- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2000

Don't let James E. Starrs' crypt-dry sense of humor fool you.

Mr. Starrs, professor of law and forensic sciences at George Washington University, couldn't be more serious when it comes to solving some of the modern day's most compelling mysteries.

The professor's side gig has him exhuming bodies to solve or shatter nagging mysteries through the forensic arts.

Those high-profile cases have included the identification of outlaw Jesse James, the assassination of Sen. Huey Long, the Alfred Packer cannibalism horrors and the uncertain demise of Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame.

Some might dismiss his work as ghoulish. Mr. Starrs sees it differently, especially in more modern cases in which surviving family members await his findings.

"I think of it in terms of providing comfort," Mr. Starrs says. "There are people suffering because of the mystery of the death of a loved one. The public doesn't realize the tremendous amount of suffering."

Mr. Starrs' latest case evokes such a scenario because it involves the last victim of the Boston Strangler.

Albert DeSalvo, believed to be the strangler, was serving time for a rape conviction in 1965 when he confessed to the strangler's barbaric murders. He never was prosecuted or physically linked to any of the 13 murders, however. His confession was the only evidence, Mr. Starrs says.

The mystery began, he says, as discrepancies began unrolling between DeSalvo's accounts of the murders and the conditions of the victims.

The family members of the last victim, 19-year-old Mary A. Sullivan, recently asked Mr. Starrs to examine the case anew.

If he could prove that DeSalvo wasn't the infamous killer, the family reasoned, the real killer still could be alive.

Mr. Starrs, armed with modern scientific techniques such as DNA testing, exhumed Miss Sullivan's remains over three days starting Oct. 13. His work included a search for seminal fluids and tissue under Miss Sullivan's fingernails, which could identify her killer.

Mr. Starrs is matching those findings with saliva and blood samples taken from Richard DeSalvo, Albert DeSalvo's brother. Albert DeSalvo was stabbed and killed while in prison in 1973.

Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly began reinvestigating the case involving Miss Sullivan last December, according to Press Secretary Ann Donlan. Mr. Reilly is working with the Boston police and local officials on new evidence.

Mr. Starrs credits his team's actions for forcing the reopening of the investigation. The attorney general's office claims it began examining new evidence well before Mr. Starrs entered the case.

Either way, the next few months could bring an alarming update on the decades-old murder spree.

Mr. Starrs is waiting for test results from the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Mr. Starrs became intimately aware of death at an early age. His grandfather worked as a funeral director, and Mr. Starrs' family lived with him for a spell. Mr. Starrs fought in the Korean War, which gave him a second crash course in death.

The modern-day sleuth appears to be a walking, talking anachronism: an aged professor eager to tap modern science to make his point.

His colorfully cluttered office, precise in its overstuffing, teems with books, reports and skeletal knickknacks well-received gifts from friends who know his predilection for the forensic arts.

The unlikely detective began his teaching career in 1964 in GW's law department. Around 1967, he was contacted by the FBI to establish a forensic sciences program at the university.

He had a smattering of science under his professorial belt, but no full training. He immersed himself in the subject and slowly became adept in the field.

He later taught similar forensic courses at the FBI. He worked during the reign of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director whose death he later would investigate.

Several in the forensic science community, including Mr. Starrs, wondered if Hoover might have been murdered or had committed suicide. Medical findings indicated he had died of natural causes.

In the '80s, Mr. Starrs' work turned toward exhumations, and he realized it was a subject that deserved greater exposure.

"I felt the public should be aware of the benefits of exhumations," he says. "My main goal was to give a public forum on the value of forensic science."

In the more controversial cases he tackles, evidence often is squirreled away innocently or otherwise by law enforcement officials.

For example, the gun used to kill President James A. Garfield in 1881 was found in the safe of the Washington district attorney in the 1930s, he says.

"If there's evidence of value lost or misplaced, it's most likely in the hands of the police or attorney intimately involved with the case," says Mr. Starrs, whose precisely groomed beard and grandfatherly calm serve him well when he is dealing with stubborn authority figures.

He often needs every bit of his presence, too, when dealing with taciturn cops.

The amount of resistance "depends upon how much embarrassment I might cause the police," he says.

The Boston Strangler case is yet another high-profile case for Mr. Starrs.

Some could argue that he digs a bit too deeply in such trendy cases, which offer a brighter spotlight for his work. He doesn't necessarily disagree, but he says it's for a purpose.

"Otherwise, you don't get an audience," he says.

Richard Jantz, professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, says Mr. Starrs' work shines a deserved spotlight on the work of forensic experts.

"Anything that increases our visibility is good," Mr. Jantz says. "Most of the time, it doesn't get a lot of publicity, but if he's coming with the view that we only do high-profile cases, it's a misrepresentation," he adds. Most forensic scientists work "down in the trenches," performing identification work on skeletal remains.

Mr. Starrs dismisses some cases rather quickly, such as a request by a man who never had met his grandfather and wanted Mr. Starrs to exhume the body so he literally could touch his departed relative. It's a favorite story.

"Mister, you don't need a forensic scientist, you need a psychiatrist," Mr. Starr says.

A better recollection involves a low-profile saga of a young girl, whose father was a former student, murdered on her way to school. His efforts on the family's behalf helped "start the ball rolling," he says, which led to police nabbing the killer.

"But for you, the man would have continued killing people," the grateful mother later wrote to him.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, who is working alongside Mr. Starrs on the Boston Strangler case, considers his colleague a double threat a lawyer and forensic specialist. It's often the former experience that makes the difference, though.

"He's very cognizant of the legal implications of what happens," Mr. Baden says. Less-informed experts might recoil from a case for fear their actions are illegal. Mr. Starrs knows how far he can push.

"He doesn't back off," Mr. Baden says. "He accomplishes a great deal."

While Mr. Starrs awaits the results of the DeSalvo examination, he is confident more intriguing cases will follow.

"Every place I go, there's another mystery to be investigated," he says.

"I've not lost my fascination by a long shot," he adds. "But I don't pass cemeteries drooling for another exhumation."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide