Forensic expert, Mark Gillespie, talks about the fires in Jerry’s backyard and how likely it is or isn’t that the fires played a part in Susan & Evan’s disappearance. We look at several other theories into what happened to Susan & Evan.
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Welcome to Secrets True Crime. I am your host, Amber Sitton. What is done in darkness will eventually come to light. That is the purpose of this podcast...to shine light on the story of Susan Osborne and her 14-year-old son Evan Chartrand. They vanished from their home in the tiny Alabama community of Holtville on Memorial Day in 2017. They haven't been seen or heard from since, and their bodies have not been found. This is episode 5 of a serial podcast with each episode building upon the previous. If you have not listened to Episodes 1 through 4, please stop and listen to it first or you probably won’t understand what’s happening in this episode. Listener discretion is advised. While this episode doesn’t contain foul language, the subject matter may involve violence, sexual content, murder, and adult themes. It’s not suitable for younger listeners. If you know or have known Jerry or knew Susan after she was married to Jerry, I want to hear from you. Someone knows something. The information you may think is small or insignificant could make a difference in this case, and you can remain anonymous. email@example.com or the Elmore County Sheriff’s Office at 334-567-5546.
Today we will be hearing from a special guest. Mark Gillespie. Mark has 35 years of experience in forensic science and investigations. He has his master’s degree in forensic science and was the director of a forensic science division of a police department for many years. He’s a former federal agent and has owned Gillespie Security & Investigations for 15 years now. He specializes in criminal defense investigations, cold cases, human trafficking, and missing persons. You don’t have to speak with Mark long to realize he has a huge heart and passion for victims and I feel very fortunate he was willing to talk to me for this podcast. Ironically, while Mark lives in Texas now, he is from Montgomery and just 23 miles from the home where Susan and Evan disappeared. I want to offer a special thanks to Sheila Wysocki for introducing me to Mark. Sheila is one of my very favorite podcast hosts as well as a private investigator. If you haven’t listened to her podcast, Without Warning, you should. Sheila takes you inside her investigation of the death of 21-year-old Lauren Agee. Lauren went camping with friends, and her body was found floating in a lake. The police investigation into Lauren’s death was almost non-existent. Sheila has worked tirelessly to right those wrongs, and you can follow along with her as the investigation is still ongoing. What happened to Lauren and the way her death investigation was handled by the sheriff’s office in Tennessee will make you furious. Give Without Warning a listen. You’ll be glad you did.
What happened to Susan and Evan? We’ve already heard from family, friends, and investigators that foul play is suspected and none of them believe that Susan and Evan are alive. Many potential theories have been discussed, and as we consider them today, you’re going to hear a little more of my opinion on these things than you have in past episodes. And since I’ll be speculating and offering some personal views, I’d like to begin this episode by stating that 1:04:10 Here’s a security police 101 class. Security police in the air force are charged with the primary response of what’s called air base ground defense. Take a deployment, take an overseas operation, Iraq, Siria, Afganistan, Honduras, wherever. Wherever military assets are going to be deployed and a base is going to be set up, the security police are responsible for securing the perimeter, controlling who comes in who comes out, who goes in who goes out, and making sure the base is safe. It’s kinda like building a wall so to speak. All security police personel are trained in weapons whether it be like AR15, M16 and a 9 mm handgun. It doesn’t mean they are experts, it’s their duty weapon. 99.9% probably have never fired a gun in actual real life situations but they do a lot of training. A very small percentage of security police are involved in investigative activity. Another small percentage, well I should say small. Less than 50% I’d say are in charge of patrolling the base, making sure that, kind of like a neighborhood watch, kind of like mall security. They drive around in a marked unit. Based on what you’ve told me, it doesn’t sound like he was in an investigations unit. There’s a rivalry amongst security policeman. So if you are run of the mill security police person, you are very jealous of those in SPI, security police investigations. It’s the Security Police Investigators that have a big goal of becoming OSI special agents which is what I was. So there’s a big rivalry between SPI and security police patrol officers, does that make sense? There’s a, I’d have to see his record to find out exactly what he was trained in, exactly what his duties were, but as far as being a skilled investigator, I would say he’s not but I’d have to look at his record to be sure.
Elmore County has a lot of water. Jerry’s house is very close to the Coosa River and Lake Jordan. Susan and Jerry owned a boat. Sometime after they vanished, Jerry gave the boat away. The investigators did recover and process the boat, and they told me the boat needed some mechanical work. They didn’t think the boat would have been reliable enough for someone to use to try to dispose of 2 bodies. They also stated they didn’t find any evidence on the boat. After death, bacteria and decomposition cause gases to build up in the human body which cause bodies in water to float. Even bodies that have been weighted down typically break free and float. The investigators searched the Coosa River using a boat equipped with sonar. While this scenario can’t be completely ruled out, odds are Susan and Evan’s bodies would have been found by now if they’d been placed in water.
When I began to look into this case, one of the first things I heard was that their bodies may have been burned. I was instantly shocked and in disbelief that this was even a possibility. Is it even possible to burn a body, much less 2 bodies, in a backyard and leave no trace? I had so many questions. I turned to google and spent many hours searching some pretty terrible phrases and reading everything I could find. I learned a few things, but the answers to my questions weren’t going to be answered by google. Sheila Wysocki recommended Mark to me, and we sat down to discuss the case, but before we hear from him, I want to give you some information to orient you to the area, Jerry’s neighborhood and his home.
Holtville is a rural community, but Jerry’s home is located in a subdivision. Per tax records, his lot is only half an acre, and most of the lots around him are about that same size. Some range in size up to an acre. I would estimate that Jerry’s home is about 50 ft from his neighbors. Jerry and his neighbor both have a 6-foot wooden privacy fence surrounding their backyards, and they share the fenceline down the left side of Jerry’s lot. Jerry’s house is also next to the corner of his street and a heavily traveled highway for this area. His home and driveway are visible as you drive down the road headed towards Wetumpka. My first question for Mark was one that had bothered me from the very beginning with the theory of their bodies being burned in the backyard.
Amber: 30:48 As far as burning the bodies, the theory among a couple of them is that the bodies were burned in the backyard. Would there not be any odor any odor that might cause alarm? I mean, there’s a house 50 ft away.
Mark: 31:07-31.45 Yea there would be a stench. And it would be a very noticeable stench. And when I say stench I’m not saying there will be a smell or stinky smell but it will be a foul smell. So yea I would think if you were a neighbor and if you were around you would smell something fairly soon. It may not last for a long time but that smell, that stench would be there.
So there would have been a noticeable stench. I haven’t heard reports of an odor like this but if their bodies were burned late at night, it’s possible this odor could have gone unnoticed. But what would it take to burn a body? How hot would the fire need to be and for how long? Would it be possible to burn 2 bodies in a backyard without a trace remaining to be found?
Mark: 32:00 A crematorium burns at about 2000 degrees farenheit. When you look at crematoriums, crematoriums are significanltly, they have a purpose involved. That is to burn everything into ashes. Ok. Seldom can a man made fire like a bonfire, seldom can a fire such as that be produced to match the heat of a crematorium. We are talking about a bonfire being maybe 800-900 degrees farenheit. Which is almost twice, twice the amount less than what a crematorium gets to.
The process of cremation has been around for at least 2000 years. Industrial furnaces are used in modern cremation. Most people think of cremated remains as ashes, but in reality, they primarily consist of bone fragments. As Mark noted, these furnaces reach temperatures of 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, and they are fueled by either propane, natural gas or diesel fuel. When the burning part of the process is completed, you are left with a bunch of bits of bones. These bits of bones then undergo a specific process that grinds the bone fragments into what we think of as ashes. The correct term is cremains.
Mark explained a little further.
Mark 32:00-38:00 The thing about fires, a lot of people especially people that are involved in the criminal enterprise, they think well fire is going to destroy the evidence. It’s amazing how resilient the body to fire and especially the teeth and our bones. You would have to, to destroy the teeth for example, you would probably have to burn and burn and burn and then grind up because your not going to really. There are still going to be some remnants. You’re also going to be able in a number of cases, I’m not saying every case. You know DNA is very resilient also. Even after being exposed to fire and very warm temperatures, your DNA may not be destroyed. It could be degraded but there’s a good chance DNA can still be obtained.
I mean how many times, I mean you live in Alabama, you probably burned a bunch of rubbish in a barrel, in a firepit, in your backyard. It doesn’t, Things just don’t burn 100%. That’s where a lot of people go wrong. They think that fire is this all encompassing thing that is going to destroy every sign of evidence. Well in many cases, it just doesn’t. For him to want to destroy a body, in my opinion, based on my knowledge and experience of this, it would be a project he would have to undertake for a couple days just to be sure that everything is gone. And then, when I say that everything is gone, it would also require him to most likely go through the debris after it’s cooled down to see what is remaining and then start another fire or grind things up. So it’s not like just going into a backyard and setting a match and letting it roar. I think that a lot of people are fooled by the weakness of fire. 9/11. Take 9/11. 911 melted iron beams but they were still able to find human remains so don’t be fooled by fire. If I were to come there today or tomorrow, the first thing I’d look at is that fire pit or that area. It would be almost like setting up an archaelogical dig where you are, you’ve got screen sifters and you’re just taking shovels, very delicately shovels of the soil and whatever was burned there and your just running it through this sifter and seeing what remains.
I spoke to a woman we will call Amy. Amy lives in the area and while not a direct neighbor of Jerry’s, when the investigators were serving the search warrant, she was visiting someone who was. Amy has been helpful and provided me some great information. However, she, like so many others I’m encountering, is afraid of Jerry. Amy does not want to be identified. She told me she sat in the backyard of a neighbor’s home and watched the investigators remove what appeared to be ashes stored in 5-gallon buckets from Jerry’s storage shed. According to Amy, the investigators would then run the ashes through a sifter. She told me the investigators sifted ashes for hours. She said she saw the boat the investigators used to search the Coosa River as it was parked on the street near Jerry’s house. She also saw the cadaver dogs. Amy provided a pretty detailed description of the scene at Jerry’s home that day. She said it appeared Jerry wasn’t allowed inside his house or in the backyard during the search and that he and his parents stayed in his front yard near the road the entire time. She said his mom and dad sat in lawn chairs near the street and she described Jerry as pacing back and forth almost constantly. Amy said he would squat down from time to time near where his parents sat. She said this lasted for hours and hours. She provided me with some photos she took that day, and I’ll be sharing those on the Secrets True Crime social media accounts.
I want to explore the possible details of the events if Susan and Evan’s bodies were burned in their backyard. They disappeared on the afternoon or night of Memorial Day on May 29th, 2017. Some type of fuel would be needed to get a fire even close to hot enough, and I believe it would take a significant amount of fuel. Either someone had a lot of fuel on hand, which would be out of the ordinary for someone to keep at their home, or they’d need to go buy it. Captain Ogden and Lieutenant Evans told us that Jerry’s dad was at Jerry and Susan’s house the next morning, on May 30th and that the remodeling project was already underway. We know that Jerry removed the hardwood flooring and painted. He later had carpet installed where the hardwood flooring had been. That means that at a minimum, he made trips to buy paint and flooring. We also know he burned or otherwise disposed of all their furniture and belongings including Evan’s mattress.
Susan’s daughter had her grandmother take her by their home on the morning of May 31st. Evan was supposed to have oral surgery that day, and she wanted to give him a present. The grandmother told police that Jerry was running around working in the backyard and was all sweaty. He wouldn’t let Susan’s daughter go in the house to see her dog. Mark has told us it would take approximately 2 days to burn a body and that it would take a lot of work and attention to keep the temperature of the fire even close to hot enough to possibly burn a body. Even then, bone fragments would have remained and would have needed to be ground up to what we think of as ash. Let’s apply these things to this speculative scenario. If someone burned Susan and Evan’s bodies in that backyard, they would have needed to get the temperature of the fire to close to 2000 degrees and keep it near that temperature for approximately 2 days. Even then there would be bone fragments remaining. These fragments would have either had to have been gathered and removed from the property or ground to what we think of as ash. We know the investigators spent a lot of time sifting ashes and they sent some things they found off for testing. They told me the tests revealed those things to be nothing. So we’d also need to believe that every single bone fragment was able to be found and removed from the yard. I find this to be unlikely. It sounds to me like Jerry had an awful lot going on immediately after Susan and Evan vanished. Would he have had time to burn 2 bodies for days? Knowing that he was also burning the furniture and remodeling at the exact same time, I find the scenario improbable. Also, if his dad was at his home the morning after Susan and Evan vanished, would he have been able to hide 2 bodies being burned in the backyard?
The neighbors told investigators that the fires in Jerry’s backyard were large and hot and lasted for days. One neighbor described how hot it was in their own backyard from the heat coming off Jerry’s fire next door. I’m assuming this would be a neighbor located immediately to one side of Jerry’s home. There is only one neighbor to fit this description, and it would be the house to the left of Jerry’s. This is the house that shares a fence along the property line with Jerry. Another neighbor, Nicki, described the fires as large, substantial and she said it looked like a brush fire. She said she couldn’t see the fire itself because of the fence but said the smoke was evident. Let’s not forget that Jerry’s home is easily visible from the well-traveled highway. The smoke would have been easy to see from there too. Wouldn’t burning 2 bodies in such a readily visible location be risky? What if the neighbor to the left decided to peek over the fence? What if a neighbor became fed up with all the smoke and called the fire department? Or the police department? What if a neighbor smelled the stench Mark told us would be present for awhile? If it was hot and large as described to me and could be mistaken for a brush fire, what if someone driving down the main highway became alarmed and called the fire department? It just seems like a massive risk and makes me have strong doubts that someone would take that risk. Another detail to note is that neither of the 2 cadaver dogs alerted to the burn piles. Mark and I discussed all these details, and he also doesn’t believe Susan and Evan’s bodies were burned in the backyard.
Mark: 51:45 - 52:45 - I think burning a fire like that creates, as soon as you set that match, you don’t know what’s going to happen and so if he’s got a body in a pile of debris, and let’s say something, there’s too much stuff that could go wrong that would that would show what he’s up to. Next thing you know they call the fire marshall, they come out and put it out. The police are called. It’s inviting too much, too many eyes on an area you don’t want anyone to know about. I personally feel that if he was going to get rid of bodies, he would not have burned them on his property.
Mark 38-39 If you’re thinking like a criminal would think, I definitely, if I had a body, I would not, I would not burn a body on my property. I would dispose of the body some other way. But I would immediately burn carpet, rags, towels, paper towels, blood stained furniture, mops, absolutely.
Could it be a ruse on his part, a tactical deception, I don’t know.
Jerry was in the air force, and I’m told he later received a medical discharge, but at the time of Susan and Evan’s disappearance, Jerry had a civilian job on Maxwell Air Force Base in nearby Montgomery, AL. The investigators quickly learned that Jerry was utilizing dumpsters on the air force base to dispose of things. They told me that at one point they had Jerry under surveillance and they followed him to the air force base. They recovered items from the dumpster that they’d seen in the back of his truck earlier that same day. Hollie told me that it was discovered that Jerry disposed of a lot of things in those dumpsters during the 2 months between when Susan and Evan disappeared to when the missing persons' report was filed. Could their bodies have been disposed of in one of those dumpsters on Maxwell Air Force Base? Ironically, Mark also served in the air force, and at one time, he was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base.
54:20-54:50 But I think it’s interesting, I used to be assigned at Maxwell, so being very familiar with Maxwell, I would think even as a military member and a retired military member, the last place I would go to dump something is on a military base. Well there’s, A, you’ve got to get through the gate. It’s almost like a 100% ID check. Or there’s scrutiny of everyone that comes in. It’s not like just going through a toll road or just going through a gated community, like open the gate and you go through. I think there’s just too many opportunity for things to go wrong and too much security on a base for him to dispose of evidence like that. It’s possible but that’s risky.
I have to agree with Mark here too. It would have been a very bold and risky move to transport 2 bodies in the back of a truck to an air force base. He would have needed to move the bodies from the vehicle and placed them into the dumpster without being seen. He would’ve also needed to conceal the bodies in the dumpster so that they weren't readily visible to others who might come along and use the dumpster after him.
Another possibility is the bodies could have been taken somewhere and either buried or left in a location they’d be unlikely to be found. Sheriff Bill Franklin mentioned that Jerry made some unusual searches on his computer but he didn’t reveal what these searches were. The investigators have searched several locations in the general area but nothing was found. Could Jerry’s internet search history provide some clues of other locations that could be searched? Could Jerry have been looking for locations to dump their bodies? I don’t yet know the answer to this question but I know it is one that weighs heavily every day on Susan and Evan’s loved ones.
Join us next time on Secrets True Crime. Thank you for listening. If you are enjoying this podcast, please let us know by giving us an excellent rating and review in Apple Podcasts. If you have any information that could help in solving the disappearance of Susan Osborne and Evan Chartrand, please call the Elmore County Sheriffs Office at 334-567-5546. You may also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m active on social media and often share photos of Susan and Evan. Follow Secrets True Crime on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. @secretscrime.