Undetermined Causes: Metta Holman tries to find answers to her sister’s death
Photo courtesy of Metta Holman | Originally appeared in AY‘s August 2007 issue
[dropcap]Approximately[/dropcap] 16,000 people are murdered in the United States every year.
About 37 percent of those cases go unresolved, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The statistics, however, do not record the number of people affected by murder. These are the friends, family members, and colleagues of the deceased.
One organization that provides support and assistance to survivors of homicide victims is Parents of Murdered Children (POMC). The name is somewhat of a misnomer because POMC ministers to survivors of all kinds of homicides, not just those of children. The staff of POMC links survivor with others in the same vicinity who have experienced a similar loss.
Metta Holman found POMC after her sister died under mysterious circumstances. Her sister, 49-year-old Karen Bean, was found dead in her home on the morning of Jan. 8, 2002. Initially, the death was considered a homicide, but when the final autopsy report was issued, the cause and manner of death were changed to “undetermined.” This left survivors and investigators with questions that remain unanswered to this day.
Bean was a reading recovery instructor at Ola Elementary School in Yell County. She lived near Ola with her two children, 14-year-old Matthew Pattermann and 18-year-old Alana Pattermann, who was pregnant with Bean’s first grandchild; she went into labor the day her mother died. Bean was separated from her husband, Don Bean, who lived in Lamar near Clarksville. Don spoke to Bean on the telephone at 7:40 that morning. The call awakened her, and Don told her she’d better hurry and get ready for school. A little more than two hours later, Alana’s fiancé, Rocky Gist, went to the home to see why Bean had not shown up for work. The outside doors to the home were still locked, so Gist used his key to get in. He discovered Bean lying face down on the floor near her bed. A cordless phone lay under her body, and a comforter was wrapped around her. She was clad in a T-shirt, panties and bra. When Gist couldn’t find a pulse, he called for help.
Because of the location and position of the body, paramedics first conjectured that Bean might have rolled off the bed and smothered in the comforter, but the state medical examiner saw no indication that she had hit her head or suffered any other debilitating injury that would have prevented her from getting up. He noted an absence of petechial hemorrhages, which are tiny pinpoints of red, usually found in the eyes when death is caused by strangulation, hanging or suffocation. He found no drugs or alcohol in Bean’s system and no evidence of a stroke or heart attack. She did have a small abrasion on her chin and bruises on her right arm and on the left side of her face. She had also bitten her tongue.
“In summary,” the autopsy read, “no anatomic or toxicologic cause of death could be ascertained … The position of the body at discovery suggested an asphyxial mechanism, but this could not be diagnosed with certainty.”
If Bean was the victim of foul play, the theory is that she died from traumatic positional asphyxia caused by someone knocking her down from behind and restraining her in a prone position with enough weight on her back for a long enough time to cause suffocation.
In the years since her sister’s death, Holman has tried to get on with her own life, but this is hard to do without a conclusion to the case.
Holman believes her sister was, in fact, murdered. She first suspected foul play when the Yell County Sheriff’s Office obtained a search warrant for Bean’s residence. She and her children lived in a ranch-style house with Bean’s and Alana’s bedrooms across the hall from each other and Matthew’s room at the other end of the house. Because of her pregnancy, Alana was not in school, so she had no reason to get up early. The doors to the mother’s and daughter’s rooms were both closed, making it hard for Alana to hear anything that might have transpired in her mother’s room. Alana was also known to be a sound sleeper, according to her aunt. Matthew told authorities that he had stayed up late doing homework and did not wake up until Gist came to check on them.
When Bean’s body was found, the Yell County Sheriff’s Office treated her death as a possible homicide because of her age and lack of health problems. On Jan. 11, 2002, Russellville’s newspaper, The Courier, reported that Yell County Sheriff Bill Gilkey “felt confident an arrest would be made in the near future.” Six months later, after the final autopsy results were released, The Courier quoted Gilkey as saying investigators felt they had “a very good idea” about what happened. In a 2006 Courier update, the lead detective on the case, John Foster, sheriff’s investigator, mentioned that they were “down to one” unnamed suspect.
Holman’s frustration over the lack of progress in the investigation led her to do some investigating of her own.
“I went through her autopsy,” Holman said, “and got on the Internet and got medical books, trying to figure out what all these terms meant. POMC helped a lot.”
POMC has a program called Second Opinion Services (SOS), which is comprised of medical, legal and investigative experts who evaluate and interpret existing evidence in unsolved cases. Holman submitted Bean’s autopsy results to Dr. Harry J. Bonnell, SOS board member, who reviewed the findings. His opinion was that Bean was asphyxiated, but he could not say so to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, because there could be other explanations for her injuries. The tongue bite, for instance, could have resulted from a fall or a seizure.
Holman also consulted Charly Miller, an emergency medicine educator, author and expert witness with a personal specialty in deaths caused by restraint asphyxia. In response to Holman’s inquiries, Miller said, “… the autopsy findings certainly seem to fit positional asphyxia. The absence of petechial hemorrhages of eyes does not rule out asphyxia. The problem with determining the actual cause of your sister’s death is that you don’t have reliable witness reports of the event. There isn’t a clear explanation of her inability to escape the position that asphyxiated her.”
Miller told Holman, “It’s my gut feeling that you’ll likely never know, for a fact, what killed your sister.”
“This is what is killing us, too,” Holman said, speaking for her brother and mother. “It will haunt us ‘til our dying day, not knowing 100 percent for sure who did it.”
Holman’s eyes still cloud over when she talks about her sister. “I just miss her so much. It was such a stupid tragedy … and no matter how hard I worked, her death was something I couldn’t fix.”
The Arkansas Chapter of POMC meets at 6:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month. For more information, call (501) 375-POMC or (501) 351-POMC. AY