Television dramas and mystery writers have it all wrong.
On televisionÕs CSI : Miami
and Crossing Jordan
and in Patricia CornwellÕs 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 SmithÕs 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 sniper case, investigators themselves, 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 SmithÕs office in March and three letters a year earlier that threatened Smith in baroque religious language for 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 Òseveral people,Ó and they warned that not only Smith but Òanyone who might know the perpetrator could be in danger.Ó The ATFÕs National Response Team, Òthe cream of the cream,Ó was called in to ÒsaturateÓ 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 AmericaÕs Most Wanted
ÒWe want to get as much as we can out there about this case,Ó explained Inspector Matt McCann of the Memphis Police Department at the time.
The letters, with their now familiar references to ÒDOCTOR-KILLER,Ó the Mike Flemming (sic) radio show, ÒLAMB OF GOD,Ó and Òsoulless PAWN of the DEVILÓ were posted on the Memphis Police Department (MPD) web site under the headline ÒPolice Need Your Help in Finding Attacker!Ó
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 spokesman Latonya Able said itÕs a federal case now. ATF investigator Gene Marquez said his office canÕt talk about the case. U.S. Atty. Terry Harris said Òit is our position that we cannot comment on pending investigations.Ó
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 6-0 tall, 180-200 pounds, in his 30s to 40s. He managed to stun and overpower Smith, a physically fit 49-year-old with military training, and bind him Òhead to toeÓ with barbed wire before placing a bomb on his chest which, 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 SmithÕs 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 wonÕt 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 lynching 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.
A famous fictional medical examiner, Patricia CornwellÕs Dr. 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 station examiner who was either murdered or committed suicide in a burning car in the middle of an investigation of bogus licenses and Middle Eastern illegal aliens.