Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

April 8, 2014

Investigative forensic science close to home

By Arlene Albert
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — NCIS? CSI? Bones? All fictional! Here in East Tennessee, they have a real investigative forensic expert — Dr. Bill Bass. More than 200 Neighbors and Newcomers members and guests, including a forensic science honors class from Stone Memorial High School, heard Dr. Bass describe several of his more 700 cases. It was a 65-minute crash course in how a forensic investigation in conducted that the audience will never forget.  

Dr. Bass is not an arm-chair scientist, but one who works in the field. His first example involved a possible “faked” death of a 32-year-old white male from Connecticut, with a $7 million insurance policy. The insurance company hired Dr. Bass to go down to Monterey, Mexico, to make a positive ID of this “victim.”

Despite a burned car, burned body and even personal jewelry, Dr. Bass was able to show from the “bones,” particularly that of the osteoarthritis present in the first cervical (neck) vertebrae (this was an honors class) that the man was at least 60 years old. The teeth also proved that the man was not Caucasian, but probably of Mexican descent. Dr, Bass used detailed slides to walk them through his investigation. (The referred-to gentleman, after serving some prison time, is now practicing as a financial planner in Atlanta.) 

The audience followed Dr. Bass through Sevierville, Dalton, McMinnville, Sparta and Greene County as he investigated cases of murder, suicide and accidental deaths. In the suicide case, the time of death was determined by the amount of tree growth around the rope used. A previous broken leg bone was used to ID a murdered man and the eventual apprehension of his killers. He and his team of graduate students have tracked down bone segments in woods, down escarpments, in poison ivy patches and under burned out areas. Many times, the initial investigation started with a human bone, dug up by a family’s dog and brought home. (So take a “second look” if you see your dog chewing on something that is not the Milk Bone treat you gave him).

Some “terms” learned were “screening” (shifting through dirt to find small bone fragments) and “video superimposing” where a skull is superimposed over a photograph to determine ID. Other incidental facts included being able to feel the root of one’s canine teeth, because they have the largest root, by rubbing your finger across the area above your upper lip (which everyone immediately did); the effects of exposure to poison ivy being helped by spraying yourself with spray deordorant; or the best time to murder and hide a body is in September as the leaves start to fall. (FYI – Cumberland County has proved to be one of the more popular places to dispose of bodies in East Tennessee).

Dr. Bass is the author of non-fiction books on The Body Farm and the co-author, under the name Jefferson Bass, of several fiction books. From 1971 until his retirement, he was the chair of the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee.

The next investigative question should be: where did this presentation occur? At the March 27 meeting of the Neighbors and Newcomers Club held at the Cumberland County Community Building. President Jan Elwood opened the meeting at 11 a.m., and reports were made from the treasurer, caring committee, nominating and programs, followed by the introduction of four new guests.

A new trip was announced — June 7 showing of War Horse in Nashville. Those interested should contact Shirley Butka at 484-9611. Lunch was provided by CMC. A collection was made for AARF. Door prizes were provided by Cumberland County Playhouse, Hair Connection, Heartland Florist, The Screen Door, Villa Pizza, Bojangle’s, Mayberry’s, Angel’s Heavenly Treats and Eats, Nailtique, Genesis Italian Grill, 5th St. Market Place Café, Kirk Automotive, Forte’s, Captain D’s, Tokyo Steak House and Romo’s Mexican Restaurant.

The next meeting of Neighbors and Newcomers will be held at the 4-H Camp April 25. Reservations can be made online (check your email for reminders) or by calling Robbie Corbin at 456-2790. The program will be a silent auction. No bones, please.