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Hillsborough medical examiners love a mystery

Work in the field and in the autopsy room helped Hillsborough County medical examiners identify remains found along I-275.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Work in the field and in the autopsy room helped Hillsborough County medical examiners identify remains found along I-275.

TAMPA — The smock was the key.

The black fabric, unearthed last month with decaying human remains found along Interstate 275, led investigators to a thick missing persons file.

Lisa Anne Mowrey was an 18-year-old Tampa beauty school student when she disappeared six years ago.

The file led to dental records that confirmed that the remains were Mowrey's.

Her autopsy is just one of a couple of thousand the Medical Examiner's Office performs each year out of about 10,000 deaths in Hillsborough County. Almost half are deemed natural deaths, and a small number are suspicious.

Some remain a mystery. In Mowrey's case, the only mystery now is how she died.

Mowrey's remains were mostly dried bones. In such a case, a significant amount of circumstantial evidence is also considered, said Dr. Mary Mainland, a lead doctor on the case. That includes where the bones were found, what else was with them, where she was last seen and what was happening in her life.

No cause of death has been released. Police have not officially ruled Mowrey's death a homicide, and the investigation continues, said police spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

Mowrey was last seen on the morning of Feb. 6, 2004. At the time, she was living with the family of one of her former high school teachers and attending Manhattan Beauty School in Tampa.

She moved in with the family of Dawn White after Mowrey accused her father of abusing her, records show. No charges were ever filed, and her father, Thomas Mowrey, denies the allegations.

Mainland won't say whether the investigation has uncovered a cause of death, but said it was clear from the start her death was anything but natural.

Investigators became suspicious the day they were called to the side of Interstate 275. It's unusual to find female remains on the highway, Mainland said.

"Of course there was a lot of theorizing," Mainland said. "Anytime you have a woman on the side of the road, you worry about violence. Maybe if it were an older homeless guy, it would have been different."

When she arrived at the scene March 16, Mainland, police detectives and a USF anthropology professor cordoned off an area of about 6 feet by 3 feet, separated into coordinates.

Other than sneakers and leg bones that caught the attention of the stranded farmers who found the remains, most of the evidence was under layers of brush and dirt, Mainland said.

Coordinate by coordinate, the group gathered the bones, photographed them and placed them in plastic evidence bags, along with the shoes, some clothing and the decaying black smock.

"The smock was the first really good clue," Mainland said. The fabric was falling apart, but an intact label identified the brand as Bric McMann.

A quick Google search reveals the brand as "a leader in the beauty salon apparel … industry.''

Police released a description of the bones and clothing, including the smock detail. A day or two later, Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives met with Mainland.

"They came over with a big file, and it had dental records," Mainland said. "We kind of all went, 'Ding!' The light went off."

Once they knew who they were looking at, they began searching for signs of trauma, such as gunshots or knife wounds or broken bones suggesting foul play.

Did they find any? "That, I can't talk about," Mainland said.

The case is now in the hands of police.

• • •

In many autopsies, investigators perform toxicology tests to search for evidence of drug use or poisoning. They didn't do that in Mowrey's case, Mainland said.

It's nearly impossible to run toxicology on dried bones. "There's probably a specialized lab that could do it, but we don't," she said.

It's also tough to check for causes of death that don't result in bone injury, like strangulation. Mainland said sometimes a choked person's hyoid bone is cracked, but because of the bone's tiny size, it's difficult to know whether cracks resulted from an injury or from animals that gnawed on it.

Unlike on TV crime shows, Mainland said, it's also not easy to pinpoint exactly when a person died based on remains. She said they consider the day someone disappeared as the day he or she died.

Here's what happened the day Mowrey disappeared, according to Dawn White and her husband, Ronald, the last people known to have seen her alive:

Mowrey got up before dawn to pack the large, wheeled duffel bag she used to carry her haircutting tools and mannequin head. When the Whites awoke, they said they discovered Mowrey had stayed up late cleaning the house and doing laundry.

That was odd, they said, but they hugged her in appreciation.

At about 6:30 a.m., Dawn White said, Mowrey loaded her stuff into Ronald White's blue station wagon with the couple's twin boys, who were 12 at the time.

Ronald White drove Mowrey to a bus stop at Hillsborough Avenue and Memorial Highway, where she caught a ride each day to the beauty school at 2317 E Fletcher Ave. She waved as Ronald White honked the horn and drove away.

No one else was at the bus stop, he said. It was still dark.

The Whites say their twin boys don't remember that day because it was like any other.

That night, Dawn White said, she called Mowrey's mother, Donna Mowrey, to report that her daughter had not come home.

Mrs. Mowrey reported the girl missing two days later, on Feb. 8, records show.

Dawn White said the family later discovered that Mowrey had dumped all her beauty school supplies in the bottom of her closet and filled her duffel bag with clothing.

White said she thought Mowrey ran away.

Mowrey's father said his daughter had bipolar disorder and suffered bouts of paranoia, which he blames for the accusations of abuse she leveled at him months before she disappeared. He said he worried she wasn't taking her medication.

Both the Whites and the Mowreys said that until last month, they hadn't given up hope that Mowrey would return home.

Now they just want to know what happened.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Hillsborough medical examiners love a mystery 04/03/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 3, 2010 11:19pm]

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