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Profs use geoforensics to aid in murder case

4/26/2004
After Sgt. Laura Cecere, 25, disappeared in December 1996, the only physical evidence to emerge was her jawbone, which was mailed to WKAG-TV 43 in Hopkinsville in July 1997. Two anonymous letters mailed to Gallatin police before the jaw was sent to the TV station indicated her body could be found in a creek near Gallatin.

The dramatic nature of the case brought attention from true-crime TV shows like “America's Most Wanted” and “Inside Edition” but no quick solution.

In fall 1997, Dr. Daniel Frederick, associate professor of geology at APSU, was contacted by the Army Forensic Lab in Georgia. A technician at the lab had noticed the sediment packed between the teeth in Cecere's jawbone and needed someone who knew Middle Tennessee geology to examine it in hopes of locating the rest of Cecere's remains. Investigators also needed to know whether the sediment was from Gallatin, since that would indicate that whoever sent the jawbone to Hopkinsville either murdered Cecere or was an accomplice.

Frederick traveled to the University of Louisville to examine the jaw. He and Dr. Jack Deibert, a fellow associate professor of geology at APSU, were sent samples from the sediment in the jaw, as well as samples of sediment from around Gallatin.

“At first, we thought it would be average sand,” says Deibert, “but it literally was small pieces of rock. And we knew what kind of rock it was.”

“It turned out that the material was extremely distinctive,” says Frederick. “We went back out with the Army Criminal Investigation Unit and a Robertson County deputy and directed sampling of creeks from Gallatin and compared them with samples from Montgomery County (which had been collected by the ACIS). We matched the sediment found in the jawbone fairly consistently with Gallatin creeks.”

How distinctive was the material? The sediment in the jawbone and the sediment in the creeks contained the same 440 million-year-old snails.

In 2000, Frederick and Deibert accompanied the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation during a second search for Cecere's remains in Gallatin. Although Cecere's body was never found, Frederick and Deibert's research also was used to obtain a search warrant (to look for traces of the same sediment in a suspect's home and vehicle) and establish the validity of the anonymous letter sent with the jawbone.

On March 17, 2004—almost seven years after Frederick and Deibert had been contacted for their help in the Cecere case—Deibert took the stand and testified in Montgomery County Circuit Court that the sediments in the jawbone were consistent with those found in lower Station Camp Creek and Liberty Branch Creek in Gallatin.

Although the case was dismissed, Frederick and Deibert do not regret the hours they volunteered to help with the investigation. “The FBI forensic geologist, Bruce Hall, told us that there is no geologist on staff at most forensic labs. For this case, they needed someone who knew local geology,” says Frederick. “The subtleties we got, someone in Washington would have never noticed. It was an absolutely fascinating case to work on.”

The men estimate that they spent hundreds of hours on the investigation, including two
days in the field, 20-30 lab hours and time spent on photography, processing samples and both preparing for and testifying in court. Although they received no financial compensation for their work, they agree that it was worthwhile.

“We saw a problem in the community that needed to be resolved,” says Deibert.
“It was our public duty.”
—Rebecca Mackey