Cougar attack blamed for man’s death. Wildlife experts say no way.

Was a cougar responsible for killing a Texas man? Animal experts say the evidence is shaky at best.
USDA Wildlife Services Wildlife Biologist Mike Bodenchuk poses for a portrait with a female mountain lion skull. He disputes that a mountain lion killed a man in Texas.
USDA Wildlife Services Wildlife Biologist Mike Bodenchuk poses for a portrait with a female mountain lion skull. He disputes that a mountain lion killed a man in Texas. [ LYNDA M. GONZáLEZ | Dallas Morning News ]
Published Oct. 10, 2021

DALLAS — With a mountain lion skull tucked safely under his arm, Mike Bodenchuk walked more than a mile across downtown Fort Worth to the medical examiner’s office.

A federal wildlife expert with more than four decades of experience, Bodenchuk had been asked to help with a death investigation. The body of a 28-year-old man found dead four days earlier was already on an exam table when he arrived.

His obvious cause of death was a jagged tear around the right side of his neck. It had exposed vital tissue and opened his jugular vein.

A wild predator must have killed him, deputies and medical examiners assumed within hours of finding the body near a wooded creek bed about 55 miles away in Hood County. Maybe, they thought, a mountain lion.

Before wildlife experts could evaluate all the evidence, the Hood County sheriff’s office issued a warning: Residents needed to be on the lookout for a killer feline.

Bodenchuk had already seen photos from the autopsy by the time he arrived for the Dec. 7 meeting in Fort Worth. He had already visited the creek bed where the body was found. He knew it was practically impossible that a wild animal was involved. He brought the mountain lion skull because he thought it would help explain to the sheriff’s deputies and medical examiners why they were wrong.

But when the meeting started, it was clear they had already made up their minds.

While Bodenchuk and the others argued, Jonah Evans listened through a speakerphone. Evans was then the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s state mammalogist, and is an internationally recognized expert in tracking all kinds of wildlife, including mountain lions.

He was asked to lend his own expertise to the case, and he meticulously chronicled his worries throughout the investigation in a journal on his computer.

“Perhaps the concern is that if it is a homicide, they may have severely mishandled the case,” Evans wrote after the meeting. “I don’t understand how the sheriff’s office and M.E. could so quickly rule out a homicide.

“I’m really concerned about the possibility that a murder(er is) out right now and has gotten away with this crime.”

Thinking ‘outside the box’

Christopher Allen Whiteley, a chronic methamphetamine user with a long and violent criminal record, was found dead last December outside Lipan, a town of about 400. His autopsy — conducted in Fort Worth because Hood County doesn’t have its own medical examiner’s office — showed he was probably high when he died.

Two days after finding him, Hood County investigators told his family and the public that an animal was to blame. They stuck to their story and still do, though the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and other experts say that it’s extremely unlikely that a wild animal killed Whiteley.

The wildlife experts’ belief that an animal couldn’t possibly have killed her son has also left Whiteley’s mother unsure of whose story to trust and what really happened.

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From its earliest moments, an investigation by The Dallas Morning News has found, the examination into Whiteley’s death was riddled with false assumptions and errors that forensics and wildlife experts say left too many unanswered questions.

Both the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office and the Hood County sheriff’s office, the two agencies responsible for determining if a crime was committed in Whiteley’s death, have been under fire recently for sloppy work and incomplete investigations.

The News reviewed hundreds of photos, emails, text messages, reports and other documents from local, state and federal agencies that investigated the case. They show that soon after finding his body, Hood County investigators landed on an improbable theory of a mountain lion attack.

Lt. Johnny Rose, a spokesman for the Hood County sheriff’s office and the supervisor of the criminal investigations division for the department, was at the scene the night Whiteley’s body was found. He’s convinced that his death was not a homicide.

He said Whiteley’s neck wound did not appear as though it came from a knife or other weapon. By the morning after they found Whiteley’s body, investigators began thinking “outside the box,” Rose said, eventually landing on the theory of a mountain lion attack.

When asked whether other possibilities were considered and what specific evidence was used in developing their theory, Rose said that no other option made sense.

“At the end of the day, you stand on facts and not speculation,” Rose said. “It was pretty clear it wasn’t a homicide or a suicide. The determination that it was a wild animal attack, I was comfortable with that.”

A photo of a mountain lion taken in California in 2014. An attack by a big attack is being blamed for a Texas man's death, but some experts say that's not likely.
A photo of a mountain lion taken in California in 2014. An attack by a big attack is being blamed for a Texas man's death, but some experts say that's not likely.

This isn’t the first time the Hood County sheriff’s office has come under scrutiny for cursory death investigations.

Last year, Hood County Sheriff Roger Deeds faced two challengers in the Republican primary for only the second time since he was first elected in 2008. During the campaign, both criticized the department’s investigations under Deeds’ leadership and suggested more training and oversight are necessary.

David Streiff ran against Deeds after a 34-year career in law enforcement and private security. Streiff said deputies are underpaid, undertrained and reluctant to do the hard work of investigating serious crimes.

“Hood County has a reputation as the good-ol-boy network,” Streiff said. “There’s an urgency to clear those as quick as they can rather than do a thorough investigation.”

Deeds ultimately won the Republican primary with 66% of the vote, beating Streiff and the other challenger, a former Dallas police officer.

In an interview with The News, Deeds said his investigators did all the right things when looking into Whiteley’s death. He said the blood pattern at the scene, the unusual shape and size of the neck wound and location of the body made it unlikely a human was responsible for the death.

Biologists, however, point to the same evidence to say an animal couldn’t have killed him.

“I can’t believe this has drug out this long,” Deeds said. “People want to crucify us for working as hard as we did, and we did our best. We did everything we could, we got the help that we needed.”

He said they relied on the expertise of other agencies like the Texas Rangers, although none of the reports from his office or any other investigating agency mentions the Rangers’ involvement.

A Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman confirmed that the Rangers were called, but directed questions back to the Hood County office.

Rose said a Ranger who was at the scene the night Whiteley’s body was found came to the same conclusions as the local investigators. Rose said the Rangers were not involved after investigators decided an animal was to blame.

Deeds also said the Tarrant County medical examiner’s findings showed the animal attack theory was valid, but the practices and thoroughness of that office have also been criticized this year.

In the months since Whiteley’s autopsy, the two highest-ranking leaders in the office — chief medical examiner Nizam Peerwani and deputy chief medical examiner Marc Krouse — have left the office amid a series of errors and controversies.

In March, a Tarrant County judge found that Peerwani had given “false or misleading” testimony in a 2006 capital murder case, saying a victim had been smothered when he’d actually died of cardiac arrhythmia. The Dallas County district attorney’s office is conducting an independent review of Krouse’s work after an internal audit showed a “lack of due diligence” and “egregious” errors.

Krouse was placed on administrative leave in March and left the office in April. A few weeks later, Peerwani announced he would step down at the end of this month.

Another deputy medical examiner, Susan Roe, completed Whiteley’s autopsy. Through a spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office, Roe declined to answer questions about the investigation.

Several forensic investigators who were not involved in the case looked at photographs of Whiteley’s body, his autopsy report and other investigative documents for The News. All said it was unclear how Whiteley was injured.

Kendall Crowns, a deputy chief medical examiner in Travis County with a specialty in dog bites and animal-related deaths, said that Whiteley’s neck wound probably came from a bite but that he couldn’t say from what kind of animal.

“Something bigger than a dog,” Crowns said, “so that would rule out coyotes quite quickly, and domestic dogs.”

But that’s the very theory that authorities eventually settled on in January: a dog, or other unspecified animal, was the culprit.

‘That boy was happy’

Mountain lions, cougars, pumas — they’re all the same animal, Puma concolor. They’ve never been seen in Hood County, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Only about 20 confirmed sightings have occurred outside of far South and West Texas in the last five years.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department does not have any records of a mountain lion fatally attacking a human in the state’s history. Fewer than 30 have happened nationwide in the last 100 years.

When wildlife experts were called to the creek bed where Whiteley was found, they looked for evidence of any kind of animal attack. If wildlife was involved, then tracks or prints, scat or signs of a struggle such as broken tree limbs or drag marks would be nearby on the ground. They also would expect to see signs of predation — feeding — on Whiteley’s body, and deep cuts from claw marks or at least the tell-tale puncture wounds of feline teeth.

They found none.

Then why were authorities so quick to pin the death on a cougar?

Christopher Whiteley’s mother thinks it might be because of who he was. The mistakes he made. The crimes he committed.

Kimberly Spruill remembers her son as a jokester, often laughing and poking fun at his family and friends.

“Me and Christopher, we were tight,” said Spruill, who lives in rural Limestone County. “He loved to make me turn red. He loved to embarrass me, because me and him, like I said, we joked a lot.”

Court records show Whiteley’s teenage years were marked by criminal behavior and drug use. He was accused of sexual crimes against two toddlers, court records show, but he later denied the charges. Those records show he was incarcerated for those and other crimes as a minor.

He and his longtime girlfriend, Samantha Messina, who goes by the name Tylor, had a daughter in the summer of 2012, when Whiteley was 19. In November 2013, Messina delivered their second child, a boy, who tested positive for marijuana at birth, court records show.

Starting in 2013, CPS was called to their home multiple times after allegations about the couple’s drug use and abuse in the relationship. Family members told CPS in 2014 that Whiteley had beaten Messina with a pipe. They said that Whiteley might have had ties to the Aryan Brotherhood or Aryan Nations.

Messina and Whiteley denied the allegations.

The couple refused to seek treatment for their drug use. Their two children were removed by a court order, and Messina has terminated her parental rights.

In June 2015, Whiteley was arrested for attacking Messina with a shank fashioned from a tree trimmer. She told police about other times when he tied her up and left her without food or water. She said she’d been poked with knives and whipped with electrical cords.

Whiteley pleaded guilty to second-degree felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon involving family violence and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Spruill said that Whiteley got clean in prison. He was released in June 2020 and told his mother he had landed a job in the oil fields of West Texas.

“He did get in some trouble. Yes, he did ... but he got himself straight,” Spruill said. “That boy was happy. He was proud of himself to be making that kind of money.”

Within a few months of getting out of prison, Whiteley was back with Messina. They lived in a house on several acres about a mile and a half outside Lipan. Later, Messina told Spruill that she and Whiteley started using meth again soon after he arrived.

The News contacted Messina multiple times over several months, but she declined to answer questions about the night Whiteley disappeared.

“When he left, a whole part of me left too,” Messina texted a reporter in April. “Is anyone really okay after they lose the love of (their) life, the father of my children and my high school sweetheart”

Zeroing in on a feline attack

On Dec. 2, Spruill had trouble getting in touch with her son. She called him twice, but there was no answer, no reply. She tried calling some of his friends. She messaged Messina on Facebook, asking if her son was with her.

“Ya were nappin’,” Messina wrote.

One of the friends whom Spruill called dialed 911 the next afternoon, saying Whiteley’s disappearance “sounded suspicious.”

Two Hood County sheriff’s deputies came to Messina’s door. She told them she had been sleeping in the previous morning and didn’t realize Whiteley had left.

The sheriff’s deputies searched the area and found his body a little more than 500 yards southwest of the house, across the creek bed and down a rough trail through a patch of junipers.

Whiteley sometimes cut north through the creek bed to hitchhike on the main road nearby, Spruill said. But his body was found south of the home.

He was lying on his left side under a twiggy tanglewood bush. He was shirtless, with scratches on his face, chest, back and arms. His jeans, bloody from the knees up, were torn.

Kathryn Gwinn, a Hood County justice of the peace, was on call. It would be her job to determine the cause and manner of death. She immediately knew that Whiteley’s unusual wound would need to be seen by a doctor, and ordered that his body be sent to Fort Worth.

Gwinn said she didn’t hear anyone mention an animal attack that night in the woods, but by the next morning the sheriff’s deputies had begun to focus on that theory.

“I could see a large gash-like area, which could be from wild animals chewing at his neck,” Hood County investigator Toby Fries wrote in an incident report. He also saw that the zipper on Whiteley’s jeans had been undone, and shorts he wore underneath had been pulled out, “as if a wild animal was pulling at them or dragging him.”

Bodenchuk and Evans say this is not how mountain lions attack or kill. They sneak up from behind, make one bite on the neck and break the trachea, killing the prey. The cougar would then remove and discard the stomach and digestive tract before dragging the body to a secluded spot to feed on other vital organs. None of that appeared to have happened.

Rose and Deeds later said there had been multiple mountain lion sightings in that area near Lipan. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, that’s not the case. Citizen-reported sightings like the ones the sheriff’s department relied on are often inaccurate, the agency said.

Stephanie Higgins of Rowlett recently posted on her Facebook page a trail camera video of a mountain lion walking down a dirt road at night. The spooky image showed a big cat with a long tail that touched the ground, a feature that distinguishes it from a bobcat for which the mountain lion is commonly mistaken. The Texas Parks and Wildlife says it’s the first confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in Dallas County in its records.

During the autopsy at the Tarrant County office the next day, Whiteley’s vital organs appeared normal. His trachea did not appear broken, but his larynx was removed for further testing. A toxicology report later showed he had methamphetamines, amphetamines and THC in his system when he died.

Susan Roe, the deputy medical examiner, wrote in preliminary findings that the neck wound was the cause of death and that it was “consistent with that of a large cat (mountain lion).”

After the autopsy, Rose said, Whiteley’s body was washed with a bleach solution as a COVID-19 precaution. Washing bodies with water or a soap solution is common practice for forensic investigators and medical examiners. Washing them with bleach — even during the pandemic — is not, according to medical examiners The News contacted in Dallas and Collin counties.

If there had been any DNA evidence to prove anyone or any animal was near Whiteley’s body, the bleach washed it away forever.

That afternoon, after Hood County investigators had decided that a killer mountain lion was on the loose, Rose realized they’d need help to trap the animal.

So nearly 24 hours after Whiteley’s body was found, Rose called the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

‘Not much wildlife activity around here’

The next morning, two state biologists, a game warden, Bodenchuk and George Zamarron, Hood County’s lead investigator on the case, carefully inspected the area where Whiteley was found, taking photographs, video and notes.

The News tried to interview Zamarron about the case, but Rose said Hood County policy prevents him from commenting publicly. Documents The News obtained and others who were at the scene that morning described how the team looked for evidence of an animal attack.

They followed the creek bed south from the main road, toward the home where Whiteley had been staying. The light sand and few pools of water showed plenty of animal tracks — coyotes, hogs, domestic cats and dogs. But none from cougars.

Zamarron and the game warden pointed the way through the junipers and toward the spot where Whiteley’s body had been found. A thick pile of bloodstained red oak leaves and dirt marked where the attack happened. The tanglewood bush where his body was found was a few yards away.

Sam Kieschnick, one of the Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists, recorded the scene with video.

“This looks like the kill site here, or where a lot of the blood is,” Kieschnick said as he panned over the brush with his iPhone camera. “There’s not much activity around here. Not much wildlife activity around here.”

There were cowboy boot prints, like the ones Whiteley was wearing, and another set of tactical boot prints in the direction of the house. Zamarron told the others no first responders had been in that part of the woods.

Near where the body was found, there was a drag mark that Zamarron said was from officials removing the body from the brush.

But all the signs the experts look for in an animal attack simply were not there.

Bodenchuk even tried to imagine what other animals might have been responsible. A wild hog, maybe, or even — a long shot — a loose exotic pet, like a tiger. Still, there was no sign of wildlife.

As they got close to their trucks back down the creek bed, a cellphone notification came through. The sheriff’s office had just announced on Facebook that Whiteley “died from a wild animal attack, possibly a mountain lion.” The story went viral and was reported by newspapers and news sites around the world, including The News.

Gwinn, the justice of the peace, fielded calls from game wardens telling her how improbable a mountain lion attack was. She said she was surprised by how quickly the sheriff’s office published the unconfirmed theory.

“You had absolutely no, you know, no proof of that,” she remembers telling the sheriff’s office at the time. “I didn’t like the fact that that was thrown out there even, because that’s not our job. … It’s to investigate and find what the exact cause of death is. When you plant that in someone’s mind, that’s hard to erase from their mind.”

Rose said the public statement was important, just in case a wild predator was on the loose.

‘Evidence appears very shaky’

That Monday, four days after Whiteley’s body was found, Bodenchuk walked to the medical examiner’s office, mountain lion skull tucked under his arm.

Once inside he showed the small, yet powerful, jaws that clamp down on the neck of its prey. The area of Whiteley’s neck that was torn open would not have fit in a cougar’s mouth, he said.

Besides, he said, what about claw marks? Whiteley was covered in superficial scratches, but not the deep lacerations a cougar would leave.

The group agreed that Bodenchuk and Evans couldn’t claim to be experts in human pathology but that the tear in Whiteley’s neck probably was not from a mountain lion.

In a kind of compromise, they posited that a domestic dog might be to blame.

Evans still felt uncomfortable. As part of his job to confirm cougar attacks on livestock or other animals, he has to know what dog bites look like to rule them out. Whiteley’s wounds looked unlike any dog bite he’d seen.

He sat down at his computer.

“I find myself unable to shake the possibility that this was a homicide,” Evans wrote in the journal. “Perhaps it was even done intentionally to try to look like a bite wound.”

Partly out of frustration, partly to get his own emotions and blunt recollections out while they were fresh, he reconsidered all he’d seen:

“The evidence appears very shaky … I left the meeting questioning whether the people running the meeting were more concerned with finding out the true cause of death, or whether their reputation would be damaged if they retracted their original statement.”

‘Everybody wants to play CSI’

In January, Hood County sent Whiteley’s boots, pants and fingernail clippings to a U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife research lab at Bodenchuk’s suggestion.

The researchers found mold growing in the pocket, a sign that the evidence had begun to deteriorate. If the jeans had been frozen, a research scientist wrote to Zamarron in Hood County, any traces of saliva could have been preserved.

“We cannot make a conclusion about wildlife species involvement in the case,” a federal researcher wrote.

On Jan. 25, Gwinn, the justice of the peace, certified Whiteley’s death certificate. “Accident,” it reads, “attacked by an animal of some sort.”

The biologists who worked on the case still maintain there is no evidence of an attack from any wildlife species. Forensic pathologists who know what dog bites look like rule that theory out, too. The sheriff’s deputies in Hood County and Tarrant County medical examiners say a human couldn’t have killed Whiteley, either.

The case has stuck with some of the wildlife officials who were asked for their advice but say they were ignored when Hood County officials pressed on with their mountain lion theory. Some say it has kept them up at night.

“Everybody wants to play CSI,” Bodenchuk said. “I wonder what we might have done differently. … I think the fact that it’s an unknown animal still leaves some questions, you know. Was it a domestic dog? Was it a feral dog? Was it something else? Why would it be out there?

“There’s still a lot of questions that I can’t … I can’t reconcile.”

Spruill said she still has trouble sorting through what the different experts have said about her son’s death.

“You know, that’s what hurts because we really don’t know the damn truth,” she said. “It’s horrible. Whatever happened is horrible. It’s a nightmare. I can’t heal. Nobody will tell me the truth.”

It’s a horrific and tragic thought, made all the more frightening knowing that whatever did tear Whiteley’s neck open is likely still out there.

Somewhere, a killer could be on the loose.