It all started with a rather arcane question posted online by Creuset, a friend of mine, “Do you guys think these two photos are of the same tree? Current day version on left, 1999 version on right.”
In response to her question, I offered to go down to Leakin Park to shoot some video and take some stills. The next thing I know, I was involved in a puzzle that has held my attention for these last few weeks. I responded to Creuset on a Wednesday night. Thursday of that same week I was trudging around in Leaking Park near Latitude 39°18’6.51″N, Longitude 76°41’59.32″W. In addition to my camera and tripod I was carrying a metal detector. The funny thing is I still had no real idea what I was truly looking for. I had missed the detailed instruction Creuset had sent by email. She had even tried to walk me through what she wanted via a skype call while I was in the valley, but reception was terrible.
That evening September 1st, when she and I were comparing notes on the shots I had taken that day, I finally got a hint into the puzzle she was trying to solve. During our conversation, she offhandedly said “Well if you think you know were where the body was actually buried…” or something to that effect. To which I replied with all the misplaced confidence and condescension so typical of me, “I know the correct location!” After all, I had been to the very same spot where Buddemeyer and the video crew had been in 2016 when they filmed his recollections of the incident.
It was right about then that I learned what a great teacher Creuset is. In the most non-confrontational manner, she led me through a series of discrepancies that caused her to question whether the 2015 tree was the same one from the 1999 video when Gutierrez and Buddemeyer were in the same video together. As Creuset went through her list of discrepancies I was amazed at how easy it had been for me to dismiss these same inconsistencies, which I had seen while filming at the burial site. For instance, if you watch the 1999 Buddemeyer/Gutierrez video of the log carefully, you’ll see, the significant areas of rot apparent in the burial log, which is missing in the 2015 log.
Besides overlooking the missing rot on my first trip to the morbid valley, I had easily discounted the amount of ground clearance between the burial log shown in the 1999 Buddemeyer and the one in 2015. “Perhaps it is just erosion”, I had used as a convenient excuse. Still, other variations included the diameter, and the relationship of the log to other enduring landmarks in the Dead Run Valley. All these things together made one thing crystal clear by the end, of our conversation. I knew I would not be satisfied until I had another look at the burial ground in Leakin Park. In fact, I was anxious to go the very next day. Only one thing was stopping me. I was scheduled to have my right knee replaced with a new version made of titanium and plastic. That was not the sort of appointment I could reschedule. Fortunately, the knee replacement went better than expected, so just 21 days after surgery, I was back in the park.
On my return, I was struck by the way the landscape had evolved during the years between 1999 and 2015. So, as we go through our examination of the site, it is necessary to note that, after these intervening years, one cannot expect that all landmarks would remain exactly as they were in 1999. Still, we can expect certain elements of nature to govern how these changes might occur. Here are some of those rules:
- gravity is constant, therefore
- water runs down hill, therefore
- one should not expect huge logs to move uphill.
- wood floats more readily than stone.
- decay is an ongoing and non-reversible process.
While we are setting ground rules, let’s all agree on some terms and definitions. Any tree or portion thereof:
- lying on the ground or one that would be on the ground except for some obstruction will be referred to as a log,
- standing with live growth still apparent will be called a tree
- standing with no live growth apparent…a stump.
Now comes, what for some might be, a bothersome definition. For the ease of discussion, we need to consider the possibility that the log from 2015 videos is different from the log shown in the 1999 video. Labeling the respective logs as the 1999 burial log to the 2015 burial log will make it much easier to compare them, regardless.
Before we discuss the differences, let’s start by looking at the similarities between the 1999 burial log and the 2015 burial log. Both are within the same patch of woodland, within a minute or two’s walk from the site on Franklintown Rd where the “parking pad” used by Mr S must have been. Both logs are several car lengths long. Both are close to the river, much closer to the river than to the road. Both have a visible “root sections” with remnants of the roots still visible. The end closest to the river is the root end for both logs. Both have fallen at an angle roughly NW-SE, so are laid diagonally to Dead Run and to the road. Neither have any bark remaining on them, (which normally falls off a year or so after death). Neither have any major boughs attached. Both are close to something one would describe as a “natural depression” . Both are of a similar diameter to a human, so would be a sensible choice to hide a body behind the log itself.
Now let’s look at the discrepancies. The 2015 log is considerably fatter than the one described in 1999. In his original sketch of the crime scene, Buddemeyer included a detail balloon, which is shown below. Notice the dimensions show the 1999 burial log has a diameter of 15”.
When I measured the 2015 log, this year, the diameter was nearly 23 inches.
And then, we have the rot. If one views the videos showing the state of decomposition on the 1999 log and compares it to the same area of the 2015 log, it becomes obvious that there was significantly more decay on the earlier log, especially at the root end. Here is the 1999 log.
Now compare that with this image of the 2015 log, which is much more substantial.
Furthermore, one would expect a tree, which was already in the state of substantial decomposition, to sag and settle more markedly into the earth. The following shot illustrates how significantly the 2015 log bows unexpectedly away from the earth. At one point the log is more than 2 feet above the ground.
Next, let’s examine locations, in relationship to convenient landmarks near one another. One of the most enduring landmarks in a valley swept by periodic flooding is surely rocks and boulders, so let’s examine them first.
In the image below, a screenshot from my video taken in September 2016. The root end of the 2015 burial log is visible in the lower right-hand corner. To the left of that, which would be to the west or upstream side of the log, there is a rock garden or a formation of boulders.
Below is a screenshot from the video Surveyor Phillip Buddemeyer Revisits ‘Serial’ Case, The same collection of large stones, the rock garden, seen in the photo above, is easy to recognize in this shot.
Another marker that identifies this as the 2015 burial log is the boulder directly under the log. This boulder is most obvious in the image above labeled “Too much ground clearance”. There are two boulders, which are both easily visible on the site. The most obvious one is not in contact with the log, which is resting on another large boulder that keeps a major section of the log off the ground. One can easily this second boulder, to the left and below Buddemeyer right hand in the above screenshot.
These significant landmarks associated with 2015 log cannot be seen in the 1999 video. And, conversely, as we shall see, none of the landmarks from the 1999 video can be seen in the 2015 videos. So, next, let’s look at some landmarks from the earlier video.
Unlike the 2015 log, the site around the log where Hae’s body was found was not strewn with a massive number of easily identified rocks. In fact, for all intents and purposes, there was only one. I mean there were certainly any number of nondescript stones that a sharp eye might spy in the area, but the only one of any significance to me was the “table rock”, which was first brought to our attention by Susan Simpson when she shared with us that the “rope” was found on top of this rock, the mysterious rope which was photographed and then never listed as evidence. Of all the rocks in the area, this is the most distinctive. The shape of this low flat stone with an almost table like surface could most readily be described as a rectangle, except that one end of it sort of veers off at an angle, kind of like California, though not quite so dramatically as that. It looks like this, which is a screenshot from the Gutierrez/Buddemeyer video.
and one more showing the “California cant”.
This stone serves as the first of several convenient reference points surrounding the 1999 burial log. For clarity, it is first necessary to orient the log in relationship to the major geographic features. A line drawn between the roots and the crown would illustrate that the roots are on the Northwest end of the log and the crown is on the Southeast. The 2015 log lies along a similar axis. This may seem to contradict the Buddemeyer sketch detail where the log appears to be roughly parallel to the road, but a more careful examination of all the evidence shows that the log lies diagonally to the stream. which runs from west to east. The table rock can be easily identified as being downstream of the crown. This provides us with a marker locating one corner of an area surrounding the burial log.
The next marker is even more interesting than the first. Without the convenient rock garden to anchor our mental map of the root end on the 1999 burial log, one has little choice but to rely upon vegetation for landmarks. This task is complicated by the fact that the Dead Run is prone to dramatically escaping from its channel and flooding the crime scene. Fortunately, there is one particular tree in the Dead Run Valley that hosts a persistent clue to its presence at the 1999 burial ground. This tree stood at the downstream root end of the burial log. In the original crime scene video, at 0:02:37, we hear Buddemeyer say, “It’s right here…Yep…’cause I marked the tree.” Just seconds later we see Buddemeyer facing a large tree that is leaning at a severe angle. He appears to be pointing out this tree to Gutierrez.
Today this tree is no longer standing but has collapsed and broken into three section. More on this later, but now that we have set the downstream landmarks. In the image below, you can see Buddemeyer pointing to the burial log and the leaning tree is just downstream from the root end.
So now, let’s look upstream from the log for markers. In doing so, we once again need to examine the pictures that started this inquiry. It seems that these are two views of the same tree. A patch of significant rot is visible at its base. During my recent visit, I took the following shot:
The same patch of rot is still there.
This screen captures illustrate the relationship of the beech trees to the burial log.
This beech tree was located roughly 12 to 15 feet upstream from the table rock. The following shot illustrates the relationship between and the beech the table rock as of October 6th 2016. In it, you can also see the location of the 2015 burial log as well as the crooked tree. In the original Gutierrez video, this same crooked tree can be seen growing centered on the downstream side of the 1999 log.
One would expect all the landmarks from the 1999 video, the table rock, the leaning or split tree, the twin trunk beech, and the crooked tree to remain, in 2015, in relative proximity to their position in 1999. Realizing the unstable nature of the landscape a reasonable person must also allow for the possibility that things could be significantly rearranged during the intervening year. However, it would require a whole new level of magical realism to explain how a rotting log can reverse its decomposition, increase its girth and relocate more than 60 feet upstream from its original resting place. It makes far more sense to assume that the 2015 Burial log is not the same as the 1999 burial log.
This obviously prompts the question, “So where the hell is the 1999 log?”. You may be surprised to learn that it shows up in at least two of the pictures above. Here’s a hint. The original log has moved some. Not upstream, but about 10 feet or less downstream. What has confused the search is the extent that other things in the valley have moved in 15 years.
Before we get into the exact location of the 1999 burial log, let’s just clear up the situation of the leaning or split tree we saw at the downstream root end of the 1999 log. If you were to visit the burial grounds today, you would not find a standing tree in that spot anymore. Instead, you would find a log that you might at first confuse for the actual burial log. In fact, Rabia and her friends walked up to that very log and wondered out loud if this was the correct log. At 0:01:14 in the Finding the Log Video, the trio approaches the log and her friend asks, “This is the log?” and after a long pause, Rabia answers in a voice full of confusion and surprise, “You know…No…Wait a minute the log is…”.
I can sympathize with their predicament, because I stood in that very spot and asked the same question on October 2, 2016. Unlike Rabia, however, I had brought a metal detector with me. On a previous visit, I had scanned what seemed like every standing tree in the area looking for a PK Nail, a specialized nail used by surveyors. In between visits, I had figured out what the hell Buddemeyer had been talking about, when he said, “Yep…I marked that tree”.
And by the words, “I had figured out”, I mean “Creuset had led me by the nose to the realization of…”. Honestly, I had never even heard about PK nails until she started tutoring me. But on my second trip, I knew there was one more tree to scan. I had missed it last time because I was looking for a tree when I should have been looking for a stump.
During the years between 1999 and 2015, gravity, has changed me to the point that I am almost unrecognizable from my former self, yet I had forgotten to account for this most constant of all friends. On my visit on October 2nd, I was no longer confused. Taking my trusty metal detector, I walked over to the hulk in three parts, that used to be the leaning tree, and waved the business end over the standing stump. Right, where one would expect to find a mark, placed conspicuously on a tree, the detector began to ping with the unmistakable sound it makes to indicate the sensor has passed over metal. Searching the area visually, I could not find a trace of the PK nail, but as far as I was concerned, I had the truth of the matter. This was the leaning tree that Buddemeyer used as a convenient marker so he could find the spot on a return visit. The mold and moss that had once tried to claim the remains of Hae, had had more than a decade and a half to cover up the surveyor’s meager effort to memorialize the spot, but I knew that I was standing just downstream from the root end of the burial log. And, off to my right, I could see one more easily recognizable landmark. That helped complete the big picture.
In the original video, one can see a tree with a markedly crooked trunk growing midway between the roots and the crown end and just downstream of the 1999 log.
That same tree is still there today.
All of my mucking about in the Dead Run Valley led me to believe that the burial log in question should be found upstream of the table rock, the split stump, and the crooked tree and downstream of the beech tree. Not surprisingly, that is exactly where I found it. What may surprise you is that burial log has appeared in at least three of photos above. This is not to suggest that it is hiding in plain sight. Instead, it would be more accurate to say it is camouflaged before our very eyes.
Over the years, a series of floods has roared through the valley sweeping debris along its path. During that time, because it was in full contact with the ground, the burial log has acted like a dam, trapping that debris on its upstream side, until several things happened. First, this additional collection of detritus acted as a blanket, trapping moisture against the log and facilitating additional decay. Next, the additional mass of the debris in addition to the huge volume of flood water and the effects of the rot, eventually caused the log to collapse at its center creating a v-shaped arrangement of the crown end and the root end with the center of the v pointing downstream. It also caused the log to shift downstream about 10 feet or so to coming to rest in its current position. Finally, the pile of refuse grew to the point where it overtopped the log and began to fill in on the downstream side. Consequently, the burial log is now effectively invisible to anyone who was not specifically looking for it, but it remains are still visible if one looks closely. I don’t expect anyone to see the log in the photo below. I have just included it so you can see the other landmarks and understand how so many people would just walk right past the most important log in the entire saga.
Crooked tree in context
I first found the log at about the same time I found the table rock. If you look at the photos above labeled Table Rock V4 above, you can clearly see the remnants of the crown end of the log. The rock is position right next to where the crown section has broken away from the root section of the now two-part burial log. You can see it better in this shot below. By the way, all the blue bags you see were placed by me to identify the various landmarks. I took them all with me when I departed. Sadly, I had to leave all the other debris.
Another look at our above picture, Crooked tree in context, shows the area marked by yellow lines that show where the root end of the log is mostly buried under the debris.
As of October 2016, it is getting more difficult to determine where the log ends and the soil begins. If you look to each side of where I cleared off the mold and trash, you can see the how the log looks when it is uncovered. In the middle, you can see a more solid log. After I kicked away some debris to expose the hidden log, I took a measurement of the remnant. It measured about 14 inches.
Having spent considerable time and energy investigating the location of the 1999 burial log, I can say with confidence that it remains very close to its original location, just about 10 feet or so further downstream and no worse for the wear than can be expected of a log that was substantially deteriorated when first identified. In doing this research, I also learned what I believe might be the most useful lesson from all this tromping around in a less than attractive valley.
I first came to Leakin Park looking for the log where Hae Min’s body had been so unceremonially buried by her killer. Armed with information from a supposed expert, Buddemeyer, who had been prodded into action by the local news media, The Sun, it didn’t take me long at all to find just what I was looking for, the wrong suspect. I then proceeded to document my findings, all the while ignoring perfectly obvious, discrepancies between my suspect and the actual 1999 burial log. It wasn’t until a sufficiently skeptical and observant person pointed out all the things that I had overlooked, that I began my search again. This time free from preconceived notions and committed to following just the facts. I found the true culprit if a log can be described as such. To me, this one little exercise has become a minor metaphor for the entire tragedy of Adnan’s false conviction and incarceration. What impresses me most is the fact that I should have been especially on guard for just such a mistake. I went looking for the log long after having already learned about the problem of confirmation bias, and I still fell victim to the same logic trap. This time, though, I was part of a community of skeptics, people with nothing to gain but the truth, people unfettered by all the conflicting pressures that were on the police and prosecution. Although this new perspective does not permit me to condone the reprehensible behavior of the people who are sworn to protect us, especially the young and the vulnerable among us, it does open my mind to insights that might one day lead to forgiveness of those who rushed to judgment, just not yet. Of course, forgiveness is not something to be proffered unbidden. To receive forgiveness, one must first ask for it. Even an atheist knows that. So, the question now is whether Adnan’s persecutors will ever seek forgiveness.