I used to associate decomposing human remains strapped to metal racks with medieval European torture devices. I guess I underestimated the creative and innovative ways in which modern murderers torture and/or dispose of their victim’s bodies. That changed when I read an extract from Justine Ford’s book Unsolved Australia about Rack Man. “Rack Man” is the nickname given to a John Doe whose body was found strapped to a makeshift metal cross when it was pulled from an Australian river about 20 years ago.
A fisherman, trawling the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, got more than he expected when he pulled in his heavy nets the morning of August 11, 1994. Rather than a large load of fish or junk from the riverbed, the fisherman had hauled in a decomposing body wrapped in plastic bags and tied to rusted metal bars welded into the shape of a crucifix.
The fisherman called the local police, who had the body examined by members of their “Physical Evidence Section.” Once they confirmed that the corpse was indeed human, they sent the body and rack to the New South Wales Institute of Forensic Science where it was examined by pathologist Dr. Christopher Lawrence. When Lawrence removed the sheets of black plastic he found that there were clothes, hair, soft tissue, and adipocere attached to the remains. He also noticed that the murderer(s) had used wire and orange rope to bind the body to the metal frame.
The examination of the corpse, including the hair, revealed that the remains belonged to a dark-haired, Caucasian male, possibly of Mediterranean or Central European descent. Lawrence found that Rack Man was between 21 and 46 years old, and likely stood between 5’2” (160cm) and 5’4” (166cm) tall. Lawrence said that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head, but it was not clear if the John Doe had been tied to the metal frame before or after he was killed.
Forensic odontologist Dr. Chris Griffiths at the University of Sydney analyzed the skull and teeth and found that John Doe’s face may have been somewhat “misshapen” and his first lower right molar had been removed when he was younger.
When Emeritus Professor Donald Anderson, of the School of Biological Sciences, also at the University of Sydney, analyzed the growth of the barnacles on the metal frame, he said the rack was likely submerged for less than a year, but would not “rule out” that it could have been longer.
Because decomposition and water erosion caused the victim’s fingerprints to deteriorate and DNA samples to be “poor quality,” checking fingerprint and DNA databases for possible matches was unproductive. So investigators looked into the clothes the John Doe was wearing: an ‘Everything Australian’ polo shirt in a size medium, and ‘No Sweat’ brand sweat pants. But this was also unsuccessful because these items where sold throughout Australia.
Forensic anatomist Meiya Sutisno reconstructed Rack Man’s face from the skull. Then Detective Senior Constable Phil Redman from the Physical Evidence Section created some computer-enhanced images and added a few different hairstyles to the artwork to help with identification. The pictures were published in newspapers and broadcast on Australia’s Most Wanted. This lead to a variety of new leads. Some of the most promising tips were those that suggested that the John Doe might be Joe Biviano or Peter Mitris.
In 1993, a convicted drug dealer named Joe Biviano went missing from a suburb near Sydney. Biviano’s description seemed to fit Rack Man’s profile. Biviano was born in 1963 (about 30 years old at the time of his disappearance), he was about 5’4” (165 cm) tall, and had dark hair. Also Biviano’s facial features were similar to the characteristics seen in the reconstruction. But there was no way to make a positive identification because Biviano had no dental records on file and the DNA sample from one of Biviano’s relatives did not match the sample taken from Rack Man’s remains.
Peter Mitris, a Greek businessman who disappeared from King’s Cross in 1991, reportedly died in an eerily similar fashion to Rack Man. Police received information that Mitris “had been bashed to death and his body dumped in the ocean off Sydney.” However, Mitris was much taller than John Doe at around 5’10” (182 cm) and Mitris’s sister said that his teeth looking nothing like John Doe’s.
Unfortunately, the tips that the police received from publishing the facial reconstruction led nowhere. (More leads at the News.com.au article.)
Twenty years later, the case is now in the hands of Detective Chief Inspector John Lehmann from the New South Wales Unsolved Homicide Team. Lehmann hopes that the unique metal rack will help heat up this cold case.
The steel crucifix was constructed using a piece of flat metal that was about 5’10” (1.82m) long with two cylindrical bars welded to it. The bars were reinforced with rods that were bent into a L shape over the corpse. Investigators believe that the person who constructed the rack had access to these materials and the experience to build the crucifix. This would mean that he or she might either be a welder or a metal worker.
Some questions that I have about this case: Because of the size and weight of the rack, was there more than one person involved in the disposal? Because of the weight of the metal rack and the work needed to carry the body to river, was John Doe murdered close to the water? Did the murderer or accessories to this crime have access to a boat in order to transport the rack to the dump spot in the river?
According to Ford’s excerpt, the remains are still at the morgue in Sydney awaiting an identity and hopefully a family to bury him.
Police are offering a “$100000 reward for information leading to the identification of Rack Man and the arrest and conviction of those responsible for his murder.”
Categories: Forensic Science