Forensic pathology in NC: how experts identify burned remains

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BUNCOMBE COUNTY, N.C. -- It's been almost one year since Cristie and J.T. Codd went missing. Jason Owens is charged with killing them and their unborn child.

He's also accused of burning their remains.

In Mitchell County, Cecil Scott Byrd is accused of killing Sara Riddle and Lisa Robbins. Detectives believe he also burned the remains.

When bodies are burned it creates another level of difficulty for police and prosecutors.

"The individual would be here, and the head would be here," said Dr. Patrick Lantz, a regional forensic pathologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

This is real life. Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is not Hollywood.

"Everybody there is young, good looking, and much smarter than I am. So it makes it look very easy," said Dr. Patrick Lantz.

He performs about 900 autopsies a year. "To the best of my ability, I try to figure out why their loved one died at that time," he said.

He does autopsies for most of Western North Carolina. About five cases a year come with just bone fragments or incomplete skeletons.

He pulled up x-rays to show how he identified one person. "This was an individual who was burned beyond recognition."

Lantz relied on dental records.

"These are the ones she had about ten years ago, and then these are the ones at the time of autopsy. They have very unique fillings and root canal work, and one's actually got a little screw in it," said Lantz.

One person's body was recovered from a fire. Officials had an idea who it was, and the records confirmed it.

"We were very comfortable making the identification," he said.

Other cases are more complicated.

"If they're burned and fragmented, it becomes more and more difficult," Lantz said.

March 15, 2015 Cristie Schoen Codd's father called the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office. He asked deputies to check her Leicester home.

Deputies didn't find anyone. The next day, detectives recovered items from Jason Owens' wood stove.

He was charged with murder. Wake Baptist's Pathology team identified the items as human remains.

"The more there is there, the more we can say whether there was some type of injury to that part of the body or not," said Lantz.

According to an Asheville Police search warrant, detectives believe more human remains could be on Owens' property. He was the last person to see Zebb Quinn, who went missing 16 years ago.

Identifying remains is a process of elimination.

First, Lantz learns how the remains were found. Then he finds out if they are even human.

Next, is the person recently deceased, or not? Pathologists are guided by who authorities think the remains belong to.

"Some cases it could be almost impossible," he said.

The Netflix documentary "Making a Murderer" tells the story of a Wisconsin man convicted of killing a missing woman. Teresa Halbach's remains were found on Steven Avery's property.

Avery was acquitted of mutilating Halbach's corpse.

"No, I haven't seen that," said Henderson County District Attorney Greg Newman. He is familiar with the story, though.

"I try to remain aware, and I think a good trial lawyer, whether it's a prosecutor or defense lawyer, needs to remains aware of what's being digested by the public," said Newman.

He has experience prosecuting a case involving remains.

Last winter a jury found Michael Wilkie guilty of killing his wife.

"The fire was enormous in size, and the flames were ferocious," Newman described a neighbor's testimony.

His wife's remains were never identified. "It was that badly deteriorated and damaged by the fire," he said.

Newman used a piece of charred jewelry to connect the remains to Wilkie. He puts forensic evidence into perspective.

"Usually their evidence is only valuable when you combine it with everything else that you see. Standing alone, it's not going to mean very much," said Newman.

In the Codd case, the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office has sent the still-unidentified remains to an FBI lab for further testing.

If the remains are never identified, prosecutors will rely on other evidence to connect Jason Owens to the Codds. As Newman proved, it's still possible to get a conviction.

"It's a different challenge," said Newman.

According to a search warrant, Owens indicated to detectives he destroyed the Codds' bodies and kept the remains at his home. Owens' next court date is scheduled for April 7.

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