OCTOBER 2, 2016 - jacksongov.org (Also responsible for photographs)
“Every bone has a story to tell…. [Dr. Diane] Peterson knows the skeleton in the closet may forever go nameless. These anonymous bones have now been silent for four years and counting—their story incomplete.” – The Skeleton In The Closet, jacksongov.org July 28, 2016
The story can now be finished. A Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Investigator tracks down the clues that lead to identifying a skeleton found in a closet in 2012.
ME Investigator's Curiosity (And Hard Work) Leads To Identity
There wasn’t another living soul to chat with — to help whittle away the hours on a quiet night working the 7-to-7 graveyard shift at the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office. “Being bored,” ME Investigator Adam Wilcoxen decided to check the Morgue Status Board, a listing of unresolved yet still active cases.
The “name” atop the board seized Wilcoxen’s attention: “Skeletal Remains, Unidentified.”
It was the skeleton in the closet — the charred bones of a man discovered 10 weeks after a Jan. 2, 2012 fire gutted a vacant house on Wabash Avenue in Kansas City. Who was he? had remained a mystery. The case had recently been spotlighted here.
Wilcoxen reviewed the case file. He started making phone calls, gathering paper work, requesting medical records. And he found the answer, an ID positively confirmed by a forensic dentist:
David J. Stevenson
Kansas City, Missouri
Born in 1965
“This was the oldest case we had on our Morgue Status Board, the active cases we’re still trying to do something about,” said Shaun Hachinsky, the Jackson County ME’s Deputy Chief Investigator. “Thanks to Adam we’ve got a name after all these years.”
The Surgical Pin Was The Key
The key to solving this mystery proved to be the surgical plate affixed to the jawbone. During the initial investigation more than 4½ years ago, the manufacturer indicated plates bearing the lot numbers 449.612 and 4599716 had been shipped to Truman Medical Center (TMC), as well as several other hospitals throughout the country. (The plate did not have a unique serial number, making it impossible to track which exact hospital received this specific piece of surgical hardware.)
Wilcoxen, who joined the ME’s Office staff last October, was curious why the case notes never stated a reason for the investigation shifting from TMC to other local medical facilities. “I thought at the very least I could find out why we stopped looking at Truman Med,” he said.
He called the TMC Medical Records Unit — was told, no, the plate could not be tracked from a lot number. He called the TMC Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery office—again, sorry, can’t help.
“So, I just put this on the backburner — we’ve got new cases coming in that need our attention,” Wilcoxen said. “But I thought, ‘Someday I’ll go over there and talk to someone in person.’”
That day came when Wilcoxen had to retrieve dental records for another case. While at TMC, he made face-to-face inquiries about that surgical plate. He wanted to know if it was possible to find out if TMC surgeons had repaired a fractured jaw of — based on an anthropologist’s examination of the skeleton — an African American man, between 5-foot-5 and 5-9, age 54 to 65 or older.
Dr. Brett L. Ferguson, Chairman of Oral Maxillofacial Surgery at TMC, gave Wilcoxen three names. Wilcoxen eliminated each one: “The plate was on the wrong side for one… one gentleman had two plates…”
But the search wasn’t over. Dr. Ferguson’s office provided two more names. The first was quickly dismissed. His name was already in the ME’s database, having died and been identified years ago.
Then Wilcoxen got the medical records for the last man on his list: David Stevenson.
‘A Shot In The Dark’ Sheds Light
The records showed the plate implanted in Stevenson’s jaw in 2003 was on the left side. The placement of the screws was a match, too. But the records included no images — no scans or X-rays.
After Getting A Name...
After the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office had a name to go with the skeleton in the closet, the next step in the process was tracking down David Stevenson’s next of kin. Not an easy task, given that Stevenson had been homeless.
But ME Investigator Adam Wilcoxen noticed Stevenson’s background check revealed multiple addresses, all within a few square blocks of Wabash Avenue. Steven’s skeletal remains were discovered in a vacant house on Wabash two months after it was gutted by a fire the evening of Jan. 2, 2012. Wilcoxen and Deputy Chief Investigator Shaun Hachinsky started knocking on doors in the neighborhood.
“One woman wouldn’t give us her name, but she said she’d already heard about David being found in a closet after a fire,” Hachinsky said. “It was obvious she had read or heard about the article posted on our website because she mentioned that it had been just a few weeks before we came knocking that she heard all about it. From reading that story, she — or whoever told her about the story — was able to figure out who the skeleton in the closet was, though no one notified us.”
The old-school investigative work led to finding Stevenson’s brother so a formal notification could be made to the family.
Finding David Stevenson confirmed much of the ME’s initial conclusions from back in 2012.
Dr. Diane Peterson — a Deputy ME then and Jackson County’s Chief ME since September 2015 — conducted the autopsy. She ruled probable smoke inhalation had been the cause of death based on the fact the remains, though not found until March 26, 2012, showed signs of having been subjected to the fire without being consumed by the flames. Therefore, the man must have been inside the home while it was ablaze Jan. 2. Dr. Peterson deduced that he was likely homeless, sought refuge in the vacant house and started a small fire to stay warm — then was trapped when the blaze got out of control.
Stevenson had been homeless. And his whereabouts can be accounted for within 24 hours of the fire. He had been treated at Truman Medical Center on New Year’s Day 2012 and released the next morning.
“So we know he was alive earlier on Jan. 2,” Dr. Peterson said, “and that confirms that he hadn’t died a day or two before the fire that evening. He had been in the house during the fire. It’s not every day you get skeletal remains identified and get pretty strong confirmation that your conclusions about how that individual died are correct.”
The anthropologist who consulted on the case in 2012 concluded the skeleton was that of an African American man, who stood between 5-foot-5 and 5-9, and was approximately 54 to 65 years old. Stevenson was, according to the last driver’s license issued to him, 5-6. His date of birth was Feb. 21, 1965.
“He was a little younger than we were expecting,” pointed out Wilcoxen. “Otherwise, the anthropology was spot-on.”
He added, “Mr. Stevenson was officially 47. He obviously died in the fire Jan. 2 when he was 46, but his skeleton wasn’t found until March 26. We have to go with the date of discovery for his official age since he had a birthday in between there.”
This surgical pin proved to be the key to finally identified the skeleton in the closet.
Investigator Adam Wilcoxen searches through the case file.
A fascination with bones led Adam Wilcoxen to become a Medical Examiner Investigator and to take an interest in what was formerly called "the skeleton in the closet" case.
Checking into the man’s background, Wilcoxen learned that Stevenson had suffered drug addiction, alcoholism, homelessness. (The skeleton in the closet was thought to be that of a homeless man who had sought shelter in the vacant house.) Stevenson’s jaw had apparently been broken months before he sought medical treatment back in 2003, and he refused to tell his doctors how he suffered the injury.
“Most indigent individuals in Kansas City get treatment at Truman Med or Research (Medical Center), so I took a shot in the dark and gave Research a call,” Wilcoxen said. “And they had CT-scans of Mr. Stevenson from just months before the fire in January 2012…. The scans showed the plate, the missing teeth, the cap on the upper tooth that our skull has.”
Jackson County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Diane Peterson looked at the scans and agreed that Wilcoxen had a found a match. Then the forensic dentist made it official.
If the skeleton was ever going to be identified, Dr. Peterson thought it would be through “getting a hit” on NamUs. The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System matches records from medical examiners across the country — e.g. the DNA and dental records of unidentified bodies/skeletons — with missing person reports. David Stevenson was never reported missing.
“While by all appearances Mr. Stevenson had a troubled life that ended tragically, I’m pleased we were able to finally get him identified,” Dr. Peterson said. “We want to put a name to everybody.”
“I can’t sing Adam’s praises loud enough,” she continued. “If he hadn’t shown an interest and started asking questions — getting answers — we’d still be referring to this as the skeleton in the closet and still have no name.”
Wilcoxen has always been fascinated with bones. He used to work for his great uncle, a mortician in Colorado, and studied forensic science at the University of Tennessee, after learning that UT had a body farm that conducts decomposition experiments on remains left in various circumstances — buried, uncovered, in automobiles, under water, etc.
“Bones in general have always interested me,” Wilcoxen said. “Seeing ‘skeletal remains’ right at the top of the Status Board definitely helped peak my interest.”
Hachinsky stressed that ME Investigators are given the latitude to “pick up on any older cases we have during a down time.” Wilcoxen brought to Hachinsky’s attention that he’d been working on this older case only after he’d already found a possible match.
“Adam hit one out of the park with this one,” Hachinsky said. “He picked up on the bread crumbs quite a few people left behind and traced them back to the beginning — and closed this case.”