Joan Bytheway, director of the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility, recently helped piece together a Montgomery County murder case, which led to a conviction.
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office asked Bytheway to assist them in the case of 46-year-old Deborah Applegate, of New Caney, a disabled mother of three whose remains were found burned in a wooded area in Porter in 2010.
By reconstructing the skeleton, particularly the skull, Bytheway discovered that the victim had sustained blunt force trauma to the left side of her head by being bludgeoned by a hammer. Through other investigation it was also discovered that her throat had been cut at the time of her death, and she was then stuffed in a garbage can and burned a month later.
“He struck her in the head with a hammer and slit her throat,” Bytheway said. “She was put in a garbage can and about a month later, she was set on fire.”
When Bytheway was called into the case, all that remained were charred bones. By reconstructing the skull, she found a triangular piece missing, which had been untouched by flames, indicating that she has been bludgeoned before the fire. In addition, she discovered a tool mark in the skull.
“That piece most likely dislodged before the body was ever burned,” Bytheway said.
The evidence developed at STAFS provided the leverage for the Sheriff’s Office to get a confession from Robert Hinton, II, a 26 year old who plead guilty to the crime. Hinton said he was high on drugs at the time of the murder.
The unusual burn patterns in the case also have proven invaluable for Bytheway’s forensic science students as well as professionals in the field. Bytheway used the adjudicated case in her class and presented her findings at the American Academy of Forensic Science annual meeting in Atlantic in February.
Burning human remains can destroy or alter evidence and is often used to attempt to obscure the identity of an individual. Proper recovery of burned skeletal remains is important for identification of the individual and identification of possible trauma sustained prior to death.
Heat can cause bone fractures making it difficult to distinguish antemortem (before death) trauma from heat altered fractures. Recovery and thorough reconstruction of the skeleton is helpful in determining if there was any trauma to the bones prior to the body being burned. Heat altered bone and teeth exhibit a range of colors indicative of the amount of time the bone and/or teeth were exposed to heat.
In a recent study at the STAFS facility, students examined and compared the more typical burn pattern and color seen on “fresh bone” (bone that is still covered by soft tissue, i.e. skin, muscles, organs) while in a pugilistic pose, to Applegate’s case. Her remains were quite unique.
Prior to being set on fire, the victim was killed, stuffed in a large garbage can in a tightly flexed position and left to decompose for two weeks. After two weeks, the assailant set the garbage can on fire. Bytheway placed the remains on a gurney in the anatomical position for examination by the students. Students could then examine and compare the burn pattern of the skeletal and dental remains of this case to a more typical fresh bone burn case.
With Bytheway’s assistance, the students documented the burn pattern through gross observation, photography, and colored sketches. The burned bone ranged from no burn to calcination. Calcination is defined as bone being white in color with all organic material removed, leaving only inorganic matter. When comparing this case with current literature and images on burn patterns seen in fresh bone in the pugilistic pose, students clearly saw the burn pattern in the adjudicated case was not consistent with the pattern seen in fresh bone cases.
Those findings were presented at the national conference by Forensic Science student Nicole Larison and Bytheway for a panel entitled “Trauma, Burns and Other Gruesome Things.”
The American Academy of Forensic Science has 6,260 members from all 50 states and 62 countries around the world, including physicians, attorneys, dentists, toxicologists, physical anthropologists, document examiners, digital evidence experts, psychiatrists, physicists, engineers, criminalists, educators, digital evidence experts, and others.