Bass is known worldwide for his work on the study of human bones and decomposition and has written several books.
“I’m going to show you how important it is to learn what goes on in the decay process,” Bass said, as he began his talk
Using photographic slides, Bass walked the audience through two of his cases — one involving a 16-year-old missing Tennessee girl and one involving a woman who died with no others present.
The 16-year-old girl, Kathy Nishiyama, was reported missing after she did not return from work. Police began looking for her and found her car but not the young woman, Bass said
It was six weeks before there was any indication what had happened to her. Bass said a dog brought a skull into a rural home in Houston County. The skull was taken from Houston County to Bass in Knoxville.
The skull showed evidence that the face had been chewed off. Bass said this is typical of a body that has been left outside and eaten by dogs or coyotes. When more bones were found in the area, the Tennessee Highway Patrol contacted Bass who responded to the scene of the investigation. Bass said they found a “shovel-shaped” incisor tooth that he was sure belonged to the girl. Based on the name Nishiyama, bass thought she had the genetics to have this type of tooth.
Bass said shovel-shaped incisors are common among those of Southeast Asian, Eskimo and American Indian descent. The tooth also had a filling which (when compared to her dental records) further confirmed that it came from Nishiyama.
“This doesn’t happen very often,” Bass said. “Very seldom do you make an identification in the field when you are looking at the skeletal remains.”
However, after the identification, Bass’s job was not done. Bass said he also had to write a report for the law enforcement agents and the district attorney explaining how he thought the body had gotten there, and how Nishiyama died.
After further examining the skull, Bass found she had been hit in the face or kicked in the face hard enough to dislodge teeth. There was also a fracture in the skull that was traumatic enough to have caused death.
Another six weeks passed before he found out why she was in Houston County. In Dixon County, a deputy had been using an inmate, Eddie Hartman, to work on his farm and at the end of the day he gave the keys to the prisoner and told him to drive back to jail. The prisoner went through Clarksville where he stopped Nishiyama and told her she was under arrest. A necklace later found in the patrol car identified as Nishiyama’s confirmed that she had been in the back seat.
Bass said Hartman had stomped on Nishiyama’s head hard enough to cause the fracture.
Eddie Hartman was given the death sentence, but died while imprisoned in the state penitentiary in Nashville.
“There are some cases that ... teach you so much that you have to use them over and over again,” he said.
In the second case, Bass was asked to help determine how a woman died after her neighbors called the sheriff’s office after not having seen her for two weeks. Bass said the woman was being treated for a brain tumor at Vanderbilt University hospital, giving them access to X-rays and making an identification easier. The sheriff’s department found bone fragments in the house which they sent to Bass for analysis. Bass also analyzed the clothes.
Bass said although no one had seen the death scene, he could reconstruct it. The clothing and skeletal remains indicated to Bass that she had fallen forward when she died and that the body was eaten by the woman’s dogs.
Bass also shared how students conducting research at the “Body Farm” study the decomposition process. Bass explained the process of skin slippage which is the skin’s process of detaching from the body as it decays. According to Bass, the best place to determine how long a body has been decaying is at the site of the skeletal remains, not in a lab.
In a question-and-answer session to close the address, Bass said cadavers used at the “Body Farm” are unclaimed bodies from the medical examiner and those who wish to donate their bodies to science. The “Body Farm” has a memorial service where families can view their loved ones.
The facility also allows residents to donate their bodies for the scientific research.