photo: Dan4th Nicholas, creative commons license
By Steve Jackson, narrated by Kevin Pierce. Every year, thousands of Americans disappear who are believed murdered, but their bodies are never found. Even if the police have a suspect, lack of a body and the evidence associated with it impedes and may even prevent prosecution. Without a body, the case may be just not winnable “beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
As harrowing as any fictional thriller, this absorbing book tells the real-life story of Colorado-based NecroSearch International—an organization of volunteer scientists that brings a surprisingly large array of disciplines to the search for clandestine graves and the analysis of the evidence they hold. What began as a research project has led to work with police forces from across the country to find the bodies of more than 300 people missing and believed murdered. This book, initially published in 2001, was updated in 2015 for the audio and Kindle editions.
When a small group of researchers began this work, they were interested only in developing more scientific methods for grave searches. They started by burying the bodies of pigs at various depths to see how, over time, different detection methods could yield useful results. Eventually, they added experts in additional specialties, bringing together forensic scientists, soil experts, naturalists, botanists who know which plants grow in disturbed soil, geologists, experts on hydrology, meteorology, psychology, geophysics, entomology, anthropology, and “cadaver dog” handlers. Some members now are from law enforcement.
They use technology—like ground-penetrating radar, infrared imaging, and aerial photography (now sometimes using drones)—but it’s their encyclopedic knowledge of the way soil, stone, water, plants, insects, and wildlife interact that sets them apart. The scientists always caution that no technology can reveal where a body is, but their methods can tell the police where to look.
When the police have a suspected grave site, the alternative, still used too often, is to bring in a backhoe, destroying evidence and disturbing the remains, so that tiny details that provide important clues are lost. NecroSearch approaches a site like an anthropologist exploring an ancient city, gently removing one layer of soil at a time and sifting it for evidence.
Their first of many setbacks was when some of the pigs were dug up and scavenged by animals. Once they realized a human corpse was as likely to be scavenged as one of the pigs, this became an opportunity to bring in animal behavior experts to consider likely predators and how they would deal with the remains.
Jackson, a journalist with a talent for clear and compelling prose, tells the story of their accumulating expertise through the actual cases they worked on—not all of which were successful. Team members work as volunteers, asking only for expense reimbursement. Their payment is in the form of satisfaction—the successful application of scientific methods to difficult problems, aiding the police in finding evidence that will allow a murderer to go to trial, and, every bit as important to them, giving closure to the family and the investigators, often after years of fruitless searching and agonizing uncertainty.
Kevin Pierce gives a fine, energetic reading that draws you into the cases and what it means to the scientists when they are able to resolve one. “There is no statute of limitations on murder,” they say, “and no statute of limitations on grief. The truth does matter.”