Forensic professors, students help search for clues in murder case

Cheryl Johnston (center) of WCU’s forensic anthropology program leads a team of students and professors combing through a rugged section of Nantahala National Forest in Macon County to help law enforcement agencies in their search for clues after the body of a missing hiker was discovered.

Cheryl Johnston (center) of WCU’s forensic anthropology program leads a team of students and professors combing through a rugged section of Nantahala National Forest in Macon County to help law enforcement agencies in their search for clues after the body of a missing hiker was discovered.

Professors and students from Western Carolina University’s forensic anthropology program assisted law enforcement agencies in their search for clues in a remote area of national forestland where the body of a hiker missing since October was discovered on Saturday, Feb 2.

Under the guidance of Cheryl Johnston and John Williams of WCU’s forensic anthropology program, the team of students and professors combed through a rugged section of Nantahala National Forest in Macon County, to help investigators properly identify skeletal remains.

“The area where the remains were found is apparently a place where hunters often dump animal carcasses,” said Williams. “We have been searching the area, locating skeletal remains and helping local law enforcement determine whether the bone is animal or human.”

Williams, Johnston and fellow faculty member Jane Brown were joined by four WCU students – April Brooke Barnette of Clyde, Patrick Brady of Sylva, Elona Presson of Thomasville and Kjersten Holden of Worth, Ill.

Law enforcement officials said they are happy to have such expertise so close at hand. Western’s campus in Cullowhee is located about 40 miles from the scene of the investigation.

“Dr. Williams and his laboratory have been extremely helpful to us – not just in this case, but any time we have needed assistance in identifying possible remains,” said Lt. Brian Leopard of the Macon County Sheriff’s Office. “They’ve always dropped whatever they were doing to help us in our investigations. Dr. Williams and his team greatly speed up the process, and they help eliminate a lot of false leads. It is a valuable asset to the law enforcement community to have this facility and this expertise here in Western North Carolina.”

Authorities say the human remains found in Macon County on Feb. 2 are those of John Bryant, an 80-year-old man from Horse Shoe, N.C., who disappeared with his wife, Irene, while hiking in the Pink Beds area of Pisgah National Forest on Oct. 21. Law enforcement officers had been on a multi-state search for the missing man since the body of his wife was found in November not far from their parked vehicle.

Law enforcement officers say they consider Gary M. Hilton, a drifter who pleaded guilty last week to the murder of hiker Meredith Emerson in the woods of northern Georgia, a leading suspect in the Bryants’ deaths. Investigators in Florida also are looking at Hilton in the murder of a hiker in the Apalachicola National Forest.

Although the Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory has assisted in numerous investigations since its inception in 2003, the Bryant case is the highest-profile assignment so far.

Williams and Johnston joined the faculty at Western to develop the university’s outdoor forensic research facility. The station is patterned after a similar facility at the University of Tennessee known as “the body farm,” and is the second of its kind in the United States.

William is a member of a team of specialists called “DMORT” (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team), a federal agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that activates forensic anthropologists, pathologists, fingerprint experts, funeral home directors and other specialists to deal with mass fatality disasters. Williams spent two weeks at “ground zero” of the collapsed World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Johnston is a forensic anthropologist with 16 years of casework experience. She has examined and interpreted thousands of sets of human remains, and served as the physical anthropologist for the Ohio Historical Society for nine years.