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Authors: Linda Castillo

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural

After the Storm (8 page)

BOOK: After the Storm
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“Notify county, will you?”

“Roger that.”

“Doc Coblentz, too.” Dr. Ludwig Coblentz is a local pediatrician and part-time coroner for Holmes County.

“Will do.”

“Lois, did Hutchinson say if the skull had a body attached to it?”

“He said there’s no skeleton, just a bunch of bones scattered all around.”

“I’ll be there in five minutes.” I hit
and dig for my keys.

“You know it’s going to be an interesting call when you have to ask if the skull is attached to the body,” Glock says.

“That just about sums it up.” I start toward my Explorer. “I’ll keep you posted.”

*   *   *

I’ve driven by the old farm dozens of times over the years. It’s the kind of place you never take notice of because there’s not much there: a dilapidated barn, a couple of smaller outbuildings, a rusty silo set among hip-high weeds. It’s background noise in a landscape you never look at twice. Back in the 1970s, the house was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. There’d been no insurance, and the elderly owners—Mr. and Mrs. Shephard—moved in with their grown children, who continued to farm the land.

The first thing I notice is the debris, scattered wooden siding and a big black walnut tree that’s been stripped of its leaves. I make the turn into a gravel lane overtaken by weeds and clumps of knee-high grass. The lot looks barren without the old barn, which has been reduced to piles of wooden siding, mangled tin shingles, and massive beams. I see the remnants of a concrete foundation that juts a foot out of the ground like an old man’s teeth. The Boy Scout troop is still there, but they’re no longer working. Mostly preteens, they’ve congregated into a circle, sitting on logs or rocks or cross-legged on the ground. Someone has given them bottled water. The boys stare in my direction, and I see several point.

I park behind a yellow school bus. A man in a tan scoutmaster uniform is leaning against an antiquated Jeep, legs crossed at the ankles, talking on his smartphone. He spots me as I exit the Explorer, motions me over, and quickly pockets his phone. He’s a slightly chubby man of about forty with graying hair, a mustache, and sunglasses he’s pushed onto his crown.

“Ken Hutchinson?”

“Yes ma’am.” He strides toward me, looking excited, his hand outstretched.

“I’m Chief of Police Kate Burkholder.”

He shakes my hand with a good bit of vigor. “Thanks for coming so quick.”

Shouts erupt from the boys a dozen yards away. I glance their way to see most of them standing, pointing to where the old barn had been. “It’s over there! Someone’s head! It’s a skull! Over there!”

I offer a small smile. “The kids okay?”

“More excited than upset, I’d say, but then that’s boys for you.”

“We appreciate all of you helping out with the cleanup.”

“Well, that’s what the Boy Scouts do.” He laughs. “Sure didn’t expect to find a head, though. Damnedest thing I ever saw.”

I motion toward the barn. “You want to show me what your boys found?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

With Hutchinson leading the way, we walk along a trampled path that takes us through several inches of mud and knee-high weeds. The sun beats down on my back, and I enjoy the warmth against my skin. I can hear the calls of the red-winged blackbirds as they swoop over the small pond at the rear of the property. We round the fallen trunk of a tree, then I spot the foundation twenty feet away, a worn ridge of concrete. Sure enough, just inside the foundation is the white globe of what looks like a human skull.

I stop outside the foundation and raise my hand to prevent Hutchinson from stepping over it. “Probably best if we don’t get too close,” I tell him.

“Oh. Sure. Of course.”

“Did anyone touch or move anything?” I ask. “The boys?”

“The boys that found it turned over the skull. They thought it was a rock at first. Then they noticed the teeth and those eye sockets.” He shivers with exaggeration. “And they got the heck out of there.”

From where I’m standing I can see small black scraps of what looks like the remnants of a garbage bag that’s badly deteriorated. The ground has been disturbed, by sneakers and perhaps by the storm. Three feet away, I spot the gray-white length of a larger bone. A femur? Part of what looks like vertebrae. Smaller bones of indiscernible origin.

“Is it human?” Hutchinson asks.

“Looks like it,” I tell him.

“Wow. Can’t believe we uncovered a
” He scratches his head. “How do you think it got here?”

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “But I’d venture to say it didn’t get into that bag without some help.”



An hour later, Dr. Ludwig Coblentz and I are standing near where the old barn had once stood, looking down at a human skull. Usually, a call such as this one—the discovery of human remains—would draw a multitude of law enforcement from multiple agencies. Today, however, most cops in the area are occupied with tornado-related issues, many having worked through the night. Glock swung by earlier to lend a hand taping off the scene, but he got called away on a report of possible looting at a gas station that was damaged by the storm. Until I determine otherwise, this area will be treated as a crime scene.

Mr. Hutchinson has rejoined his scouts, who are now munching on burgers and fries from the McDonald’s in Millersburg. They’ve dragged cut logs into a long row so that they have an unimpeded view of the coroner and me.

“I think they’re enjoying this more than that LEGO movie,” the doc comments as he slips shoe covers onto his feet.

“It beats picking up trash.” I pull on my shoe covers and, together, we enter the scene.

The doc squats next to the skull. “It’s definitely human.”

I motion toward the femur. “What about that? Is it part of the same skeleton?”

“That’s a human femur.” He turns slightly, indicates the vertebrae scattered a few feet away. “Those are human as well.”

“Any idea how long they’ve been here?” I ask.

Grunting, he rises and goes to the black equipment bag he had set on the ground on the other side of the foundation. He removes two sets of blue gloves and hands a pair to me. “You know you’re going to have to get a forensic anthropologist down here to excavate and remove these bones, don’t you?”

“Tomasetti recommended an FA who’s worked several cases for BCI.” I glance at my watch. “He should be here any time now.” I slip my hands into the gloves. “I thought maybe you could give me a ballpark.”

“Let’s take a closer look.” He kneels next to the skull and picks it up. “There’s no trace of any soft tissue. Even the hair is gone from the scalp. I have no way of knowing if that’s due to time or elements or scavengers. That said, taking into consideration the condition of the bones and our climate here in northeastern Ohio … I’d say these bones have been here at least a decade.” He shrugs. “Depending on the PH of the soil, the bones themselves will eventually disintegrate or even fossilize. So, probably less than thirty years.”

“Pretty large ballpark.”

“You asked.” He frowns, but I see amusement behind his bifocals. “I really can’t get you any closer than that.”

“Can you tell if the person was male or female?”

“There’s no pelvis in sight,
…” Tilting his head back slightly, the doc lifts the skull, brushing away a bit of soil, and studies it through his bifocals. “This isn’t foolproof, Chief, but even with my proletarian eye, I can see that there’s a pronounced supraorbital ridge.” He runs a finger over the spot above the eye sockets, about where the brow would be. “I can’t tell you for certain, but I would venture to say this skull belonged to a male.”


He shakes his head. “No clue.”

I look around. The dirt is smooth and hard-packed. There are several pea-size pebbles and other debris. A few bones scattered about, some partially buried. “There don’t seem to be enough bones here for a full skeleton,” I say.

“You’re right; there’s not.”

“Could be buried.”

“Maybe.” He sets down the skull and looks around. “Or if animals had access to this area, the bones could have been carried off or even consumed over the years.”

I indicate the small fragments of what looks like black plastic. “Those pieces,” I say, pointing. “Is it plastic? Fabric? Clothing, maybe?”

His shoe covers crinkle as he crosses to one of the larger fragments and bends for a closer look. “Some kind of nonporous material. Quite deteriorated.”

I squat beside him. “Doc, it looks like pieces of a garbage bag.”

He tosses me a knowing look. “That doesn’t bode well for whatever happened to this individual.”

Uneasy questions pry into my brain. Did this person suffer some kind of fall and die? Was he crawling around under the old barn and got stuck? Was he working down here and suffered a heart attack? Or did someone murder him, place his body in a garbage bag, and dump it?

I think about the scarcity of bones, and something dark nudges at my brain. “If those fragments are indeed from some type of bag—a garbage bag, for example—we could be looking at foul play.”

“Bones always have a story to tell,” the doc says to me.

“I suspect the owner of these particular bones didn’t have a happy ending.”

*   *   *

It takes nearly three hours for the forensic anthropologist to arrive. I used the time to start documenting the scene, taking several dozen photographs, including close-ups of the bones and the scraps of plastic, as well as the surrounding ground. I also walked the immediate area, looking for anything that might offer an explanation for the bones or for additional bones scattered by animals. I’m sipping a bottle of water one of the Boy Scouts brought over to me, when Tomasetti’s Tahoe, a Holmes County Sheriff’s Department cruiser, and a silver Prius pull in and park in the weeds a prudent distance from the scene.

Doc is sitting in his Escalade, talking on his smartphone. A Holmes County deputy and I are standing near my Explorer, exchanging theories and getting sunburned. Two men I don’t recognize get out of the Prius. Sheriff Mike Rasmussen is the driver of the sheriff’s department cruiser. The four men approach.

“I heard someone found some bones out here,” the sheriff says.

I give his hand a firm shake. “A couple of Boy Scouts found a skull while they were cleaning up.”

“Hope they weren’t too traumatized.”

“More intrigued, I think.”

“Dead bodies always make for good ghost stories.”

Tomasetti reaches us, looking at me a little too intently. “Chief.”

I feel a little conspicuous going through the formality of a handshake; we share the same bed every night, and I’m pretty sure Rasmussen knows we’re living together. For the sake of professional decorum, we go through the motions, anyway. “Hi, John.”

He turns to the forty-something man at his side. “This is Lyle Stevitch, the forensic anthropologist from Lucas County I told you about.”

Stevitch sticks out his hand. “Don’t believe a word he told you,” he says with a smile.

He’s a studious-looking man with wire-rimmed glasses and a precision goatee that conjures images of Burl Ives. He looks more like a college professor than a forensic anthropologist, but already his eyes are drifting past me toward the caution tape, and I know he’s anxious to get started.

“Thanks for coming,” I say.

He introduces the young man at his side. “This is Tyler Hochheim. He’s a student at Mercyhurst in Erie and interning with me for the summer.”

Wearing a wool beanie over shoulder-length hair tied into a ponytail at his nape, Hochheim looks more like a member of the Occupy Wall Street movement than the assistant of a renowned forensic anthropologist. He’s carrying a large canvas bag in one hand, a large toolbox in the other.

Doc Coblentz joins us. Once introductions are made, we start toward the scene, with Doc outlining everything we’ve discovered so far. “There aren’t enough bones for a full skeleton, so I suspect some may have been carried away by scavengers over the years.”

“Or else they’re buried,” I add.

Rasmussen, Tomasetti, and I exchange looks, and I know they’re thinking the same thing I am.
Or the deceased was dismembered elsewhere, his body dumped in several locations …

Hands on his hips, Stevitch looks out over the scene, giving a decisive nod. “Let’s set up a grid, and then we’ll begin by collecting everything we find on the surface. Once everything is bagged and labeled and photographed, we’ll begin the excavation.” He addresses Tyler. “We’re going to need soil samples and a thorough sweep with the metal detector, too.”

“Okay.” His assistant steps outside the taped-off scene and sets the bag on the ground. He removes full-body biohazard suits with zippered fronts and passes one to Stevitch. Tyler then spreads a crisp blue sheet on the ground and begins setting out the tools of his trade: a smaller folding shovel, several different types of brushes ranging in size from a makeup brush to a paintbrush, another tool that looks like a stainless-steel trowel, several picks and chisels of different sizes, a dozen or more plastic containers with sealing lids. He then wraps a tool belt of sorts around his waist. Once he’s suited up, he goes back to the canvas bag, pulls out several plastic stakes, a hammer, and a roll of twine and proceeds to mark off a perimeter of the area in which they’ll be working.

The process seems oddly unscientific in light of the fact that they’re excavating human remains. Tomasetti has assured me Stevitch is good at what he does, and I know the real work will begin once they get everything to the laboratory.

I’m anxious to get moving on the identification process, but I’m well aware it will be a tedious endeavor and could take weeks or even months. Still, Painters Mill is a small town. I know if I take a look at missing person reports, there’s a decent chance I may be able to come up with a few names, especially if I can narrow it down by sex and the number of years they’ve been missing. Unless, of course, this individual was from a larger city and dumped.…

“Doctor Stevitch,” I begin, “Doc Coblentz estimated these bones might have been here a decade or more, and that the deceased is probably male. Do you agree?”

BOOK: After the Storm
11.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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