MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Medical examiner O.C. Smith, who has worked on some of the city's most puzzling deaths, is at the center of another perplexing case: He was attacked over the weekend, bound with barbed wire and left with a bomb tied to his body.
While the attacker's identity remains a mystery, authorities say they've found links to several similar bombs and three threatening letters concerning the medical examiner's testimony in a death penalty case.
"We think the letter writer is the person we're looking for," James Cavanaugh, agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for Tennessee, said Monday.
Smith, 49, was attacked as he left work Saturday night and was found 2 1/2 hours later lying in a parking lot.
A bomb squad removed the device and Smith escaped without serious injury, returning to the scene with minor cuts and bruises to assist authorities. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, including a profiler, and the FBI were called in.
Smith, who has declined to talk with reporters since the attack, was left in the parking lot of the Shelby County Regional Forensic Center on the campus of the University of Tennessee medical school. He suffered a burn on his face from a chemical thrown or sprayed in his eyes to subdue him.
Cavanaugh described the attacker as a 20- to 30-year-old male.
Gene Marquez, the ATF agent in charge in Memphis, said the bomb strapped to Smith was similar to three other "unsophisticated" explosive devices found in March in a hallway near Smith's lab.
All the devices were designed to hurt people, Marquez said.
Letters in April
In April 2001, three letters containing threats against Smith were sent to a law enforcement official, a newspaper reporter and a citizen. The ATF would not identify the recipients.
The anonymous letters were sent while a judge was hearing evidence in the case of convicted murderer Philip Workman, whose attorneys were trying to get his death sentence overturned. The attorneys challenged the validity of Smith's laboratory tests, which had aided prosecutors.
Smith's testimony supported Workman's conviction on charges of murdering a Memphis police officer in 1981. Workman doesn't deny taking part in a shootout with police but says the fatal bullet was fired by a fellow officer, not him. The courts have stayed the execution and Workman remains on death row.
As medical examiner, Smith performs autopsies on murder victims from throughout western Tennessee and often testifies in court.
Among his recent cases was the death of Harvard University biologist Don Wiley, whose accidental fall from a Memphis bridge in December fueled fears of terrorist kidnappings. The medical examiner also helped identify the body of Katherine Smith, 49, a state driver's license examiner who was found burned beyond recognition in February the day before a hearing on federal charges of helping five Middle Eastern men obtain fake driver's licenses. No one has been charged in her death.
Smith's colleagues describe him as a dedicated professional. Deputy Police Chief Bob Wright said Smith takes his work extremely seriously.
"You call him at 2 o'clock in the morning and say you've got a body and he's there," said Wright, a former homicide detective.