Undoubtedly the most important evidence in the investigation was the human remains found in the fire pit behind Steven Avery’s trailer. There’s an expectation that the evidence would be handled with the utmost respect and care, but that was not the case. The timing and circumstances surrounding the discovery of the evidence is odd. Special Agent Tom Fassbender was in charge of the investigation. He contacted Kevin Heimerl from the arson division of the Wisconsin Department of Justice on Sunday, November 6, 2005. Heimerl was asked to look at the contents of one burn barrel. He identified pieces of a cell phone and camera – possibly belonging to the missing woman — but then nothing else was done with regard to the other burn barrels and the burn pit. Why is an arson specialist called to the scene on the 6th and only asked to look at one burn barrel? Investigators stated that they couldn’t examine the burn pit because there was a vicious dog chained near the area, but surely they could have requested assistance from animal control. This was a missing person’s investigation under suspicious circumstances as her car had been found and possibly her phone and camera.
Two days later . . .
On November 8, 2005 Deputy Jason Jost with the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Office allegedly found what he believed to be a piece of charred bone measuring approximately 1 inch in size eight feet from the burn pit. Special Agent Tom Sturdivant with the Wisconsin Criminal Investigation’s Unit was called to the scene to investigate the evidence. At that time he took charge of the investigation of the burn pit area. Here’s where things went wrong. The first thing one is expected to do when possible human remains are identified is to contact the medical examiner. A team would be put together to include forensic experts to examine the area. This is crucial because the scene shouldn’t be touched. Those with expertise in this area can map the precise location of each item found – be it bones, teeth, tissue, clothing and items potentially used as accelerants. It is standard procedure to document everything with photographs and precise notes. Experts attempt to determine the circumstances of the death — such as position of the body, time of death, identity of the victim, and the original location of the remains, but none of that occurred in this case.
The following is a partial list from InterFire of procedures to be followed in the event of an arson death.
Treat the body with respect. The deceased victim is someone’s spouse or child or parent or sibling or friend. Even as you carry out necessary professional duties, do not lose sight of the dignity of each individual person. Respect should also be accorded to non-human animal remains.
Notify the fire investigator, police, and medical examiner as soon as a body is discovered.
Cordon off the area where a victim’s body is.
Minimize foot traffic and equipment in proximity to the body.
Do not remove or move a victim who is beyond medical assistance. The position and condition of the body can give the medical examiner and fire investigator crucial information. Exceptions to the “do not remove the body” practice may be necessary in cases such as imminent collapse or very dangerous conditions. Consult command before disturbing a body.
Note any injuries to victims and statements made by victims. Make as many observations about victims as possible and communicate them to the investigator. Observation is especially important when victims are removed from the scene and the original body position may not be able to be determined. Your information about how the victim was found may be critical to the investigation.
Debra Kakatsch, the medical examiner of Manitowoc County contacted officials as soon as she heard news of the bones found on the Avery property, but she was essentially blocked from any involvement in the investigation of the remains. Why were they ignoring standard protocols?
Strang said Manitowoc County Coroner Debra Kakatsch would testify that she was “walled off entirely” from the crime scene by Calumet County authorities. By state statute, she should have been allowed to investigate early reports of possible human bones being found outside of Avery’s trailer, he said.
Strang said the coroner had also received calls from the Manitowoc County executive and the county’s top attorney not to investigate the case. He said they had emphasized that Calumet County authorities had taken control of the case to avoid any conflict of interest, given that Avery was suing Manitowoc County for $36 million at the time.
The Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, however, concluded it was not a conflict for its deputies to assist in the investigation — even though Avery’s suit said the department violated his civil rights when he was wrongly convicted of a 1985 sexual assault.
“I do think that’s a double standard,” Strang said of the Sheriff’s Department participating in the investigation but not the coroner. “I don’t know the reasons, but that’s what juries are for.” link
After Sturdivant saw the bone found by Jost, he summoned John Ertl from the Wisconsin Crime Lab to assist with digging up the burn pit. Ertl testified that police had recently used the crime lab’s sifting equipment at the gravel pit and he would arrange to have it transported to the burn pit location near Steve Avery’s trailer. Was he referring to the bones that were found at the quarry? That is unclear. The sifting equipment was set up and they proceeded to dig up the ash from the burn pit with shovels and place it in sifters where larger items were gathered and placed in boxes. The activities were not documented with photos. Their actions permanently compromised the crime scene as it would now be impossible to determine whether or not the bones had been moved to this location. Since human bones were found in three separate locations, determining the location of origin should have been a priority, but it was not.
Instead of transporting the remains to the coroner, they were sent to the Calumet County Sheriff’s Office. Who sends body parts to the police station?! This was highly inappropriate and unusual. The burn barrels were also taken to the police station. They cut out a major step in the process.
Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Leslie Eisenberg was an expert for the state. The way she was pulled into this case is bizarre. She received a phone message on November 9, 2005 informing her that a package of bones had been left at her office. She was out of town at the time. Investigators should have contacted her and requested her presence at the scene instead of delivering a box of bones to her office! Further, why didn’t investigators first call her to see if she even had time to work on this case? All of it is very odd.
It’s important to note that Eisenberg noted no odor of burned rubber or fuel on the bones, even though the state’s witnesses claim that tires were used to fuel the fire and generate heat high enough to burn a body.
Investigators brought in another expert the same day that Dr. Eisenberg received the message about the bones. Rodney Pevytoe with the Wisconsin Department of Justice Criminal Investigations Unit arrived at the Avery property and noted that the burn pit area was covered with a tarp. The next day they had him sifting through the remains that had been transported to the Sheriff’s Department. Luckily, he found muscle tissue – likely used for the DNA determination.
He went back to the burn pit after sifting through the material at the sheriff’s department and testified that while examining the area he noticed black residue consistent with burnt tires as well as heavily oxidized wire and that he also noticed white fragments consistent with bone intertwined in the wire. Where are the photos to document this claim? Is this the wire that contained the bone fragments?
It’s clear from the images that there are no obvious signs that a body had been burned in the pit. The way this evidence was handled is very suspicious given everything we know about this case.
Timeline in reference to bone fragments:
November 6, 2005
- Agent Fassbender calls Kevin Heimerl (arson division of DOJ) to the Avery property. Heimerl identifies phone and camera parts in a burn barrel.
- Five burn barrels are transported to the Calumet Sheriff’s Department
November 8, 2005
- John Ertl begins sifting through the burn barrels at the SO, collects and packages evidence – phone and camera pieces
- Deputy Jost of the Manitowoc SO finds a one inch piece of bone. Special Agent Tom Sturdivant is summoned. He takes charge of the burn pit investigation.
- Sturdivant summons John Ertl from the crime lab, requests sifting equipment
- Ash from fire pit is dug up with shovels, sifted and packaged into boxes
- Coroner is not summoned before digging begins – even though that would have been standard protocol
November 9, 2005
- Forensic anthropologist Leslie Eisenberg receives phone message that box of bones has been delivered to her office
- Arson expert Rodney Pevytoe is summoned to the burn pit location – covered with tarp – he does not look at anything
November 10, 2005
- Pevytoe examines bone shards at Sheriff’s Office, finds a piece of charred tissue
December 5, 2005
- Sherry Culhane issues report of DNA findings, states the charred specimen was “consistent” with Teresa Halbach’s DNA. It was not a conclusive match, but the state represented it as though it was certain. It seems iffy since it was a partial match. Hopefully DNA experts will be reviewing the reports.
Forensic Anthropologist, Dr. Scott Fairgrieve testified for the defense. He was so disturbed at the way the evidence was mishandled that he believes a mistrial was warranted. A recent interview with Dr. Fairgrieve can be found here.
Ultimately, Fairgrieve said in his professional opinion, one could not conclude with perfect certainty that the remains had not been moved.
“As a forensic scientist, I’d say you’re right to question this,” he said of the defense team’s assertion.
“I think there should’ve been a mistrial, myself,” said Fairgrieve.
The state called in all of the high paid experts in an attempt to legitimize a botched investigation. The experts’ credentials are supposed to impress the jurors but the fact remains that there was clear proof of planted evidence, a mishandled crime scene, remains that were handled with no respect for the victim – scooped with a garden shovel and improperly transported, there were no alternate suspects investigated and the Manitowoc Sheriff’s department (who was not even supposed to be there!) happened to discover most of the incriminating evidence.