‘Pistol-packin’ granny’ recalls life in the lab


Editor's note: This story contains descriptions of violent crimes.

Boots Horn averaged 280 bodies a year, which is to say that she came intimately close with that many dead people, presumably the victims of a crime or some mysterious form of termination for which there was not yet a resolution.


The process, undertaken with gloves to preserve evidence and a mask to mitigate the smell, was formulaic by design.

Photographs of the body in whatever condition it arrived at the morgue.

Clothing removed and bagged.

Hair combed with debris placed in white paper secured by a series of folds.

Nails scraped.

Prints stamped.

Blood drawn.

Body washed.

More photographs snapped, sometimes from within inches of the corpse and other times from a ladder that allowed an aerial view.

Still more photos, this time after the body had been opened and its organs, not always for the first time, shown the light of day.

Sometimes Horn cycled through four bodies a day, carefully collecting data and recording findings for what she called the deceased subject’s last stand. She rarely knew the whole story; it was her job to help solve those mysteries. In a career that no doubt waded into the gruesome and always toyed with her emotions, Horn spent the final part of her working life as a crime scene specialist in Indianapolis. Proximity to the state’s largest city meant there was almost nothing she didn’t see — we’ll get to that in a bit, but be warned some parts are graphic and may be too disturbing for some — and opened her to a profession that, while morbid, provided an outlet for her unending curiosity and a channel for her yearning to help anyone and everyone, dead or alive.

“Nobody knew what caused their death, whether they were at fault or somebody else was at fault or what the circumstances were. I always figured I’d do the best I could with everybody because what I discovered or collected or preserved might be the key to the whole case,” says Horn, 81 and living in Ireland the past few years. “It was a position with extreme responsibility.”

She took the long road

By the time Horn started work at the downtown Indy crime lab run in conjunction with area city and county law enforcement offices, she was 51 and her youngest child had started college.

If not for classes taken as a mid-life makeover necessitated when her husband, a preacher, left her when she didn’t see it coming, Horn would have continued to wander. Already having scaled corporate ladders from secretary to more promising work in engineering and purchasing departments at multiple places of employment, she was left with nothing when one company folded after the owner’s death. She settled for a gig in purchasing at RCA, but the pay was low and the system was far too discombobulated for someone who craves efficiency.

Here’s how much: When, she made pals with several police officers during after-work stops at a coffee shop and noticed them frequently lamenting their secretary’s poor way of preparing paperwork, she asked to see a report and offered to take it home to apply a serious edit.

“I don’t think they were supposed to show me,” she admits.

Her alterations were so strong that when the men learned the crime lab was about to expand, they urged Horn to apply to be their office manager.

She got the job and, always eager to explore, agreed to help in the morgue when the staff became bogged down.

“After working a year in the office, I knew what I wanted to do — be a crime scene specialist,” Horn says. “I started going to school.”

She earned status as a special deputy, aced firearms training and leapt into an assortment of other courses that elevated her from assistant to expert.

Still, the first time she scraped evidence from a corpse, the action exhumed a memory she didn’t like.

Horn’s cousin was 9 when she was killed in a car accident, and when Horn and her mother stood at the casket in the funeral home, Horn’s mother made her touch the body to say goodbye. Her cousin was cold and stiff. Horn never forgot.

“From that time until I did this job, I’d walk in a funeral home and get light-headed,” she says. “I had a real rush the first time they opened a body, felt myself almost reeling. It’s a matter of adjustment. You know why you’re there, therefore you can do it. ... When I went into this work, I realized my determination was strong enough to overcome my fear.”

She can never forget

Friends and family say they can’t believe Horn did what she did. An interesting line of work, they labeled it, uneasy with calling it something more descriptive.

The stories indeed plunge into rawness unseen by most every other profession known to man.

Horn once encountered a body that arrived at the lab after having been hit by a tractor trailer on an interstate. The woman had been abducted and, in an attempt to flee, leapt from a moving vehicle. It was foggy that day, and the driver of the semi never saw her.

The body, to put it somewhat delicately, did not arrive at the morgue looking like a body should look. The only route to identification was by way of a tattoo on a piece of skin.

The most startling part: That wasn’t the worst of the worst.

Two cases still bother Horn three decades later.

The first was a child, about 20 months old, who was already dead when her parents brought her to a hospital. In cases of an undetermined death, medical personnel do something called “running the bowel,” a process by which part of the person’s innards are inspected. In this case, examiners found that the child had been raped. The doctor working with Horn said the child suffered beyond belief before she died.

“I had never seen a doctor so upset,” Horn says. “He jumped up and down and said every cuss word I’ve ever heard or imagined.”

Horn went home that night and cried and cried. She thought about what she’d do if she had the chance at retribution. She can still see the girl’s face.

“She was a beautiful child,” Horn says. “Blue eyes. Long, blonde hair. She looked like an angel.”

Having planned to study nursing way back in high school — and as a mother to four children — Horn was no stranger to the human body. But surgeries are often planned and skinned knees are fairly placid.

Horn was often sent to crime scenes riddled with rodents, filled with the stench of urination and absent of electricity. Junkies and prostitutes, she says, loitered. She wore a uniform and carried a gun but her most powerful weapon was the camera; it was her job to establish a perimeter, take photographs and collect evidence before detectives and, if necessary, the coroner, moved in.

“It isn’t pleasant but it’s necessary and God gave me whatever it takes that I could do it,” Horn says. “I don’t know where it came from because I’m pretty much a gentle creature.”

With flush cheeks and sweet perfume, Horn is bubbly, the kind of personality that brightens even the darkest room.

But positivity can disarm only so much horror.

Maybe it was the ages of the victims or maybe it was the ax in the man’s head, but there’s one more case that Horn cannot forget.

A minister and his wife had been helping a young man through a few of life’s potholes and were presumably out for the night when the teenager and a friend broke into the home. When the couple arrived at the house, the young men murdered the couple and stomped the family cat to death.

“How they murdered them was the thing,” Horn says. “The kid found an ax in the garage and slaughtered them. Then they set the house on fire.”

When the bodies arrived at the lab, the ax was still lodged in the minister’s head.

She’s still going

Not all that long ago, Horn returned to her past.

She’s been retired for more than 20 years but the meticulous record keeping of crime scene specialists means their work is for years linked to cases that could surface in court. She’s been called to the witness stand many times, including after her career ended. Defense attorneys probe for loopholes, but Horn did everything she could to eliminate any and all escape routes.

Notes were registered and evidence was labeled. Items were dried, with papers situated to collect whatever fell to the ground. Wounds were measured. Security tape was applied and written reports sealed.

It’s part of the job, but you get the feeling Horn was more determined than necessary.

The only woman in the lab, she attended coroners conventions and took classes in various locales — St. Louis, the U.S. Air Force, down the road at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis — for various subjects. She helped resurrect a statewide association that met monthly to discuss means of identifying bodies, taught seminars at the lab and always perked up when doctors from the Indiana University School of Medicine brought students to the lab because when they learned, she learned. Among the things she gleaned: That when old corpses arrived, it was sometimes necessary to obtain finger prints by softening the skin or removing the skin from the victim’s fingers then inserting her own hand into the opening, like slipping on a glove, before pressing the appendage to the ink.

“A lot of details. We had on one rape case with a ledger as long as this table of things we had to check,” she says, motioning to a table about 10 feet long. “I worked really hard at collecting evidence because I wanted so badly to be in on the team that helped resolve it. ... I didn’t care about what side of the street they were from; they were humans. I cared so much that the right thing be done whether they were guilty or a victim.”

It was a job Horn forfeited only because she had to. On her way to work one morning, she was struck by a car — the driver ran a stoplight — in a collision that shattered one of her legs and forced her to spend a year in a wheelchair. With no guarantee when she could return to work after being hit by the car, she had no option but to leave the lab.

She moved south five years ago to be closer to her daughter and son-in-law, Sherry and Daniel Amstutz, who live on the western edge of Dubois County. Her other children — Jennifer Claypool, Stanley Horn and Debra Roop — remain in the Midwest (Indiana and Ohio). Some of her 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, who dubbed her their “pistol-packin’ granny” — are within reach as well. She volunteers, rarely watches TV and ponders going back to college for some writing classes because “you get dull if you just sit.”

She rarely talks about her life in the lab and while she recognizes both the significance of her work and the meandering path she’s taken, she prefers to quietly carry on.

“It’s been a different life than most of my friends. They think I’m telling tall tales so I don’t bother talking about it,” she says. “I felt like God gave me a job to do and I did it.”

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