Origin of body parts remains a mystery

Public works commissioner says discovery ‘defies the odds’

By: Cortney Casey | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published August 28, 2012

 Workers from Inland Waters Pollution Control and NTH Consultants use a gel called acrylamide to stop leaks in a section of the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor between Nine Mile and Stephens during emergency repairs in 2009. A platform similar to this one was in use at 15 Mile and Maple Lane, where body parts were discovered Aug. 15.

Workers from Inland Waters Pollution Control and NTH Consultants use a gel called acrylamide to stop leaks in a section of the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor between Nine Mile and Stephens during emergency repairs in 2009. A platform similar to this one was in use at 15 Mile and Maple Lane, where body parts were discovered Aug. 15.

Photo courtesy of the Macomb County Office of Public Works

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It could be a long wait for answers in the case of a dozen body parts found in a sewer line in Sterling Heights Aug. 15.

As of Aug. 23, police still had not identified the source of the human remains discovered by two workers during an ongoing repair project in the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor.

Lt. Luke Riley said Sterling Heights police continue to follow up on leads received in the aftermath of the discovery — including an inquiry from someone out of state who wondered if the victim was a missing relative — but none had panned out.

He wasn’t certain exactly how many tips had come in, but by a week after the fact, they’d “slowed down a little.”

Police have submitted DNA evidence to the Michigan State Police Crime Lab in hopes of gleaning more information, but “my understanding is the turnaround time — at this point, based on the amount of cases they receive for this and the time it takes to do it — is quite long,” said Riley. “Six months, perhaps?”

In the meantime, investigators are hoping the intricate, disjointed tattoo visible on the remains will serve as a main clue to the victim’s identification.

Experienced tattoo artists asked to examine the image estimated it to be around 15 years old, based on its brightness and degree of detail, said Riley, but what’s there isn’t enough for anyone to definitively identify what it depicts.

Riley said police have submitted the DNA samples and tattoo photos to law enforcement websites dedicated to matching unidentified remains with missing persons.

Without an identification, determining what happened to the person and how the remains ended up in the sewer system could be a long shot.

“I think eventually … a good lead will come up, but … as far as solving the thing, finding out the identity, who knows?” said Riley. “We’re doing everything that we can do to find out who this person is and what happened to them.

“The odds of us doing that? I wouldn’t even venture a guess there.”


A workday like no other
Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco said it “defies explanation” how the 6- to 8-inch body parts — which Riley characterized as non-skeletal flesh remains — simultaneously collected on a staging platform more than 50 feet underground, near Maple Lane and 15 Mile.

In a statement issued a few days after the discovery, Marrocco explained that gates used to temporarily halt the flow of sewage and “gray water” from washing machines and dishwashers are located on Dodge Park Road, a quarter mile north.

When activated, the gates reduce the usually 5-foot-deep wastewater to ankle-high within 90 minutes, making the area accessible for work crews.

A 9-foot-6-inch-square staging platform, where Marrocco said the body parts became entangled, is anchored 4 feet above the bottom of the interceptor, which is 61 feet below street level.

Staffers from Inland Waters Pollution Control, a private company contracted to perform the repairs, are lowered about 57 feet down into the space via a crane-maneuvered construction cage. They clean off the platform daily prior to commencing grouting work, which is conducted from a 24-foot long raft situated about 20 feet west of the platform.

The two workers were doing that routine cleaning when they made the gruesome discovery Aug. 15, said Marrocco.

“The flow is pretty strong through the interceptor, so that means when debris that is in the sewer line gets close to the top of the platform as the water level drops, (that’s) when it gets hung up on the platform,” he explained. “So picture all of these body parts floating in the wastewater as the level drops, and they all just happen to get caught at the same time. That defies the odds.”

In the same release, Lou Urban, an engineer with Anderson, Eckstein & Westrick, a firm involved in the project, indicated that there are hundreds of different lateral sanitary sewer lines from two dozen communities that tie into nine larger sewer lines called in-flows.

Those, in turn, connect to the interceptor, which ultimately transports the water to Detroit for treatment, serving 833,000 customers in Macomb and Oakland counties.

Deputy Public Works Commissioner Gene Schabath said the lateral lines — which run through various commercial and residential areas — span thousands of miles.

He estimated that 30,000 manholes lead to the lateral sewers, one of which theoretically could have been used to deposit the body parts into the system. Sterling Heights alone has 430 miles of lateral sewers and 7,000 manholes, he noted.

However, the manholes are bolted to the pavement, and in the case of the one located directly above the discovery site, a 400-pound cement lid obscures the opening and is lifted daily via crane to permit workers access.

From the level of decomposition, it did not appear the remains had lingered in the sewer for long, said Riley.

Repairs on the interceptor resumed the day after the remains’ discovery, and Marrocco stated that work at that site is expected to wrap up within approximately a month.

Efforts will then shift east, to the interceptor segment beneath the ITC corridor, between Maple Lane and Schoenherr. It’s all part of a larger $32 million project to fill in cracks, leaks and voids, as well as replace some lateral lines, to ensure the interceptor’s structural integrity.

Anyone who believes they may have information in the case is asked to call the Sterling Heights Police Department at (586) 446-2800.

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