Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
On an April afternoon in 1996, almost two years after the West Memphis murders, an ambulance raced to the house in Cherokee Village where Melissa Byers and her husband, John Mark Byers, were living. Melissa was carried out of the house unconscious and rushed to a hospital.
Melissa, the mother of Christopher Byers, the most brutalized of the West Memphis victims, was 40 years old. She died at the hospital that night.
Circumstances surrounding the death of Melissa Byers have been, in many ways, as perplexing as those surrounding the murders of her son and his two eight-year-old friends. But recently, after a long official silence, Dr. Stephen A. Erickson, the associate medical examiner who examined her body, agreed to discuss his unusual findings.
When it occurred, Melissa's death had raised immediate suspicion. From the moment her body was taken away to the state crime lab in Little Rock, detectives from the Sharp County sheriff's office and from the Arkansas State Police had investigated it as a possible homicide.
Their concern intensified when one neighbor reported that the couple had not been "getting along," and another told police that, as he drove Melissa's husband to the hospital, Mark Byers had worried aloud that he would be suspected of having smothered Melissa.
Police kept the investigation open, waiting for the autopsy report. But weeks turned into months and they did not receive a report.
Finally, five months after Melissa's death, the state police investigator assigned to the case called the medical examiner's office to inquire. The officer reported being advised that "the case was still in toxicology."
When he asked to be transferred to the toxicology section, he was told, "that the case was not in toxicology, and their tests had been completed for quite some time. They advised they didn't know where the case was at this time, and redirected this investigator back to the medical examiner's section..."
When he called back there, he wrote, "personnel ... advised they didn't know what the status of the case was, but they would research it."
About thirty minutes later, the officer noted, "personnel advised this investigator that the case was currently in the trace evidence section, where tests were being performed for arsenic and other types of poisoning..."
A month later, on Sept. 30, 1996, the officer received the autopsy report. By then, Melissa had been dead for six months, and the belated report provided no insight into how she had died.
Erickson had listed both the cause and the manner of her death as being "undetermined. That is, his report concluded that neither the medical reason for her death nor the legal description of it (whether it had been homicide, suicide, accident or due to natural causes) could be discovered.
Though Erickson reported finding some drugs in her body, he'd concluded that there weren't enough of them to have been lethal. And he could find nothing else about her body that pointed to a clear cause of death.
Before agreeing to talk about the case, Erickson said he had sought permission to do so from the prosecutor involved. Unlike in the West Memphis case, the permission here was granted.
Dr. William Q. Sturner, Erickson's boss and the state's chief medical examiner, sat in on the discussion. In Erickson's defense, Sturner said that nationally, "between 4 and 8 percent" of all cases that come in to medical examiners' offices are reported as undetermined, both as to cause and manner of death.
Erickson acknowledged, however, that many, if not most, of those cases are ones in which a body has been found in a state of decomposition. It is rare for a pathologist to find himself so stymied when the body in question was delivered immediately for autopsy after having died in a hospital.
Erickson said he'd found this case frustrating. He'd been aware of the investigator's report citing Mark Byers's alleged fears that he'd be suspected of having smothered Melissa.
But, Erickson said, the drugs found in Melissa's system would not have been enough to incapacitate her, and an adult who's being suffocated usually fights her attacker desperately for air. Erickson said he found no sign on Melissa's body that she had engaged in such a fight.
He accepted responsibility for the long delay in sending a report to the investigative agencies, explaining that he'd kept thinking about the case and requesting further tests to solve the riddle of how she had died.
Ultimately, he said, he'd run up against the limits of his science and intellect. With the investigators clambering for a report, he'd finally let the case go.
"When I have an individual such as this-a 40-year-old lady, who's come directly from a hospital, with the organs preserved and the eye fluids available - and I cannot find a cause of death, I consider myself medically defeated," he said. "And I will try everything I know until I have to give up."
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