Case Histories of an Unusual Investigative Group

Book review: No Stone Unturned, by Steve Jackson

In 1988, several criminalists and other scientists sat down in a Denver-area restaurant and came up with the idea of burying pigs to study changes to environments caused by the graves and their contents. Disturbed by what they’d witnessed of outdated techniques for locating clandestine burial sites and the recovery of the remains of murder victims, their idea was to “find a better way” through the application of a variety of scientific disciplines and good old-fashioned detective work.

That group became Necrosearch International, an organization that’s grown over the years and lent its specialized investigative efforts to long-unsolved cases that had otherwise gone cold for lack of solid evidence or proper methodology for unearthing some.

The book begins with a brief background history of forensic science and its major milestones before launching into the careers of some members of NecroSearch International.

The cases related rely on technology, some forensic methods, and combined knowledge from the members’ specific fields to aid them in difficult searches where regular law enforcement has hit a wall. Strangely, despite constant mentions of their famous nickname as the “pig people” for their experiments in tracking decomposition on buried pigs, that element of their research work didn’t figure much into the stories here, so it felt like something was missing, or that there are many stories from their work not told here.

The cases covered are more examples of their searching skills, like their advanced work with tracking dogs and GPR (ground-penetrating radar) for seeing anomalies under surfaces like concrete. Combining their various skill areas, they’re often able to provide the necessary breaks, although sometimes years or decades later, to searches and cases with suspicion of a missing person buried in a clandestine grave. It’s bleak stuff, but undeniably good work that they’re doing.

I’d heard about this book through the My Favorite Murder podcast, where the hosts frequently mention it and the group, and I’d seen one of the cases, that of Michele Wallace, covered on a true crime show (I think it was “Autopsy” again, or maybe also on a podcast). It’d been on my to-read list a long time and my expectations were maybe too high – I think that might’ve been why I felt so disappointed with it. The group’s work is fascinating, they made some incredible discoveries, and they work passionately, all of which are such important and meaningful contributions.

But the book includes too many hokey jokes about them being the “pig people” and lots of almost superhero-esque references about making the decision to call in the group on a case. Plus too much detail about personal matters that seemed entirely trivial and had little to do with the stories. Excerpted dialogue was weak and didn’t add much to the narrative besides make it feel a little dated.

There is no statute of limitations on grief, and the truth does matter.

I really did like this element of the book, that regardless of the time passed, it’s vital to uncover the truth, especially when specialists can combine their talents and research together like some kind of forensic superhero squad. NecroSearch has brought closure to many people who endured years of wondering what happened to loved ones, or who harbored suspicions about foul play.

One of the stories explored here, which includes using tools to penetrate concrete and confirm irregularities, thus proving a little girl’s story about where she remembered seeing a hole being dug after her mother disappeared, was the most incredible of the cases to my mind. It’s certainly reassuring that it’s possible to find answers to these open questions and cold cases even after decades, and bring peace to those left behind.

One chapter detailing group members’ experiences when allowed to participate in forensic examinations of Romanov remains was completely fascinating, if disappointing since the Russian government didn’t allow them to work as they needed to. Still, they were able to provide some intriguing insight.

Originally published in 2002, author Steve Jackson added an epilogue in 2015 to newer editions with updates on several of the featured cases, including judicial outcomes and the fates of some of the characters or family members of victims involved. Some met justice, others more hardship – the one about Michele Wallace’s family, who’d suffered enough, was tough to read.

A good book that feels like it could’ve been better, or that maybe needs a more scientific, more actually forensics-based followup volume since methodology and experience has advanced even more since its initial publication. Worth the read for some interesting takes on unusual investigations.

No Stone Unturned:
The True Story of the World’s Premier Forensic Investigators
by Steve Jackson
published 2002


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