The Dental Detective
Ostrow clinical associate professor C. Michael Bowers spends his evenings and weekends consulting as a forensic odontologist for the Ventura County Medical Examiners’ Office.
BY JOHN HOBBS MA ’14
His line of work is not for the squeamish. If C. Michael Bowers ’71, DDS ’75 gets a call from the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office, chances are he’s going to be taking part in an autopsy with a human body that’s in some of the worst possible conditions.
Decomposition, burns and dismemberment can often prevent a coroner’s office from making a positive identification.
It’s under these circumstances that a forensic odontologist would be called into the morgue to help identify the deceased by comparing their teeth with existing dental records of missing persons or other individuals.
Bowers, an Ostrow part-time faculty member and Ventura, Calif., dentist, is one of 27 forensic odontologists practicing in California—one of the highest concentrations in the nation.
While a forensic odontologist’s case load often requires them to identify human remains—either individually (in accidents and homicides) or in mass fatality events (in plane crashes and natural disasters)—they are also involved in bitemark analyses in cases of abuse and assault and often find themselves in court offering expert testimony.
“Like most dentists, I found it fascinating how dentistry can interface with law enforcement and the legal system,” explains Bowers whose boyhood passion for Sherlock Holmes mysteries was rekindled during a 1971 lecture by forensic dentistry expert and one-time Ostrow interim dean Gerald Vale MDS ’54.
After graduation, Bowers moved to Ventura, where he opened a private practice and began volunteering at nearby medical examiners’ offices. “I got carte blanche to get the experience and training necessary to start getting involved with actual case work,” Bowers says. He’s been working as a forensic odontologist for more than 30 years.
Through the years, he’s published several books, book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles. Recently, his book Forensic Testimony, Science, Law and Forensic Evidence, won an honorable mention in the 2015 PROSE Awards, an annual competition for professional and scholarly writing.
In 1986, Bowers’ mettle was first tested with a mass fatality case when he briefly assisted medical examiners who were combing through the wreckage of Aeroméxico Flight 498 after it collided with a smaller private aircraft over a Cerritos, Calif., neighborhood, killing 67 onboard and another 15 on the ground.
The following year, Bowers was called by Duane Spencer DDS ’65 to the Santa Lucia Mountains to help identify the 43 individuals killed after Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 was highjacked and crashed into the California countryside. The remains of 27 of those individuals were never identified.
By 2000, Bowers had worked his way up to chief forensic dentist when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 bound for Seattle crashed into the Pacific Ocean, killing all 88 individuals onboard. Bowers and his team, including fellow alum Kent Hollenback DDS ’82 and Dr. Raymond Johansen, scoured through hundreds of body fragments to match partial jaws or single teeth with the dental records of those onboard. Bowers says it took the team nearly three months to finish all the dental identifications.
“Mass disasters always have much more emotions attached to them than any other case concerning just a single individual,” Bowers says.
“The difficulty was seeing people semi-intact who just before had been happily vacationing,” Bowers told USC News in 2002 about the Alaska Airlines crash.
But as emotionally difficult as it can be to investigate such scenes of catastrophe, Bowers concedes there is some satisfaction in it.
“Satisfaction is knowing that families have the chance to know that their loved ones have been taken care of,” he says. “It takes some of the grief and stress out of the death process for the bereaved families.”
Of course, not all of Bowers’ cases involve such mass chaos. Sometimes, he’s simply called to investigate a dumped body.
“Forensic odontologists are always on call,” Bowers says. “Typically you’re working in your practice and the police or coroner investigator gives you a call, saying there’s a case active and when can you show up?”
This was the case when the remains of Nichole Lee Hendrix were discovered scattered throughout a ravine in the Ventura countryside in 1999.
On Oct. 15, 1998, Hendrix, 17, went out with her friends for the night. Late in the evening, she called home from a motel to tell her mother she’d be back soon. Sadly, she never returned.
Bowers helped identify Hendrix’s body by matching a dental restoration to one she had had done seven years earlier.
To make such identifications, forensic odontologists often compare X-rays, dental impressions, tooth shape and dental restorations to the dental records of known missing persons or individuals believed to be the deceased until they make a match.
“DNA is certainly the gold standard when it comes to making such identifications,” Bowers says. “But dentistry certainly seems to have a very good history if there are sufficient dental records to compare with an unidentified person.”
Investigators eventually discovered that Hendrix had been kidnapped, robbed and stabbed to death in a motel room by gang members, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Thanks to Hendrix’s mother, artifacts from her case are now on display as part of the University of Maryland’s National Museum of Dentistry, which has a traveling exhibit called “Your Spitting Image” about forensic dentistry.
Bowers also uses the case to teach would-be forensic odontologists the ins and outs of his trade in courses such as Ostrow’s GPR 622, Introduction to Forensic Odontology.
He says this type of course is generally the only introduction an American dentist can expect to get to this line of work, which is not a specialty recognized by the American Dental Association. There are no master’s programs in forensic dentistry offered in the United States, either—unlike in other countries such as Australia and Scotland.
Typically, an American dentist falls into forensic odontology by virtue of being a skilled dentist and a vetted consultant.
“No one sets out to become a forensic odontologist,” Bowers explains. “My advice to anyone interested would be to develop a good practice and then expect that it will take quite awhile to actually get affiliated with the medical-legal profession to start doing actual cases.”
Bowers does 20 to 30 forensic cases a year.
“Probably about 80 percent of my cases involve investigating skin injuries and patterns that occur in assaults, homicides and abuse work,” he says.
Perhaps one of the more unexpected areas of focus for Bowers is his involvement with the forensic science reform movement. He has been active in fighting convictions his own forensic odontological colleagues have helped achieve against individuals based on bite mark analysis.
Bowers, who has a legal degree from the Ventura College of Law and is a member of the California Bar, has become active with the Innocence Project—a nonprofit legal and public policy organization that seeks to exonerate through DNA testing those wrongfully convicted of crimes.
Bowers aims to curb the use of bitemark analysis in court cases, citing its lack of scientific validity.
Bite mark analysis work includes comparing the bite marks left on a body to those made by defendants from dental casts. The problem, Bowers says, is that the technique is entirely subjective and lacks empirical basis. In fact, there have even been discrepancies between experts about whether bites were made by a human or an animal.
“The ability of the skin to register sufficient detail of a biter’s teeth is highly variable and commonly achieves contradictory results,” Bowers argued in a 2011 article, “Recognition, Documentation, Evidence Collection, and Interpretation of Bitemark Evidence.”
Since 2000, at least 24 men have been exonerated after being arrested and convicted, based on bite mark analysis, according to the Innocence Project.
Bowers has successfully fought two convictions in Mississippi that hinged on faulty bite mark analyses.
Sixty-two-year-old Eddie Lee Howard Jr. is currently on death row, convicted of the 1992 rape and stabbing death of an 84-year-old woman. Testing indicated the presence of another man’s DNA at the crime scene and excluded Howard. But the bite mark analyst—who has since recanted his testimony—was so convincing with his analysis that Howard was convicted and has been behind bars for more than two decades. His case is currently being reviewed by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Another faulty bite mark analysis has left an indelible mark on Leigh Stubbs’ life.
The Mississippi woman was recently freed on bail after serving 11 years of a 44-year sentence for assault and drug charges, a conviction made based largely on problematic bite mark analysis. She’s currently awaiting word on whether she’ll be retried in the case, despite the faulty evidence.
“It cuts to the core of what is accurate and reliable and what can be said in terms of science regarding bite mark injuries versus what’s said at trial,” he explains of his work to reform the criminal justice system to use a more skeptical eye when making convictions based on bite mark analyses.
With the completion of our interview—a brief respite for Bowers whose work by nature will never truly be done—it’s off to the morgue for the next task. Authorities believe they have a 61-year-old Academy Award-winning movie composer, who had been flying his S-312 Tucano MK1 over the Los Padres National Forest when he lost control and crashed.
They need a forensic odontologist to weigh in on his identity.