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COLUMN ONE

The Boy in the Chimney

The examiner believed the youth got trapped. The detective suspected murder. An answer to part of the mystery left both in disbelief.

July 20, 2006|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

Inside the chill of the county coroner's office, the detective and the forensic anthropologist stood over soot-covered bones arrayed on a metal table.

Over two hours, Elizabeth Miller provided a running dialogue for each bone. She picked up one rib after another, studying them for knife scrapes.

The bones were those of a boy, perhaps 12 to 15 years old, found in the chimney of an abandoned building in South Los Angeles. The boy wore faded and stained tan jeans and a white shirt, but no shoes.

"I'm sure if we had a photograph, we'd be able to recognize him," Miller said.

More than once, Los Angeles Police Det. Chris Barling asked: Was he killed?

There was no sign of trauma, Miller said. No self-defense wounds on the finger bones, no scrapes or damage to other bones. The jaw suggested major dental work to repair an injury, but that was it.

That was March 28, 2005, and the homicide detective and the anthropologist had hunches, nothing more.

Miller said she thought the boy sneaked into the chimney and died either of starvation or positional asphyxiation. Perhaps the clay pipe of the chimney muted his calls for help. Maybe the same pipe carried the smell of decay up and out. The remains still gave out a waxy, organic odor, which led Miller to believe that he had probably been dead less than five years. The boy's two front teeth protruded, and his skull had strong African American features.

"I tend to go with weird accidents more," she said. "I prefer to think weird things happen as opposed to somebody killing and dumping a boy into a chimney."

Barling felt differently.

"Maybe I'm just morbid," he said. "I just had a hunch that it didn't make sense it was accidental.... My gut is that we're dealing with a murder."

The discovery of the skeletal remains at 89th and Main streets in South Los Angeles had been a fluke. On March 24, 2005, an 11-year-old girl had climbed on the roof of the abandoned halfway house to retrieve a soccer ball.

The girl peered down into the chimney. She ran to her father and told him she had seen a skull.

In the following days, stories about the discovery ran in local newspapers and on the TV news. They focused on Miller's theory: The boy was probably a runaway, there a few years.

No one came forward to identify the remains. No grieving parents called or showed up to dare to ask: Could this be my child?

Barling started pulling missing person's reports going back about five years but came up empty.

That July, forensic artist Marilyn Droz used the boy's skull to draw a composite portrait. By then, nearly four months had gone by.

The sketch prompted another flurry of news reports.

Donna Theus was sitting in her living room watching the TV news when she saw the drawing. She screamed. The boy, Theus said, looked like her cousin. She picked up the phone.

On the other line, 78-year-old Clelia Thompson answered.

"Babe, did you see that little boy's picture on the TV?" Theus asked her aunt. "The little boy they found in the chimney? You know, that could be Robert."

Robert?

Her boy, Robert Thompson, 14, had been missing since Christmas Eve.

Of 1977.

*

The investigators could not believe the body had been in the chimney 28 years. The building, a low-slung, fenced-in wreck, for years served as a halfway house and had only closed a few years ago. How could a corpse be there for so long without anyone noticing?

Still, the Los Angeles Police Department's missing persons unit sent someone to take a DNA swab from Clelia Thompson's mouth.

Miller, the Los Angeles County coroner's anthropologist, began to rethink the circumstances that would have preserved the bones for so long, and still retained the smell of decomposition. When she talked to other anthropologists and forensic experts, they were befuddled. Their best guess was that a combination of odd conditions may have preserved the remains.

The bones showed signs of superficial charring, suggesting that the chimney had been used just enough to stain the remains. This may have helped preserve them.

Months passed. Then, on Dec. 28, 2005, a lab in Sacramento came back with the DNA test results. The boy in the chimney was Robert Thompson.

*

Det. Barling now had a name, and identities tell stories.

Barling, 44, a 20-year LAPD veteran, had been the lead detective on 150 cases since becoming a homicide investigator in 1993. His mind raced with questions. Who was last with this boy? Was he trying to burglarize the building or playing a game of hide-and-seek? Could he have been trying to recover a ball, much like the little girl who had found his remains?

The abandoned building was only blocks from Robert Thompson's home. Where were the shoes? Did the boy walk there in his bare feet? Or was he carried there?

Barling drew up a basic profile of the boy in the chimney.

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