximity to other corpses that were severely decomposed—for example, their son and brother, Joseph Martinez (Mt. Carmel Doe 52).
Had all the people in the concrete room died within minutes of each other, and had the bodies been subjected to the same climatic and burial conditions—which they were—the differences in the rates of decomposition should have caused Dr. Peerwani and his staff to sit up and take notice. The differences were extraordinary.
Yet Dr. Peerwani wasn't asked about this remarkable difference in decomposition rates for those inside the concrete room, nor did he volunteer answers. The anomaly is not mentioned in any one of the Autopsy Reports, of course, because each report discussed just one corpse.
The truth is simple. The differences in decomposition states of the remains found in the concrete room suggests the people in the concrete room died at different times.
One particularly anomalous specimen is described in Autopsy Report Doe 59. The portion of the body above the pelvis was severely decomposed and disarticulated, the organs liquefied and indistinguishable, and the flesh falling off the bones. The lower portion of the body was fully articulated and only moderately decomposed. As in the cases Argentina state-sponsered murder cases described by Joyce and Stover (see Cover-ups, Politics, and Forensics), the Tarrant County medical examiners expressed no curiosity about this riddle. They wrote on page 2 of the Report: "The pelvis and the lower extremities are fully articulated whereas the torso and head are disarticulated and infested with maggots." The remains were never identified: perhaps they belong to two different people. Possibly the deaths occurred at widely separated times.
Professional evidence handlers remove and perform autopsies quickly for a number of reasons. Time can erase traces of poison like cyanide, says Dr. Baden. Speaking of one case he was working on, Dr. Baden says: "The defense was saying that no cyanide was found in the bodies, but the absence of cyanide didn't mean they weren't given it. After a few days you can't find cyanide in a body. That's one of the reasons it's such a good murder weapon." (Baden, pg. 130). (Note: The visitor might notice the mention of cyanide in some Branch Davidian autopsies; the explanation of this phenomena awaits competent scientific analysis.)
With the exceptions of Mt. Carmel Does 32 and 33, the remains recovered from the concrete room on April 22-23 were not autopsied until May 6. See Autopsy Reports of Mt. Carmel Does 30, 31A, 31B, 31DE, 31F, 49 (see List of Decomposition States for complete list, and List of Autopsy Reports to review the Autopsies). The autopsies on the last of the remains recovered from under the cartridge shells were still being performed on May 11.
There was no need to have these remains wait until the staff at the Tarrant County Medical Examiners Office could handle the load. We have already seen that three other pathologists had volunteered to help (The Dallas Morning News, April 22, 1993), and that Waco was within easy driving distance of Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. Some of the remains could have been distributed to those centers for quick and orthodox handling.
But instead the remains waited their turn in the queue at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office. Once again, it is clear that Dr. Peerwani was chosen for a reason, and all autopsies were to be done under his supervision.
Disarticulation occurs when the connective tissue in the bone joints decomposes. Heads fall off necks, and arms out of shoulder sockets. Let's hear from Dr. Ubelaker:
"From our work in forensic science, we knew that the process of decomposition follows a predictable course, and that the muscles and ligaments gradually decompose to the point that when a skeleton is picked up or otherwise disturbed at any time beyond a certain period after death, it will fall apart. At earlier stages, certain desiccated ligaments hold together some of the vertebrae or other parts, and the integrity of the body diminishes as time since death increases." (Ubelaker, pg. 41.)
"Obviously, a body that was buried within a week of death would be nearly intact at the time of interment; this isn't enough time for a skeleton to fall apart before it goes into the ground. If death occurs three months before the burial, enough decomposition sets in so that an excavator would be likely to find a skeleton in segments, but not completely fallen apart. If death had occurred two years before the burial, there would not be any soft tissue left at all, and the bones would be isolated." (Ubelaker, pg. 41.)
Many of the bodies found in the concrete room are both severely decomposed and dismembered or pulped. But the Autopsy Reports of at least four sets of remains present a different picture—the remains were separated due to the decomposition of the connective tissue between the joints.
The Autopsy Report of baby Paiges Gent (Mt. Carmel Doe 64), reads : "Body is disarticulated mainly because of advanced postmortem decomposition …"
The Autopsy Report of Abigail Martinez, 11 years old, (Mt. Carmel Doe 56), who was said to have died from a gunshot wound to the head, reads: "The body is that of a young Hispanic female measuring 51" in length and consisting of a disarticulated head, chest, abdomen upper and lower extremities." The body is severely decomposed.
The Autopsy Report of the unidentified remains of Mt. Carmel Doe 59, a 14-19 year old girl, reveals:
"The head is disarticulated with most of the facial soft tissue absent … Furthermore, there is no brain tissue present. Cervical vertebrae are disarticulated and without trauma. Hyoid bone and the larynx are absent as is the soft tissue of the neck. Chest and abdomen reveal advanced decomposition with bone structures and decomposing tissue commingled. All the ribs are identified and are partially articulated from the thoracic vertebrae. Chest and abdominal and pelvic organs are severely decomposed and reduced to mushy pasty foul smelling partially liquefied tissue. Individual organs are not recognized. Upper extremities are disarticulated with soft tissue markedly decomposed."
The Autopsy Report of five-year-old Serenity Sea Jones, Mt. Carmel Doe 72, said to have died from smoke inhalation, states that the flesh is sloughing off the disarticulated head with gravity.
Since the word "disarticulation" was used along with the information on the states of decomposition, and no other reason for the falling apart of the body was given, we may assume that disarticulation in these four cases occurred as a result of decomposition.
These cases should have been a flag to the autopsist that, given the normal course of events, the time of death was far earlier than April 19.
According to Dr. Michael M. Baden, there is a reliable way for determining the time of death—the potassium eye fluid test.
"The test measures changes in the level of potassium in the eye fluid. In life, there is a small amount of potassium in the eye fluid. After death the red cells break down, and the potassium in them enters the vitreous fluid very slowly. The level rises predictably. This happens regardless of temperature." (Baden, pg. 96.)
Many of the bodies found in the concrete room did not have heads; of the bodies with heads, most did not have eyeballs. However, several of the corpses did have eyeballs, and the potassium test could have arguably been performed on those. Look at the remains of Joseph Martinez (Mt. Carmel Doe 52), "Orbits are intact and contain black desiccated residual eye balls;" Julliete Martinez (Mt. Carmel Doe 54), "The eyes are decomposed and collapsed;" and Crystal Martinez (Mt. Carmel Doe 57), "The eyes are decomposed and collapsed." These remains had eyeballs, and yet there is no mention in the Autopsy Reports that the potassium test was done or even had been considered. Why was there so little interest in establishing the time of death?
What of the assertion that the severe decomposition of the bodies in the concrete room was caused by a refrigeration failure before the autopsies were performed at the Tarrant County facilities? This assertion was mentioned in the official report, Forensic Pathology Evaluation of the 1993 Branch Davidian Deaths and Other Pertinent Issues Prepared for the Office of Special Counsel John C. Danforth by Michael A. Graham, M.D. (September 26, 2000):
[p. 144] ... Mr. Thibodeau indicates all "those autopsies" were suspect. He indicates the bodies were stored in a faulty cooler at the medical examiner's office and partially decomposed prior to the autopsy. With regard to the faulty cooler, the OSC has advised me that [p. 145] any refrigeration defect in the storage of the bodies was for a short period of time and occurred after the autopsies were already completed.
Thibideau would have no inside knowledge of the County Coroner's operations, and as an interested party, he would be kept at arm's length from any of the personnel. His accusation may be countered by a number of facts:
The Texas Ranger on site at the scene of recovery in the concrete room just after the fire on April 19, 1993 complained about the stench from the bodies.
Coffman: "All I smelled was rotten bodies, it was a horrible smell … It was just a rotten body smell, that's all you could smell." (Trial testimony of Raymond Coffman, Transcript, pg. 956.)
It surely would be rare for bodies, just 24 hours old and kept in cool spring weather, to smell so badly.
The last body buried in the spent cartridges in the concrete room was recovered on April 29, 1993; with two exceptions (MC Doe 33 on May 29, 1993, and MC Doe 64 on September 9, 1993), the last body was autopsied on May 11. There is no indication of a refrigeration problem in any of the Autopsy Reports.
On September 26, 1999, The Los Angeles Times (cached) printed an AP report that the refrigeration failed weeks after the autopsies were finished:
The corpses themselves will be of little use. Weeks after they were autopsied, the morgue's refrigeration failed. The bodies liquefied.
In 1999, Attorney Kirk Lyons, who represented some Branch Davidian family members in a wrongful death action, said that after the county autopsies had been performed, the refrigeration units at the Tarrant County facilities broke down, leading to a further degeneration of the bodies and hampering the plaintiff's ability to challenge the official conclusions. Independent autopsies are often requested in such suits. (Star Telegram, September 11, 1999)
The evidence shows that many of the Davidians were dead long before April 19, 1993, the day of the fire.
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