Forensic Surveying and the Search for Jennifer and Abby Blagg

I have surveyed on top of 14,000-foot high Rocky Mountain peaks in Colorado using the peaks as giant observation towers before GPS was heard of among surveyors. My job regularly, if not daily, required a person to overcome high altitudes ranging from 10,000 feet to a dizzying 12,500 feet in some of the most rugged mountains in the continental U.S. at the world's largest underground molybdenum mine. I have surveyed underground in a 100-year-old abandoned gold and silver mine in the middle of February where the portal is at 12,000 feet and leads to mined out rooms-called stopes—a quarter of a mile underneath a 14,000 foot high mountain range in which the only access was via a 5-mile snowmobile ride through dangerous avalanche areas. I have surveyed from some of the most beautiful canyons along the Colorado Interstate 70 corridor where the winter sun would never shine and heavy highway traffic was always a hazard to the deserts of the Southwest where temperatures exceed 120ºF and fire ants, scorpions, and rattlesnakes are a constant threat. These are some of my experiences as a surveyor before GPS became the "next utility" in surveying and mapping. Some of those experiences over the last 35 years I thought to be unbeatable in terms of extreme conditions. That all changed in the spring of 2002 when I was involved in the most gruesome task I have ever been assigned to-a body search at the Mesa County Landfill near Grand Junction, Colorado.

On November 13, 2001 the Mesa County Sheriff's office responded to a burglary and missing persons call from Michael Blagg to the Blagg residence in a middle-class neighborhood. There they discovered a ransacked house, a blood soaked master bedroom, and Michael's 34-year-old wife Jennifer and six-year-old daughter Abby missing. During the next six months the Sheriff's office and hundreds of volunteers combed the 3,300 square miles of Mesa County looking for any signs of Jennifer and Abby. As the search took place, Sheriff's investigators were looking very hard at Michael Blagg as the prime suspect due to some evidence they found at the crime scene and Michael's bizarre behavior at his workplace on and immediately following November 13th. Also discovered was the fact that he was one of very few employees in his workplace who had the authority to order a waste pickup for a 40 yard compactor on demand-his employer manufactures instrument gauges for heavy equipment and trucks that produce some of the most unique waste in Mesa County.

 

Definite Vertical Boundary
After a few lengthy discussions between Landfill Management and Sheriff Investigators regarding the prospects of searching the landfill, it was concluded that due to excellent record-keeping, annual aerial mapping of the landfill, and a GPS Continuous Operating Reference Station (CORS) on site, it was feasible to determine an accurate area where waste had been placed during the specific time period between November 13th and December 1st. At Mesa County's only landfill, surveying and mapping is entirely managed internally by using Real Time Kinematic (RTK) GPS and the on site CORS station called MC03 which can be accessed on the Internet at www.co. mesa.co.us/GPS_SURVEY. The Annual mapping project was completed just a couple of months earlier which provided an accurate (±1') Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the Interim cap or the bottom of the waste cell that had been placed during the specified time period. The DTM provided us with a definite vertical boundary that proved to be from zero to 18 feet in depth. The log of the landfill compactor revealed a 150' x 100' area containing approximately 10 million pounds of trash.

Search Operation
The search for Jennifer and Abby's bodies in the landfill began on Monday, May 13, 2002 and started with a search team meeting. Among the issues discussed at this meeting were the Sheriff's office chain of command, safety issues, search operations, health/environment, and general information on the case. Safety was a big concern due to the nature of the dig area where landfill gas and infectious/hazardous materials may be encountered as well as the fact that the majority of the search team had no prior experience around heavy equipment and open pit excavations. The heavy equipment used in the search area was a 70k lb. excavator, a loader, and a D5 dozer. The core search team consisted of a total of 14 investigators (including the Sheriff himself), where six of the total was the norm per daily shift, with a few of them being there almost every day, two heavy equipment operators, and a surveyor. The surveyor was to be on site at all times to document the excavation using RTK GPS. My primary tasks included locating items of interest, monitoring excavation depth using the interim cap DTM from aerial mapping, keeping track of excavated newspaper date ranges, and preparing daily volumetric reports. On the first day the projected search area was "pot holed" with the excavator to further refine the area to be excavated. After finding newspapers with dates that coincided with the targeted date range the search area was reduced from the original estimate of 6,700 to 6,600 cubic yards or 4,950 tons of trash.

The daily search operation consisted of 15 to 35 "search cycles" where a typical cycle consisted of placing 3 to 5 tons of excavated trash on an earthen deck near the site, spreading the trash into a thin layer no more than a foot thick, and manually sifting through it with rakes. The stench was unimaginable emanating from 6-month-old rotting household trash, industrial and hospital waste, sewage sludge, and the worst being rotting flesh from the big game hunting seasons that were in full swing during the months of October and November. A lunch/rest period was scheduled for 12:00 p.m. and invariably the excavator would uncover something within minutes of the scheduled break that was so appalling to one's nose and eyes it was almost impossible even to think of eating anything. The weather during the search was like the breath of the devil with high temperatures and winds that plagued the search efforts almost daily. Temperatures soared into triple figures and the wind made shreds out of a command tent set-up for shade and lunch. It seemed like evil was in our midst hampering every effort to solve this grotesque mystery. Every day there was something excavated that had us either chuckling or wondering how any human being could have possessed the item. We uncovered personal items that someone thought would never be seen again and some were too disgusting and vulgar to mention. An average of 93 tons was sifted through each day, although there were days when only 50 tons of trash was processed mainly due to weather. There were days when I was jokingly accused by investigators of "huffing the landfill methane" when I would report on the previous day's progress.

A Gruesome Finding
Tuesday, June 4th started out just like all the other days of the search-hot, dusty, and disgusting. To add to my misery, one of the heavy equipment operators was not available and I was coerced into re-depositing the searched trash with a D5 bulldozer. What a mistake that was! Within an hour I managed to transform the windshield into a spider's web, having shattered it with my hard hat while negotiating a grade break at a higher speed than necessary. Hence, my new career as a dozer operator was short-lived and a much more horrific turn of events was to follow.

It was mid-morning when suddenly the excavator operator hoisted a bucket of trash out of the excavation and there it was hanging out of the bucket: a human leg. The look on the investigators' faces was indescribable. For a moment the feelings I witnessed and felt were a sense of accomplishment for it had been 16 long days and 2,066 tons of trash since we committed to this grueling task. Seconds later the whole atmosphere turned to feelings of sorrow, disgust, and the burning drive to find the perpetrator. The search area now had become a crime scene and for the next four days I saw how law enforcement really works.

By the next morning the news that we had found human remains in the landfill was at the national level, and there was a barrage of news media with big white satellite dishes waiting at the gate for tidbits of new information about the search. The FBI evidence response team and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) crime scene team were called in to help with the evidence recovery. The Mesa County Coroner was on scene as well as the District Attorney's office. By now it was discovered there was more than a human leg in the excavator's bucket. The partially mummified body and a severed leg of Jennifer Blagg had been buried under 8 1/2 feet of garbage for seven months. Soon after this discovery, the Coroner determined that Jennifer had been shot in the head while sleeping. Several days later Michael Blagg was arrested in Georgia where he had moved from Grand Junction to live with his mother only days before the landfill search had started back in May. He was extradited to Mesa County and put in jail on a one million dollar bond, but he eventually posted bail and is awaiting trial for murder which is scheduled to begin March 1, 2004.

Abby was never found, although we continued the landfill search another 35 days. There is a big debate as to the whereabouts of Abby, but the consensus among the search team is that she is still in the landfill somewhere. In the end we had searched through 4,624 tons of trash for a total of 51 days. The memories of those 51 days will stay with me for the rest of my life and it has changed the way I view everyday life. GPS made this job unquestionably easier to manage and certainly accurate enough to stand the test in a court of law. In today's high tech world there are many different types of surveying including land, geodetic, large-scale mapping and GIS, civil engineering, heavy highway/airport construction, mine/open pit, hydrographic, etc., and now there is a new facet of surveying in Mesa County—it's called Forensic Surveying.


FRANK KOCHEVAR
is a Professional Staff Surveyor for Mesa County Public Works in Grand Junction, Colorado.

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