HOUSTON – When investigators found the remains of 46-year-old Deborah Applegate in Porter in 2010, there was little more left of the slain mother of three than a pile of bones.
But a real-life CSI forensic science lab in Montgomery County – one of just a few in the nation – helped close the case last year.
Forensic anthropologist Dr. Joan Bytheway remembers the gruesome details.
"He struck her in the head with a hammer. He slit her throat," she said. "She was put in a garbage can, about a month later he set her on fire."
Investigators said the killer was 26-year-old Robert Hinton II. They believe he was high on drugs when the crime was committed. But since the burned remains were found a month after the woman’s death, the real trick for scientists was finding out how the victim died.
"This is really CSI. It’s the real deal," Bytheway said.
She is the lab director at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility, which is part of Sam Houston State’s renowned Criminal Justice Department. It’s nicknamed a "body farm," and is one of just four facilities like it in the country.
The farm is there in part because of Texas’ distinctive climate, insects, animals and soil—all of which impact decomposition.
Kim Perez, a 22-year-old undergraduate working there, gave a quick tour of the fenced-in acreage.
"We just installed HD cameras so we can monitor the bodies if an animal comes in," she said.
All research bodies are donated. Decomposition is monitored in a secure, undisclosed location. In addition to forensic research, researchers train instructors, law enforcement and help catch killers.
A charred debris field was all that was left of Deborah Applegate. Careful recovery turned scorched earth and bone into skeletal reconstruction after months of painstaking work.
Examining the bones, Bytheway pointed to "a triangular piece [that] was not burned at all."
"That piece was obviously dislodged before the body was exposed to heat," she said.
In other words, the skull was fractured before the corpse was set on fire.
Next to that clean piece, a clean crack can be seen in the skull, from a hammer. That gave Montgomery County Sheriff’s deputies leverage.
"They went in there with that information, ‘Hey you struck this gal, we know it,’" she said.
The result was what investigators love.
"It ended up in a post-plea confession. He confessed," Bytheway said.
Hinton was sentenced to 30 years in prison for murder. That was thanks in part to real CSI scientists, who helped uncover the who—and the what—of the horrific murder.
For more information on the lab or how to donate, visit http://www.cjcenter.org/stafs/.