It was an unsolved murder.
Laura Ann Wynn was strangled to death in her Poplar Bluff apartment in 1992. There was lots of evidence, but nothing to lead investigators directly to a suspect.
Fourteen years pass. A new detective is assigned to take another look at the case.
There are new ways to test old evidence.
This time, tests find DNA that leads to a suspect, who is ultimately tried and convicted of the crime.
Welcome to the world of forensics, the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems, especially the scientific analysis of physical evidence from a crime scene.
It's become a fascinating obsession with TV viewers who watch shows that deal with crime scene investigation. Dr. Michael Zaricor is not surprised. This is his world.
For 27 years, he has been a pathologist at Mineral Area Regional Medical Center where he routinely examines body tissue taken from patients during surgery. And in some cases, taken from victims of crime.
“If I hadn't become a doctor, I thought about becoming an FBI agent,” he confessed.
His job in pathology may be the best combination of the two as he finds the medical clues to a crime.
In the Wynn case, he was asked by the Deputy Attorney General in 2006 to present the autopsy findings and interpret them because the coroner who performed the autopsy had died. In court last September, Zaricor testified about the doctor's findings.
“She was hit in the back of the head with something hard,” he explained. “She had a stocking around her neck and she had injuries that showed someone's hands were around her neck.” He said there was evidence of sexual assault.
Zaricor said the case was so interesting because police had so much evidence at the time, but none of it pointed to a killer. There was no way to test for DNA in 1992 as it can be done now. “As DNA testing has gotten more advanced, they tested some tissues that had been near the body when it was found,” Zaricor explained. “The guy must have been blowing his nose. The tissues had been in storage and they tested it and found DNA.”
He explained that every person's DNA is different and even a small amount can be amplified under a microscope to reveal details about an individual.
With the crime scene DNA in hand, detectives from Poplar Bluff returned to a man they had questioned in 1992 and swabbed the inside of his cheeks to get a sample of his DNA. The two matched. Samuel Andrew Freeman went to trial and was convicted and sentenced in November to life in prison.
With the popularity of crime-solving, the TV show “Forensic Files” decided to feature the case and Wednesday, the show's producer interviewed Dr. Zaricor in Farmington. The show will air September 19 on Court TV.
“We filmed him in the morgue where he does his exams,” explained Ed Hydock, production coordinator. “We are re-telling the case by interviewing Dr. Zaricor and the Poplar Bluff detective. There is some re-creation involved in the stories we do, but our show really talks about how forensics solves crimes.”
Hydock explained the show can only feature cases that are closed.
It's not the first time Dr. Zaricor has been on TV. He said a few years ago, the show “Dateline” interviewed him about the autopsy he performed on a student from Southeast Missouri State University who had died after a fraternity hazing. He said of the 160 autopsies he and Dr. Russell Deidiker perform each year, about a third of those are homicide victims and about a third of those go to trial. The pathologists testify in court about six times a year on cases throughout southeast Missouri.
“It's like unraveling a mystery,” he said. “You'd be surprised how much you can find out in the examinations we do.”
He praised the advances in testing for DNA and said the Wynn case proves it's getting tougher and tougher to commit a perfect crime.
“I guess this provides if you pick your nose, they can get you 20 years later,” he said. “If you leave anything behind, they may get you.”
Sometimes, he goes to the alleged crime scene himself. A few years ago, he sat on a ledge watching workers dredge a mine pit looking for the body of Gina Dawn Brooks, the Fredericktown teen who disappeared in 1989. The search did not lead to Brooks, but Zaricor said bones were found and sent to a forensic anthropologist who estimated they were 100 years old.