Blood and Guts in Garageland

Craig Lassig

In the dozen years that Bill James has been in charge of the Minneapolis Police Department's forensics garage, he has discovered only one body part. Combing through a pile of clothes in the back of a Ford Mustang convertible, James happened upon a finger. He guesses the appendage, which belonged to a man who had been shot with a large-caliber handgun, was ripped off when the victim futilely attempted to deflect the bullet from his head. "The finger ended up in the boot, where the convertible top folds down," recalls James. "I just called up the [medical examiner] and asked him if he had all the victim's parts. And he said, 'No, we are missing something.' So I put it in a plastic baggy and brought it over to him."

James is a milky-haired, mustachioed 57-year-old retired Minneapolis cop whose droll sense of humor evolved over years dealing with bullets and bodies. Since 1991 he has overseen the forensics garage, a one-person outpost at the impound lot on the 5100 block of Colfax Avenue North. The facility consists of a small office cluttered with kitchen appliances and auto parts, and a four-car garage. It's marked by a sign that reads Forensics Garage/Biohazard Area. "People leave me alone out here," James shrugs.

When there is a crime involving a vehicle in Minneapolis--typically a car theft, carjacking, or an assault--it's almost always sent to James, who examines it for physical evidence. In some cases James can inspect separate components of an automobile to determine whether a person is telling the truth. "Say, for instance, a guy is involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident," James explains. "He says, 'Well, my brakes went out, that's why I ran over the little old lady in the wheelchair and killed her.' So I'll take a look at the brake system and see if that's really possible or if he's just blowing smoke."

There are two cars in the garage on this January morning: a grimy, gray Ford Escort, which was involved in a recent assault case on the near north side; and a brown Lincoln Town Car with a "Purple Pride" sticker in the window, which is owned by a guy who survived a bullet in the arm and the butt. James takes several photographs of the Escort, then scours its exterior for possible fingerprints. The prospects are poor. "Normally when you get a vehicle like this, where it's dirty, your chances of getting prints are not very good," he laments. "You're going to get latent prints 10 to 20 percent of the time and in the winter it goes down just because of the salt and stuff, and the weather."

Although James has come across only one body part, he has had to contend with two bodies: one belonging to a murdered prostitute and the other to Anne Barber Dunlap, the victim in one of the most famous unsolved homicides in Minnesota history. Both were delivered to the impound lot in the trunks of their cars.

Dunlap's red Toyota Celica was discovered in the Lake Street Kmart parking lot on January 2, 1996, two days after the woman reportedly disappeared from the Mall of America. "They weren't real sure at the scene where the vehicle was found whether or not the victim was in the trunk," James recalls. After the car was towed to the forensics garage, James had the unpleasant task of inspecting the trunk. Dunlap's body was inside, her throat slit. "A lot of blood," James notes. Brad Dunlap, the victim's husband and prime suspect in the case, was never charged with the murder.

For years the infamous vehicle had been stored at the impound lot in a section cordoned off by a barbed-wire-topped fence, along with other vehicles that are still of interest to the criminal justice system. There's a brown Chevy Suburban with three bullet holes in the passenger-side door and a Lincoln that's been crumpled beyond recognition. "Two guys in a pickup truck, drunk, were driving 100 miles an hour or so on the city streets,'' James says, recalling the Lincoln's history. "And this 70-year-old guy, minding his own business, pulling through an intersection on a green light--the two guys blasted through the intersection and killed him."

Where Anne Dunlap's Celica was parked for years, though, there is only dirt. "It used to be right here," James says dryly. The vehicle has been returned to the family. It will never get its day in court.

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