CHANDRA MCCORMICK AND KEITH CALHOUN
A.C. Thompson’s reporting on New Orleans was directed and underwritten by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. ProPublica provided additional support, as did the Center for Investigative Reporting and New America Media.
In September 2005, roughly a week after Hurricane Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast, a group of New Orleans police officers discovered the burned shell of a car sitting on an earthen levee overlooking the bloated Mississippi River. Inside the scorched sedan, scattered across the back seat, lay black ashes and bones. Human bones. A charred skull, shards of rib, an arm bone, clumps of roasted flesh. Equipped with a digital camera, one cop clicked off a string of photos of the tableau.
Eventually, the remains were stuffed into five red plastic bags and hauled to a temporary morgue in the tiny town of St. Gabriel, some seventy miles up the road from New Orleans, autopsy records show. At the St. Gabriel facility, a team of rescue workers and forensic pathologists gave the collection of body fragments a number–06-00189–and began trying to answer a pair of intertwined questions: who was this man, and how did he die?
Dr. Kevin Whaley, a forensic pathologist, had an immediate suspicion about the latter. “My first reaction was that it was a homicide,” recalls Whaley, a Virginia state medical examiner who went to Louisiana as part of a federal disaster response team. “When I heard he was found in a burned car I thought that was a classic homicide scenario: you kill someone and burn the body to get rid of the evidence.”
Whaley studied a full-body X-ray of the remains. “There wasn’t very much left of him,” Whaley says. “Pretty much most of him had gone to ash.” He figures victim 06-00189 must have been burned at an extremely hot temperature, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 degrees. Mixed in with the bones and cinders, the scan revealed, was a constellation of metal bits; the autopsy report notes “rib fractures with minute fragments of metal within the surrounding soft tissues.” From the X-rays, Whaley couldn’t tell if the metal chunks were the remnants of a bullet or a knife blade–either way, they looked to him like evidence of a possible murder.