Warm Memories of Chigger Hardin

In addition to writing his own blog and preparing for the publicity tour that starts today, Jon Jefferson has been writing guest posts for several blogs. He was kind enough to contribute one for my site too. His entry mentions the crematory that I toured two years ago. After recording another good interview last week, I’m looking forward to seeing Jon and Dr. Bill Bass at the New Hope Center tonight for the official book-release event.

Warm Memories of Chigger Hardin.

Guest blog by Jon Jefferson, the “Jefferson” half of Jefferson Bass, whose new Body Farm novel, The Inquisitor’s Key, is available May 8.

The older I get, the smaller the world becomes.

A month ago I was writing a magazine profile of a San Francisco lawyer – a woman who’s one of the nation’s most successful plaintiffs’ attorneys. How successful? She’s part of the legal team that wrangled a $7.8-billion settlement out of BP for spewing 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Her list of clients read like a who’s who of people who have been wronged: Women who got faulty silicone breast implants. People with chronic lung disease from asbestos exposure. Victims of Nazi slave-labor camps and death camps. Native American villages in Alaska whose fisheries were damaged by the Exxon Valdez oil spill two decades ago. Suddenly, as I scanned the list of cases, a name jumped off the page at me: she had also represented families harmed by the Tri-State Crematory scandal.

Most readers who follow Frank Murphy will remember the case, because Dr. Bill Bass played a prominent role: Environmental Protection Agency officers, investigating a complaint in February 2002, found a human skull and other bones on the grounds of Tri-State. As the search of the property broadened, investigators were stunned to find human bodies and bones spread across the facility’s buildings and pine woods. Bodies were scattered in the woods, stacked in junked vehicles, tucked into concrete burial vaults. By the time the property had been thoroughly searched, 339 bodies in various stages of decay had been recovered. One of those bodies was thought to belong to an East Tennessee farmer named Chigger Hardin. When Chigger died in 2000, his family arranged for his body to be cremated; they thought they’d gotten his ashes back from the funeral home, but when they read about the gruesome discovery at Tri-State, they contacted an attorney, who asked Dr. Bill Bass to examine the contents of the urn. He did, and found a mixture of burned bone, debris, and filler material. The plot thickened when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found a body matching Chigger’s description.

The Hardin family asked Dr. Bass to confirm the identification; they also asked Dr. Bass to oversee Chigger’s cremation – for real, this time – to make sure it was done right.

The large male body seemed to fit Chigger’s description, and the clothing matched what the family said he’d been buried in. One key question, though, was this: Was there a bullet in the body? As a teenager, during an argument over a poker game, Chigger had been shot and wounded by his brother, and the bullet—which lodged close to his spine—couldn’t safely be removed, so it was left in place. If the body was indeed Chigger’s, the bullet would provide final confirmation.

The cremation was scheduled at East Tennessee Cremation Services, a reputable establishment, managed by Dr. Bass’s longtime friend Helen Taylor. After the body had been cremated, Dr. Bass and I searched the cremains (the incinerated skeletal material) carefully, but we found no trace of a bullet, even after the cremains had been pulverized. Could there have been a mistake? Nervously, we sealed the cremains in two one-gallon Ziploc bags and hotfooted it to the UT student-health clinic. There a helpful radiological technician x-rayed the bags. Sure enough, in one of the bags – though we hadn’t been able to see it or feel it – was a quarter-sized disk of melted lead: the bullet Chigger’s brother had fired into him three decades before.

As I wrote my magazine profile of the high-powered San Francisco lawyer who’d sued on behalf of families like the Hardins, I smiled at the smallness of the word. And I lit a mental candle in memory of Chigger.

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