Mary Manhein

I had to leave home at 6:30 this morning to participate in an exhumation (and I thought it was going to be a quiet week). Forensic anthropologists occasionally assist with such cases where a body has to be re-examined, but more often we deal with the recovery of persons from clandestine graves. I have worked on many cases where someone disposed of a body by burying it secretly.

In one such case several years ago, a man’s wife disappeared one day. He claimed that she had run away with another man. Her parents thought differently because she had left behind two beloved little girls. The wife was never heard from again. After several years, the man sold the little house where he and his wife and children had lived. The elderly lady who purchased the house paid cash for it. She lived there a short while and decided to sell the house to a young couple. The young couple’s lending agency required that a new septic tank be installed in the backyard and a drainage trench (often referred to as a filter bed) be dug along the side of the house. The drainage trench went through a rose garden—and through the grave of the man’s wife. He had killed her and buried her at the side of the house eight years before and had planted a rose garden over her grave, a garden he tended regularly until he sold the house. We recovered her skeletal remains and analyzed them for trauma. He was found guilty of second-degree murder and now resides in prison.

In a similar case, a man killed a friend after a heated argument and buried him in a pecan orchard. Many years later, he sought forgiveness for his crime and confessed to law enforcement. We looked for two days for the grave and could not find it, even with heavy equipment. The man appeared to be sincere in his confession, but we were close to giving up on the search when one of the members of the recovery team decided to take a walk through the orchard. He just happened to see a sock sticking up from the ground. We found the burial—the orchard had not changed. The perpetrator had simply miscalculated where he had buried the body.

When I returned from a late lunch today around 3:30, my answering machine was blinking, showing five messages since I had been gone. One message was from a coroner’s assistant in another parish asking if we could visit him tomorrow. He had information on someone who had most likely just drowned in the Mississippi River. All of the local and regional law-enforcement agencies know that we are working on a computer model to try to predict where someone might be found if that person goes into the Mississippi at a particular place at a certain time of year. When they have a case, they call us. Thus far, we have gathered data on approximately 300 river victims. We will meet the investigator early in the morning.

Two calls from other coroner’s investigators on two other cases, a promise to teach a police workshop this summer, and one blessed wrong number cleared the machine again. A hot bath, soft music, and a tall glass of red wine helped to clear my mind. Good night.