In early December 2006, two deer hunters discovered partially mummified human remains in a densely wooded area near a factory outlet mall. The body was lying on its right side at the base of a large oak tree with the skull lying approximately 20 feet away and slightly downhill. The body was clothed only in white socks and white athletic shoes. Several pieces of identification were found nearby with the name and address of an individual who lived in another state approximately 600 miles south of where the remains were found.
Once in the lab, visual assessment of the skeletal elements suggested that they were those of a white male between the ages of 30 and 40 at the time of death. Dental records confirmed that the deceased was, indeed, a 36-year-old white male who matched the identification found at the scene. It was also learned that the decedent was schizophrenic and had no known friends or relatives living in the area.
With the problem of identification resolved, the next question became, “How did he die?” Massive blunt force trauma was present on many of the bones, including the 4th-10th left ribs, two thoracic vertebrae, five lumbar vertebrae, the left pelvis, and the sacrum (the triangular-shaped bone located at the base of the spine). There were no fractures of the legs as would be expected had the decedent been struck by a vehicle, nor was there any trauma to the skull. Had the decedent suffered from a homicidal beating, one might expect to find trauma to the skull in addition to the torso, but no trauma was present.
Three weeks later the manner of death was still unresolved. Dr. Snow then decided to lay the remains out in anatomical order and once again analyze them with fresh eyes. Starting at the skull and working toward the feet, each bone was picked up and examined under magnification when necessary. Each fracture was then compared with field notes from the scene as well as the still-incomplete anthropology report.
No inconsistencies were found until Dr. Snow reached the left foot. Under magnification, a small fracture that had not been observed in the first examination of the remains was found in each of two bones of the left foot. In the Dr. Snow’s experience, most fractures of the foot result from one of two things: bracing the feet against the firewall of a vehicle when it is apparent that a head-on collision is imminent or a fall from a height. Examples of falls from a height include when a deck collapses from overloading, when construction workers fall from a roof, or when deer hunters fall from tree stands.
Realizing what was likely the source of the fractures, Dr. Snow called the crime scene investigator and asked her to go back to the scene. Without telling the investigator what she was looking for, he asked her to go to the base of the tree where the decedent was discovered and look straight up. An hour later she called back and said, “You aren’t going to believe this (expletive deleted)!” She went on to explain that every limb on the north side of the oak tree was broken. In early December the leaves were still on the tree, obscuring the broken limbs. Three weeks later, however, the leaves had fallen, exposing the broken limbs. Every limb on one side of the tree was broken to a height of 34 feet, the largest being approximately three inches in diameter.
It was clear that the decedent had been near the top of the oak tree when he had fallen, striking numerous limbs before impacting the ground at the base of the tree. This accounted for the massive trauma on the torso as well as the fractures in the left foot. It will never be known why our schizophrenic decedent was in the tree to begin with.