By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MILFORD TWP. - When Dr. Richard P. Burkhardt and other Butler County investigators saw a human torso lying on the ground Wednesday in Milford Township, they experienced a haunting sense of deja vu.
"Right away, we thought of the Cheryl Durkin case - except she wasn't burned," said Burkhardt. The county coroner noted that many of the same professionals who worked on the Durkin case in 1998 - a case many thought was unsolvable - now find themselves working on an eerily similar case.
The Milford Township torso was missing its head, both hands and parts of its arms and legs.
An autopsy is set today on the 93-pound torso that a pair of bow hunters found just south of the Preble County line Wednesday afternoon. The remains are badly charred, but evidence suggests the victim was male. Race, height, weight and cause of death were among the many unknowns Thursday.
Burkhardt, coroner's investigator Andy Willis, Sheriff's Maj. Anthony Dwyer and College of Mount St. Joseph forensic anthropologist Beth Murray - the core team that worked to identify Durkin and her killer - are reconvening, hoping they can again beat the odds.
The county's coroner since 1980, Dr. Richard P. Burkhardt has investigated five dismemberment cases:
1987: The legs of Monica Lemen, 21, of Price Hill, were found behind an Indiana church. Professed Satanist Johnny Lee Fryman was convicted of killing her in his Fairfield trailer and dismembering her body; her other parts were never found. Now 41, Fryman is serving a life prison term.
1990: Maria Barker Tanner, 21, was slain and beheaded on Valentine's Day at her Fairfield apartment. Her husband, Raymond, was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Now 48, Tanner was freed after spending six years in a mental institution. Next month, a Butler County judge is to consider whether to grant Tanner's request to discontinue monthly visits to a psychologist.
1996: Boys fishing on Linden Lake found a skull later identified as belonging to Tina Elaine Mot, 22. Her boyfriend, Timothy Allen Bradford, was convicted of killing her, skinning her, dismembering her and removing her teeth with needle-nose pliers in their Hamilton apartment. Now 32, Bradford is serving a 10-to-25-year sentence; he is eligible for parole in 2005.
1998: A torso, later identified as that of Cheryl Ann Durkin, 34, of Middletown, was found on the east bank of the Great Miami River in Hamilton. James Lee Lawson of Middletown, now 34, is serving a sentence of 20 years to life in prison. His mother and another relative led authorities to other parts of Durkin's body in Preble County and Indiana.
"Someone went to an awful lot of trouble to give us a tough case," Burkhardt said. "You can't figure out the 'whodunit' until you figure out: 'Who is it?' "
Without a head, there cannot be facial or dental identification; without hands, there cannot be fingerprint identification.
And, although homicide seems the likely cause of death in a case like this, "you've got to keep your mind open to all possibilities," Burkhardt said. He noted a recent Preble County grave-robbing case in which a head was taken, "so maybe it's a mutilation of a corpse," and not a homicide, Burkhardt said.
In the Durkin case, investigators determined gender from evidence in the pelvic area. Measuring the torso helped provide a height and weight range. Bone characteristics yielded an age range.
Then, investigators compared those descriptors with missing persons reports - and family members' hunches - to come up with possible matches. Finally, DNA established a family link with Durkin's mother.
Eventually, James Lee Lawson was convicted of murder and other charges in Durkin's death.
The chances of solving the latest case could depend largely on whether a usable DNA sample - one that isn't too degraded by burning or decomposition - can be found in the torso's bone or muscle, Burkhardt said.
As of Thursday afternoon, investigators from the Butler County Sheriff's Office had been collecting evidence around-the-clock from the scene.
The pair of hunters, whose names authorities wouldn't disclose, actually walked past the torso without noticing it at first, said Col. Richard K. Jones, sheriff's chief deputy. When they spotted it, "They were kind of in shock," Jones said. The men first notified the Preble County Sheriff's Office, but the Butler sheriff took over the case after learning that the torso was actually about 25 feet inside Butler's boundary, Jones said.
The torso was lying in thick mud along a "tractor pull-off area," near an Ohio 177 cornfield, northwest of the town of Darrtown and west of Somerville, Jones said.
"We feel it was dumped there," Jones said.
Investigators either didn't know or weren't saying how long the torso had been there, where the person died or where the mutilation occurred.
While wild animals may have disturbed some parts of the corpse, investigators believe someone purposely removed the missing parts to conceal the victim's identity, Jones said.
"It's a pretty tough sight to look at," he said.
With help from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation, sheriff's investigators collected additional evidence Thursday from the body and from the surrounding area, Jones said. They also were using cadaver dogs to search for more body parts.
Within 24 hours of the torso's discovery, investigators had received about a dozen tips via telephone, Jones said.
"A lot of cases like this go unsolved," he said. "We've done it before, but it took a lot of breaks...It appears we're starting to get a few breaks now, from people calling in and giving information. It's still in its infancy, but things are moving along pretty decent."
He asks anyone with information to call the sheriff's office at 785-1300.
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