Eight years on, the mystery of Annie McCann’s ‘death by Bactine’ keeps unfolding
By Tom Jackman
November 2, 2016
Annie McCann with her dog, Breezy Max, at home in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County in the summer of 2008. She was found dead in Baltimore on Nov. 2, 2008, and her parents are still trying to find out how and why it happened.
The nightmare started one Halloween, literally, for Dan and Mary Jane McCann. Their 16-year-old daughter Annie ran away from their Fairfax County, Va., home, having made up candy bags for trick-or-treaters the night before. She left a note saying she had considered suicide, but instead decided "I'm buying a plane ticket far away from here...I love life, and I'm ready to live." She took her $1,000 cash savings and her jewelry with her in the family's white Volvo. Annie's parents and friends had no inkling that the honor roll student and devoted homebody was in any way unhappy with her life.
That was Friday. Saturday was a frenzied, fruitless search of airports and train stations. On Sunday morning, the McCanns got the dreaded knock on the door from a Baltimore homicide detective. Annie had been found dead, dumped on the ground in an East Baltimore housing project. It was not clear how she had died or why she was even in Baltimore, a place she had visited only occasionally with her family.
That was eight years ago today. The Baltimore police believe Annie committed suicide by drinking the antiseptic Bactine, which contains the numbing agent lidocaine. But the McCanns were not convinced Annie took her own life. Because of the unrelenting pressure exerted by the still grieving parents, new information and new developments continue to unfold, enhancing the parents' belief that someone fatally poisoned their daughter, possibly human traffickers.
Among those developments:
Documents released Friday by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) show that Baltimore police never asked Bayer, the maker of Bactine, if the lidocaine contained in a five ounce bottle would be lethal, either in 2008 or when they revisited the case in 2013. Bayer's internal calculations showed it would take about three full bottles of Bactine to kill a 110-pound girl. At the McCanns' request, Grassley began asking questions about Annie's case to Baltimore police, Bayer and the FBI earlier this year.
- The toxicologist who performed the chemical testing on Annie said Monday he could not say whether there is enough lidocaine in a single bottle of Bactine to be fatal. Bayer says there is not. But the toxicologist remains confident that however the lidocaine got in Annie's system, and however many bottles she consumed, the amount of lidocaine in her system is what killed her. Annie had carried one bottle of Bactine to spray on recently pierced ears.
- The man who embalmed Annie's body three days after it was found said Saturday she had suffered severe, distinctive damage to her rectum that he has never seen in thousands of bodies before or since. He and another funeral home employee have always felt Annie was sodomized, though they came forward only recently. Two experienced pathologists refute that, saying that muscles relax after death, but the embalmer said the damage to Annie was far beyond that stage.
- Autopsy photos released to the family last year appear to show that Annie suffered a number of injuries to her face, though Baltimore police said in 2009 that there was no trauma on her body. The injuries do not appear to be fatal, but they raise questions about what happened to her in the time between when she vanished from the Groveton section of eastern Fairfax County and when she was discovered sprawled face down near a dumpster at the Perkins Homes near Pratt Street in Baltimore.
An autopsy photo of Annie McCann shows bumps, scrapes and a new scar over her forehead, though Baltimore police said her body showed no trauma. (Office of the Maryland Medical Examiner)
- Other documents recently provided to Grassley, and released by the McCanns, show that in 2013 the FBI reviewed the Baltimore police case file and criticized the investigation because "Information regarding Annie's background and her life situation prior to her death is lacking," making it "extremely difficult, if not impossible, to conduct a complete analysis." Several other blocks of text from the FBI's review were redacted, and though Grassley demanded last month that the FBI provide him the unredacted documents by last week, the FBI did not. The Baltimore police did restart their investigation in 2013 after the FBI's critique, to include reinterviewing the McCanns and others, but returned to the same conclusion: Annie killed herself.
On Tuesday, the McCanns and victim advocate Tara Lawrence met with Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh and two Fairfax police commanders, hoping to convince them that Annie's case began in Fairfax, where she was possibly lured or tricked into going to Baltimore. After the meeting, Morrogh said, "I did agree to help them any way I could, to review any documents, photos or evidence they have." He said he could not request the files from Baltimore or the FBI, though the Baltimore police have provided their investigative file to the McCanns. The parents told him their concerns about human trafficking and "all I can do is look through their files and see if there's any nexus to the county," Morrogh said.
The McCanns were slightly hopeful after the meeting. "It's been eight years of living hell," said Mary Jane McCann, "because you're frozen in time." Dan McCann added, the investigation has left us in an "ungodly limbo. We know we'll never stop hurting. We know we'll never stop looking for the truth."
The Baltimore police declined to discuss the case. Police spokesman T.J. Smith again offered his condolences to the McCanns, but neither he nor homicide Sgt. Sean Jones, the original detective on the case and now a homicide supervisor, would agree to an interview. "Based on the investigation completed at the time," Smith wrote in an email, "and the subsequent investigations and inquiries that have followed, we stand by those conclusions."
So what happened to Annie McCann? The junior at West Potomac High School was a devout Catholic, even attending 6:30 a.m. weekday masses. She was a vegetarian, a motivated student who stayed after school the day before she vanished to get extra credit for an AP psychology class. She had only begun driving by herself two months earlier, and could get lost trying to get to school, her parents and friends said. She'd never driven very far, much less to Baltimore.
And suddenly, she was gone. The only abnormalities in her autopsy report were that she had a blood-alcohol level of 0.04, meaning she'd consumed some beer or other alcohol on her final Saturday night, and that she had 100 milligrams per kilogram of lidocaine in her liver. There was no brain trauma, no organ damage, no significant wounds, according to the autopsy report. In 2009, Baltimore police Maj. Terry McLarney said that with no wounds or bruising, "We know it's not a homicide at that point." In addition, Baltimore police said that Annie's DNA was found on the lip of the Bactine bottle, and that the spray top had been removed. Somehow, police concluded, she drank the liquid used to numb and disinfect small wounds.
The detectives waited for a toxicology report, and when the medical examiner ruled in March 2009 that Annie "died of lidocaine intoxication," that was the end. Case closed. Whether suicide or unintentional self-medication, it wasn't a murder, as far as the police were concerned.
David R. Fowler, the chief medical examiner of Maryland, said in 2009 and again last week that he too was initially surprised by the idea of death by Bactine, but that he was confident in the findings of toxicologist Barry Levine. "This was more than enough lidocaine to kill a person," Fowler said. "There's nothing in the way of substantial injuries that would have caused death."
The McCanns entered this horrific odyssey with open eyes. They were open to the possibility of suicide, particularly since Annie had written and discarded two other notes which mentioned suicide. But how could she have ingested such a foul-tasting substance? Was it by choice, or did someone poison her? "People drink poison," McLarney said in 2009. "When they decide to kill themselves, they use what is there. The point is, she poisoned herself."
The newly-released Bayer documents show that Detective Jones called Bayer in December 2008 and asked how much lidocaine was in a bottle of Bactine, because "there was a high amount found in a deceased female's stomach." Bayer informed him there were 3.75 grams of lidocaine hydrochloride in a Bactine bottle. But Bayer did not inform the police, because they weren't asked, that they believe it would take 11 grams of lidocaine to cause "acute oral toxicity" in a 110-pound human, an internal email from 2009 shows.
Annie was last seen at home on Friday, Halloween morning, but didn't go to West Potomac High that day. Her travels from there, and whom she was with, remain unknown. Could someone have forced Annie to drink Bactine? Or poured the contents of a bottle into a cup of beer? Several bottles?
The McCanns hired former Baltimore police officer Jimmy Kontsis to dig around, and in Baltimore's Little Italy in March 2009, he found two employees at a pastry shop who clearly remembered Annie coming in on the Saturday after Halloween with a woman. A waitress gasped at Annie's photo, and according to Kontsis said, "Oh my gosh, it's her. I'll never forget them." She was certain the woman with Annie was slightly older, long straight hair, and "the ugliest fingernails. The color of puke. Dirty, disheveled jeans. Disinterested in what Annie wanted." Kontis brought in a former Montgomery County homicide detective and sketch artist who created this drawing of the woman with Annie. She still haunts Kontsis. He found people in Fairfax County, at a Costco, at a Catholic charity and at Annie's church who said they had seen her, that she was Hispanic and mentioned needing immigration help. He even had a name for her - Blanca Murillo. But she never turned up.
The composite sketch of a woman seen with Annie McCann in Baltimore's Little Italy on Nov. 1, 2008. Annie was found dead early the next day. The woman has never been found. "I feel like I failed," Kontsis said last week.
"I can't find the woman."
Had Annie been lured in by human traffickers? Pimps and organized prostitution groups are known to recruit girls in the suburbs, trafficking experts said, and at least one gang was found targeting girls in Fairfax County in 2014. "These guys prey on people with mental depression," said Tim Ballard, a former Homeland Security agent and founder of Operation Underground Railroad, which targets human trafficking overseas. "They usually use a woman, who says, 'I can give you some help.'"
Kontsis too has wondered whether Annie was unknowingly coerced by traffickers, noting that she took $1,000, clothes and jewelry with her, as if she were planning to go somewhere. Her whereabouts on Friday night, and most of Saturday, are unknown.
"I don't believe she was by herself," Kontsis said. "It's a known thing that they drug the girls. She wasn't into all that stuff," meaning she was not known to drink alcohol or do drugs. If she were given lidocaine, Kontsis theorized, "It might have really ticked her nervous system. Her clothes were damp and wet [when she was found]. They might have tried to revive her. Then put her in the car, drop it down there."
The first person to report finding Annie called 911 at 2:40 a.m. on Sunday morning, Nov. 2, after spotting her near the dumpster. She was clothed but not wearing shoes, though her white socks were clean. Her family's Volvo sedan was several blocks away, at a Citgo gas station, discovered later that morning. Baltimore police, realizing the victim was a teenager from Fairfax County, figured they had a murder on their hands.
The dumpsters at the Perkins Homes in East Baltimore where Annie McCann was found on Nov. 2, 2008. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)
But someone else had found her hours earlier. When police took fingerprints from the Volvo, they found a match with a local teenager, who led them to other teenagers. The group said they found the car at the Perkins Homes, just blocks from both the Inner Harbor and Fell's Point, with the keys in it on Saturday night. They told police that Annie was lying in the backseat, that they pulled her out of the car, went through her belongings and phone, dumped those, and then took the Volvo on a ride.
McLarney, the Baltimore homicide detectives and Kontsis all believe the teens' claim that when they found Annie, she was already dead.
The Baltimore police said they put intensive time and effort into the investigation, though the McCanns feel that as more clues gradually emerged, the police took less interest. The police did not have her phone, but they did have the record of the numbers she texted. The texts show no activity after 7:13 a.m. on October 30, the day before she took off. The police said they were able to locate everyone she contacted. No leads.
Police also looked at two computers Annie used at home. Again, nothing.
McLarney said in 2009 that the Baltimore police had spent 1,200 hours on the case, and that they considered the idea that someone was "luring young people to Baltimore." But they found nothing. "I'm sad it didn't get us anywhere," McLarney said. "But I'm happy with what we did."
The McCanns continued to push for answers. The idea of someone committing suicide by Bactine was too baffling to them, especially a girl who'd rarely been to Baltimore and who apparently was with an unknown woman. They consulted with top forensic pathologist Michael Baden, who told them there wasn't enough lidocaine in a bottle of Bactine to kill anyone.
In November 2012, the Baltimore police asked the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, which does criminal profiling, to take a look at their case files on Annie. In February 2013, the FBI sent a four-page memo to the Baltimore police, asking for more information from the police and making a number of "investigative suggestions."
The Baltimore police reinterviewed the McCanns, those connected to finding Annie's body, Kontsis, Annie's friends and people at her church, as well as did additional DNA work and analysis of Annie's computer. The police also recontacted Bayer, again asking only how much lidocaine was in a single five-ounce bottle, but not inquiring whether that lidocaine would be fatal, documents from Bayer show.
In September 2013, the police met with the FBI and the two sides agreed "that the probability of Annie McCann's death was the result of a homicidal act was very low," and FBI memo shows. Several FBI agents met with the McCanns in October 2013, prevented them from taking notes, and reiterated their conclusion that Annie wasn't killed.
"We were mousetrapped," Dan McCann said. "while the FBI gave the Baltimore police a gold-plated excuse to do nothing."
The Continuing Search
The McCanns still didn't give up. "It was a bitter day," Dan McCann said after he and his wife staggered out of the meeting where the FBI was enlisted to give them the final word that Annie's case was over. "We took a knee. Then we got back up and went back to work."
Dan and Mary Jane McCann, parents of Annie McCann, still pressing for answers to how she died in November 2008. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)
In 2015, the parents ran the lidocaine issue past another experienced pathologist, Harry J. Bonnell, formerly the chief deputy medical examiner of Cincinnati and San Diego. Bonnell wrote that "there is far more lidocaine found at the autopsy of Annie McCann than could possibly have been produced by her ingesting 5 fluid ounces of Bactine," and that it tasted so bad no human could ingest it without violent vomiting, though Annie's stomach was found to be very full. "There is a high probability of culpable adult involvement in this death," Bonnell concluded.
Then the McCanns did something they hadn't previously thought of: They asked for, and ultimately purchased, the autopsy photos of Annie. They received just six small black-and-white photos. One, at top, seemed to show Annie's face with scrapes and bruises, a fresh scar over her eyebrow which the McCanns said resembled a cigarette burn, and a chipped tooth, though the police had said she had suffered no trauma.
And then, looking closely at Annie's left leg, the McCanns spotted what clearly looks like a letter "J." Could it be a form of "branding," often done by human traffickers to identify their captives? Tim Ballard of Operation Underground Railroad thought so when shown the photo.
In an autopsy photo, the letter "J" appears on Annie McCann's lower left leg. Opinions differ on whether it was caused by lividity or something more sinister. (Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner)
The letter was not mentioned in the autopsy report. Fowler, the Maryland medical examiner, said it was the result of blood settling around something pushing into Annie's leg, or lividity, and Baden agreed with him.
Next, the McCanns turned to Grassley. In 2014, Grassley's interest in another Fairfax County case, the police shooting of John Geer, had been key to the release of more information.
The parents had always kept in touch with employees at Demaine Funeral Home in Alexandria, where Annie was embalmed. They asked the funeral director if she would send a letter to Grassley, and in November 2015 she did. It was a shocker.
"When the funeral home received Annie into our care," funeral director Diana L. Downey wrote, "her fingers were raisin-like which is conducive of being placed in water. Our staff at the funeral home always believed that Annie was raped (sodomized) and beaten and placed into water to either revive her or wash off evidence before they disposed of her body."
That letter helped convince Grassley and his staff to send letters to the Baltimore police, the FBI and Bayer in March 2016 asking for more information about Annie's case.
Scott Kuvin performed the embalming of Annie's body on Nov. 5, 2008, and he still remembers it clearly. "The biggest thing, and I said something to Diana [Downey], I was noticing that her rectum, that it was very large, very open. Things like that tend to stand out. That it's very abnormal. That bothered me. I showed it to Diana, she noticed it was obvious. When you come across something like that, it tends to stay with you."
There was no such mention of this in the autopsy report, which also found that Annie had not been vaginally raped. Fowler said in response, "The anus is a muscle. When you die, your muscles relax. Everything looks bigger and relaxed. The muscles do not retain form after death." Baden agreed with Fowler. But Kuvin said he has done thousands of embalmings, "and I still to this day have not seen that. Muscles tend to relax, but not to that point."
The McCanns also spoke to Barry Levine, the toxicologist who diagnosed the lidocaine overdose. He told them, and repeated in an interview Monday, that "I can't tell you that one bottle of Bactine was the lethal dose. I really don't know that." He said he had seen lidocaine in dead bodies many times, often injected by medical personnel using it to stop an irregular heart beat, which lidocaine is also used for. "Even when a person's effectively dead," Levine said, "we're not seeing anywhere near that concentration in the heart blood." He said he didn't know how that much lidocaine entered Annie's body - just that it was there.
In an interview last week, Baden said that lidocaine is typically injected in a medical setting, and ingesting it orally greatly reduces its absorption rate. Levine agreed. Baden also noted that it had been used in some homicides in hospitals. Robert Diaz, the "Angel of Death," fatally injected 12 patients with lidocaine while working as a nurse in California in 1981. But it is much less toxic when swallowed. And the autopsy found Annie had a very full stomach when she died.
In a 2009 internal email provided to Grassley earlier this year, a Bayer pharmacologist said that "acute oral toxicity" occurs at 220 milligrams per kilogram, so that a 50 kilogram person (110 pounds - Annie) would need an 11 gram dose of lidocaine, and that there were 3.75 grams in one bottle. So, about three bottles worth of lidocaine to be fatal. Unless it came from something other than Bactine.
"I'm almost certain that she died of lidocaine," Dan McCann said. "Taking that as the apparent cause of death, my guess is somebody slipped it in her drink."
Mary Jane McCann is still raw, tearful, eight years later. "It would be easier if Annie committed suicide," she said this week. "Then we wouldn't be going through this for eight years. But there's no way in hell she killed herself."