A Skull and a Bad Guy

Portion of bone removed from a skull at UNT Health Science for DNA testing. Image courtesy UNT Health Science Center.

Hey, “CSI” fans! Here’s my latest story for you from the Fort Worth Weekly: Dog finds skull in Austin field. DNA results from UNT Health Science Center prove it to be a Most Wanted fugitive.


When a 12-year-old Labrador retriever named Carly found a human skull near a large creek bed in southeast Austin on Sept. 8, the lower jaw was still attached. Part of a dried scalp filled with buzzed brown hair clung to the skull and part of the left ear. Time — compounded with wind, rain, and the scorching Texas sun — had turned the skull brown and yellow.

Its identity was a mystery. And the skull was missing its body.

But U.S. marshals had a hunch. Based on where the skull was found, the agency thought it could belong to a fugitive named Kevin Patrick Stoeser, who’d been on probation after serving time for sexual molestation of a child and possession of child pornography in Austin. And Stoeser was on the U.S. Marshals Service’s Top 15 Most Wanted list. So identifying the remains became a priority.

A small portion of the bone was cut out of the skull and sent to the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth for DNA analysis. All unidentified remains from Texas and most other states are sent to the center.

Health science center team members take DNA from remains and enter that and other information in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). The DNA profiles in NamUs can then be matched against those in another database — CODIS, run by the FBI — to see if there is a match.

And that’s exactly what happened with the skull Carly dropped in her owners’ front yard. The health science center team was able to pull a DNA profile from the bone in early November. In this case, there was a match in CODIS — the Combined DNA Index System — thanks to the Arlington Police Department.

In June 2002, Stoeser, then a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, was arrested in Arlington for sexual assault of a child. An officer collected DNA from the inside of Stoeser’s cheek with a cotton swab and entered the information in CODIS.

According to the U.S. Marshals Service, Stoeser had a long history of sexual violence, including possession of child pornography, rape, and sexual assault of five children. He pleaded guilty to the Arlington charges of child sexual assault and possession of child pornography and was sent to prison in Kansas, where he served most of a 13-year sentence before being released on probation in 2011.

Sent to a military halfway house in South Dakota, Stoeser ended up back in prison that same year for texting and e-mailing with underage girls, a probation violation. He served a few months, was released again on probation — and again got in trouble almost immediately.

That time he was sent to the Austin Transitional Center, a residential re-entry facility, because he wanted to live closer to his daughter.

Stoeser had been there only a few months when, according to U.S. Marshals Service public affairs deputy Hector Gomez, staffers at the Austin facility found him with a smartphone filled with images of underage kids, and he bolted out an emergency exit. He was 41. Nearby are the creeks and fields where, a year later, Carly is believed to have found the skull.

The health science center works more than 700 unidentified-remains cases each year. About 80 percent of those cases are skeletal remains, said Dixie Peters, technical leader for the missing persons unit within the Center for Human Identification at UNT.

Across the country, there are more than 40,000 cases involving unidentified bodies or skeletal remains. Nearly 10,000 of those cases are active in the NamUs database, making it the largest source of information on unidentified remains in the country. More than 1,000 of those cases are from Texas, including more than 100 added in the last year.

NamUs is a national database that helps match human remains with missing persons cases by keeping information on both. In 2003, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) created it to allow law enforcement officials and the general public to search through the information. Sometimes it’s the family of missing loved ones, rather than law enforcement, who solves the case, as in a story Fort Worth Weekly covered last year (“From the Land of the Lost,” July 24, 2013).

In 2010 UNT Health Science Center was awarded a grant from the NIJ to take over the management of NamUs, making it a “one-stop shop” for unidentified remains, said B.J. Spamer, director of the training and analysis division of NamUs. The center performs DNA testing, operates NamUs, and partners with the Institute for Forensic Anthropology at UNT’s main campus in Denton to provide insight into the sex, age, and causes of death. Two forensically trained dentists are part of the team, along with analysts who use sites like LexisNexis, Facebook, and Ancestry.com to search for clues to identify remains or possibly locate missing people who are still alive.

“We use the most advanced technology to get the short tandem repeats (STRs),” explained Spamer. STRs are a portion of nuclear DNA that’s passed down from both of an individual’s parents.

On all cases, the ID center processes both nuclear (STR) and mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the mother. All siblings from the same mother carry the same mitochondrial DNA.

STR testing is a big deal because “it’s really discriminating,” said Spamer — meaning that the likelihood of another person having that same DNA profile is basically zero.

Every crime lab in the country does STR analysis, Spamer said. But technicians can’t always get an STR profile from human remains because that type of DNA is found in the nuclei of cells and breaks down faster than mitochondrial DNA. A body that’s been exposed to the elements for an extended period of time might not have viable nuclear DNA.

In this case, Peters’ team was able to pull an STR profile from the skull, even though the remains were weathered. And that’s the type of DNA profile that was taken from Stoeser in 2002 and loaded into CODIS. Texas uses STR testing (rather than mitochondrial) when it pulls DNA samples from convicted offenders.

Only nine facilities in the U.S. can perform STR and mitochondrial DNA testing and upload those results into CODIS, Spamer said. UNT Health Science Center provides more DNA profiles on unidentified remains than any other lab in the country. Many private labs can do the DNA testing but don’t have access to CODIS, which is restricted to government-funded facilities.

A few days after Stoeser escaped on Oct. 24, 2013, Austin was hit by what came to be known locally as the “Halloween flood” of 2013. David Fugitt, a homicide detective with the Austin Police Department who worked the case of the recovered skull, believes Stoeser may have drowned in the high waters that killed several other people and ruined many homes.

Stoeser had been missing for more than six months when his case was featured on CNN’s “The Hunt” with host John Walsh, and a $25,000 bounty was offered for information leading to his arrest.

Then in June, the U.S. Marshals Service went back to scour the area again. This time, the search was cut short, Fugitt said, after one investigator was bitten by a rattlesnake and because of heavy rains.

In September, Carly brought home the skull, and the next day, 28 law enforcement officials and four cadaver dogs were back at it, wading through an open field and neighboring creek bed full of waist-high grass, searching for the rest of the missing body.

The team searched throughout the course of the day but found nothing. Law enforcement officials put a tracking device on Carly’s collar and let her roam free for a couple of days, hoping she would take investigators back to the place where she had found the skull. But the dog led them to no more grisly trophies.

Dr. Dana Austin, a forensic anthropologist with the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office, said that the instincts of dogs and coyotes to drag bones away to chew on them, combined with the natural decomposition process, make it increasingly less likely that more of Stoeser’s remains will be found.

Carly still might represent the best hope of finding them. Owners Anthony and Bonnie Vin Klarek said the Labrador retriever gets a walk every day through the area where they think she found the skull, and at night she often jumps the fence to forage on her own.

The dog has never brought back another bone, Bonnie said, but a week after finding the skull, “she came back home with a kid’s baseball glove.”

From the Land of the Lost

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 10.41.06 PMNo, real forensic science isn’t like CSI, but it’s still pretty damn cool. And in Fort Worth, scientists are hard at work matching DNA to skeletal remains in order to put names to the thousands of missing person cases in the United States.

Here’s my story from the Fort Worth Weekly:
The sisters were hungry. They had been doing housework and were ready for a break. So they got in the car and drove to Godfather’s Pizza — one of their favorite restaurants in their hometown of Kansas City, Mo. They sat down at a booth, ordered The Supreme, and talked about the Bon Jovi concert they were planning to see. Paula Davis, 21, was planning to buy tickets the next day. Stephanie Clack, 14, was excited to be hanging out with her cool older sister.

Stephanie remembers the Bon Jovi song Paula played on the jukebox and the aroma of fresh-baked pizza. It was August 1987, and Paula’s olive skin had tanned from the warm summer sun. Curly brown hair framed her heart-shaped face.

After dinner, Paula dropped her sister off at their parents’ house. It was the last time Stephanie would see her sister alive.

The family knew almost immediately that something was wrong. “We got a call from Paula’s roommate saying that something had happened because Paula never came home that night,” Stephanie said.

One day later, a couple of teenagers driving down an Ohio road thought they saw a dead body lying in the dirt. They called the cops. Englewood police officers found a young woman’s body, nude from the waist up, dumped near an entrance ramp to I-70, 587 miles and a nine-hour drive from Kansas City.

A coroner estimated that the young woman had been dead only about 14 hours. But it would take 22 years before the body was identified as that of Paula Davis. Even then, it only happened because of a sister’s persistence, a rose and a unicorn, and the help of a national database now maintained in Fort Worth by the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

********

Stephanie graduated from high school, got married, had five children, and moved to Independence, Mo. But wherever she was, she kept up the search for her sister. She had little hope that Paula was alive.

Continue reading here.

SNAP Judgements: Living on Food Stamps

English: Logo of the .

English: Logo of the . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The last two years have been a blur. Days have run into months and before I knew it, a year had passed. Three months after I had my daughter, my husband lost his job. And we lost the security of our middle-class life.

For six months, we qualified for food stamps. And we used every last penny that the government so kindly granted us. What I thought about being poor, about the federal food stamp program, and about social services like food stamps and WIC dramatically changed. Because I was no longer an outsider looking in. I was an insider, wishing to get out.

I debated even publishing this post or writing the story about my experience for the Texas Observer. But over time, pride fades. And perhaps, my story will make another woman in my place know that it’s all going to be okay.

Here’s my story published in the Texas Observer:

I’m a snotty 16-year-old with a crush on Reed, the dark-haired, fair-skinned dreamboat who bags groceries in my line (when I’m lucky). My feet hurt from standing at a Winn Dixie cash register all day.

Weigh the bananas. Type in produce code 4011. Take bananas off scale.

“Have a nice day,” I say, sincerely insincere.

A heavyset mother of about 25 trailing a rowdy brood of kids steps forward and hands me a sheet of paper with a government logo across the top.

WIC. I hate WIC.

WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) is a federal program, similar to food stamps, that provides assistance specifically to mothers, pregnant women and their young children, paying for essentials like baby food, formula, bread and milk. It also educates mothers on nutrition and the art of breastfeeding, which is much harder than it looks.

But for cashiers, filling out the forms and processing the paperwork takes forever, and I can’t seem to get it right. So my line gets longer. Customers get irritated. And my feet hurt.

Why can’t the government come up with a better way to help people without making my life miserable?

Two thousand dollars a month. That’s the income cap to qualify for food stamps in Texas. Two thousand dollars a month for a family of three.

My parents were teachers, no big paychecks or buyouts, but they were smart with their money and paid for everything with cash. I don’t think they started using credit cards until I was an adult. They instilled their zero-debt policy in me as well, and the Discover card my mother put in my name when I graduated from high school still gets paid off every month.

We’re standing in line at Target. My husband pays for our groceries while I coo and cuddle my baby girl, who’s gazing up at me from her expensive car seat in the front of the cart. My husband takes a white card out of his wallet, slides it through the machine, enters his 4-digit PIN, and looks down. The receipt prints. Niceties are exchanged. Plastic bags are gathered. I doubt the overworked cashier even notices we’re not paying with credit.

Last April we joined the 46 million Americans living on food stamps, more accurately known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Four million of those people are Texans. The federally funded program provides food assistance to people who earn less than $24,000 a year for a family of three.

Continue…

Losing Babies: Fort Worth Leads the State in Infant Mortality

As a new mother, I was immensely saddened and attracted to this subject simultaneously. Why does Fort Worth (my hometown) have such a high rate of infant mortality? I found some answers. And more questions. But if one baby is saved because of this story, it was worth every word.

Read the beginning of my story here, published in March by the Fort Worth Weekly:

My baby kicked and moved until the day he died,” said Jodie Kennedy.

She thought everything was fine. It was her second pregnancy. But her amniotic fluid was leaking, making her feel weak and dizzy all the time. She didn’t know that what was happening was out of the ordinary, and she didn’t have a doctor to tell her it was.

It was 2007, and Jodie had just relocated to Fort Worth from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The young mother didn’t have money for a doctor and didn’t know how to apply for Medicaid. So when she was four months pregnant, her son died.

“Oh … it hurts,” she said. “I could have saved my son’s life.”

If Jodie, 29, had gotten medical care early in her pregnancy, a doctor would have seen that her cervix was too weak to carry the weight of the developing child and could have given her injections to prevent premature labor. She knows that now because she delivered a healthy baby girl last summer. This time, with help from a federally funded program operated by a local charity, she went to the doctor right away and got the care she needed to carry the baby to term.

“If I knew what I know now … my son would be here,” Jodie said. “Knowledge is power. It can save somebody’s life, especially when it comes to a baby.”

These days, health officials and charity providers in Tarrant County are trying to turn some sad knowledge into power to help save the lives of more babies in North Texas. According to the most recent statistics available, Fort Worth has the highest infant mortality rate in the state, meaning that a higher percentage of babies here die before their first birthday than in any other major city in Texas. But it’s not just Fort Worth — the North Texas region in general leads the state in infant mortality as well.

Kennedy, with baby Kamryn: “Knowledge is power. It can save somebody’s life.”

Kennedy, with baby Kamryn: “Knowledge is power. It can save somebody’s life.”

Fort Worth, Arlington, and Dallas had the highest infant mortality rates of Texas’ large cities: Fort Worth had 9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births compared to 8.2 in Arlington and 7.5 in Dallas.

The problem also seems to be getting worse. In January, the Tarrant County Public Health agency released its most comprehensive report to date on infant mortality. It showed that the number of infant deaths in both Fort Worth and Arlington increased in 2010, even though the total number of babies born decreased during that year.

The causes of infant mortality are complicated, and none of the health officials contacted by Fort Worth Weekly would hazard a guess as to why North Texas cities seem to be so dangerous to the health of fetuses and newborns.

“If I knew the answer to that I would fix it,” said Ann Salyer-Caldwell, associate director of community health promotion at Tarrant County Public Health. Many factors add to the picture of infant mortality, she said, “and we have to dig deep to find all the issues that are affecting it.”

Some of the conditions that lead to infant deaths here carry out the same theme as elsewhere in the state: A mother’s long-term lifestyle affects her chances of having a healthy baby — infant mortality rates are higher for obese women, for instance. Mortality rates also tend to vary by race.

But at least one key factor here seems clear: Tarrant County has the worst percentage in the state of pregnant mothers receiving prenatal care. Premature babies are more likely to die shortly after birth than full-term babies. Moms with sexually transmitted infections are more likely to lose their babies. Both those factors trace back to a lack of medical care during pregnancy.

And the medical care picture for women, particularly poor women, isn’t getting any better in Texas. The legislature has drastically cut state funding for family planning and women’s healthcare in recent years, leading to clinic shutdowns across Texas, including one in Arlington.

When the state’s ban on funding for Planned Parenthood clinics led the federal government to end its women’s health program in Texas, state officials organized what they said was a replacement program. But that program has been criticized in Tarrant County and elsewhere for providing a much lower level of accessible care than in the past. And local health officials said Texas rules make it difficult for poor pregnant women to qualify for Medicaid.

“The painful truth is, many women are going without preventive healthcare that could save lives,” said Danielle Wells, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

Continue…

Hey, Gloria Steinem.

English: American feminist Gloria Steinem at B...

English: American feminist Gloria Steinem at Brighton High School, Brighton, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I got the chance to interview Gloria Steinem (a.k.a. feminist leader of the free world!). Here’s the story, posted by Fort Worth Weekly:

Fort Worth Weekly got the opportunity on Thursday to talk with longtime feminist leader Gloria Steinem about gender issues, equality, and women’s healthcare in Texas.

Steinem, in her late 70s, is the guest speaker this week at Planned Parenthood’s annual fundraising luncheon in Fort Worth. She’s a co-founder of Ms. Magazine and a globally recognized expert and activist on women’s issues. Steinem also co-founded Voters for Choice, a pro-choice political action committee. She’s been a longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood, which got kicked out of the new Texas Women’s Health Program (WHP) earlier this year because Texas lawmakers approved a measure banning any organization that provides abortions from taking part. Planned Parenthood clinics in the past have been the largest provider of medical care under that program, giving women in many parts of the state access they otherwise would not have had to cancer screenings, birth control.

FWW: How does access or lack of access to healthcare affect equality for women?

Steinem: “All basic freedoms revolve around productive freedoms for women.” She said that if you can’t decide when and whether to have children, your ability to make other choices in life is greatly limited. A woman “must be able to decide the size of the family. It’s very important that every child born be loved and wanted.”

Lack of healthcare for women also has a deep affect on families, since women in most cases are the primary caregivers, she said.

FWW: In what way does the new Women’s Health Program affect young girls?

Steinem: “In states that have been afflicted by ignorance on sexual education [like Texas], girls must feel empowered to take care of their own bodies … must be able to understand sexuality. In this country, we have had several administrations promoting ignorance; Texas has many of those voices, like [Gov.] Rick Perry.”

FWW: What is Planned Parenthood’s role in Texas’ healthcare program?

Steinem: “All over the country, Planned Parenthood is the source of primary healthcare for women. It’s the reason why Planned Parenthood is one of the most trusted organizations in the country. And one in five women have turned to Planned Parenthood. … I don’t know any [other] state where the governor has been at war with Planned Parenthood.” She said that quality healthcare is less available in the United States than in most developed countries, which makes low-cost access to quality care even more important.

According to Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, its clinics charge women around $100 for a well woman exam, excluding lab fees. That same exam from a private doctor’s office costs around $300.

 

Financial/Health

A shop window advertising payday loans.

A shop window advertising payday loans. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do payday lenders and poor health have in common? A lot according to faith-based groups in Texas. Read my latest story about it here.

She Died on a Sunday.

Details of the murder slipped from hushed lips and spread like the flu in January.

“There was a knife.”

“Her throat was cut.”

“Her baby was gone when the police arrived.”

She died on a Sunday, while I was lying on my couch, drinking wine, watching another episode of “Parenthood,” she was crying, screaming, fighting, and hoping that her baby wouldn’t see what was happening to his mommy.

People say her ex-boyfriend killed her in a fit of crazy rage. Aren’t knives the weapon of passion? But it wasn’t the first time; it rarely is.

Six months before she died, he attacked her, but she made it out alive—with just a few bruises and one black eye. She said his eyes looked crazy; a look she had never seen before. A look that wouldn’t accept love or logic. She took their son and left. Immediately. And that was that.

But he came back. Maybe to see the baby. Maybe to see her.

“I want to be a family again,” he told her.

“No,” she told him. “No.”

The television was on when the police arrived. It was playing a kid’s DVD. Toys were scattered in the apartment’s living room, but the baby wasn’t to be seen.

She was 32. Her son is 13 months old. Same age as my daughter and I.

Police found the baby with her father, at his apartment. They took the sweet cherub away, and placed him in the grieving arms of grandparents.

I knew her mother, too. Their resemblance was unmistakable.

What do you say to a mother who’s lost her baby?

“Sorry,” just doesn’t hold the same weight when your child gets murdered. It’s too simple. Too sterile.

The funeral is next week; I’ll wait to see if the words come to me.

Latest and Greatest: Harassment at Haltom?

After six months of interviews, multiple open-records requests, and talking to a lot of teachers, this investigative piece about a principal at a high school in North Texas, finally hit the press.

The community responded–loudly–with 3,700 Facebook likes and 93 online comments.

Take a read, and see what you think:

Fort Worth Weekly: Harassment at Haltom?Haltom High School

Are Twinkies Toast?

English: Hostess Twinkies. Yellow snack cake w...

English: Hostess Twinkies. Yellow snack cake with cream filling. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hostess is going to HoHo hell, or maybe heaven, depending on how you feel about this famous, fat-laden pastry company. With its demise comes the end of Twinkies, the yellow pastry that’s filled with a mysterious white, creamy, sweet, something?

Hostess Brands is based in North Texas and its liquidation means 18,000 Texans are out of a job. And there’s nothing sweet about that.

Is the close of this iconic company a sign that Americans are moving away from highly processed foods? Maybe. But it seems more likely that Hostess just couldn’t reach a wage agreement with its striking bakery workers.

And the Twinkie will probably keep Twinkling under another mother company.

Writers On Food: Southern Influence

I’m a Texan. And I must say, without too much bragging, that Texas is a delicious place to live. Fort Worth, Texas especially.

Southerners are almost as proud of their relationship with food as they are with that slow-moving melodic twang. Like, “Hey Pop, bring me a biscuit and some gravy to soak up my grits.” It’s music to my ears. Really.

I love the relationships and memories that good food creates around dinner tables from here to the Mississippi. In this last post about writers on food, I’d like to dish out a little food for thought on the somewhat new (and already award-winning) magazine Garden & Gun.

Its October issue highlights great southern foods, and makes me want to stuff a buttered biscuit into my mouth every time I see that mouthwatering cover. Food aside (just for a tiny, itty-bitty second) this magazine artfully combines literary excellence with lip smacking, finger licking, lovin’ of life: food.

Here’s that recipe from the issue’s cover. And please make enough to share with this always-hungry writer and sinfully sad cook.

Blackberry Farm‘s Rolled Buttermilk Biscuits with Sorghum Butter
Serves 12

1¼ lb. White Lily all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. cream of tartar
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. salt
¼ lb. shortening
2 cups buttermilk
soft butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Sift the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Cut the shortening into the flour mixture with your fingers, two knives, or a pastry blender.  The lumps will be very small, but still visible.  As soon as you feel the texture of the flour become coarse, stop.

Pour the buttermilk into the dry mixture all at once and combine. Incorporate the buttermilk as quickly and as gently as possible using a folding motion.  Adjust the consistency if needed.  The dough should be sticky, but manageable.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and work lightly (with the hands, use a folding and patting out motion) until the texture begins to smooth out.  Pat the dough out with your hands into a large rectangle (about the size of a baking sheet).

Spread 2/3 of the dough with soft butter.  Fold the unbuttered side onto the middle 1/3 of the buttered side, then fold the other outer 1/3 buttered side onto the top of the unbuttered dough.  Turn dough ¼ turn and repeat, buttering 2/3 dough and folding.  Repeat once more.

Pat out dough to ½-inch thickness.  May finish lightly with a few strokes of a rolling pin.  Use a 3-inch cutter (keep dipping in flour to keep from sticking to the dough) to punch out biscuits.

Place 6 by 4 on a  parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for approximately 14 minutes.  Turn once halfway through the baking at 7 minutes.  Tops should be a light golden brown when finished.  Brush tops with butter.

Muddy Pond Sorghum Butter
½ cup Muddy Pond Sorghum
1 cup soft butter, unsalted

Stir together and eat with lots of warm biscuits!  Lather it on thick.

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