Detectives who combed bluffs and a slightly wooded area of waterfront property near River Canyon Trail along the Tennessee River this week were looking for the skeletal remains of women who possibly were dumped there by a serial killer.
"We don't have anything to substantiate it at this point," Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said when asked about the possibility of a serial killer.
"We're just looking at whether or not there's credibility at this time."
The search for remains in the same location where the bones of 33-year-old Melissa Ward were found nearly seven years ago was suspended Friday, sheriff's Capt. Bill Johnson said.
"Right now, we're evaluating it," he said. "It doesn't mean we won't go back out there."
Investigators have identified people of interest in the case, but have declined to release any details.
Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor and chairman of the Department of Sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said serial killers typically commit three or more homicides with a significant pause in between. If the time between deaths is close, it's considered a spree, he said.
A search for remains several years later can be challenging for law enforcement, Kobilinsky said.
"Soft tissue is gone. There's only bones. Bones are going to get scattered by animals. You're not going to find all the bones in one place. They may be within 400 to 500 feet within the center of where the bodies were first deposited," Kobilinsky said.
He said investigators may use a helicopter, ground searches and revisit missing persons lists.
"There's got to be a very comprehensive search. That's going to require huge police resources. They are going to have to search that entire area on foot, looking through that area," Kobilinsky said.
Ward was last seen Oct. 29, 2004, getting into a red pickup with a white camper top at a Bi-Lo parking lot. She was reported missing Nov. 2, and her skeletal remains were discovered Dec. 5, 2004.
Strangely enough, Bryan Hoss, a local defense attorney who has represented accused killers, discovered Ward's remains.
He said he was at lunch in fall 2004 looking at the real estate section of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when he saw an ad for waterfront property. The property, along Cash Canyon Road, was for sale.
"I ended up meeting a guy out there on the property. It's beautiful out there," he said, describing a series of bluffs, forests and grassy areas beside the river. "We started walking on the bluff lots. I came upon this small trail and saw all these curved bones lying along the trail, scattered everywhere."
Hoss said the man he was with first thought they appeared to be deer bones until more distinctive bones were discovered, including a spinal column and skull.
Investigators are trying to interview people of interest and say they hope they will find physical evidence.
"We're just trying to gather enough evidence to see if this is something we can pursue," Hammond said.
Even if a suspect confesses or someone provides important information to detectives and remains are found, detectives still need a link, Kobilinsky said.
"The most crucial aspect is identifying the victims. They might be able to do that with good police work, good detective work and possibly DNA. Once they know the identity of the victims, why were these people chosen to be killed? Were they prostitutes? Were they men, women, children? How did they put themselves at risk?" he said.
Ward had a record of prostitution and drug use, according to Hamilton County General Sessions Court records.
Serial killers often have a history of abuse and a record of committing lesser crimes, Kobilinsky said.
"Usually, there is a history discovered after they are caught," he said.
Anyone with any information is asked to call sheriff's Lt. Chris Chambers at 423-209-8940.