When Mark Coulthurst’s parents made their way north after the boat fire, they lugged dental records in their luggage. After a fire of that magnitude, the teeth were one of the surest ways to identify the Investor crew using 80’s technology. Even then, it would prove a struggle. The fire burned too long and too hot.
Given that context, forensic dentist Dr. Gary Bell was perhaps the most important expert witness for the prosecution. A rising star in the field, Bell would become a Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Odontology and one of 108 certified forensic dentists in the United States and Canada. And this case was a challenge by any measure.
Dean Moon was the hardest suspect to dismiss: his body had never been found. There was a chance, Phillip Weidner suggested, that he was still alive. Dr. Bell’s examination of twenty tooth and jaw fragments taken from the Investor had reached a different conclusion about Dean Moon. But the science of forensic odontology was guaranteed to lose any jury on the planet.
When Pat Gullufsen prepared for Bell’s testimony, he found it a world of terms and concepts far beyond the vocabulary of daily life. Teeth had names and teeth had numbers, and Bell could put “tooth number 20, or the lower or mandibular left second bicuspid” in the same sentence. He spoke of “occlusal surfaces,” of “distal buckle cusps,” and “mesial lingual cusps.” Gullufsen soon realized that the dental testimony needed to be simplified.
Dr. Bell did bring his descriptions down to a lay level, using small words and lots of charts. He told the jury that he had examined all twenty tooth and jaw fragments found at the fire scene. That he had compared those fragments with dental x-rays of Moon, Chris Heyman and Michael Stewart. His descriptions of some of the teeth made it evident the killer had come close to making the victims unidentifiable.
Of one tooth, he said, “I took x-rays of this and I couldn’t determine if it was upper, lower, front or back… It could have come from any one of the victims.” Yet another tooth he described by saying, “There isn’t enough in the specimen to exclude Chris Heyman… it certainly is possible that Jerome Keown could have been the source of the specimen… Dean Moon… he could have been a possible source. So the only real exclusion we could do with the specimen was Mike Stewart.”
When it came time to identify the teeth he thought to be Dean Moon’s, Bell did the best he could to steer away from jargon. He said three teeth found on the Investor were “most consistent” with Dean Moon. Of a fourth, he said “it seems to be most consistent and probably that of Dean Moon.”
Not exactly confidence inspiring. But the dentist’s biggest test was the defense. They needed Dean Moon alive.
Excerpts from the unpublished original manuscript, “Sailor Take Warning,” by Leland E. Hale. That manuscript, started in 1992 and based on court records from the Alaska State Archive, served as the basis for “What Happened in Craig.”
Copyright Leland E. Hale (2020). All rights reserved.