On September 14, 1973, a newly married 19-year-old named Noreen Rudd died in a car accident in Barrington, Illinois. Or at least, that’s what her 31-year-old husband said. According to Donnie Rudd, another car had driven the couple off the road, flinging Noreen from the passenger seat of his Ford Pinto station wagon and killing her. Afterward, Donnie, a lawyer at the time, received $120,000 in insurance money.
No one performed an autopsy on Noreen, and the accepted story became that she had died of a broken neck caused by a car accident. Yet 40 years later, while looking into the unsolved murder of one of Donnie’s clients, investigators decided to exhume Noreen’s body and examine it. A pathologist identified skull injuries suggesting she’d died from blows to her head, leading investigators to reclassify her death as a homicide. They questioned and arrested her husband. In 2018, a jury found Donnie guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 75 to 150 years in prison.
Exhumations as a Key Part of Some Criminal Cases
Though rare, exhumations of buried bodies can be an important part of criminal cases. As with Noreen, investigators sometimes exhume bodies when new information suggests a death could have been a murder.
This was the case with Stacey Castor’s first husband, Michael Wallace. His death was ruled a heart attack in 2000. But when Castor’s second husband died from apparent suicide by ingesting antifreeze in 2005, investigators became suspicious and exhumed Wallace’s body. The autopsy revealed Wallace had died from antifreeze, too. Based on this, investigators realized Castor had poisoned both of her husbands.
Why Are Bodies Exhumed?
Investigators usually exhume a body to perform examinations or tests that it didn’t receive before burial. This could be because the original investigators didn’t think such examinations or tests were necessary, because there weren’t sufficient resources to perform them or because the right technology didn’t exist yet. Even decades after a person’s passing, experts can perform forensic toxicology and DNA analysis to help determine the cause of death, manner of death, as well as the attacker’s identity or the victim’s identity, if unknown.
One of those experts is Erin Kimmerle. She’s a forensic anthropologist and the executive director of the University of South Florida’s Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences. Recently, the institute participated in an initiative with homicide detectives to examine more than 120 cold cases, roughly 45 involving the exhumation and examination of “John or Jane Doe” graves.
The initiative was “a great opportunity to make sure all different parts of the investigation are brought up to current standards,” Kimmerle tells A&E Real Crime. “That’s a big problem with cold cases.”
Bringing the John and Jane Doe cases up to current standards meant creating a new biological profile for exhumed bodies and conducting DNA analysis, chemical isotope analysis and facial reconstruction. Kimmerle estimates the initiative helped identify about two dozen previously unidentified people. One of them was Brenda Williams, a black woman in her early twenties who disappeared in Florida in 1978. (Forensic analysis matched DNA in her jaw to her sisters’ DNA.)
When Medical Workers Are Suspected of Murder
Investigators have also exhumed bodies in cases where a medical professional is suspected of serial murder.
For years, the convicted British serial killer Harold Shipman murdered his elderly female patients with morphine and covered up his crimes by signing death certificates indicating they’d died of natural causes. An exhumation of a previous patient in 1998 found morphine in her muscle tissue, leading investigators to exhume more of his former patients. While he was ultimately convicted of 15 such murders, later police and hospital inquiries estimated that his victim count likely numbered more than 200. Shipman had urged many of his victims’ families to cremate their loved ones’ remains, thwarting future exhumations.
More recently, investigators exhumed the bodies of patients who died at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia as part of a serial murder investigation.
Ultimately, exhumations happen when there’s a need for evidence that isn’t on hand. “It’s not very common, but it is something that is done occasionally when you can’t get any other information in any other way, and it’s very crucial,” says Richard S. Gunasekera, a professor of biological sciences and biochemistry at Biola University. As a trained biochemical geneticist, Gunasekera consults police officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys in criminal cases.
Exhumations in Complicated Cases
In 2012, Gunasekera co-authored a paper in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine about a criminal trial in which investigators exhumed a body that had already received an autopsy before burial. The story illustrates why exhumations can be useful in complicated cases, especially if the medical examiner who performed a pre-burial autopsy didn’t have enough information about the circumstances of the person’s death.
The woman at the center of the case was 42-year-old Melba Lott, who died in her apartment in Victoria, Texas in 2006. When she was found, she was already badly decomposed. Because there were high levels of cocaine in her system, an initial autopsy concluded she died from an accidental overdose. But the medical examiner who conducted that autopsy didn’t know investigators had found evidence of a bloody struggle at her apartment, as well as a trail of blood leading over to another apartment in her complex.
Two years later, in 2008, investigators exhumed Lott for a second autopsy. This time, an examiner confirmed the cocaine in her system and also identified fractures in her skull, suggesting someone had assaulted her. Once the new autopsy found evidence of assault, investigators identified three suspects through a combination of DNA evidence, latent fingerprints, witness testimony and a confession. All three were convicted on murder or assault charges.
Who Can Get a Body Exhumed?
The legal aspects of who consents to an exhumation may vary from state to state, but a court can order anyone or any organization to exhume a body if there’s a justified reason. One of the more high-profile instances in which a cemetery has refused to exhume a body—and courts have upheld its refusal—concerns John Wilkes Booth, who was shot to death a couple of weeks after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
Famous (or infamous) figures like Booth are often the subject of conspiracy theories that they faked their death or that their killers shot the wrong person. In the four years after Booth’s death, his body was exhumed twice to confirm his identity, but that hasn’t put the conspiracy theories about him to rest. In the mid-1990s, Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore refused a request by Booth’s distant relatives to exhume his body again, and two courts upheld the cemetery’s decision.
In Booth’s case, there is no real reason to exhume his body. But in serious criminal cases, exhumation can be an important step to finding the truth.