By Daniel Silliman
There is a skull in a box in the basement of the Clayton County Police Department headquarters, and it's been there a long time.
Unidentified. The dead man's bones are evidence in a murder that has remained unsolved for almost a decade. The case file, a fat brown folder, is marked "I 675//REMAINS." A note attached to the inside of the front cover shows the file was opened on 5-15-98, marked as having no leads on 10-28-99, and closed, still unsolved, on 11-1-99.
Today, the case file sits in a box of "cold cases," another one of the county's unsolved murder mysteries.
In May 1998, on a clear and comfortably warm day, a surveyor named Wesley Bell was walking through the woods on the back of 6824 Dale Road in Rex. The owner wanted to sell the land and the surveyor was measuring it, walking about 40 yards off the southbound lanes of Interstate 675, between Ga. Highways 42 and 138. Bell was walking along the inside of a Department of Transportation fence, coming up on an old barb wire fence when he saw it: a skull in the leaves.
He thought it was an animal skull, he later told police. It was buried down in the leaves, by some weeds, upside down. He pulled it up, turned it around, and realized he was looking into the face of a human skull.
The back of the head was dirty brown, with a crack on the right side. The front was white, with black gaps for eyes, a nose, a mouth.
Police uncovered the rest of the bones. The remains were wrapped in insulated, blue and gray Tiger Bay coveralls. Plants were growing through the bones and a season's leaves covered the body.
Clayton County Police and Sheriff's Office Crime Scene Investigators uncovered it slowly. Red-brown dirt clung to the coveralls. There was nothing in the pockets -- no driver's license, nothing bearing the dead man's name. A pair of Reeboks, size 9 1/2 tennis shoes were lying there, with a pair of Nike socks and underwear and CZ Basic jean shorts, size 31.
There was also a corroded bullet shell casing, a heavy chunk of quartz, and a small crack pipe.
Officers carefully collected the bones, believing the man was murdered. They scoured the area with metal detectors and found a bullet, a .40-caliber piece of lead, buried a foot into the ground below the body.
The Clayton News Daily, the next day, reported: Skeletal remains found face-down in a ditch, 40 yards off of I-675.
Clayton County Police Department Homicide Detective M.T. Murphy opened the file. He wrote, "Opened 5-15-98." He wrote, "Complainant, Wesley Mack Bell." He wrote, "98020606. JOHN DOE DECEASED." Murphy sent the body to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab, and waited for a lead to work with.
GBI forensic examiners said the man was killed by a blunt force blow to the head and a gunshot to the chest. He'd been dead from six months to two years. He was from 30 and 45 years old, born between 1953 and 1968. He was white. He was between 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-10. He had an erupted molar, suggesting there are dental records. He had a surgical pin in his left hip bearing a number.
Almost immediately, Murphy started getting phone calls at the police headquarters. Most worthless. A few phone calls, though, produced leads. Nancy Schaper called thinking it could be her missing son, Gerald. He had a limp in his left leg, was born in 1962, had a drug problem and was last seen in a van off of I-675. The dead man could be Gerald Schaper.
Noah Copland called to say his brother, Richard, went missing in 1997. He'd been shot in the thigh and walked with a limp. He was born in '62 and he wore size 9 1/2 shoes. The dead man could be Richard Copland.
Murphy told the mother and brother to look for medical records, dental records. If you find the records, you have a name.
The GBI called, said there was a number on the pin in the skeleton's left leg: S292344 - 44CM - 03270. Size 14 mm. The surgical pin could be tracked. Then the GBI called and said the pin was too old to be tracked. There were no records. The pin led to a dead end.
The next spring, medical records for both men were found, but nothing matched.
In May, the University of South Carolina made a clay, facial reconstruction of the skull. The face has a long nose, wide around the nostrils. The face had a wide chin, high brows, and a medium-sized mouth. The police called a press conference in May 1999 and asked for the public's help.
More calls came, but nothing matched. A teletype even came in from the Lowndes County Sheriff Office, saying prisoners had a rumor about two Florida convicts claiming to have killed a man in Georgia and buried his body. The leads led nowhere.
Murphy continued to get calls. Promising leads all turned into dead ends. One missing man was too tall, another too old, another had never had trouble with his left leg, and the remains are not yet identified.
Murphy made one last effort, in October '99. He ran a search through a Federal Bureau of Investigation database looking for missing white males, born between '53 and '68. The database came back with 23 names: 16 had been found and identified, seven went missing after the unidentified body was found.
After 15 months, Murphy closed the file. In 1999, with no live leads left to work, he wrote "No Leads" on the note on the inside cover of the fat brown file, and it was moved to the box of closed, cold cases.
Since then, the file has been in a box. It was only opened once, briefly in 2004, when a newly hired, GBI forensic expert was reexamining old cases at the lab in Decatur. The expert said the unidentified man could be black. Murphy took out the file and wrote "racially mixed characteristics."
Today, the case is still cold. No new information has been uncovered. Somewhere, a man with a limp in his left leg is missing. Maybe his family or friends still wonder where he went. A man with a drug problem, maybe, born between '53 and '68, who once wore blue and gray coveralls, Nike socks and 9 1/2size shoes, is still missing.
His bones are evidence to a murder long unsolved. His bones are waiting to be buried.
Anyone with any information about an unsolved murder is asked to call the Clayton County Police Department at (770) 473-5400.