Television dramas and mystery writers have it all wrong.
On television's CSI: Miami and Crossing Jordan and in Patricia Cornwell's novels starring Dr. Kay Scarpette, fictional medical examiners use their wits and microscopic bits of evidence to make something out of nothing.
In the real-life case of Shelby County medical examiner Dr. O.C. Smith, police and crack federal investigators have, since June, made nothing out of something, even though the victim was the medical examiner himself and a trail of bombs, blood, and letters stretches back 18 months.
Smith was attacked, wrapped in barbed wire, gagged, and had a bomb placed on his chest as he left his office on the night of June 1st. The attacker also splashed or sprayed a chemical substance in Smith's face to stun him and hamper identification. A security officer found Smith nearly three hours later. The bomb did not explode, and Smith was not seriously injured.
In contrast to the Washington, D.C.-area sniper case, investigators, not reporters or hired experts, seemed to be the ones jumping to conclusions and hyping the Smith attack. They almost immediately connected it to bombs placed in the morgue near Smith's office in March and three letters a year earlier that threatened Smith in baroque religious language because of his testimony in support of the conviction of death-row inmate Philip Workman.
Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) said the unexploded bombs in the office were capable of killing "several people," and they warned that not only Smith but "anyone who might know the perpetrator could be in danger." The ATF's National Response Team, "the cream of the cream," was called in to "saturate" the investigation. The Memphis bomber, said to be growing bolder and more dangerous, made national headlines, and investigators were featured on the nationally syndicated television program America's Most Wanted.
"We want to get as much as we can out there about this case," explained Inspector Matt McCann of the Memphis Police Department at the time.
The letters, with their now familiar references to "DOCTOR-KILLER," the Mike Flemming (sic) radio show, "LAMB OF GOD," and "soulless PAWN of the DEVIL," were posted on the Memphis Police Department (MPD) Web site under the headline "Police Need Your Help in Finding Attacker!"
Five months later, they still do. Investigators have no suspect, no composite sketch, and no leads they are willing to talk about in any of the cases, related or not.
The trail is apparently as cold as the story. The MPD and ATF investigators quoted in the days following the attack refused to comment last week. MPD spokesperson Latonya Able said it's a federal case now. ATF investigator Gene Marquez said his office can't talk about the case. U.S. Attorney Terry Harris said, "It is our position that we cannot comment on pending investigations."
Smith, through a spokesman, also declined to comment, as he has consistently since the attack. Although there was talk about beefing up security at the morgue, access around the building at 1065 Madison is unrestricted. Some ATF investigators who were working on the Smith case were called away to work on the sniper case.
Investigators have updated their description of the attacker to make him older and larger. He is described as a while male with a fair complexion, 5'10" to 6', 180 to 200 pounds, in his 30s or 40s. He managed to stun and overpower Smith, a physically fit 49-year-old with military training, and bind him "head to toe" with barbed wire before placing a bomb on his chest that, for unexplained reasons, did not explode. The attacker reportedly shed drops of blood at the scene. Investigators have not said what he sprayed or splashed in Smith's face, what, if anything, he said, or if he was armed.
The bomber has not been heard from since June. Nor have there been any more threatening letters, at least not any that have been made public. The Philip Workman case has been quiet for more than a year since his last-minute stay of execution. It is on appeal once again, with another round of oral arguments pending.
Whatever attention it may be getting from the feds, the Smith case won't just go away. It has too many overtones of terrorism, torture, and pulp fiction. The use of barbed wire as a restraint is especially ominous, not to mention cumbersome. Civil rights martyr Emmett Till was bound with barbed wire, shot, beaten, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River in a notorious Mississippi race crime in 1955. Hundreds of World War II POWs in Burma were bound in barbed wire before they were killed by the Japanese. More recently, human-rights activists in Indonesia and South Africa have been bound with barbed wire and tortured or killed.
Famous fictional medical examiner Kay Scarpette is sometimes in peril in books such as Body of Evidence, Point of Origin, and The Postmortem. In Black Notice, she is attacked by a madman with a hammer.
By any standards, it has been an unusually eventful year for Smith. In addition to the Workman case and the bomb scares, he did the autopsy on Dr. Don Wiley, the visiting microbiologist who mysteriously fell to his death from the Hernando DeSoto Bridge. His office also did the autopsy on Katherine Smith, the driver-testing examiner who was either murdered or committed suicide in a burning car in the middle of an investigation of bogus driver's licenses and illegal Middle Eastern aliens.