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Brain in a Bucket

A Dallas doctor’s cutting-edge technique to identify brain matter helped convict an alleged axe murderer. But where exactly did the doctor get the brains?
By Jessica Pishko |
Taylor Callery
Three days before one of the most notorious murders in New Zealand’s history, in August 2000, Dr. Rodney Miller was in Palmerston North, a dreary town on the country’s North Island. The Dallas pathologist was giving a series of lectures on immunohistochemistry, or IHC, a process most commonly used for the diagnosis of certain cancers, at the annual conference for the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia.

Then, as now, Miller was the director of ProPath, an 85,000-square-foot forensic lab, which he joined in 1993, that employs more than 40 pathologists. He had been using IHC to test tissue samples for decades, directing two labs in major hospitals before opening his own near UT Southwestern Medical Center. He was skilled in IHC procedures, which involve sealing tissues in paraffin blocks and then slicing them thinly, like shaved ham, before applying antibodies to see how the cells react. The resulting colors, or stains, enable physicians to figure out whether a tumor is cancerous or benign and where it may have originated.

With his round face framed by round wire-rimmed glasses and tufts of white hair, Miller lectured that day on tissue transfer, a method of dividing very small tissue samples into even smaller samples for testing. Not a particularly exciting topic, unless you are, say, a prostate patient who wants to avoid multiple biopsies. Or a police detective who wants to help identify a microscopic amount of what might be brain matter smeared on the polo shirt of an alleged axe murderer.

But that would come much later. On that day in the lecture hall, no one—not even Miller—could foresee that his methods would be used to convict a killer half a world away from Dallas. Or that the ill-gotten brain given to him to conduct his tests would be used to try to set that killer free.

Prime Suspect: Palmerston North police were convinced Mark Lundy killed his wife Christine and daughter Amber in August 2000, possibly with an axe or hatchet, though the actual murder weapon was never found.

Around 9 am the morning of August 30, 2000, a family member arrived at the house of Christine and Mark Lundy in Palmerston North and found a scene from a horror movie. Christine, 38 years old, was naked in her bed, blanketed with blood, her face unrecognizable. Blood and shards of bone covered the walls and furniture. There was brain splattered on the nightstand and a blob on the ceiling. Her daughter, Amber, age 7, was in a nightdress, positioned as if she had come upon the murder accidentally and was running away, down the hall, when the assailant had caught her. The wounds on Christine and Amber were described in the police report as “such as might have been inflicted by an axe or hatchet.”

Mark Lundy, Christine’s husband, had spent the night in the Foreshore Motor Lodge in Wellington visiting with a prostitute, as he was wont to do when he went on the occasional sales trip to peddle kitchen sinks for the family business. Lundy, then a pudgy 41-year-old man, was immediately castigated by the New Zealand media when he collapsed at the funeral in dramatic tears, the kind that make people shake their heads and say he must be faking. There were no other suspects.

He was charged with two counts of murder.

The Palmerston North police began assembling a case, code-named “Operation Winter,” focused on Lundy’s guilt. But they immediately ran into problems. For starters, there was no murder weapon. The only plausible motive was Christine’s life insurance payout, which Lundy had recently increased from $200,000 to $500,000 (about $540,000 U.S., accounting for inflation). Aside from the escorts, Lundy was a law-abiding citizen and had been married for 17 years. Amber was their only child.

Then there were the practicalities. Based on some undigested McDonald’s French fries found in Amber’s stomach during the autopsy, investigators initially placed the time of death around 7 pm. Phone records showed that Lundy had made calls from his phone at 5:30 and 8:30 pm. Those calls could only have come from the hotel, which was about 95 miles from his home.

This meant that Lundy would have had to drive nearly 100 miles, murder his wife and child, and drive back in just under three hours. A New Zealand journalist who replicated the trip determined that the route would have taken at least an hour and 45 minutes in each direction.

As a result, the New Zealand detectives focused on one last bit of evidence: a purple-and-navy-striped polo shirt, size XXL, that detectives found inside-out packed in Lundy’s suitcase in his car. Lundy testified that he had worn the shirt the night of the murders. The police found the shirt in his car on September 3 but didn’t examine it until October 27, almost two months later.

Christine’s DNA was found on the shirt, but that could have gotten there just from folding the laundry or giving her husband a hug. The shirt had two minuscule stains, one on the chest and one on the left sleeve. There was no sweat or other bodily fluids on it.

One of the stains, once revealed under a special light, looked like mucus, as if Lundy had wiped his nose on his sleeve. Detective Sergeant Ross Grantham, the man in charge of solving this high-profile case, consulted a number of pathologists and other forensic experts to determine what those stains were. They seemed small for someone involved in such a bloodbath, but investigators posited that Lundy wore overalls that mostly protected his other clothing, although none were found. (One might question why the murderer wouldn’t have gotten rid of the polo shirt along with the bloody overalls and murder weapon, but the investigators let that slide.)

A few forensic experts suggested that the stains might be brain cells, which would be a direct link to the murder. To confirm this theory, Grantham needed someone who could conduct IHC on the cells to determine they were from the brain. Since the stains at this point were over a month old, the human tissue had already begun to degrade. It was looking, according to reports, “shriveled up.”

First, Grantham went to a New Zealand neuropathologist named Dr. Heng Teoh. Teoh was not confident about the sample and told the detective that the cells had “degenerated badly,” such that he did not want to give testimony in court. “When he looked at the slide, he commented that he did not think that he (Mark Lundy) should be convicted of murder on the strength of the cells on the slide,” Grantham wrote in his notes.

Lundy, then a pudgy 41-year-old man, was immediately castigated by the New Zealand media when he collapsed at the funeral in dramatic tears, the kind that make people shake their heads and say he must be faking.

When using Teoh didn’t pan out, Grantham took the recommendation of another pathologist who had been at the August conference and contacted Miller, back in Dallas. Miller told Grantham that he thought IHC—the very process he had lectured on just a few months before—could identify whether the stains were, in fact, brain cells. Even though IHC has been criticized by the FDA as being “subjective and variable” because it is highly reliant on methodology, and even though the test had never before been used for this purpose, Miller was certain it would work. He was so eager to help that, before even seeing the evidence, he wrote in an email to Grantham, “It would be great to nail the bad guy.”

Grantham decided to take the slides and shirt samples from New Zealand to Miller’s lab in Dallas. He didn’t trust anyone with the small samples and had been keeping them locked in his own office safe, stashed in paper envelopes, rather than booked and stored with the other evidence.

A week before Grantham landed in Dallas, Miller smeared chicken guts on his daughter’s t-shirt. As he explained in a blog post, “I was rinsing off a fresh chicken to be used for dinner, and noticed spinal cord tissue protruding from the severed neck of the chicken. I thought this presented an excellent opportunity to see whether we could use IHC to detect tissues smeared on shirts, so I smeared chicken spinal cord, kidney, and liver on portions of an old shirt. … Little did the chicken know that she would be contributing greatly to putting a guilty man behind bars.” Miller later explained at trial that the chicken shirt helped him determine that enough material would stick to the slide to allow for analysis. IHC had never before been used on a tissue sample obtained from fabric.

On Sunday, February 4, 2001, Grantham brought the prepared slides and the remaining pieces of the polo shirt on a commercial airline to Dallas, staying at Miller’s house as his guest and coming with him to the lab over the course of the next few days. Miller testified that he used equipment at the former St. Paul University Hospital, which was owned by UT Southwestern Medical Center at the time, to prepare the material for IHC. When the samples were ready, Grantham and Miller picked up the prepared paraffin blocks and took them back to ProPath for analysis. Grantham says he watched the whole thing; he says he even donned rubber gloves and assisted, no matter that he has no scientific expertise.

Despite questions at trial about the cleanliness of his laboratory and possible sample contamination, Miller’s testimony that the stain tested positive for brain or spinal cord tissue turned out to be crucial. Without a murder weapon or any other forensic evidence, there was no other way to tie Lundy to the very bloody murder scene. The trial lasted six weeks. Lundy was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He would serve a minimum of 20 years.

A decade after the conviction, in 2012, Lundy’s new London-based attorney, David Hislop, filed an appeal based on the insufficiency of Miller’s brain evidence. “It was never good science,” he told a New Zealand media outlet. “In essence, what was deployed from the scientists from Texas was a scientific experiment. He’d never done it before, the science world had never done it before, and we say he’s got it wrong.”

In October of 2013, the appeals court granted Lundy a new trial. His defense team was focused on the unreliability of IHC, as well as the possibility that the evidence had been tainted. It seemed unbelievable that brain tissue could be preserved for months in an envelope in a drawer.

Lundy in 2015 at his retrial

For his part, Miller was admitting no errors. He told Mike White, a New Zealand journalist who has written extensively about the murders, “I can say with 100-percent certainty that the tissue on Mr. Lundy’s shirt was central nervous system tissue. Not 99.999-percent certainty—100 percent.” He called any expert who would find otherwise “incompetent, hopelessly naive, or unwilling to believe the truth.”

Miller decided that, while he knew he was right, he should probably do another experiment just to make sure. But this time, he would use a human brain.

On January 15, 2014, Miller received a phone call from his occasional colleague and friend Dr. Ruth Ann Word, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He had mentioned his need for brain tissue to her just a few days before. Word told Miller that she had access to brains through her affiliation with the Willed Body Program at UT Southwestern, a donation-driven system for collecting corpses for medical research. Now she was calling to say that the medical school had received a new cadaver. She offered to bring Miller the brain, freshly dissected and free of preserving chemicals.

“I said yes,” Miller later testified.

When Word arrived at ProPath, just down the street from UT Southwestern, Miller says she gave him a plastic bucket. He reached inside to remove the brain, which was wrapped in two thick plastic bags. He later testified that Word hadn’t brought any documents with her, nothing to certify when the brain had been harvested from its skull or who it had come from. For his purposes, though, the donor didn’t matter.

Miller took thin slices of the brain, pieces about the size of a grain of rice, and put them on a basic poly-cotton blend shirt. He then cut around the brain smears and put the pieces of cloth in a plain envelope. The envelope went into a drawer. Then he waited to see how they putrefied over a period of 28 days.

When he opened the envelope a month later, the brain matter had formed a mucus-like crust. It now looked like generic bodily fluid. Snot, saliva, sweat—who could tell? Miller took slices and embedded them in paraffin blocks. Then he thinly sliced the blocks and prepared slides for IHC.

The tests produced exactly the results he expected. He was, after all, the first person to have used IHC to solve a murder.

Cadavers are a sensitive subject. which may be why no one at UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Willed Body Program would talk on the record for this story. The bodies are someone’s family members—family members who have donated their body to science either through their own advance directive or through the wishes of their next of kin. Their bodies are embalmed and stored, cut into pieces and used for research or anatomy lessons, or sold as surplus to other academic institutions. Texas, it turns out, is a big supplier of dead bodies. UT Southwestern is the second-largest source of academic cadavers in the nation.

In the United States, once you will your body to science, you have no control over where it goes. That includes whether or not the body is dismembered and what happens to the various parts: whether they are used for research, or are transported to other institutions, or end up in a bucket at Miller’s lab. Donors get no say in the process. Interestingly, once you are dead you have no rights to your body.

The procurement of human tissue for research still has a shadow about it. Unlike the use of tissue (transplants from either living or dead donors, like kidneys and corneas), there are no federal laws and few state ones that govern the use or sale of cadavers being used for research.

This lack of uniformity has led to a number of abuses, like those detailed in a 2017 Reuters investigation that uncovered the largely unregulated for-profit body broker industry. For example, about three years ago, someone found a severed head in the Pennsylvania wilderness that appeared to have come from a body broker. In 2015, the cadaver of a 79-year-old man fell off of a transport van speeding through Denton en route to Colorado, cargo destined to a body broker. “There was no crime committed,” the police concluded.

These horror stories mostly involve non-academic institutions, private entities that are sometimes dissecting bodies in a back room with no medical training. Texas does have an Anatomical Gift Act and a board that regulates how donated tissues must be tracked and used. They are supposed to be used only for transplantation, therapy, academic research, or education. They are supposed to be tested and labeled. They are supposed to come with authenticity documents. The statute doesn’t contemplate their use in private forensic experiments conducted by murder trial witnesses.

Two years after Word brought Miller a brain in a bucket, attorney Mike Ware, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, was contacted by Mark Lundy’s defense team and asked if he would help them find out more accurate information about the brain. Ware agreed to assist pro bono and do a little poking around. He requested information from UT Southwestern’s Willed Body Program. In an affidavit, Ware said that a staff member, Claudia Yellott, told him the name of the donor but seemed puzzled. “She asked if I was sure that my email recited the correct donor number. I told her I was sure I had given the correct number. She said that the reason she asked was because the brain of that donor had not been harvested. Only her spinal cord had been harvested.”

Trial and Error? Lundy’s defense team focused on the unreliability of IHC testing, specifically the work performed by Dr. Rodney Miller (inset) at his Dallas forensic lab, ProPath. Miller’s findings were essential to the prosecution’s case, since police had found little to go on at the crime scene (right). Miller remained resolute about the work done in his lab: “Oh, please. How are you going to have brain tissue on his shirt? You don’t get brain tissue from eating a sandwich.”

Documents and emails that were turned over by UT Southwestern in response to a public information request, with heavy redactions, reveal that Word, a faculty member in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology with her own lab, delivered the brain to Miller without permission. They further reveal that the Willed Body Program took no action until Ware’s phone call.

Sue, donor number 64039, was living in a nursing home in a Dallas suburb when she died mid-January 2014. Her death was anticipated as shown by a fax sent from the nursing home to UT’s Willed Body Program: “Death is imminent.” The paperwork was completed by a family member a few days before Sue died. She was 85 years old, and at 5-foot-6 weighed only 110 pounds.

Although UT Southwestern has an established system to divvy up body parts for research between various internal departments and other universities, there were exceptions. According to internal emails, Dr. Marlene Corton, a researcher at UT Southwestern who, according to her website, focuses on the female anatomy, was able to get donor tissue free of charge and without going through the official tracking system. On Tuesday, January 14, 2014, she made an email request for “fresh specimens, preferably within 12 hours” for a histology study. She also asked for a “spinal cord OR brain” for her colleague, Dr. Word. Claudia Yellott, the manager of the Willed Body Program, forwarded Corton’s requests to staff, adding that they should find one “that we know we are not able to use for much.”

The next morning at 8:20, an embalmer notified Corton and the rest of the Willed Body staff that donor 64039 was ready. “This donor can be used for the vagina sample, rectum sample, and brain without spinal cord sample.” Emails indicate that by the afternoon of January 15, Sue’s brain had been removed for Word. The vagina and rectum samples were sent to Corton, and by midnight of January 16, the cadaver was back in the cooler, where the C-1 spine was removed and placed in a blue bin for the University of Toledo, which purchased it for $800, minus a bulk discount. The remaining parts would be cremated.

Two years later, after Ware’s phone call, it appears that an investigation was undertaken. Yellott ultimately emailed Corton and told her, “Dr. Word with OBGYN obtained brain tissue … and took it off-campus, giving it to a non-UT doctor for research purposes.” Yellott described the act as “a violation of policy and a violation of SAB regulations,” referring to the State Anatomical Board. Corton was informed that she would no longer be able to use specimens or tissue free of charge, since the only way UT Southwestern can properly track them is through their inventory and billing system. Yellott concluded: “Had we known the brain tissue was being taken off campus we would have handled it accordingly and had proper documentation of all specimens as required by the State Anatomical Board. It appears Dr. Word helped an outside doctor obtain tissue for research without following proper protocols causing us to be in violation of SAB regulations.” Word was not copied on the email.

Dr. Vaughan Lee, the Director of the Texas State Anatomical Board, refused to answer questions about what theoretically might happen if a brain was taken for unauthorized purposes, responding simply, “We do not discuss information pertaining to donors out of respect to the donors and their families.”

Russell Rian, the director of brand communications and public relations at UT Southwestern also emailed a response:

“UT Southwestern considers the donation of bodies for use in medical education and research to be one of the most generous, selfless gifts one can make. The UT Southwestern Willed Body Program facilitates donations by following the law set forth in the Texas Health & Safety Code, and the rules promulgated by the Anatomical Board of the State of Texas as set forth in the Texas Administrative Code. These rules include a process that must be followed when bodies or tissue are transferred outside the institution. The Willed Body Program is tasked with arranging and coordinating such transfers to ensure compliance with state law and Anatomical Board rules. When UT Southwestern learned of a faculty member’s independent transfer of a brain outside the university, the UT Southwestern Willed Body Program self-reported this incident to the Anatomical Board, and implemented actions to ensure that similar transfers will not occur in the future.”

Neither Word nor Corton responded to my calls or emails, and Miller declined an interview through a representative.

I contacted several American forensic experts to see if anyone knew about IHC, and eventually I was referred to Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist, neuropathologist, and clinical professor of medical pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of California, Davis. He is also the trailblazer in CTE research whose life and career were portrayed in the 2015 movie Concussion. His email response was quick and unequivocal. “This is crazy. … This is simply ridiculous. … If this was the only evidence that linked him to the crime, then this is a travesty of justice. Simply unbelievable.” A few minutes later, Omalu sent another stream of emails, saying that the evidence would not be admissible in America. One simply read: “IT IS BULLSHIT.”

In the United States, once you will your body to science, you have no control over where it goes. Interestingly, once you are dead you have no rights to your body.

At Lundy’s 2015 retrial in New Zealand, the prosecution changed their timeline and the sequence of events, making the shirt stains more important than ever. Experts emerged with all sorts of opinions on what the stains were. Some agreed with Miller; others disputed his findings in no uncertain terms. Multiple experts agreed that there was some type of brain or stem cell matter there, but they could not attest to how certain they were. Some said the DNA was so degraded it couldn’t be determined if it was human or animal. One expert testified that the stains tested positive for small amounts of beef, pork, and sheep DNA. According to her, the stains weren’t human brain but “more consistent with … food splatter. If you were frying say a sausage or something.”

Miller testified for 13 hours via video link. He suffers no lack of confidence when asked about challenges by other experts to his conclusions. “I have no reason to care,” he said about his failure to comply with forensic lab standards. In response to questioning about whether or not Grantham was wearing gloves and a lab coat when they were working with the samples at ProPath in Dallas, Miller was dismissive. “Oh, please. How are you going to have brain tissue on his shirt? You don’t get brain tissue on your shirt from eating a sandwich. That is just ludicrous.”

Despite the battle of the experts, Lundy was convicted again at the second trial and went back to prison to serve the remainder of his life sentence. His supporters remain convinced that he is not guilty and that Miller’s testimony was based on bad science. Lundy’s advocates argue that Miller was a diagnostician, and, while his IHC method might do well to identify cancerous cells, there was no support for its use in a forensic context. One of the experts expressed to the New Zealand detectives that it may have to remain an unsolved mystery. On the other hand, pathologists from lofty institutions such as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center agreed with Miller.

On August 27, 2016, Miller received a special commendation from the New Zealand Police District Commander “in recognition of his analysis of critical forensic evidence and subsequent expert testimony at trial and retrial in one of the most horrific murder cases in New Zealand’s history.” Miller also published a peer-reviewed article about the case with Grantham in 2002, before the retrial happened. But, unlike he’d done with the chicken parts, Miller never wrote a blog post about Sue.

Lundy’s legal team is waiting to hear about the next appeal. But there’s little doubt where Miller’s heart still lies. He wrote in a blog post: “I think we all know that if he committed this crime in Texas, his punishment would be a bit different.”

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