The case of the scorpion murder
Professor's forensic expertise helps Tarrant County investigators solve 1996 homicide
Two sets of human bones, immaculately scrubbed and neatly arranged on examining tables, flank Dana Austin in the anthropology lab of the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office. The first body has a cranial fracture. The second has suffered multiple gunshot wounds to the head.
On this early March afternoon, Dr. Austin has been trying to piece together the gunshot victim's skull. Every time she picks it up, another piece fits.
It was her work on a third set of skeletal remains that recently put the UTA forensic anthropologist and adjunct assistant professor of anthropology in the spotlight. For an episode of its New Detectives series, the Discovery Channel featured the murder of a Tarrant County teen-ager and Dr. Austin's role in solving the crime. The episode, titled "Buried Secrets," aired in February.
"I was very excited to be on The New Detectives. It's a show that I enjoy watching," said Dr. Austin, who examined remains, checked x-rays and explained her role in the case during the re-creation. "It generated a lot of interest and excitement from my family, neighbors and friends. Everyone loves to see someone they know on television."
On May 8, 1996, a teen-ager scouring a wooded area for golf balls discovered the skeletal remains of a human hand adjacent to the Lost Creek Golf Course near Aledo. A team from the medical examiner's office subsequently unearthed an entire body and determined that the male victim had died from massive trauma to the skull and multiple stab wounds to the torso.
Miraculously, the decomposed body still had one identifying mark: a red scorpion tattoo. Officers dubbed the case the "scorpion murder" and released the information to law enforcement agencies. No match was found among existing missing persons.
"It's very frustrating not to know who your victim is because it doesn't really give you a starting point," said Detective Mike Hargis of the Tarrant County Sheriff's Department. "Your starting point is usually their identity so you can begin tracing their background."
Temporarily stymied, investigators asked Dr. Austin to create a biological profile. From her analysis of the facial features and other bones, she determined the victim was a Caucasian male between 17 and 21.
"In this case, it was obvious that this person was not fully matured skeletally," she said. "There were gaps between vertebrae that would have been completely fused in an adult."
Next, she elicited the help of forensic artist and UTA alumna Suzanne Baldon, who also appeared in the re-creation. Together, they attached tissue depth markers to 21 points on the skull to help identify race, gender and approximate size. After they photographed the reconstructed face from various angles, Baldon developed a composite sketch.
"A lot of artists wouldn't have tried this particular reconstruction because so much was missing, especially in the mid-face region," said Baldon, who earned a master's degree in anthropology in 1994. "They really did a number on him."
Investigators released the sketch through the media. Still, nobody could identify the man with the scorpion tattoo.
A break in the case
More than three years passed with no leads, and sheriff's department officials were beginning to think the killer would never be found.
"It was basically a suspended case," said Hargis, a patrolman at the time the body was discovered. "The original investigators had worked exhaustively to identify the victim. They had received information on some possible matches, but they turned out to be unrelated."
Then on Dec. 3, 1999, a woman told police that she'd overheard two men bragging about killing a former acquaintance named Patrick Zacha, with whom they had once formed a loose-knit gang that dealt drugs and committed burglaries. Detective Hargis and partner Mike Utley visited Zacha's father, who acknowledged that his missing son had a tattoo like the victim's.
The detectives needed more evidence, however, and again sought Dr. Austin's help. She compared x-rays provided by Zacha's father to those of the murder victim and found a perfect match.
"The outline of the frontal sinuses was the same," she said. The frontal sinus, an open space above the eyebrows, has a unique shape for each person. "The area is frequently used for identification and is considered to be a standard in radiographic comparison."
Armed with a positive identification, detectives took the two men into custody on suspicion of murder. One of the suspects later confessed, describing how they had bludgeoned and stabbed Zacha and buried him in a shallow grave. Under terms of a plea arrangement, one killer is serving 45 years, the other 20.
Helping solve murder cases is particularly rewarding for Dr. Austin.
"There are two equally important aspects," she said. "As a scientist, I'm able to confirm that the methods I've used are reliable, and I learn from each case. As a human being, I'm able to help loved ones of the deceased find closure and hopefully some level of peace."
Regardless of how each case ends, for Dr. Austin it's
on to the next set of bones.