Sunday, August 24, 2014

An Interview with Deborah Halber

Last week, I reviewed The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber. After reading it, Deborah was kind enough to answer some questions that might interest you the reader. Here is the interview and here is the link to the review.

Prosecutor's DiscretionIn the book you are pretty open in discussing your experience with P. Michael Murphy from Clark County, Nevada's medical examiner's office, which encompasses Las Vegas. You were unable to make it all the way through the maze of deceased humans waiting for autopsies. Did you think you'd have those issues? How do the people who deal with death every day avoid breaking down?

Deborah HalberI--like most of us in modern society--am pretty removed from death, but I didn't anticipate that my reaction of horror and sadness would be as overwhelming as it was. I asked many of the death investigators and coroners how they dealt with being confronted by death on a daily basis, and they all said essentially the same thing: you get used to it. 

PD: Many of the main characters in your book, like Betty Dalton Brown and Todd Matthews, had traumatic experiences with death in their families. Did that sort of experience generally serve as the motivation for one to join these networks?

DH: Feeling that death was not a stranger seemed to make Todd more comfortable with the notion of interconnecting his life with a young woman's death. Betty Brown, Lauran Halleck and Bobby Lingoes had all lost loved ones, which made them perpetual seekers of a sort. Not being able to find closure herself, Betty told me, motivated her to help others find it.  

PD: After seeing the interaction of the law enforcement and the volunteer community, how do you think it could work better together?

DH: I hope this book encourages some in law enforcement to reconsider their relationship with the public. These citizen sleuths have a lot of contribute, and not just in terms of case-solving or online investigation. They could be liaisons with families of the missing, input data, or collect family DNA samples.  

PD: Will anyone ever solve the Lady of the Dunes?

DH: I might be naive, but I'm holding out the hope that she will be identified within the coming year. Even though the Provincetown police were not happy with my presence at the third exhumation, I was  excited to witness it. It felt like an historical occasion, and the latest DNA analysis may come up with something that others missed. 

PD: Will you be a contributor to any of the unidentified persons networks?

DH: I  did not officially join any of the web sleuthing communities because I wanted to maintain an objective distance.When I did try my hand at it, I came to the conclusion that I would make a lousy web sleuth. It takes a lot more patience than I have.  

PD: There seems to be a large amount of infighting between the various networks. What did you see as the motivation for someone to dedicate their time to this cause? The notoriety that came with a discovery, truly the desire to do good, or a mix of both?

DH: I think many people who end up doing this kind of volunteer work start out intrigued by the challenge of a mysterious puzzle, or maybe an interest in the macabre.  But I believe for many of those who stick with it, the motivation to provide closure for a family--even the family of a stranger--is a big incentive. The work is just too time-consuming and difficult to be explained away by idle curiosity.  

PD: Were you able to gather any opinions/generalizations on law enforcement's view of these web sleuths?

DH: Law enforcement has mixed reactions. Some refer to the "Doe nuts"--as in Jane and John Doe. Others, including a Phoenix cold case detective, regularly enlist the services of the web sleuths and claim they could not have solved cases of lost identity without them. The web sleuths walk a fine line between time-sucking annoyances and essential help mates.  

PD: This blog concerns the prosecution of crimes. When unidentified remains become identified, that doesn't always mean there is a suspect or that someone can be prosecuted. Did you find the victims' families were happy enough to know what happened to their loved one or did a desire for justice replace their search for answers?

DH: Learning that a long-missing loved one is deceased kills all hope that the person might one day return, but some have said they preferred knowing where the person was, laying him or her to rest, memorializing him or her. But that relief can quickly turn into anger and, in the case of victims, a desire for justice. I have been amazed that at least a few of these cases of decades-long lost identities have led to prosecutions and convictions. One of the most recent involved a man being sentenced to life in prison three decades after his wife's then-unidentified body was recovered from the Gulf of Mexico.

PD: What is the main reason so many unidentified remains are discovered each year? Is it a problem with evidence collection at the scene, the inputting of reports so that the information spreads fare enough, or simply not enough identification on the victim?

DH: People simply turn up without IDs. They're not all victims of crimes in which a CSI-viewing murderer tries to render his victims unidentifiable; they could be accident victims or suicides. But what keeps them unidentified can often be traced back to the medico legal community: a lack of resources, such as the services of a forensic anthropologist in the case of skeletonized remains; a half-hearted or nonexistent effort to collect biometrics and input them into databases such as NCIC or NAMus; the reluctance of law enforcement to share information or to ask questions of colleagues in other jurisdictions.     

PD: Tell us about your next project.

DH: I'm fleshing out some ideas for magazine pieces and perhaps another book. I'm interested in offbeat people who are passionate about quirky ideas, so even if my next project isn't true crime, it will probably have at least that theme in common with THE SKELETON CREW. 

Thank you Deborah for joining us and we look forward to your next project. I love discovering little known stories, especially when it has such significance in our society.

Want to read the book? Check it out here.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber

Deborah Halber gives us The Skeleton Crew, which is actually a number of nonfiction crime stories in one book. The twist is that the book chronicles anonymous do-gooders who spend virtually every minute of their free time scouring databases for unidentified human remains and trying to match them to a missing person case. As Halber says, "The web sleuths are all around you. Your coworker with the bowl of saltwater taffy on her desk, the guy who swipes your card for a latte, the high school teacher who kept the ball python in the glass tank . . . " In cold cases, we most often read about the hunt for the killer. The Skeleton Crew takes us on the hunt to identify the victim.

Halber shows us the web sleuths are a macabre group, who don't have any issue wading through gory photographs and digging into graphic police reports. They are a mostly volunteer community whose motives begin with altruism. But even the best intentions lead to infighting between various groups and various websites. Do they seek the attention that comes from news stories once they connect the dots or are they doing this truly for altruistic reasons? Maybe it's a combination of both.

Halber's excellent writing style lets her describe the cases in such detail that you feel you are doing a little web sleuthing yourself as you work towards solving the case with her and one of the sleuths she profiles. Halber makes you feel like you solved many of the cases just by reading the book, but gives you a glimpse of the frustration that comes with the tens of thousands of remains looking for a name.

The book mainly follows the exploits of Todd Matthews, who solved one of the coldest and most famous cases in web sleuth history, Tent Girl. Tent Girl was killed in Kentucky in 1968 and left to rot on the side of a highway until a passerby happened upon her remains wrapped in a tent. Her body created a local news story for decades while the case sat without an identity for the victim. That was until 1998, when Todd Matthews used the internet to scour postings about missing persons and matched Barbara Ann Hackman-Taylor who had been missing since 1967 with Tent Girl's remains. He sent the lead to law enforcement and it was confirmed through DNA testing. The national attention of the case helped serve as the catalyst for many different unidentified remains websites that exist today and the beginning of a national database to counter the problem. Many other web sleuths are profiled like Bobby Lingoes, Betty Dalton Brown, Chip Glass, and Ellen Leach.

The Skeleton Crew reminds us too that these sensational stories are more than just a pile of bones along a highway. The deceased was a member of someone's family; a family that is desperately trying to find out the fate of their loved one. When you put the book down, it is likely you will hop online and check out the various sites like NamUs or The Doe Network to see what a web sleuth does. At the very least, you'll be a little more careful when you stop at a roadside rest stop and see something unusual (that's right, someone found a human head in a bucket of concrete at a truck stop).

Click this link to pick up a copy of the book. And no I do not receive anything for this review or the referral, other than spreading the word about a great book.

In all of the cold cases I deal with, the victims are identified. There is no arrest, no prosecution, no suspect, until the victim is known. I never once thought about a case where someone stumbles upon a pile of human bones in their backyard and the victim needs to be identified. The book opened up a new world to me, someone who thought they had seen it all. I look forward to more from Deborah Halber.

And you should look forward to an interview with her later this week!