A pair of fishermen report that there's a body floating in a creek in the obscure wedge of park space called the White Rock Lake Greenbelt. It's Nov. 21, two days before Thanksgiving. The police respond, calling it a "welfare check," but the description of the man makes it clear he's dead. The weathered corpse has been hung up under downed trees that line a dead-end tributary of White Rock Creek.
The tributary has hardly any flow and no name. It cuts a near-straight line from Northwest Highway to end 2,800 feet north at a slender pond. It's not an intuitive waterway; the water extends north, opposite of White Rock Creek's southerly direction. Without rain, the creek becomes a series of stagnant pools. Oxygen levels drop and living things die. But in a flood, the water can flow into the tributary and elongate that narrow pond. The flowing water brings new life as it drains back into the creek and on to White Rock Lake.
By sunset Tuesday afternoon, the quiet stretch of park is crowded with white vans and cop cars. Homicide detectives, crime scene techs and investigators from the county medical examiner’s office mill around. A news helicopter hovers overhead. Police wave away joggers on the White Rock Creek Trail, which runs parallel to the creek for hundreds of yards, who break stride to ask questions.
Dallas Fire-Rescue takes the lead when it comes to corpse retrieval. Officials pick a nearby flat patch of grass to serve as what first responders call a “designated human remains collection point.”
The body is treated as a biohazard. Firefighters don white hazardous material protective gear with hoods and masks. They also wear thick hip-waders, held by suspenders. Colleagues wrap the men’s waists with yellow tape to seal off splashes of cold water or bodily fluids.
"Acquiring the services of our hazmat team is common practice under such circumstances," DFR spokesman Jason Evans says. "When a body begins to decompose, there are a variety of unknown exposures that our members can come in contact with."
The feds, through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, say “workers directly involved in recovery or other efforts that require the handling of human remains are susceptible to bloodborne viruses such as hepatitis and HIV, and bacteria that cause diarrheal diseases, such as shigella and salmonella.”
Other literature cites rare diseases that can afflict someone who exposes an open wound to the corpse or gets stuck by the sharp end of snapped bone. The nastiest of these is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which the National Institutes of Health calls an “invariably fatal brain disorder.” About 300 Americans are diagnosed with this untreatable disease each year, which mostly springs up for no reason doctors can explain. They call this sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
But the kind of interest to firefighters fishing out a decayed corpse is acquired Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, in which “the disease is transmitted by exposure to brain or nervous system tissue,” according to the NIH. Since that is an occupational hazard for the recovery team, it’s into the white suits before officials fish the man out of the water.
Dallas firefighters put on hazmat suits to recover a body found in a heavily wooded area just north of White Rock Lake pic.twitter.com/p4wUeUvQlj— J.D. Miles (@jdmiles11) November 22, 2017
The hazardous materials team bags the corpse. It's heading for the county medical examiner's office on North Stemmons Freeway. He's one of 10 unidentified bodies kept in cold storage there; six were found in November.
This is an unusual spike, but one that the ME's office says holds no deeper meaning. Such spikes are “totally randomized,” according to one staffer at the medical examiner's office. “Maybe the weather’s been good for finding people,” she says. “Going for a hike and finding a body in the woods.”
The Dallas Police Department releases a statement at the time of the discovery saying, "Due to the amount of time the body was in the water, no race, age or signs of an offense can be determined at this time." The detectives and medical examiner now have twin missions: find out who he was and what happened to him. The water will make both of those jobs a lot harder.
Absence of evidence
Water deaths can be among the most vexing for investigators. The man from the creek is being handled, like all deaths from unknown causes, by DPD's crimes against persons division.
Investigators are facing a tough challenge. The best take on the gloomy complexities of a waterlogged corpse comes from a comprehensive article in the Journal of Clinical Pathology. It's been decades since publication of "Bodies recovered from water: a personal approach and consideration of difficulties," but the frustration with these cases described in 1992 is as old as the science of pathology and new as the body in the Dallas County Medical Examiner's morgue. The UK-based author opens with an almost gentle acknowledgment of the task at hand: "For the pathologist providing a routine necropsy service to the local coroner, examination of bodies recovered from water can generate the most difficult of interpretational problems."
The article alludes to the idea that getting to the bottom of a watery death can't be determined from the laboratory table alone. The author recommends that the pathologist learn as much as possible about the scene and the victim even before the examiner conducts the autopsy.
"Most experienced pathologists would agree that this is one of the few areas where collateral evidence can be vital when trying to reach the most appropriate conclusions," the article says.
In the case of the dead man in the creek, this collateral evidence is absent. With scant evidence and no witnesses, no theory can be dismissed.
"The possibility of death from the actions of an assailant followed by immersion ('dumping') in water as a means of disposal must always be considered," the journal article says, but it adds that "in practice, almost all deaths after submersion in water are either accidental or suicidal; only a few are homicidal."
This tributary is a bad place for someone coming from outside the park to dump a body. It's a long march from the nearest place to park, on West Lawther Drive, to where police say passersby saw the corpse. Someone in the woods could have murdered him and left him to float. There are no clear signs of habitation, and the area is not known for hosting a concentration of homeless people. The underpasses where Dallas Area Rapid Transit trains pass overhead show no signs of habitation — an almost rare absence, if you're familiar with bridges along Dallas' roadways.
A stroll underneath them reveals a couple of disused fire pits and a mix of satanic and anarchistic graffiti. One concrete support column has a fitting image of a figure with the letter "X" for eyes and an arrow pointing to it that says "John." The furniture is abandoned, unused. Plants sprout from the weathered cushions, and vines tangle chairs. People have come here, but it doesn't have the feel of somewhere lived in. There are no makeshift structures, bedrolls, cache of supplies, food wrappers or signs of a fresh fire.
Even on the other side of Lawther, closer to civilization, signs of human occupation are missing. About 750 feet south of Lawther, the nameless creek passes under Northwest Highway. There are not a lot of signs of steady habitation under this overpass, but a chair is set up there, facing the water. Under it is a baggie with a label on it: "Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church Outreach Ministry."
Regina Green, the coordinator for outreach at the church, recognizes a description of the baggie and its label. She says the church distributed about 500 of these small baggies with chocolates for dessert, each with a label to let the recipients know where they can reach out for more help. She says they were distributed at the Feast of Sharing at Fair Park on Nov. 9.
That date puts someone under the bridge two weeks before the body was discovered. The body's condition indicates he was in the water that long. It's a long shot, but if the body's stomach contents contain chocolate, maybe this was the spot of the man's last meal. (Autopsy results take three months to disclose, and police declined to answer questions about it.) In the absence of other clues, it's easy to inflate the importance of anything tangible.
As for finding the spot where he entered the water, the overpass is certainly a dead end. The body could not have traveled 750 feet to the intersection of Lawther, fit through the pipes that channel the water under the road and then continued hopping 1,200 feet, from pool to pool along the drying creek bed, to where police say visitors found the body.
"In that particular tributary, there is very little flow," says Park and Recreation Department urban biologist Brett Johnson. It takes a burst of water pushing into this floodplain to make this water move quickly, which has not happened this fall, Johnson says. So it's likely the man didn't drift very far from where he dropped into the water. That puts him away from all roads and deeper in the brush when he died.
Besides murder, the possible causes of the man's death include suicide, hypothermia or a natural death followed by a plunge into the water. All these theories presume the man was near the water's edge on purpose, but the nameless creek doesn't offer many places to get to the waterline. The trees and undergrowth form thick barriers, and there are no inviting breaks besides the overpasses that seem intuitive places for a man to wander in to fish or bathe.
With his final actions a mystery, the police can use the time of death to help narrow down what he was doing when he died and glean clues to his identity. But the chilly water has denied the detectives this critical information, too.
A fowl experiment
A store-bought chicken settles in water the same way a dead person does. A human corpse typically floats facedown, naturally rotated to that position by the weight of dangling limbs. The bird's legs and wings have different mechanics but still hang in a similar way when suspended in water.
A plucked chicken isn't the best stand-in for a human body, but it will have to do when it comes to testing when the man might have gone into the water.
On land, the state of decomposition offers clear clues to the time of death. The chemistry of decay occurs on a timetable, and insects burrow into the body at predictable rates. But pathologists have to apply different equations when examining a waterlogged body. Rigor mortis, the way a body stiffens after death, comes on slowly but lasts longer in a submerged body. A corpse will decay slower when underwater, a result of the lower temperature and subsequent bacterial slowdown. The cooler the water, the slower the rate.
The county medical examiner's office will only say the unidentified man was "definitely submerged" and "for days" but won't offer a more specific time. The professionals are not in the habit of guessing. But journalists can indulge. So how long could he possibly have been down there?
A freshly dead person will typically sink within minutes and rise when the gasses inside the body tissue force it to the surface. Again, temperature plays a big role. The rescue dog organization Paws of Life has a library of useful information for first responders, including this dated but handy chart showing the relationship between water temperature and a body's reappearance:
The body was found Nov. 21. The November air temperatures were in the 50s during the day and just above 40 degrees at night. There's no magic equation to match air temperature with water temperature; the reality depends on so many factors (depth, rate of flow, saltwater or freshwater, oxygen level and so on). But the temperature variance between air and water, especially slow-moving freshwater, is not so great that it knocks these numbers off. According to one study focused on the temperature of streams, "the majority of streams instead show an increase in water temperature of about 0.6 to 0.8 degrees for every 1-degree increase in air temperature."
The condition of the body and the time it would take to re-emerge from the murky creek dates the corpse's immersion to around Nov. 10. But that's taking this chart at face value. What is needed is an experiment. How long will it take for the bacteria inside the chicken to breed enough to create the gas that will float the body?
The first chicken is impaled with a thin metal flagpole, like the ones that mark underground gas lines, and placed in the water under an overpass. The water's edge is slick with black mud despite the metal mesh that lines the bank. The bird hits the water with a soft splash, tilts and rests with its wings and legs hanging. The skin is ghostly pale as it drifts toward the center of the creek, then seems to halt.
Five hours later, the chicken is gone. The next day, there’s still no sign. So a second chicken is attached to a thin rope with a buoyant keychain on it.
If it holds true to the chart, these birds may not resurface for at least 10 days. The water temperature, mass of the chicken and absence of innards will certainly skew the results, but this is an exercise in informed speculation, not forensic science.
Eleven days later, there's no sign of either test bird. The floating keychain is near where the second chicken hit the water, but the carcass has settled in the deepest part of the waterway. The float test is a bust. So far, the only fact established here is that meat placed into the creek can quickly slide out of view in the murky, deceptively deep water, which was already obvious.
The second chicken has another purpose, however: to show the effects of water on a body. Just because the body is preserved by the cool water, it doesn't mean it's unchanged. When we fish the chicken out, we'll see just how much the creek can alter a corpse.
Under the skin
Water robs a corpse of its individuality. Submerged skin begins to soften and loosen, a process called maceration. Keep a Band-Aid on too long, and you see maceration in action. After a few days of this, human skin will become so soft it'll peel right off the body in a single moist sheet. The Journal of Clinical Pathology article's description of the process is illuminating and ghastly:
"The skin becomes whitened, sodden, thickened and wrinkled (an appearance sometimes designated 'washerwoman's skin'). With time, the epidermis becomes loose and peels; finally, nails and hair become detached. Maceration is accelerated in warm water (where it may appear within minutes), but, in general, it takes about eight to 24 hours for early changes to become apparent outdoors in temperate climes. By about seven to 10 days, epidermal separation may have started, and by about three to four weeks, the skin and nails may be sufficiently loose to allow removal."
This is what forensic-focused websites sometimes call "death gloves."
Maceration robs the medical examiner of an old identification standby: fingerprints. Staff members at the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office say the condition of the fingers of the man found in the creek didn't allow for prints, citing maceration as the reason.
The problem is so complex that the National Criminal Justice Reference Service has an entire chapter on getting prints from macerated corpses in its Fingerprint Sourcebook. Methods to get a working print from a waterlogged body trend to the ghoulishly clever — stretching the skin to smooth out folds, drying the skin and snipping it away with scissors, making a 3-D mold of the fingers, and exposing the fingers to a cycle of drying and rehydration to get a better print.
In cases in which the skin is missing or mummified, there's always the "boiling method." Hot water "plumps the dermis, thus facilitating the recording of the ridges" of dead fingers. The Fingerprint Sourcebook says that "this method produces the best results when used on hands or feet that are soft and pliable, with no epidermis present, and with the ridges of the dermis appearing flat."
Getting the chicken out of the creek requires a long pole. In a couple of tries, the pole's tip snags the rope. Dragging the rig back to the shoreline, the remains of the chicken emerge from the black-green gloom. Its skin is in tatters, flowing behind the bird like a cape.
This is one macerated chicken.
The sodden mess is hardly recognizable as a fowl. The skin slides across softened muscle. It hangs in sheets as the chicken is carried to a nearby concrete block for closer examination. The carcass is mottled with patches of dark bacterial colonies. Press the flesh, and the rank, noxious gasses seep into the air. The limbs are very much intact, held together by more resistant sinew and cartilage. The muscles, while slightly gelatinous to the touch, are also intact.
This is significant in the case of the man in the creek. The medical examiner's office has a plan to identify the body by using markings that go deeper than the skin.
During her examination, Dr. Janis Townsend-Parchman spots something on the discolored skin of the corpse that catches her attention. The pathologist has something to work with: a tattered tattoo on a scrap of sodden skin. The lack of detail doesn't faze her. She uses an infrared light to examine the area.
The ink of a tattoo penetrates deeper than the skin, reaching into the dermis, a layer underneath. Cells there engulf the ink particles and form a compartment that stores them. So if skin is burned or stripped away, the cells beneath can still reveal a tattoo. The cells that most often do this are called phagocytes, so medical examiners call the process phagocytosis. Tattoos never really go away.
Townsend-Parchman plays the infrared light across the ruined skin, capturing the details of the man's tattoo and revealing what the water has taken away. The ME includes these images in her report. She sends it to the police, where a sketch artist will draw it and the department can show the image to witnesses, potential family members or the media.
Such public releases can happen many weeks after a body's discovery, depending on the availability of the artists. Nearly a month after the man was found, no release of the tattoo has been made public.
The man's body can spend up to a year in the corpse cooler on North Stemmons. If investigators don't develop any leads — from the tattoo or something else — in 12 months, the county will bury the man in an unmarked grave. His file will reside in one of the three heavy cabinets at the medical examiner's office that warehouse files of unidentified bodies dating to the 1970s.
There is one last chance to find the man's identity. In the absence of local leads, the medical examiner will send a DNA sample to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. The lab is one of only three DNA labs in the United States that uploads information into databases in the National DNA Index System. California’s Department of Justice and the FBI run the other two labs. A positive result would mean the man's DNA had been collected in another case.
The FBI runs a national missing persons DNA database using data from the index, but that requires DNA records of the next of kin for bodies that are found — not possible so far with the man in the creek.
There's a massive backlog for DNA testing at UNT, and it's growing. Earlier this year, the center stopped taking out-of-state samples, but it resumed in September. "Due to the anticipated initial influx of cases," a statement reads, "longer turnaround times are inevitable."
Staff at the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office say it could take eight to 12 months for the results of the DNA test to return. The man could face anonymous burial before the results come back.
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This creek where the man was found also doesn't have a name. The stagnant water waits for a big rain, when its disconnected pools and silted streams will wash out and be renewed. One day, it'll likely be gone, replaced by another route.
"There are a bunch of channels and tributaries that run through there," Johnson says of the greenbelt. "The whole area is a floodplain. It'll change over time."
For now, the man will have the newspaper nickname "Dead Man's Creek" for a memorial. The waterway is a pretty lousy choice, only slightly better than a pauper's grave or a folder filed by case number in a cabinet. But it's all he's likely to get.