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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Forensic Pathology: A Profession in Trouble

     Forensic pathologists are physicians educated and trained to determine the cause and manner of death in cases involving violent, sudden, or unexplained fatalities. The cause of death is the medical reason the person died. One cause of death is asphyxia--lack of oxygen to the brain. It occurs as a result of drowning, suffocation, manual strangulation by ligature (such as by rope, belt, or length of cloth), crushing, or carbon monoxide poisoning. Other causes of death include blunt force trauma, gunshot wound, stabbing, slashing, poisoning, heart attack, stroke, or a sickness such as cancer, pneumonia, or heart disease.

     For the forensic pathologist, the most difficult task often involves detecting the manner of death--natural, accidental, suicidal, or homicidal. This is because the manner of death isn't always revealed by the condition of the body. For example, a death resulting from a drug overdose could be the result of homicide, suicide, or accident. Knowing exactly how the fatal drug got into the victim's body requires additional information, data that usually comes from a police investigation. When the circumstances of a suspicious death are not ascertained or are sketchy, and the death was not an obvious homicide, the medical examiner (or coroner) might classify the manner of death as "undetermined."

     The autopsy, along with the crime-scene investigation, is the starting point, the foundation, of a homicide investigation. If something is missed or mishandled on the autopsy table, if the forensic pathologist draws the wrong conclusion from the evidence, the investigation is doomed.

     Up until the 1930s, before the English forensic pathologist Dr. Bernard Spilsbury glamorized the profession through a series of high-profile murder case solutions, forensic pathology was called "the beastly science." Today, in the U.S., there are about 400 practicing forensic pathologists. For medical examiner and coroner systems to work properly, we need at least 800 of these practitioners. On average, about 35 of the 15,000 students who enroll in medical school every year graduate to become forensic pathologists. Recently, 12 of the nation's 37 forensic pathology programs had no students.

     Forensic pathologists in the United States are overworked. Given the nature of the job, they are under constant pressure from politicians, prosecutors, homicide investigators, families of the deceased, and the media. The pay is relatively low, they often work in unsanitary morgue conditions, and in many jurisdictions, have run out of space to store dead bodies. Many forensic pathologists have burned out, and more than a few have had mental breakdowns.    

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Sheriff Larry Dever: A Sudden, Violent and Unexplained Death

     In 2008, the citizens of Cochise County elected Larry A. Dever to his fourth term as Sheriff of this southeastern region of Arizona adjacent the Mexican border. (Cochise County, with a population of 132,000, shares an 83.5 mile border with Mexico. Bisbee is the county seat.) Larry Dever resided in St. David with his wife, a retired special education administrator. He had grown up in the town of 1,700, and had helped raise a family there. Three of the sheriff's six sons worked in Arizona law enforcement. Sheriff Dever began his law enforcement career in 1976 as a Cochise County deputy sheriff. In Cochise County, Sheriff Dever was well-liked and respected as a law enforcement officer and member of the community.

     Because Cochise County had experienced crime and other social problems associated with the wave of illegal immigration from Mexico, Sheriff Dever, an authority of border enforcement, had testified before Congress, and had appeared numerous times on national television.  In 2011 and 2012, Sheriff Dever spoke out as a strong proponent of Arizona's new immigration law (SB 1070), and publicly criticized the Obama administration for under-enforcing current immigration laws. Dever believed that the federal government had intentionally lost control of the U.S./Mexican border.

     On September 18, 2012, less than two months before he would have been elected to his fifth term in office, Sheriff Dever was driving alone in his 2008 Chevrolet Silverado on a graveled U.S. Forest Service Road in the north central part of the state just west of Flagstaff. He was en route to White Horse Lake to participate in a two-day hunting and camping trip with his six sons.

     On that day, at 6:30 in the evening, a motorist called 911 to report a single vehicle accident on U.S. Forest Road 109 in Coconino County two miles north of White Horse Lake. The witness said he had been following the extended-cab Silverado, but lost sight of the pickup when it rounded a curve. When the witness rounded the bend, he saw a cloud of dust, and the truck off the road sitting in an upright position. The caller told the 911 dispatcher that the man in the vehicle showed no signs of life.

     Coconino County Sheriff's detective Jerome Moran, in his six-page accident report dated September 19, 2012, wrote: "The initial investigation indicates that [the] driver was traveling southbound on the dirt road when it lost control, veering off the lefthand side of the road then rolling over and crashing into the righthand (west) side. [The] driver was pronounced dead at the scene and later removed by the county medical examiner to the M.E. Office."

     In his accident report, Detective Moran indicated that the Siverado's airbags had not deployed. The detective also noted that Sheriff Dever had not been wearing his shoulder and lap belts. The report contained no information regarding the presence of alcohol in the vehicle, or the odor of beer or liquor in the cab of the truck.

     On October 1, 2012, a spokesperson for the Coconino Sheriff's Office reported that according to the Siverado's "black box," Sheriff Dever, at the time of the accident, had been traveling 62 MPH. Moreover, there had been containers of beer and liquor in the vehicle.

     The Cochise County Sheriff's Office, on October 5, 2012, issued a statement that Sheriff Dever, at the time of his death, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.291 percent, three times the legal limit (0.08) in Arizona. (A company in Indianapolis, Indiana called AIT Laboratories, performed the toxicological urine analysis in this case.) In the prepared press release, the sheriff's office informed the public that Sheriff Dever had been under "stress and pressure" due to the recent death of his 86-year-old mother, and the upcoming deployment of one of his sons to Afghanistan.

     Three days after the shocking revelation that Sheriff Larry Dever had been extremely intoxicated behind the wheel of his vehicle, the Coconino County Medical Examiner, Dr. A. L. Mosley, announced that the sheriff had died of "multiple injuries due to a pickup truck crash." Regarding the sheriff's manner of death, Dr. Mosley classified it as "accidental."

     A review of Dr. Mosley's six-page autopsy report revealed that Sheriff Dever had a dislocated shoulder, a rib fracture, a puncture lung, and abrasions, contusions, and lacerations on his face, hand, arm, and neck. There was no indication in the report of severe bleeding, or major trauma to Dever's head, neck or torso. In summarizing Sheriff Dever's cause and manner of death, Dr. Mosley, in my view, was quite vague: "Based on the autopsy findings and investigative history, as available to me, it is my opinion that Larry Albert Dever, a 60-year-old Caucasian male, died as a result of multiple injuries due to a pickup truck crash. [His] manner of death is accidental." (From this I presume that Dr. Mosley was not the pathologist who actually performed the autopsy.)

     "Multiple injuries?" Did Sheriff Dever die of a dislocated shoulder, a rib fracture, or a punctured lung? Surely the sheriff didn't die from his cuts, scrapes and bruises. He didn't bleed to death, or sustain brain damage, and he suffered no injury to his heart. How exactly, did this man die. Exactly what had killed him?

     On October 10, 2012, a freelance writer named Dave Gibson wrote an online article for the Immigration Reform Examiner called, "Sheriff Larry Dever's Autopsy Results in More Questions than Answers." In his piece, Gibson wrote that a man of the sheriff's size--175 pounds--to achieve a blood-alcholol percentage of 0.291, would have, during a short period, consumed 12 beers or 12 shots of 80 proof liquor. According to a longtime friend of the sheriff's who was interviewed by Gibson, Dever was a light drinker. Gibson also pointed out that the sheriff's 4-wheel drive truck had light damage from the accident.

     It seemed odd that a law enforcement officer who had been to the sites of dozens of fatal traffic accidents involving alcohol, would be speeding on a graveled road while extremely drunk and not wearing his seatbelt. It also didn't make much sense that Dever would be driven to such recklessness over the cancer death of his 86-year-old mother. If he had been so distraught over her death, why was he going on a camping/hunting trip with his sons?

     Suicide in this case even made less sense. Had Sheriff Dever wanted to kill himself in a way that looked like a traffic accident, why did he get drunk, and unfasten his seatbelt?

     Every year in the United States there are hundreds of sudden, violent deaths that, for one reason or another, are mislabeled in terms of their cause and manner of death. Perhaps Sheriff Dever's death was one of these cases. In any case, I think the circumstances surrounding this prominent law enforcement officer's sudden and poorly explained death deserved a closer look. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Betty Neumar Black Widow Murder Case

     In November 1950, Betty Johnson, an 18-year-old coal miner's daughter who had grown up in Ironton, a town in southeastern Ohio along the West Virginia border, married Clarence Malone. In 1952, shortly after the birth of their son Gary, the couple, while living outside of Cleveland, separated. A year later, Betty married an alcoholic from New York City named James F. Flynn who died suddenly in 1955. In the years following Mr. Flynn's passing, Betty told people various stories of his death. She said that he had been killed in a car accident, was murdered on a New York City pier, and died in the snow from exposure. The cause and circumstances of his death are, to this day, unknown.

     In 1964, while working in Jacksonville, Florida as a beautician, Betty, then 36, married a 29-year-old Navy man named Richard Sills. In April 1967,  police found Mr. Sills shot to death in the bedroom of the couple's mobile home in Big Coppitt Key, Florida. Betty told investigators that her husband, during an argument they were having, pulled out a .22-caliber pistol and shot himself in the heart. Mr Sill's highly suspicious death, without the benefit of an autopsy, was ruled a suicide. (Years later, a forensic pathologist determined that Richard Sills had been shot twice.)

     Betty married an Army man named Harold Gentry in January 1968. Two years later, while still married to Mr. Gentry, Clarence Malone, Betty's first husband, was shot to death outside his automobile repair shop near Cleveland. Police never identified the gunman, who, in execution style, shot Mr. Malone in the back of the head.

     Betty's 33-year-old son Gary, in November 1985, was shot to death in his Cleveland area apartment. As the beneficiary to his life insurance policy, Betty received $10,000. The police never identified Gary's killer.

     In July 1986, Betty and Harold Gentry, now retired from the Army, were living in Norwood, North Carolina about 50 miles east of Charlotte. That month, someone fired six bullets into Mr. Gentry. Betty claimed to have been out of town when her fourth husband was shot to death in his own home. The police never identified the shooter. As a result of her fourth husband's untimely and sudden death, Betty enjoyed another life insurance payday.

     In 1991, the 60-year-old serial widow married her fifth and last husband, John Neumar. Nine years later, while living in Augusta, Georgia, the couple, owing $200,000 on 43 credit cards, filed for bankruptcy. In October 2007, Mr. Neumar, at age 79, died. While his cause of death was listed as sepsis (a bacterial blood infection), Mr. Neumar's children believed his wife Betty had poisoned him to death with arsenic. Even though he had paid for a burial plot, Betty had her husband's body quickly cremated. Those who suspect her of murdering Mr. Neumar believed she had him cremated to avoid an autopsy and telltale toxicology tests.

     In 2008, following a cold-case homicide investigation in North Carolina, a grand jury indicted Betty Neumar on three counts of solicitation to commit the first-degree murder of her fourth husband, Harold Gentry. According to investigators, Betty had asked three people-- a former cop, a neighbor, and a third man--to kill her husband. None of these potential hitmen carried out the murder, but a fourth person who had never been identified did follow through on the suspected contract killing.

     Almost a year after her arrest in the Gentry case, Betty Neumar made her $300,000 bail. (Where did she get the money for that?) After being released from jail, she moved to Louisiana. That year a television documentary about Betty Neumar called "Black Widow Granny," was aired on the BBC in the United Kingdom. Film-maker Norman Hull interviewed Betty and the relatives of her dead husbands who believed she had murdered them for their insurance money. In response to these accusations, Betty said, "I cannot control when somebody dies. That's God's work." (Not always.)

     Betty Neuman died of cancer in June 2011 while being treated a Fork Polk, Louisiana hospital. The so-called Black Widow passed away before the authorities in North Carolina could try her for soliciting Harold Gentry's murder. Under the law, Betty Neuman went to her death presumed innocent. Her in-laws, however, did not share that presumption.