To forensic pathologist Dr. Karl Williams, every dead body tells a story.

But four months after Williams conducted an autopsy and chemical tests on Tammy Kristine Mullins and Mandy Sue McLaren, the facts are still blurred on how the two women’s nude bodies came to be lying in a wooded area near West Pittsburg.

They were in close proximity to one another, the Ellwood City doctor said.

Those circumstances alone are enough to determine their deaths were homicides, Williams concluded.

UP-CLOSE LOOK

There aren’t a lot of occasions where Williams actually goes to the scene of a death in Lawrence County, but this particular case caught his interest.

He went to the woods off Route 168 on Aug. 31 to examine the bodies of 24-year-old McLaren and 37-year-old Mullins, knowing the mystery of their deaths would be before him in his laboratory the next day.

The gruesome discovery was made that day by a prospector who was walking through the woods looking for scrap metal.

The body of Mullins had been lying on the ground there for about three weeks, while McLaren’s had been there only a few days, Williams determined.

The weather was hot and muggy with temperatures in the 90s, accelerating decomposition.

LITTLE EVIDENCE

In both cases, decay was enough advanced that Williams had little to work with.

Since then Williams has met several times with the state police and Coroner Russell S. Noga to discuss the possible causes of death, but to his frustration, autopsy results were more inconclusive than he would have liked.

After the autopsy and toxicology tests were completed, state police raised issues about the possibility of date-rape drugs and other DNA testing that had not yet been considered. However, those turned up negative, he said.

McLaren had traces of alcohol and cocaine in her bloodstream, but the levels were not high enough to have killed her, Noga noted.

“What we’re left with — and everyone agreed, is that they were homicides,” Williams said, adding, “Essentially, we don’t have an ideal cause.”

AUTOPSY FINDINGS

Noga signed the death certificates of the two women earlier this week, listing the cause as homicide due to neck compression. He said the women somehow died from asphyxiation, but he would not go so far as to say they were strangled.

Clues included tears in the thyroid and fractures of the hyoid — a U-shaped bone at the base of the tongue that supports the tongue muscles.

Noga said it was impossible to tell whether either had sexual contact with anyone before they died.

“Even though there was evidence of trauma in the neck, it was not ideal in terms of concluding anything,” said Williams, who felt the findings were vague.

“The neck carries all of the vital nerves, arteries, veins and air passages to the brain from the rest of the body,” he explained.

When someone is strangled to death, there usually are broken bones and it’s often easy to tell because of trauma and struggle, but that’s in a non-decomposed body, he said.

“The cause we have listed is based on our opinion, and the findings we have are somewhat compromised by the decomposition,” he said.

Williams said he attended a seminar where a judo expert demonstrated how pressure can be applied to the neck to make someone lose consciousness.

Blocking the veins in the neck by putting it in the crux of one’s arm can asphyxiate someone and kill them very quickly, he said. However, if someone is under attack there would likely be other signs of struggle.

IT’S UP TO THE POLICE

“It is because of the stages of decomposition that these cases were so difficult,” he said, noting Mullins had no soft tissue left in her neck.

“Short of finding someone who confesses or someone who says they know how it’s done, these will be difficult cases to solve,” Williams said. “It’s up to the police from now on.”

The state police are optimistic that their work is moving forward, although they have no suspects.

Trooper John Ludwig earlier this week said they have received and followed up on tips — some of them valuable ones — and that Pennsylvania Crime Stoppers is still offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderer.

Anyone with information is asked to call the state police at (724) 598-2211.

The women were believed to have known each other and were frequent visitors at the Big Run projects, where police say prostitution and drug problems have been rampant.

Mullins, who lived on Morris Street, was reported missing by her husband three weeks before her body was found.

McLaren had no address available, but at times had been staying with a brother in an apartment on Sciota Street.

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