Nonprofit Colo. company uses scientists to find remains of homicide victims

By Kirk Mitchell

Botanists, geophysicists, entomologists, naturalists, meteorologists, hydrologists and archeologists aren't typical crime fighters.

Still, increasingly their skills are being tapped to solve perplexing cold-case homicides.

NecroSearch International was formed in Colorado 22 years ago with the belief that a college professor's expertise may be all that is needed to find the body of a missing person buried in a "clandestine" grave and thereby solve a murder.

Most of the nonprofit's experts never have, and never will, put handcuffs on a suspect.

But evidence they have found has triggered arrests in murders across the country. The scientists and crime-scene experts have accepted assignments in more than 40

states and in 10 countries, including Russia, Italy and Guatemala.

Their success rate may not sound impressive — one in 10 — but these are decades-old cases that homicide detectives thought would never be solved.

NecroSearch volunteers do their work for a very affordable fee: just enough to cover their expenses.

The group was formed following a crime-scene debacle on the Eastern Plains in 1987.

Under the glare of national media, state and local officials used backhoes to search for as many as 17 bodies believed buried on the McCormick Ranch near Stratton.

The remains of only three bodies were found after Mike McCormick told investigators where he helped his father, Tom, bury men he claimed his father killed years earlier.

The heavy equipment destroyed evidence that might have helped solve the serial murders, said Vickey Trammell, a retired community college biology professor and former park ranger who became one of the founding members of NecroSearch.

No one has ever been charged in the murders of the three men.

After watching the mistake-prone McCormick ranch search, NecroSearch was formed, based on demanding scientific protocols patterned after archeological standards.

"We thought, there must be a better way," Trammell said. "We use a trowel to take off 1 inch of soil at a time."

The team has a cadaver-dog trainer; a serologist who collects body fluids for possible DNA evidence; an expert in aerial imagery, who operates unmanned aircraft to search for possible burial sites; and divers who use sonar and underwater video equipment to search for a body or evidence.

Each expert looks at a case a little bit differently, said NecroSearch president Thomas Bellinger, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer who is now an affiliate professor at Metropolitan State College.

Bellinger used his expertise as a hydrologist to find remains of 14-year-old Cindy Ann Margaret Booth, who disappeared in 1993 from her home in Delta.

Eugene Marvin Smith was convicted of murdering Booth in 1997, but most of the girl's body had never been found.

Bellinger and other NecroSearch volunteers began their search at an old dam near Delta in 2004. Deputies had been looking about 500 feet downstream from the dam, believing the current carried Booth's remains far from where her body was tossed.

But after analyzing sediment and bushes near the dam, Bellinger and other volunteers concluded the sediment deposits had been stable for 15 years and the body would not have been swept away.

Within a couple of hours, they found teeth and other remains a few feet from where they told police to search.

In another case, Trammell helped find the remains of Michelle Wallace, a 25-year-old freelance photographer from Chicago, who disappeared near Gunnison around Labor Day in 1974.

In the early 1990s, Trammell, a botanist, examined a recovered scalp that had pine needles stuck in the hair.

She predicted the rest of Wallace's remains would be discovered on a steep northeast facing slope above 9,000 feet in an area that had been logged but not burned for 100 years.

"I didn't tell them where it was so much as I told them where it wasn't," she said.

Kirk Mitchell: 303-954-1206 or kmitchell@denverpost.com

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