In the middle-class suburbs of the city of Wood River, Illinois in the 1970s, life was pretty good for most people. In general, the ‘burbs in nicer areas were safe, clean, decent with good neighbours who watched out for each other. They collected each other’s mail when one or the other went on vacation. There were Neighbourhood Watch signs posted at street corners. There was Child Watch, a system that offered emergency shelter to children who were being bullied by other kids or followed by an adult. It was a time when people worked at the same company for 30 years until they retired with the obligatory gold watch. The stats actually stated that most families boasted 2.2 kids and an income of about $36,000.00 per household. Life was good. Ordinary and predictable, but good. As best as I can I have gathered what various authors and bloggers claim to be true details about the case. Here they are:
Brown was a pretty, blonde girl who moved into the middle-class suburb of Wood River. On June 20, 1978, she and her fiancée, Mark Fair moved into their new home on Acton Drive together, not something a couple did every day in 1978. However Brown and Fair were planning a wedding. Buying the house cemented their commitment to one another. For a while Brown suspected Fair was still using his “little black book” but over time she was convinced he had completely dedicated himself to her. Brown herself had experienced many failed relationships but Fair was forever. And so they bought a house at 979 Acton, and agreed to be wed to one another.
So attractive was Brown, that the previous summer the local press had taken a photograph of her in her string bikini and straw hat as she walked along a beach. She was petite, about 4 feet 11 inches tall, weighing 100 pounds, with golden-blonde hair, and a curvy, slim figure. When the newspaper photograph was published, Brown’s parents had to change their phone number due to all the calls they were getting from young men interested in meeting their daughter. Brown was also a former cheerleader, having headed the cheer leading team at her high school. She was pretty, popular and everything the average American girl could want to be. When Brown and her fiance moved onto the street, the men took notice of the petite, gorgeous blonde woman. One of their neighbours was Paul Main. A friend of his, John Prante, was over visiting when the couple moved in. They kidded each other that Fair was a “lucky bastard” to have a woman like Brown. Fair also had a good job. Brown and Fair were on a significantly different social status than Prante. Main and Brown entertained themselves with small dinner parties and invited their equally successful friends over. Prante got high and drunk. Brown’s closest girlfriends were also beautiful blondes and they had handsome, relatively successful boyfriends. Most of this crowd were college graduates. Brown and Fair seemed to have a perfect Ken and Barbie life.
Prante’s interest in Brown was immediate. The day after Brown and Fair moved in, Prante soon learned that Brown was having a house-warming party. He approached her and asked to join the festivities. Brown must have laughed in his face (I would have). Brown of course told him “no” very firmly. Prante was a loser. There was no possibility he would ever mingle with Brown’s crowd. He didn’t have the social skills or the income to mix with her friends. They were entrenched in two very different social spheres and that would never change. Brown was astonished this total stranger would even ask. Angry about her reaction, Durante provoked a fight with Brown, threatening her if she didn’t allow him to attend the party. Naturally, this confirmed for Brown that Prante was an oddball. From her driveway, she ordered him to leave then she turned away from Prante.
It was 10:45 a.m. on June 21, 1978 when 6-year-old Eric Moses, would one day testify in court that he and his grandmother had driven by the house at 979 Acton on June 21, 1978, while his grandmother, Edna Moses, was taking him to a dental appointment in the area. He’d forgotten to tell her where the dentist’s office was and in turning around Eric and his grandmother saw a blonde woman and a man talking in the driveway of 979 Acton. Moses would testify that as his grandmother was turning around, the woman started to walk toward the house. Later that day, John Prante joined Main and the two got drunk and high. Prante told Main that he had put in a few applications looking for work that morning and that he had talked to Brown over at her house. It was typical of Prante to be unemployed. Prante just couldn’t seem to hold down the same job for long. Usually he was fired for tardiness, absence, a poor attitude or simply not doing the work. After a while, a delivery man showed up on the doorstep, and rang the bell and knocked. Prante muttered under his breath, “I don’t know why he keeps knocking. She ain’t gonna answer.”
At approximately 5:45 p.m., Fair returned home from work with a friend Thomas Feigenbaum, who had helped him move into his new house. He noticed the front door was open and became annoyed. “I keep telling Karla to shut the door,” he muttered. He and Feigenbaum went inside to get a beer and sit outside in the beautiful sunshine. Fair called out to Brown who didn’t answer. After searching the bedrooms, a confused Fair went downstairs. There he was greeted by a sight he would never forget. Near a corner in the basement lay the half-nude body of Karla Brown, her head and shoulders immersed in a large barrel of water. Brown’s hands were tied behind her back with a white extension cord. With a yell, Fair ran to Brown, pulling her out of the water. He yelled to Feigenbaum to call police and an ambulance. When ambulance attendants made their way to the basement, they found Fair holding his fiance’s body to his chest and sobbing with grief. Attendants took Brown from Fair and continued CPR but ceased after several minutes. It was obvious that Brown was dead.A number of police cruisers lined the street outside Brown and Fair’s house. A coroner’s truck was dispatched to remove Brown’s body to the city morgue. It was covered with a blanket to hide the body from the eyes of curious neighbours who lined up on the sidewalk across the street. Brown’s body was a horrid mess. The attack had been prolonged and utterly savage, the work of an extremely vengeful killer. Brown was the victim of an overkill, where the killer attacks well beyond the actions that would quickly and simply end a person’s life. This killer was determined to make Brown suffer.
The coroner’s report later revealed that Brown had been beaten about the head, strangled and stabbed. Brown had also suffered dry drowning. There are many different types of dry drowning, some of which have nothing to do with water. In Brown’s case the phenomenon occurred when she was already unconscious but submerged in water. Water leaked into her lungs, but it wasn’t aspirated with the same frantic gasping as a conscious drowning victim. For that reason , only a small amount of water entered the lungs which remained mostly “dry.” Hence the term dry drowning. The cord that had been knotted around Brown’s neck had cut already off most of her air supply before her head was submerged in the barrel. Brown was covered in dark, ugly bruises. For some reason, Brown was wearing a heavy sweater that was buttoned and that she usually wore only for social occasions in cold weather Two men’s socks, tied together, were tied tightly around her neck. She had a large gash on her forehead, a cut on her nose, and a large gash on her chin. The area where the socks had been tied around her neck was bruised.
The crime scene itself was a hazard. The socks had been kept in a dresser drawer in a bedroom upstairs, the extension cord that had been used to tie her hands together had been packed in a box in the basement, and the clothes in the lard can had been dumped on the basement floor. A couch in the basement was blood soaked, and blood was splattered on the basement floor. A bloodied cushion was heavily saturated with water. On a coffee table near the couch was a blood-stained tampon. The killer had either allowed or ordered Brown to remove it before the assault. At one end of the couch a stand of TV trays was overturned. A coffee pot from the couple’s coffee maker was found in the rafters of the laundry room. The entrance at the rear of the house led directly to the basement. With the exception of the TV tray nothing was overturned. Police noticed that the killer had left a bloody hand print on the doorknob as he left. That meant he hadn’t taken the time to wash himself off, for two reasons:
(1) he didn’t want to be in the house should Fair return home early
(2) he lived close by and had no concerns about being seen
When Fair notified Brown’s family about the murder, they were shocked and horrified. Word got around town and reached Brown’s friends. The following day the local press made Brown’s murder the front page headline. Local news broadcasts asked for people to call in with any possible information, no matter how trivial it seemed. Sometimes it is the most unlikely clue that can lead to an arrest. Brown’s funeral took place three days after the murder. Rather than preparing for her wedding, Brown’s family now had to prepare for her funeral. Her mother chose her favourite dress to bury her daughter. The funeral director’s make-up expert was careful to disguise Brown’s bruises as best as he could. Although the deceased Brown was still lovely, the Brown’s requested a closed casket for their daughter’s funeral. They didn’t want Brown exposed for people to satisfy their morbid curiosity.
Police began investigating all of the men who lived on the street and were home at the time of the murder. All of the men except for one had airtight alibis (most of them being at work). John Prante wasn’t currently employed and he had no alibi as to where he was on the day Brown was killed. Police Prante was quite happy to take a lie detector test, and to the police’s disappointment and surprise, he passed. Cleared of any suspicion, the police no longer pursued Prante but the latter instigated his own involvement in the case. A few days after the murder, he contacted police to ask if the killer had been found yet, and if there was anything he could do to help. Although he was assured there was no need for his help, Prante kept contacting police and asking how close they were to finding Brown’s killer. Naturally his unusual interest didn’t go unnoticed by police who began to take a closer look at this concerned citizen.
Prante had been an outcast all his life. He had a very few friends but he hadn’t seen his family for years. Most people weren’t particularly fond of Prante. But no one actually hated Prante either. Vickie White was an acquaintance of Prante’s for about eight years. She and her husband Mark, probably saw him three or four times a year. Three days after Brown’s murder she and Mark were visiting with their friends Spencer and Roxanne Bond in the kitchen of their house in East Alton. Prante appeared out of nowhere and entered the kitchen. One day White would testify in court that he wanted to talk all about Brown, saying that he had known her, which was ridiculous considering Brown and Fair had only moved onto the street the day before. Prante told everyone present in the kitchen, that Brown had been murdered and that her body was down in her basement, and she was in a curled up position. Prante also said that “she had teeth marks on her body.” As he talked, Vickie stated, “[h]e put his arm over his shoulder“, demonstrating where the bite mark was in Brown’s shoulder. Incredibly, Prante told everyone present that he had been at Brown’s house the day Brown was murdered. He stupidly confessed he had to “get his story straight with Paul Main” about his whereabouts when Brown was murdered because he was “in trouble and had to get out of the state.”
White would later tell the court and police that newspaper articles about Brown’s exhumation brought Prante’s weird conversation into her head. She stated she hadn’t read about Brown’s murder. The only articles she’d read were those concerning the exhumation. Strangely in 1978, White was unaware of the importance of Prante’s statements with respect to the investigation. How it was that a person could hear such dreadful details about a murder and not believe the information given by someone like Prante might be important to police is beyond my comprehension. Anyhoo. Weeks after Prante’s weird admission about his knowledge of Brown’s murder, he felt a noose tightening around his neck with the police’s interrogation. “I never even knew the girl,” and, “I didn’t even know what her name was until I saw it in the paper.” Bond replied, “You told me, you were the last one to see her alive or something.” Prante argued, “Me and Paul, we saw her putterin’ around outside and everything.” When Bond mentioned that “[t]here was something about a bucket of water was in there …. a bucket or a pail or something, don’t remember nothing about that, huh?” Prante insisted,”Didn’t pay any attention to that even, not even when it happened, none of my business.”
In 1981, Susan Lutz became Prante’s girlfriend for a while. For whatever reason in his twisted head, one night when Prante and Lutz were in bed “[h]e kind of whispered in my ear that he had killed a woman.” Stunned, Lutz later asked Prante, “Did you really kill somebody[?]” to which he responded, “I can’t really talk about it because I’ll lose my freedom.” Lutz sked why he had killed the woman; Prante simply stated she made him “mad...there was a couple times he bit me on the neck, and it made me mad.” Prante hadn’t been able to resist biting Lutz in the same place he’d bitten Brown, on her right shoulder.
Vickie White had known the defendant for about eight years. She said that not more than three days after the murder of Karla Brown had occurred she and her husband, Mark, were visiting during the weekend with Spencer and Roxanne Bond in the kitchen of their house in East Alton when the defendant came in and began to talk about Karla Brown, saying that he had known her when he had gone to “SIU.” The witness testified that “Prante had stated that she was murdered and that her body was down in her basement, and she was in a curled up position, and she had teeth marks on her body.” When he made the remark about the teeth marks, she said, “[h]e put his arm over his shoulder.” She stated further that Prante had “said that he had been there that day the same day she was murdered. Prante said that she [sic] was there the same day that she was murdered, and he talked about, you know, her body being in the basement and she was in a curled up position. She had teeth marks on her body, and that’s when he pointed over his shoulder. And he he had made the statement that he had to get his story straight and he had to get out of town because the police were looking for him.”
FBI Agent Douglas
Meanwhile, so determined Weber was to solve the case, he turned to an FBI profiler to get a general sense of the person he was tracking. Weber et al weren’t sure what to make of this newly emerging soft science in criminology. It all seemed rather hocus-pocus to them but they were backed against a wall and looking for any way to zero in on the killer. Agent Douglas attended the White River police department, and Weber sat in an office while Douglas examined the crime scene photographs in Brown’s file. He stated firmly that he could offer a profile but that didn’t mean he would be able to identify the killer, nor would Weber do so simply on the basis of a profile. Instead he would be able to offer basic characteristics about the killer that might help narrow down the suspect they sought. After several minutes of studying the pictures, he looked at Weber, smiled and said simply, “are you ready?” Weber turned on the tape recorder. The following is not a quote, rather it is a paraphrase of the general information:
The killer is a white male living in the vicinity, or he was at the time of the murder. The killer is in his late 20s to early 30s. He is a semi-skilled tradesman and has difficulty holding down a job. He is an outcast with few friends. Most people dislike him as soon as they meet him. His own family doesn’t communicate with him. He has never been married or lived with a woman, and he has no children. He is highly disorganized and may have planned on killing the victim but he didn’t think far ahead. The lack of organization in the kill is evident the turned over TV tray, the manner in which Brown was killed, and the coffee
pot stuck up in the rafters. The pot was used to fill a large lard can where the victim’s head was initially submerged. The coffee pot held the water and he used it to pour into the can. Having no idea what to do with it, the killer shoved it up into the rafters before he left. The overkill suggests that he lost control and went into a frenzy. The killer didn’t return the TV tray to its original position, indicating he forgot about it. The mens’ socks and extension cord used in the attack also indicate he may not have planned on killing Brown. He found the socks in a nearby hamper and the extension cord elsewhere in the basement. He must have brought the knife with him because it is unlikely he went upstairs to the kitchen to retrieve one, then returned to the basement.
Bringing the knife to the scene was further evidence that Prante probably intended to murder Brown. Initially he made a sexual pass at her, which she rejected. This caused him to go into a rage. Brown struggled with him when he began raping her, resulting in her fatal stabbing. He didn’t wash the blood-stained doorknob because he didn’t know he’d left it behind. He didn’t wash his hands before he left because he lived very close to the victim and because he was afraid of getting caught in case Fair returned home suddenly. He wanted to leave the residence as quickly as possible. The killer had possibly interjected himself into the police investigation, partly because of the thrill he got in eluding police and partly because he wanted to know if they had begun to suspect him. He may have taken a polygraph. If he was satisfied with the kill and felt no remorse, he would have passed it. Although the killer lived locally at the time of the murder, he moved away soon after he was interrogated.
Weber was stunned after hearing the profile. He hadn’t known so much information was in the photographs. He’d tried to brief Douglas on key details before the reading, but the Agent had shaken his head and politely insisted he would rather hear the observations after the profiling. He didn’t want the Weber’s perspectives to interfere with his observations. Weber asked Douglas how he could possibly catch the killer. Douglas had two very creepy answers:
(1) have a woman call him up from time to time, crying into the telephone and asking why he’d murdered her;
(2) visit Brown’s grave on occasion to see if he returned there, perhaps wiring the grave with a recording device. Many killers return to the victim’s grave out of a sense of remorse, or simply to re-live the murder for their own twisted stimulation, and particularly on the anniversary of the kill.
Neither of these recommendations assisted Weber to locate Prante but he put them into action nonetheless. By now the homicide department had all but given up on finding Brown’s killer but Weber refused to let it drop. Another year went by. Weber still refused to give up on finding Brown’s killer. The memory of this young woman’s battered body and the position it was in when it was found sickened him. In his mind, he felt the killer taunting him. Finally he met Dr. Homer Campbell, an expert on the computer enhancement of photographs. Campbell looked at the pictures of Brown’s body and pointed out that some of the bruises were actually bite marks. Campbell said that they were good enough impressions to match to a suspect. The photos weren’t clear enough, so coroner Dr. Levine suggested they exhume the body and get another look.
Four years after the murder, the body of Karla Brown was exhumed. Present at the exhumation was the funeral director who had assisted the Browns in choosing Karla’s casket. The lid was opened with a loud hissing sound as air escaped the pressurized coffin. Ironically, a large amount of water had flooded the top lid. The director assured them this was normal and that the seal below the lid was water-tight. This seal was opened with another loud hiss as air escaped Brown’s final resting place. True to form, the coffin had help up and it was completely dry inside. She was remarkably well-preserved and almost appeared to be sleeping. The investigators hit pay-dirt (pun) and found their bite-mark evidence. “Even after all that time,” Douglas said, “the skin was still intact and we were able to get a bite mark impression off the victim’s neck….The damage done by biting is often missed by medical examiners. To them it looks like bruising and they don’t really take a closer look at it. The more experienced pathologists or forensic odontologists tend to spot it and get some photographic enhancement. Biting is often part of a violent sexual assault, whether it’s rape or murder. It gets back to the issue of control and dominance. I’ve interviewed a few offenders about this, but you don’t expect them to tell you things like, ‘It was the ultimate control.’ You have to interpret it from what they say. It’s about anger, aggression, and power. To them, it’s total domination. They’re consuming that person in every possible way. Their teeth are tools. They’re destroying with every weapon they’ve got.”
The doctor performing the autopsy confirmed the wounds were bite marks, not bruises. The marks were inflicted at the time of death, because the wounds “showed fresh hemorrhage in the subcutaneous tissue with no inflammation.” It came out that shortly after the murder Prante had been talking about the fact that Brown was bitten on the right shoulder. Even the police had not known this, so he quickly came under suspicion. He was forced by a warrant to give a dental impression. His impression was submitted with that of two others, along with the new set of photos of the bite mark, to Dr. Levine. Prante’s teeth matched perfectly. Later, Weber interviewed Prante about the rape-murder. Although he refused to admit to the crime, when Weber asked him where the bite mark was located, Prante slowly took his hand and reached up to touch the right side of his neck. It was a chilling motion that made Weber’s skin crawl.
Bite Mark Analysis
A bite mark is used in analysis in this manner: The study of odontology is that of a forensic dentist. This doesn’t merely apply to bitemarks on a human being. It also refers to matching dental records to unidentified victims. “Bitemarks h
ave become a major contribution in forensic dentisty, of fighting crime.” Ted Bundy is a well-known example of a killer who left bite mark evidence on his victims. The bite marks were “a major part in his conviction.” The odontologist first extracts DNA from the bite mark. When a person bites a victim, s/he always leaves a sample of saliva behind. This saliva is used to extract DNA. The DNA includes “white blood cells, sloughed cells from the inner lining of the [mouth].” Comparing dental records to a bite mark is another way that odontology can identify a killer, or the victim or a natural disaster, or other type of death. Dental records are always unique, as unique as a fingerprint. Hence it is referred to as a “dental fingerprint.” No two people ever have the same bite mark or dental identification. Some people have capped teeth, others have gaps between their teeth. Still others have dental plates or fillings. Fillings are made by hand, as are plates. Holes drilled into teeth are also individual. People who grind their teeth can show an imprint that is much more uneven than people who don’t. People with varying levels of physical health, for example a person who has suffered from malnourishment, show this effect in their teeth. A child’s bite mark or dental record is much smaller than an adult’s.
However, before you become too impressed, this isn’t to state that bite mark analysis is flawless. Bite-mark analysis is an inexact tool. The American Board of Forensic Odontology found a 63 percent rate of false identifications. Some of these were used in criminal trials and innocent people were sent to prison. They weren’t released from prison until DNA proved the inconsistency of the bite mark testimony and the saliva left by the actual killer.
Defense lawyers take steps to counter what they call the “C.S.I. effect,” when juries become too impressed by forensic evidence. Lawyers often ask potential jurors about their television-watching to weed out bozos who can’t separate fact from fiction. I blogged about the C.S.I. effect and mentioned that so many people believe in fictitious police and laboratory procedures, that they actually think fingerprints and other forensic evidence is returned to police within a few hours or days, when in reality this takes weeks. Some people believe that police stations have their own laboratories to analyze crime evidence when in reality, such an expense is well beyond the means of police operations. DNA testing however is very expensive and costs taxpayers a great deal of money. DNA testing is used only when absolutely necessary. Most cases are still solved with witness statements and sometimes circumstantial evidence. Sometimes DNA evidence is not enough for a certain conviction. Once I took a police forensics course out of interest. The investigator who taught it told us that in a single room in a house, perhaps 1 or 2 usable fingerprints from the people who live there might be collected to bring to trial. Following the forced bite sample from Prante, the odontologist identified him as Brown’s killer and Prante was arrested for the murder of Karla Brown.
Fifty state witnesses were brought forward who testified to Prante’s behaviour and conversations after Brown’s murder. Among them were the Moses’, Vickie White and Spencer Bond. White and Bond testified to his odd information the day after the murder and the intimate details he seemed to know about the crime scene. Bond also mentioned that soon after Prante had been interviewed by police he denied saying anything about the crime to the Bonds and the Whites. Fair was also a witness. He now lived with a woman and they were engaged to be married. She accompanied him to the trial. When asked to describe what he found in the basement the day Brown was murdered, he reacted as if the murder had occurred that day: Fair broke down on the stand and sobbed uncontrollably. Brown’s family attended the trial. her mother, Jo Ellen Vanglide Brown and elder sister Connie Brown, were tormented by the details of their loved one’s murder. When the evidence regarding Brown’s tampon was mentioned, Connie wept. Had Karla really had to suffer that humiliation too?
Following a three-week jury trial in June and July of 1983, Prante, was found guilty of the murder of Karla Brown and sentenced to the Department of Corrections for a term of 75 years.After the trial ended with Prante’s conviction the family, without Jo Ellen, went to celebrate the triumph at their home. Jo Ellen preferred to return to her own home alone, recovering from the trauma of hearing and seeing the sickening evidence of her daughter’s murder. It was both a trauma and a loss for her. Although Karla’s killer was convicted, she was lost to her mother forever.
Naturally, Prante appealed his conviction, presenting a number of issues for review:(1) whether the evidence was insufficient to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt “that the prosecution failed to prove criminal agency on thepart of the defendant which contributed to the death of the deceased”
(2) whether “[t]he prosecution properly introduced to the jury the defendant’s prior extra-judicial statements as substantive evidence rather than for the limited purpose of impeaching testimony of witnesses.
(3) whether “[t]he prosecutor’s conduct during the course of the trial compounded the aforementioned error”
(4) whether expert testimony concerning bite marks should not have been permitted “because of its exclusionary nature and its improper conclusiveness of the guilt of the defendant”
(5) whether the defendant’s motion for a change of venue should have been allowed “as a result of the use of the press as an investigative tool by the prosecutor.”
Brown’s murder is a landmark case since it used bite-mark analysis as a DNA sample that convicted the killer. It also involved an exhumation, something that is atypical of most murder trials.
Jeffrey Dahmer, the murderer turned cannibal gave Stone Phillips an interview about his interest in cadavers. Dahmer suggested when he was consuming a human being, this became the ultimate ownership of his victim, that this person became his forever. About his dissection of people he admitted, “It became a compulsion…it became exciting to see…I was looking for some way to find some pleasure.” This is far removed from biting in the sense that consumption of a person is beyond desecration or ingestion. However I should imagine that biting isn’t too far removed on the continuum from that sick fantasy in terms of ownership and power.
Another profiler, M. Godwin, studied serial killers who bite their victims. These killers are “object-affective,” in that they fail to see their victims as human. The victim is an object and the killer murders the victim slowly and sadistically. Douglas states that it does not really matter whether a bite mark is on the face, stomach, breast, or buttocks: It all amounts to the same thing. “[Brown’s] bite was on the neck. Bundy bit the breast and buttock. Francine Elveson was on the thigh. This isn’t about cannibalism, which takes it much further. It’s about bringing the victim completely under their power.”
Whatever the reason killers bite their victims, they are truly cowards. They usually overcome people who are weaker than them. They often use weapons. It is never a “fair fight.” That would require a killer with confidence and a perspective about the lack of balance of power between himself and the victim. So far as I can tell, such an enigma doesn’t exist.