By Nancy LeBrun
Michael P. “Mike” Tabor, DDS is a dapper 68-year-old in an embroidered black shirt set off by green and black designer eyewear. He spent decades splitting his time between days at his clinical practice in midtown Nashville and nights doing forensic work at the middle Tennessee Medical Examiner’s office.
Joking, Tabor points out the biggest difference between the two jobs – at night, the patients don’t complain when he’s running late.
Dr. Tabor is one of only about one hundred board-certified forensic odontologists in the country. These dentists are members of larger forensic teams that work together to identify human remains or assist in criminal investigations.
“Forensic odontology is actually a specialty of forensic science rather than a specialty of dentistry,” Tabor notes, “but you have to be a dentist to be one.”
Comparing a Known to an Unknown
He describes the basic task as comparing a known to an unknown. The “knowns” are often antemortem dental records, information from x-rays, or patterns from bite marks. The unknown is the deceased, and when the records or other evidence matches up to his examination of a body, he’s made the ID.
When Dr. Tabor started doing forensic work in 1983, training in forensic dentistry was mostly a matter of getting a mentor to show you the ropes. One evening he was refereeing a high school football game and began talking to a game official who was also the new state medical examiner.
“He says to me, ‘we just got a body out of the Cumberland River,’” Dr. Tabor recalls, “‘and it has a bunch of gold fillings. Do you know much about forensic odontology?’ And I said I don’t even know what forensic odontology is, and he said, ‘well, let’s see if we can figure it out.’”
Dr. Tabor got in on the ground floor of what was then a new area of investigation and has been involved with it ever since.
Today, training is more formalized, though mentors still play a crucial role. Dr. Tabor suggests that every dental professional, including assistants and hygienists, has the knowledge to handle the basics of entry-level forensic dentistry. For those who are interested in the field, he suggests talking to your local forensic odontologist – every metropolitan region has one now - and researching the classes offered at various area universities.
Some of the courses are intensive training sessions that take place over a week, while others meet once a month and involve off-site work and presentations. If you aim to become board-certified, the requirements are more rigorous and take much longer to complete, as with any board certification.
The Mouth of James Earl Ray
Dr. Tabor has handled some significant cases in his 35 years in the field. In 1998, he confirmed the identity of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s killer, James Earl Ray. Ray had confessed and recanted more than once before dying in prison, leaving a cloud of doubt in some people’s minds, including members of the King family.
All prisoners get a forensic autopsy when they die, but due to the questions that surrounded Ray’s conviction, the state was particularly interested in confirming and recording the body’s identity. Ray’s family planned to cremate him, which is one of the few ways to destroy any means of dental identification, so Dr. Tabor needed to do the ID quickly before the cremation took place.
Three years later, Dr. Tabor began work on the case that haunts him most - the World Trade Center bombing.
Shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks, he got the call to join a small team of specialists charged with identifying remains, and he felt duty-bound to try to help. He recalls that when he and his colleagues started work at Ground Zero, “we had no idea if there were 3,000 or 30,000 bodies that needed to be identified.”
It was painstaking and emotional work, but eventually the team was able to pinpoint the names of about 1,000 victims, one of the first such efforts using computers to help match dental records to bodies.
Because the victims came from 83 different countries, it was a monumental as well as an emotionally painful task. It concluded when the team realized they would not be able to identify more of the victims because so many people had simply been vaporized, leaving no trace.
Child Victims of Abuse
Forensic odontology is often a grisly business, but Dr. Tabor has had opportunities to help the living as well as the dead. He says he’s seen a rise in the number of bite marks on children who may be victims of abuse, and he has assisted in the prosecution of the abusers by matching bite marks to the perpetrators.
Bite marks are an important tool in forensic odontology, but using them as evidence has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Now that DNA identification is common, courts can raise doubts about the accuracy of bite mark testimony because it is more ambiguous than DNA analysis.
In 2013, Dr. Tabor’s career took another turn when he published a crime novel called Walk of Death, available on Amazon, based on a case he spent ten years working. The case was highly unusual because the killers confessed and were convicted, but no one knew who the victim was, including the murderers. Dr. Tabor assessed hundreds of bodies over the years in the search to identify the victim.
He now has another book in the works, also based on one of his cases.
Does Dr. Tabor recommend forensic odontology to other dentists?
“If you have a busy clinical dental practice and you are doing a lot of forensic ID cases, you’re going to have a really busy day and a busy night, so you’re going to have to weigh that," he says. Tabor estimates the additional income stream from the work, if you handle about one case a week, at about $25,000 to $30,000 a year.
But it’s the process and not the money that seems to motivate him.
He still does some clinical work in addition to the forensics, but he recently sold his practice, Midtown Smiles, to Dr. Terry Watson, who Dr. Tabor is also training in forensic odontology.
Dr. Watson is fortunate - when you’re learning from Mike Tabor, you are learning from an original.
Author: Contributing writer Nancy LeBrun is a veteran health and wellness writer, and an Emmy-winning video producer. A former editorial staff member at WebMD, she is based in Roswell, GA.
Other recent profiles by Ms. LeBrun include: