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Forensic dentist uncovers new career writing crime thrillers


Dr. Tabor
Nashville, Tenn.—In more than three decades as a forensic odontologist, Dr. Mike Tabor has worked cases that have run the gamut from the rather mundane to the unbelievably nefarious and gruesome.

"I have had 31 years of forensic dental mysteries, and I've kept a little journal—just a little diary of this and that," Dr. Tabor said.

"I do about one of these a week. Every time I have a case, I have an entry. The entry is just 'OK, here's what I did today. This involves a drowning.  …' In other words, I just tell back to my diary what the case was about."

Some stories stand out in Dr. Tabor's memory. "They say the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction," Dr. Tabor said.

"I've taken these 1,500 entries, approximately, and I've sifted out the most interesting ones."

He's narrowed them down to 50 with storylines that he found to be eery and intriguing. One of those cases formed the basis for Dr. Tabor's debut crime thriller, "Walk of Death," which he published last summer.

"Walk of Death" draws on a true-life 1997 murder in which a pair of meth addicts were accused of strangling a victim to death and then mercilessly burning the body to render it unidentifiable. They apparently hoped the corpse might be mistaken for one of the killers to collect an insurance payout. It worked for a while, that is, until one of the killers confessed and implicated the other. But the story was just beginning.

"The crime was already solved," Dr. Tabor said. "We know whodunit, but we don't know who is it. This was the first time in Tennessee history where there was a murder hearing and no one in the courtroom knew who'd been murdered. Usually in murder trials you have a relative that gets on the stand, displaying lots of emotion.  Oftentimes, this can influence jurors' opinions.  This case was different. There was no name. How can you stand up for the rights of an unknown individual?"

The real victim, whose identity would remain unknown more than a decade after the start of the investigation, was the draw to the story for Dr. Tabor, who said he borrowed heavily from reality to craft "Walk of Death." His accomplished career as a forensic odontologist served as a handy frame of reference for detailing the mysterious case through the eyes of Dr. Chris Walsh, his main character.

Dr. Tabor traveled a long, storied road to arrive at the point where he could dramatically and astutely relay such a forensic-intensive tale. Death investigation is filled with grisly elements that assault the senses in a way that most dentists never experience. These experiences helped Dr. Tabor paint sordid details of the fictionalized murder.

He is chief forensic odontologist for the State of Tennessee Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, a position he's held since 1983. An ADA member for more than 40 years, Dr. Tabor is also a fellow and past section chairman of the American Academy of Forensic Science and holds the Mastership Award of the Academy of General Dentistry. He has served under three governors as president of the Tennessee Board of Dental Examiners. 

In 2004, his local peers elected him as the 2004 Tennessee AGD Dentist of the Year.

In 2001, Dr. Tabor twice assisted the New York Medical Examiner's office in identifying victims of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack. "It's another one of those unforgettable assignments—a case among cases," Dr. Tabor said.

The scope and emotional impact of the job were jarring for the dental forensics team on the job, he suggested. "We're not used to doing this but one or two hours at a time," Dr. Tabor said. "We get a break, and then don't go back for another week. But at Ground Zero, we worked 12 and 14 hours a day, and had contact with families who had camped outside the ME office. Many were holding up posters of their deceased family members they were looking for. It just broke your heart. Forensic odontologists are not usually placed in those types of situations."

Dr. Tabor also was the forensic odontologist called to examine the body of assassin James Earl Ray, who murdered civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., after Mr. Ray died in prison.

Aside from reliving the cases through his writing, Dr. Tabor manages the emotional toll of his work by maintaining a safe distance.

"In a nutshell, it is a mindset that you must put your arms around," Dr. Tabor said. "You almost have to divorce yourself emotionally from the details. If you are not able to accomplish this, the results can be scarring."

More information about Dr. Tabor's work as a forensic odontologist and his book, "Walk of Death," can be found at DrMikeTabor.com.