Protocols Ignored, Evidence Mishandled in Teresa Halbach Investigation

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.

pit

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.

bones3

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.

Eisenberg box

Source: Brendan Dassey Transcripts

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.

pevyote 1

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?

steel belts

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.

burn pit

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.

 

Defense:

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.

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11 thoughts on “Protocols Ignored, Evidence Mishandled in Teresa Halbach Investigation

  1. Yes. Given that traces of the victim’s blood were found in her vehicle, it seems probable that the body was transported elsewhere before being burnt and then the remains were planted at various places around the Avery property, including the where Avery had a bonfire. That points away from Avery – why would he place the remains right outside his own trailer?

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  2. Fairgrieve is misinformed on what warrants a mistrial. When he asserts “in his professional opinion, one could not conclude with perfect certainty that the remains had not been moved” that’s evidence countering the other forensic anthropologist’s evidence and that is appropriate testimony. What he’s wrong about is that his belief that there is no certainty the remains were not moved means a mistrial is warranted. Challenges to how evidence was developed or what evidence means or what is missing to reach a conclusion of guilt are not reasons for a mistrial. Mistrials occur when rules of evidence are violated or some other event occurs that impacts the trial (like a witness refusing to appear for cross-examination after direct examination as an example). Experts are not legal experts and his opinion on mistrial is completely ignorant of what constitutes a mistrial.

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    • I listened to an interview of Fairgrieve regarding his testimony and the trial in general. I didn’t get the impression that his “mistrial” comment was based on his testimony. During his interview, he was discussing other issues like the prosecutors behavior, media influence, investigators failure to follow forensic protocol, compromised crime scene, method of gathering and storage of forensic evidence, and Dassey’s confessions.

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  3. The chain of evidence was so broken in this case! Everything has to be hand delivered and signed in and out so not to break the chain of custody. No photos of the bone fragment being exhumed from the burn pits. I don’t know how they we even allowed to put it in evidence during the trial! Sounds like the “good ol boys are running thing there. I’m sure the Averys are not the only innocent ones in prison!

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  4. Pingback: Was There Really a Bonfire on Halloween? | Stop Wrongful Convictions

  5. Pingback: Scrutinizing the Bone Evidence – Teresa Halbach Investigation | Stop Wrongful Convictions

  6. This part of the investigation I find really dodgy, whilst most people (without being critical) focus on the key and the blood vial, I find it hard to believe that it took them three days from finding the car to finding human remains.

    From the news coverage you can see the weight of law enforcement descend on the Avery property shortly after the Rav 4 is found (5th Nov). Bearing in mind they have found the victims car, with visible blood in it, “hidden” in the yard; the investigation would surely have branched from a missing persons search into a missing person/kidnapping/murder investigation. But despite the fact that they had searched the trailer 6 times by the 8th, it appears they had failed to find the human remains 20 yards from trailer. After all, this was a burn pit, disturbed and chard ground sticking plainly out in the middle of a grassed area.

    The footage shows a “Crime Scene Evidence Unit’ arriving, I believe, on the 5th. Being from the UK I don’t know who these people are or whether they are accountable to the state or the federation, but their title suggests that they may be “experts” in the physical analysis of evidence at a crime scene. Maybe with a fair degree of knowledge and training regarding policy and procedures that are supposed to protect the integrity of evidence.

    The footage also shows the arrival of K-9 search teams. I take it they are there to search???

    Would that burn pit, along with the adjacent buildings, not be the obvious place to start looking? Were they really prevented from getting to the pit by one dog?

    Considering the seriousness of the situation (the priority being locating Teresa Halbach), how was it that the might of State police, with the availability of canine experts at the property (K-9), was delayed by a dog? What kind of dogs have you got over there?

    If the dog was chained, then who chained it there? Why wasn’t the owner called to remove it?

    If you were investigating, and at this point (the 5th/6th/7th/ and some part of the 8th) you were still unaware of Teresa’s situation, a dog wouldn’t stop you. This at bests appears to be gross incompetence. A delay of three days into a missing persons investigation.

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  7. Also, its not entirely clear from the documentary, but it seems that Steven and various members of his family were away from the yard when the car was found (??). And told to remain away during those crucial three days.

    Lets pretend for a moment that there is no hint of conspiracy in this case:

    It is clear from Stevens news interviews at this time that the police had spoken to him. The discovery of Rav 4 should have presented the police with a group of suspects/people they would like to speak to quite urgently, extending to all those that lived on the property and had access/connections to it, including Steven.

    Did those in law enforcement engaged in the search adequately interrogate this group with a purpose of finding her, dead or alive? Was Steven adequately interrogated with regards to her whereabouts? Or was he allowed to swan around talking to news crews while he could have potentially helped the police find her alive?

    6 times they searched the trailer. It would have been obvious that she wasn’t in there after the first search, but they kept looking. Where the other buildings searched this often in those three days? Was the car crusher searched? And that burn pit. If only they could distract that dog?

    Were they looking for Teresa? They kept searching Stevens place. Why? She wasn’t there. There persistence with Steven would have suggested they had their suspect. So why wasn’t he arrested on suspicion? Luckily for them Steven didn’t do runner before they discovered the remains coincidently at the same time the key appeared on the floor. But him running would have given far more of case than they ever had.

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    • What happened to the plywood boards and branches that were put in place around Teresa’s car? Were they saved as evidence? Was it determined where they came from ? Avery property? If so where? Would these boards have been available to officers or others to use in staging a frame-up while the family was off the property? Certainly these boards had to be manually gathered ,transported then placed . If examined clothing fibers, human hair, dirt, grease ,paint and even human DNA could have been found then used or at least considered in the case.The question is was this discovery work done in the beginning or not ?Were these boards and branches saved? If not would this be considered an injustice? I haven’t been able to find a mention of this evidence anywhere . I did write a letter to Karhleen Zellner regarding my concerns ..Perhaps they have already looked into this. Can anyone share information on what happened to these boards and branches ?

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      • They did little with the items. They said they couldn’t get prints from anything because of the texture. I know they saved the hood because it was in the trailer with the RAV, but I doubt they saved the rest of the items. I believe it was Ertl’s testimony if I recall correctly.

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  8. I am from the uk and what i would like to know is how the steven avery case has gone world wide yet he is still in prison! Why he hasnt been granted a mistrial the evidence is absolutley shocking not one drop of blood found in his property yet he was soposed to of shot and stabbed her. Bone fragments were found burnt at a different location not on the avery property ! brendan dassey has severe mentall disabilitys its plain for anyone to see he has the mental capacity of a child. The vial of blood was oviously tamperd with anyone with half a brain would see this and to top all this off anyone who has studied the steven avery case has seen that something clearly was not right with teresas brother and ex boyfreind and that the chances are almost 100 perecent certain that one or both of these actually killed her maybe if the police actually did ther jobs they would of found more compelling evidence elsewere,i am deeply shocked that even teresas own parents have never raised concerns that the whole case was cooked from the beggining if this was my daughter i would of asked questions from day one and no offence to the parents but what sort of parents are they to let a man and child go to prison for a crime that hasnt been comitted by them . from even before she was officially reported missing shame on them… one day the evidence will come to light that they are innocent and then it will be through no fault of ther own. If all us millions of people can watch a 10 part documenty and clearly see that this is a stitch up how can people who are living the evidence and people who are trained to do this …

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