Bitter Remains: Chapter 1
Oyster Creek leaped to the earth’s surface in Fort Bend County, Texas, just north of the historic town of Richmond, about a half hour southwest of downtown Houston. Paralleling the Brazos River, it meandered through lush, semitropical countryside on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the 4300 block of Skinner Lane, unruly brush and tall grasses crowded around as if trying to hide the creek from strangers’ eyes. At one spot, a football field–size patch of lily pads consumed its whole width. Oyster shells littered its banks, hobby fishermen harvested its bounty and alligators patrolled its length for prey.
In July 2011, in the Pecan Grove community, another deadly creature desecrated its waters.
On Sunday afternoon, July 24, 2011, detectives searching for a missing North Carolina woman made a gruesome discovery tangled up in the weeds growing by the edge of
the creek: a piece of armless female torso, severed at the neck and just above the hip area. By four o’clock, they’d found the rest of the torso. They strongly suspected that
they’d found the body of the woman whom they were seeking, but without a head or hands, identification would depend on the slow, methodical process of DNA testing.
The next morning, just after nine, dive experts from the Richmond Fire Department and the Houston Police Department arrived at the scene. The near-one-hundred degree
sun beat down on their heads and stabbed into their backs with the single-minded intensity of a carrion crow. Humidity soared over 90 percent, adding to the oppressive
atmosphere. Even the temperature of the water was 89 degrees. The smell of decomposition filled their lungs as they stood on the bank assessing the situation to help them define their target area.
Two divers, Brian Davis and Mark Thorsen of the Houston Police Department, plunged into the hot, dark, murky creek. They started their search at the boat secured to the
bank. The tender stood still, holding a line connected to a diver, who travelled out in 180-degree arcs. Each time the man in the water completed a run, the man on the bank
fed out more line, which slightly extended the distance from the bank and allowed the diver to traverse a wider semicircle. When searching for something large—like a
car—the line feeds out fast; but today, as they were hunting for body parts, the process was far more deliberate, methodical and slow. Visibility was nonexistent, forcing the
divers to feel blindly with their hands in the black water and to depend as much on luck as on skill in their search for more body parts.
Since the detectives were aware that the missing woman had a tattoo on her foot, they focused first on finding that,since it could be an easy and quick identifier. Since the foot
has less muscular tissue than other body parts, it would not float to the surface readily, so they performed an underwater scuba search for one hundred feet in every direction.
Sinking to the bottom, the divers made snow angels in the mud seeking foreign objects on the riverbed—all to no avail.
The lily pads were a major nuisance, covering 50 to 60 percent of the surface of the designated search area. It was impossible to take a boat through them, and every time
the divers pushed them out of the way, the current pushed them back. It was a constant struggle.
Noticing a spot of sheen on the surface of the water, an indicator of decomposition, divers Davis and Thorsen scooped up a sample and returned to shore. Cadaver-dog
handlers presented it to their canines, who hit on the scent, indicating the presence of human remains and sending the divers back to that spot to continue their task. Near the
area of the sheen, the smell of decomposition was strong. Searching on the surface, Davis spotted a suspicious object tangled among the roots of the lily pads. Pulling it upward, he saw a smooth, hairless bone in the middle of a dark mass. At first he thought he’d found a femur bone, and he called Thorsen over to help with the recovery. However, when they rolled it over, a face was revealed, and Davis realized what he had seen was actually the back of a skull. The water had held the skin and muscle in place, but when they pulled the head to the surface, it started sliding off the bone.
The two men placed a ribbon on the surface where they found the skull and made measurements of its location from two stationary objects. After shooting photos of the area of their find, they wrapped the head in a sheet and carried it to the bank.
The smell of decomposition was still strong at the spot of sheen, prompting the two divers to return to the water and continue searching. Fifteen to twenty feet deeper into
the mass of lilies, they found a portion of a leg. Both of the parts they located that day were on the outer edges of the hot zone. Altogether, over two days, 60 percent of a
body had been recovered and delivered to the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office.
On Tuesday, the dive team returned, expanding the target area further but finding nothing more. Nonetheless, they had all that was needed to make identification. The
detectives had found the missing woman from Kinston,North Carolina, nearly thirteen hundred miles away, in Oyster Creek in Texas: twenty-seven-year-old businesswoman
and mother of two Laura Jean Ackerson.