After the husband of a woman missing 13 years allegedly admitted to causing her death and disposing of her body in a dumpster, Columbia Police are working to see if it's possible to recover her remains.
Charging documents show 38-year-old Keith Alan Comfort walked into the Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, police station Sunday, the 13-year anniversary of the disappearance of his then-wife Megan Shultz, and admitted to killing her. On Monday, Boone County Prosecutors charged him with second-degree murder and his extradition has been ordered by the courts.
Comfort allegedly told officers he then placed her body in a trash bag in the dumpster behind their apartment in the 1700 block of Amelia Street. Police are now trying to find out if it’s possible to recover her remains, according to Chief Geoff Jones.
“We owe it to her and her mom to at least see what the possibilities are,” Jones said Wednesday.
Assistant Police Chief Jeremiah Hunter is the commander of the department’s Investigations Bureau and is leading the effort to ascertain if a search is possible. On Wednesday, he was reaching out to any federal, state or local law enforcement agency he could find who may have worked under similar circumstances.
“What we are doing right now is working with the information we have,” Hunter said. “We are talking to the city, obviously to the landfill. We are not even certain this is something we can do yet, so we are contacting some federal agencies and others who may have done something like this in the past. This has been done before, so we are getting some help on that end to see if this is even feasible.”
City officials wrote in a press release that in August 2006 when the alleged crime occurred, the contents of the trash receptacle would have been taken to the city-owned landfill on Peabody Road.
The sheer size of the landfill and the lack of precise records will make finding her remains a daunting task.
The landfill covers 107 acres where trash is piled 80 to 100 feet deep, according to Patricia Weisenfelder, spokesperson for the solid waste utility. Department of Natuural Resources records available online show that in 2008, the landfill was receiving more than 600 tons of waste daily, up from 400 tons daily a decade earlier.
In 2006, no records were kept of where trash was being dumped except for the placement of some hazardous materials such as asbestos. That doesn't necessarily help in determining where a load of residential waste may have been placed.
Of the 107 acres, 16 have been filled and closed, meaning a dirt cap has been placed over the waste to contain gases generated as material decays. The landfill is sealed according to strict Department of Natural Resources guidelines.
"There is also a matter of opening up a landfill," Weisenfelder said. "It is built to hold that methane so it is not released."
In cases of trying to locate human remains, law enforcement agencies have relied on a number of technologies, including ground penetrating radar and sonar. Cadaver dogs have long proven an invaluable tool, but in the case at hand, it appears neither of those methods will prove possible, Hunter said.
“Other departments have used ground sonar in these instances, and we have inquired on that,” Hunter said. “In a landfill, that is virtually impossible. So, using that to locate evidence of this kind is not practical at all. Obviously we would go straight to them (cadaver dogs) at first, but after 13 years that’s not feasible either.”
If investigators can overcome those barriers and if Comfort is telling the truth, it is very possible Shultz’s remains still exist in skeletal form, according to Daniel Wescott, the Director of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University and previously an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri.
“It is a hard one to say for sure,” Wescott said Wednesday when given details on the landfill and the alleged crime. “She is going to be completely skeletonized, but there should be some skeletal remains left, definitely some teeth left. It depends if the bag got broke open. They will be able to do a skeletal analysis on her.”
Comfort is charged without authorities having Shultz’s remains as evidence and the legal term “corpus delicti” comes into play. Translated from Latin literally, it means, “body of the crime,” a reference to the principle that a crime must be proven to secure a conviction.
Former Cole County prosecutor Bill Tackett said even with a confession in place, it will be difficult for prosecutors to proceed or convince a jury of a guilty finding without Shultz’s remains or some other evidence of the crime.
“The first thing to get your head around is the notion that there are false confessions,” Tackett said. “For mental health reasons or to protect somebody else, false confessions exist. That is the first thing you have to grasp when looking at corpus delicti. The second is, you obviously don’t want to convict someone of a crime if there is no crime.
“If you can imagine a scenario for someone who pops up five years later because they just took off and decided to go around Europe and get their head straight, and back here you are prosecuting someone for murder. That is what they are trying to avoid,” he said.
Hunter said investigators are looking at the case as that of a missing person as well as a homicide investigation. Comfort, for 13 years, held to his story that Shultz left after an argument and was never seen again. His motives in coming forward Sunday are not currently known and investigators cannot assume his statements are absolute truth.
“That is a concern and that is why we are still working on the missing person’s portion of that,” Hunter said. “It’s a missing person's and a homicide investigation. In cases like this, there are specific things that happened during the incident that only a possible suspect would know. Those are questions our detectives are asking. Once that all fits together, we are pretty certain we will have what we need.”
Hunter said investigators want to give Shultz’s family closure and must exhaust every possible lead. He asks for patience as the investigation continues, as well as any additional information the public might have, and requests they call the department or Crimestoppers to remain anonymous.
“We want to exhaust any lead possible and that includes finding Mrs. Shultz,” Hunter said. “I think everyone can understand how big that is. It’s important we find any and all evidence. Something of this magnitude, a homicide, is one of the biggest crimes we investigate. So we are not just going to stop at someone's statement. We are going to keep looking and finding everything we can as far as evidence.”
“In order to do any of these investigations correctly, it takes time,” he said.