In August of 2011, Ann Ross, a North Carolina State University anthropologist, got a call from Deborah Radisch, who had just received a body bag containing fresh bones. The bag had recently been shipped from Texas, via commercial airliner, and Radisch needed Ross' help.
It wasn't uncommon for Ross to receive such requests from North Carolina's chief medical examiner. Ross was a national leader in forensic anthropology, a growing field whose scientists study bones to help solve murders and other untimely deaths. While Radisch was tasked with investigating deaths in which foul play was suspected, her expertise was in soft tissue, not skeletal remains.
Ross' most valuable skill was victim identification. Through bone-analysis techniques, some of which she developed herself, the professor could often determine a decomposed victim's age, weight, height and ethnicity, as well as the cause and time of death. She took methods to assess the health of the living, and applied them to the dead. In short, she was a bone detective.
The case of the Texas body bag was particularly vexing to Radisch. A month earlier a woman from Kinston, a city 90 miles southeast of Raleigh, had disappeared. Eleven days later a collection of bones turned up in a Texas creek. Dental records linked the remains to the Kinston woman, Laura Ackerson, who had been in a custody dispute with her ex-boyfriend, a Raleigh musician and the father of her two children.
But after opening the body bag in her Chapel Hill lab, Radisch was flummoxed. The Galveston medical examiner's autopsy was sloppy. He had sawed into many bone fragments himself, and several parts of the skeleton were improperly labeled, or not labeled at all. A piece of neck cartilage was partially crushed, suggesting strangulation, but Radisch couldn't be sure. The cartilage arrived in a peculiar mass of tissue, and it was possible that the Galveston doctor crushed it himself.
Radisch needed Ross to tell her which bones had been sliced by the Galveston doctor, and which had been sawed by Ackerson's murderer. More important, Radisch wondered if Ross could solve a key mystery of the case: determining the precise type of saw used to dismember the 27-year-old mother.
The phone call marked the early stages of an investigation that took several twists during its two-year course. Ackerson's murder and dismemberment would become one of the most notorious cases in the city's history, sensationalized by local media when it went to trial.
And yet, few people know about the woman who arguably played the most pivotal role in cracking the case: a bone scientist who adored animals. And it was an animal, in fact, that provided the crucial clue in solving the crime.
In July 2011, three weeks before Radisch received the body bag, Raleigh prosecutor Boz Zellinger was working late in the courthouse when his boss called with a pressing assignment. A team of police detectives had just assembled an ad-hoc meeting to discuss an investigation about a missing person that was on the verge of being reclassified as a homicide case.
An ambitious lawyer who coached youth basketball on the side, Zellinger, 29, had quickly ascended the ranks of the Wake County District Attorney's office. He'd heard news reports of Ackerson's disappearance a week earlier after a local television station, tipped off to a lead in Texas, sent a crew to investigate. Raleigh police, meanwhile, were working to build a case. The prime suspect was Ackerson's ex-boyfriend, Grant Hayes, a musical fixture in the city's restaurant and bar scene. Zellinger and Hayes had mutual acquaintances, and the young attorney knew that if Hayes was charged with Ackerson's murder, the case would explode.
Zellinger sped to the police station and sat next to the homicide detectives, who were discussing the evidence pointing to Hayes. The biggest clue had come from Hayes' sister-in-law, Karen Berry, who lived 60 miles south of Houston. She told police that Grant and his wife, Amanda, had shown up unexpectedly with a U-Haul truck. Berry then advised investigators to search for Ackerson around a nearby creek.
In Raleigh, detectives had searched the Hayes' apartment in the northern part of the city. They found no sign of Grant and Amanda, but did notice two bleach stains on the carpet. Cell phone investigations confirmed that Grant Hayes traveled to Texas shortly after Ackerson's disappearance, and had since returned to Kinston, where his parents lived.
As Zellinger listened to the police briefing, however, he knew the case against Hayes was hardly solid. No murder weapon had been located, and there were no signs of a struggle in his apartment. And even if Ackerson's body was discovered, Zellinger knew he would need hard evidence—something physical, linked directly to Hayes—to get a conviction.
As the meeting ran into the evening, a detective suddenly burst into the room with news. In a Texas creek, caught in some foliage, a dive team had found a torso bone.
Ann Ross sat cross-legged on the floor of her laboratory making baby talk with her nervous new puppy, Cocoa, when I visited her earlier this summer.
"Mama's here," the N.C. State professor cooed. "Did you think I abandoned you? We gotta get you socialized, my little alien."
A cuddly brown Shar-Pei, Cocoa was the latest addition to Ross' menagerie. The anthropologist also cared for a second Shar-Pei, Izzy, and three tailless Manx rescues: Lady Pyewacket, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and Sir Francis Drake. Ross' grandmother was born on the Isle of Man, which is off the English coast and the birthplace of the Manx.
"Cats with tails," said the professor, who is in her mid-40s, "now seem really weird." A tattooed Manx adorned Ross' upper back, and silver fish skeletons dangled from her ears. A dog emblem hung from her neck, given to her by a doctoral student after the scientist's eldest Shar-Pei died.
"I've always been interested in how creatures move and live," said Ross, who was dressed in a pink-and-brown blouse and sandals exposing lavender nail polish. Her shoulder-length brown hair neatly framed her dark, almond-shaped eyes. On her desk sat several bones, including a bird skull discovered by her 9-year-old son, who wants to be a zoologist. "Isn't it cool?" she exclaimed, joking that her son is evidently not put off by the "little dead things everywhere in my house."
Ross is one of 70 diplomates on the American Board of Forensic Anthropology—the highest national honor in the field. In her 14-year career, several North Carolina missing person cases morphed into homicide cases based on her reports. She single-handedly identified some of the remains from the infamous Edgecombe County serial killings, and the U.S. Department of Justice has relied on her research on several occasions.
Ross was born in Panama to a Chilean mother and British father, a shipping agent who wanted his daughter to be a banker. But a college accounting class, recalled Ross, "was like Chinese water torture." During a second undergraduate program at Florida Atlantic University, Ross took an internship with the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office, which housed a nationally renowned "Bone Room," stuffed with a bevy of skeletal evidence during a time when the cocaine trade produced hundreds of homicide victims in the city each year.
The office had been run since the 1950s by pioneering pathologist Joe Davis, who was consulted on the deaths of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Elvis Presley. (Davis died last year.) To Ross, her mentor's office was "like Disney World for forensic scientists." As she observed Davis' autopsies, the young pupil became obsessed with murder cases. She studied bullet calibers and ax bludgeonings. "Holy crud, you can tell the type of weapon that was used on the skull bone because of the shape," she thought.
For her doctorate, Ross enrolled in the University of Tennessee, where the original "body farm"—a facility dedicated to studying human decay—had been built in 1981 under anthropologist Bill Bass, who In 2000 told The New York Times Magazine that the only way to measure decomposition "was to let a body rot and watch it." (Five additional body farms have since been built in America, one of which resides on the campus of Western Carolina University, where anthropologists are using geographic information systems to analyze dismemberment marks.)
In 1996 Ross traveled to Bosnia, shortly after that country's genocide, to identify victims. While there, she determined that Bosnians grew taller and aged faster than Americans, and she developed new measuring standards for Eastern Europeans, still used today. She also worked closely with victims' loved ones, which endowed her with a heightened sense of justice. She became a workaholic, analyzing every last bone crevice.
Sometimes she let her emotions simmer. Noticing her angst, her mentors advised their young charge to remain detached. "Just be a scientist, Ann," they said. "Be thoughtful and disciplined, and always, always confirm your findings."
Soon, Ross was tapped to join a federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, or "DMORT." Similar to National Guard reserves, DMORT volunteers respond to national and international crises. When Hurricane Katrina struck, Ross traveled to New Orleans to identify and transport bones to families, and made a similar trip to Haiti after a 2010 earthquake decimated the island nation. In 2008 the Chilean government requested Ross' assistance in investigating the human remains of torture victims. "Not many folks like to go beyond our borders," Douglas Ubelaker, a Smithsonian curator who has assisted with several FBI cases, told me, recalling Ross as an eager graduate student who continually approached him with project ideas. "But Ann doesn't just hole up in North Carolina. She's out in the world."
Six years ago, Ross co-created a technology called 3D-ID to determine the ancestry of unidentified skulls. Using a process called geometric morphometrics and a digitizer, which is like an electronic marker, the software allows an anthropologist to record up to 34 coordinates of a skull and compare the resulting measurements—the shape of a forehead, for example—with about 1,300 reference skulls recorded in a database. (Collected mostly by Ross, the skulls came from museums, medical schools and cemeteries.) The software spits out conclusions with remarkable specificity: not just "Hispanic," for example, but "Hispanic of Mesoamerican origin" or "Hispanic of Caribbean origin."
Ross built the software with Dennis Slice, now a professor with Florida State University's scientific computing department, who specializes in the shapes of things like turtle shells and military helmets. The 3D-ID program is considered a breakthrough in modern forensic anthropology. "Ann is always pushing things forward," said Slice. "She's always moving the goal lines."
Shortly after discovering the torso bone, the Texas dive team collected more remains from the creek, including a skull. Dental records revealed they were Ackerson's. Grant and Amanda Hayes were arrested in Kinston. Three autopsies were conducted in Texas, but the doctors were at a loss as to how Ackerson was killed. Judging by the imprint marks left on the bones, however, the dismemberments seemed to be the work of a saw blade.
Texas doctors loaded the bones into a body bag and, under the watch of a police detective, packaged the bag with dry ice and sealed it in a box with evidence tape. The package was loaded into an airplane and transported to Raleigh, where another detective met it on the tarmac. The remains were then delivered to Radisch, the chief medical examiner, for a tool-mark analysis.
When she spoke to Zellinger, Radisch warned him that the cause of death would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine. But the medical examiner had secret confidence in Ross, whom she had handpicked four years beforehand for help with what became known as the Baby Creech case.
In 2007, 11-month-old Harmony Jade Creech went missing from Harnett County, prompting a statewide Amber Alert. Harmony's mother claimed she'd been abducted, but the infant's remains were discovered in a diaper box. Ross determined that Harmony's bones were weathered due to starvation, not post-mortem decomposition, helping prosecutors secure a murder conviction. Afterward, Ross began sending a number of student interns to Radisch's lab, and the two scientists developed a close working relationship.
After receiving Ackerson's bones, Radisch telephoned the skeleton sleuth. "I have a challenge for you," she said. A week later, Radisch arrived to N.C. State's campus toting a large cardboard box. Peering inside, Ross gazed at nearly two-dozen plastic containers filled with pieces of Ackerson's legs, vertebrae, clavicles, ribs and shoulders, along with the the skull. Several bones were badly decomposed, and others were still covered with soft yellow tissue. Alligators had gnawed at a few of them.
Ross had never handled a case involving so many fragments. This is a puzzle, she thought. But I like puzzles.
"I'll try," she promised.
For six weeks Ross conducted a painstaking inventory and studied the bone imprints, known as striations, under her microscope. She determined that Ackerson's killer used a one-millimeter saw blade with 14 teeth per inch. That ruled out certain tenon saws, jig saws, circular saws, bow saws, hacksaws and pruning saws. But the discovery was hardly a breakthrough; 14-teeth-per-inch was a measurement common to many saws.
Next, Ross studied the shafts of the larger bones, most of which were void of "false starts," or crevices where the blade doesn't finish a cut. This suggested that the killer used a handsaw, not a mechanical saw. Handsaws, Ross knew, required greater physical effort to cut through a bone, and killers who used them usually finished the cuts they started.
As she worked, Ross felt her emotions tugging her into the case. The anthropologist had seen Ackerson's photos in the news; the young, dimple-faced victim was smiling alongside her two children. A mother herself, Ross could relate to her. But recalling the lessons from her Bosnia mentors, she told herself: Just be a scientist, Ann. Be thoughtful and always, always confirm your findings. Ross didn't want to send an innocent person to prison.
Eventually, the anthropologist arrived at a small discovery: a tiny stab wound in Ackerson's neck vertebra, caused by a serrated knife. When Ross told Zellinger the news, the prosecutor recalled photographs from the Hayes' kitchen, which revealed a few knives missing from their rack. The stab wound offered the biggest hint as to how Ackerson was murdered, giving Zellinger a jolt of confidence. But still, he wondered, could he link the stab wound directly to Hayes?
Meanwhile, across the county, the media coverage was escalating. The Ackerson case had become a top priority for then-Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, who consistently checked in with Zellinger.
But Ross still couldn't say for sure what type of saw was used to dismember the Kinston mother. The absence of false starts on the bones suggested it was a handsaw, which she noted in her report. But after weeks of analysis, the scientist had hit a wall. Other than the teeth-per-inch measurement, she wasn't certain of anything.
Inside Ross' lab, a full skeleton of a Durham gang member was laid out across a table. The 19-year-old victim had been shot twice in the upper body, execution-style. "He was trying to get out of the gang, and they were unhappy with that," said Ross, who was giving me a tour of her lab.
The room was decorated with light-hearted tonics to ease the macabre nature of its subject matter. Paper skulls hung from a Christmas-style garland draped over a door. A skull and crossbones with a warning sign—"ENTER IF YOU DARE!"—was posted next to a door leading to Ross' evidence room. This storage locker, not unlike Joe Davis's legendary Bone Room in Miami, was stuffed with barcoded boxes of bones for active cases, accessible only to Ross.
Three years after his murder, the Durham gang member's remains were discovered in the woods. Most of his 206 bones were unearthed, with the exception of his hands and feet, pilfered by forest animals. With a gloved hand, Ross picked up the victim's scapula and noted its "beveling": the concentric, flaking pattern created as a bullet exits a bone. The anthropologist also seemed intrigued by a pelvic defect: "the sacrum didn't fuse correctly. He had spina bifida."
On another table rested the skeleton of a Halifax County victim who'd suffered blunt trauma to the head. On a third table, half of a Charlotte man, shot in the face. Sometimes skeletons enter Ross' lab in body bags; on other occasions they arrive with maggots and a putrid stench. Ross and her students refer to the ossified victims by their real names, never their numbers, to preserve their dignity.
Ross' lab was stocked with other tools of the anthropological trade: a hooded bio-hazardous workstation, where she macerates bones with boiling water and bleach. An X-ray to penetrate soft tissue. A computer that confirms a victim's identity by superimposing skull images onto photographs of the victim's living face.
In a corner of the lab, below a poster of the female muscular system, resided what Ross called "the Rolls Royce of microscopes"—an intimidating apparatus with a built-in camera and computer screen, able to measure a bone's depth. "It's worth more than a car," said Ross. "I threaten to cut off students' fingers if they break it."
"Yes, our fingers do get threatened a lot," agreed a doctoral student named Amanda Hale, a 28-year-old who wore Day of the Dead earrings and a pair of flats adorned with gold skulls above the toes. Hale enrolled in Ross' doctoral program after working for a suburban New Orleans coroner's office, where she helped pull bodies from Lake Pontchartrain. She demonstrated various stress-relieving methods used by the research team; on a table there rested a "Dammit doll," clad in skull clothing. Hale grabbed the doll and began whacking its head on the countertop. "Dammit, dammit, dammit," she exclaimed. On other occasions the scholars tell scientist jokes. "What kind of prize should the creator of knock-knock jokes win?" queried a second graduate student, taking a break from bone-cleaning. She paused: "A no-bell prize."
Ross' mentorship of graduate students would have been difficult a generation ago. The field of forensic anthropology remained marginalized until the 1970s, when criminal courts began demanding that forensic anthropologists publish their standards. The discipline traces its roots to 1849, when a wealthy Bostonian and prominent physician named George Parkman went missing. A dismembered body and torched head were discovered in a Harvard laboratory. Two anatomy professors reassembled the bones to determine the victim's height, age and dental characteristics, which matched Parkman's description. The evidence helped convict Harvard chemist John W. Webster, who owed Parkman money. Webster was hanged, and the case was recorded by a Boston attorney in a 628-page manuscript as "a faithful endeavor to perpetuate the particulars of one of the darkest incidents in legal or human annals." The location of Webster's grave was never released for fear that it might attract ghouls and body snatchers.
For nearly a century afterward, however, anthropologists weren't consulted by police or coroners. That changed when '30s-era gangster murders prompted the FBI to seek help. Dead soldiers of World War II and the Korean War, whose health records were recorded upon enlistment, led to the first national database of human-identity information. Now, forensic anthropologists frequently study a victim's medical chart, which offers unique clues to their bones.
In recent decades the field widened to include humanitarian crises, thanks largely to Clyde Snow, a Texas-born grave-digger who identified the remains of war criminals and victims. Snow, who testified against Saddam Hussein, and whose forensic team investigated Argentina's "disappeared" victims during that country's military dictatorship, claimed that every bone lying beneath a silent grave told a story. "The ground is like a beautiful woman," he told The Washington Post in Guatemala in 1991. "If you treat her gently, she'll tell you all her secrets." (Snow died earlier this year.)
A more recent development in the field is the creation of a clearing house called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. Managed in part by forensic anthropologists, the Justice Department database allows users to search for victims by physical and medical characteristics. It has more than 16,000 cases on file. When I spoke to Bruce Anderson, a co-creator of the database who works with the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office in Arizona, he suggested that if more people knew about NamUs, more cold cases would undoubtedly be solved. "Unlike the people who I have seen—border crossers who died in the desert—the great majority of migrants make it to their destination," he said. "These people live in North Carolina, in Raleigh, and they know of others who were supposed to follow them for jobs, but never showed up. Well, if those people died, there's a good chance there is a description of them in NamUs."
Just outside Ross' lab, Hale led me down a corridor with posters showcasing the N.C. State team's research. With a recent U.S. Department of Justice grant, the doctoral student and Ross have been studying the decomposition rates of juvenile bones, using euthanized piglets as proxies. Four miles south of campus, the university owns a research farm near Lake Wheeler, where Ross and her students replicate the environments of child victims; some piglet bones are placed above ground, some are buried, and others are wrapped in blankets or plastic bags. To Ross, the Lake Wheeler farm is invaluable for her research, though the animal lover is squeamish about dead four-legged creatures.
Hale, who like an old-school detective refers to her mentor by last name, is full of praise. "You have to earn Ross' respect, but you get back tenfold." The doctoral student added that Ross has taught her to always, always confirm her findings. "She quantifies her data to leave absolutely no doubt."
That philosophy would play out several months after Ross' initial suggestion that a handsaw was used to dismember Ackerson's body, when another femur bone emerged from the Texas creek. Unlike the other bones, this femur was smooth and dense—and contained several false starts.
My first assessment was wrong, thought Ross when she received it. The murderer used a mechanical saw.
Finding hard evidence linked to Hayes wasn't Zellinger's only concern. To prove murder in the first-degree, the prosecutor needed to show Hayes acted deliberately. He needed a gift.
Several weeks after the investigation began, Zellinger received it from an unlikely source: Amanda Hayes' adult daughter, Sha Guddat. During a visit to the Hayes apartment after her mother's arrest, Guddat discovered, tucked inside a drawer, a saw manual.
The manual, which Guddat turned over to police, provided instructions for a multispeed reciprocating saw manufactured by SKIL Power Tools. The manual depicted a 1-foot-long instrument resembling a power drill, with a thin, jagged blade emerging from the barrel like a bayonet.
From Hayes' financial records, Raleigh detectives knew the musician often frequented the Briar Creek Walmart on Glenwood Avenue, about five miles from his apartment. A detective called the retail outlet. He wanted to know if any identical SKIL saws were sold in this particular three-day window.
The Walmart agent came up with three matches. One of the transactions occurred in the middle of the night, a few hours after Ackerson went missing. It was paid for in cash. Like much of Raleigh, the Walmart agent had followed news coverage of the Hayes case. She offered a DVD containing store footage to the detective. "I think this is the guy you're looking for," said the retail agent.
When Zellinger watched the video, he saw Hayes browsing for several minutes in the saw section, at one point soliciting guidance from a sales associate. After deciding on the SKIL saw, Hayes grabbed an extra all-purpose blade from the rack, and then picked up a box of trash bags, a tarp and some goggles. Zellinger was intrigued by how ice-cold—how deliberate—Hayes appeared as he shopped. The footage provided a crucial link between Hayes and Ackerson's dismemberment—but could Zellinger prove it beyond a reasonable doubt?
The prosecutor called a Raleigh detective and asked him to purchase an identical SKIL saw, as well as an all-purpose blade similar to the one Hayes bought off the rack. Several weeks later, during a meeting inside Ross' lab, Ackerson's remains lay nearby, reminding the attendees of the stakes. The detective handed the newly purchased SKIL saw to Ross. "Can we prove that this was the saw that dismembered Ackerson?" he said.
Ross contemplated the question. No scientific research had been published on reciprocating saws. The anthropologist needed a comparison bone—preferably a wet bone, surrounded by fresh tissue. The ethics of such a task posed obvious problems. But Ross had an idea.
After the meeting adjourned Ross placed a call to a colleague, an entomologist who conducted research on the university's farm on Lake Wheeler.
"I need a pig!" Ross exclaimed.
A few days later the entomologist euthanized a 400-pound hog and delivered it to the farm, where Ross and three students were waiting.
At this point, there was just one problem.
Ross, perhaps the state's leading expert in human remains, was queasy about suffering animals.
Staring at the dead pig, the scientist took a deep breath. Maybe if it wasn't an animal lover I wouldn't be so squeamish, she thought.
Ross decided she couldn't make the cuts herself, so she offered slicing instructions to the students. Two of the hog's femurs were to be cut using the original SKIL blade, and the other two would be cut using the all-purpose blade. The cuts would be made at different motor speeds. The students donned goggles and aprons while Ross nervously retreated a few steps back. Student loses an arm, that would be nice, she thought facetiously.
The students made it through the dicing, and the team transported the carcass to Ross' lab. After a three-week maceration period, Ross placed the tips of the pig bone under her microscope for the big test: comparing them with Ackerson's.
Below the poster of the female muscular system, Ross' students peered over her shoulder as their professor began transmitting the pig photos onto the microscope's computer screen, which already displayed an image of Ackerson's bone. First Ross transmitted the photos of the pig's front femurs, cut with the all-purpose blade. Neither of their saw marks matched Ackerson's.
Next, Ross transmitted a photo of the pig's left hind leg, cut with the originally packaged SKIL blade.
When the image appeared on the screen, the professor and her students needed a moment to process it. Then they shrieked in unison.
The marks left on the pig bone resembled evenly spaced chalk lines drawn diagonally across a bumpy blackboard. The pattern was identical to the pattern depicted on Ackerson's bone. The two photos, side-by-side on the computer screen, almost seemed to bleed into one another. Ross called Zellinger.
"We got a match."
"What?!" exclaimed the prosecutor.
When I met her recently for coffee, Ross wolfed down a breakfast sandwich in two minutes, and then wiped off her fingers, one of which was decorated with a large cow-skull ring. The professor had just returned from vacation in China with her son—a bucket-list task. Cocoa, her new Shar-Pei, had gained 10 pounds in one month. One of her Manx cats had passed away a few days earlier. "I'm heartbroken," she lamented.
Ross admitted that she seeks levity in a career made possible by death. "A light heart," she said, "is good for the soul." Her federally funded piglet study with Hale, her doctoral student, was triggered by the Ackerson case. In that sense, death has brought life, in the form of new research.
Ross still declines to slice into the piglets herself, and often pretends they weren't euthanized. "They're so cuuuute," said the professor. "Like, you don't want bad piggy karma, man."
During Hayes' three-week trial last fall, Ross was one of nearly 50 witnesses called to the stand. Using her own skeleton model, Ross described to the jury Ackerson's disembodiment sites, as well as the stab wound to her neck. On a large courtroom projector screen, the N.C. State professor referenced the photos of the identical bone marks left on Ackerson and the pig. "You can see how the blades actually match up," said the witness.
The jury took less than two hours to convict Grant Hayes of first-degree murder. He received a life sentence. This past January, Amanda Hayes was found guilty of second-degree murder. She was given a sentence of 13 to 16 years in prison. Last month she filed for divorce.
Zellinger praised Raleigh police for their work, and Ross for her sleuthing, adding that her down-to-earth nature and plainspoken testimony sets her apart from other scientists. "When she told me how she'd been squeamish with the pig—that blew my mind," Zellinger told me with a laugh. "She goes to Chile to ID remains in pits, and she can't watch a pig's leg get sawed."
The prosecutor now wants to audit Ross' class. "She has this scientific thirst for figuring out the mystery behind a body," said Zellinger. "It's like having Indiana Jones in your backyard."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Flesh and bone"