Ross left work at 4:16 pm that day. He and two friends, Winston Milling and Alex Hall, were planning to see a movie, 22 Jump Street, at the AMC theater near Akers Mill Square. Several minutes into the drive, Ross looked over his right shoulder to change lanes and caught a glimpse of Cooper. Witnesses said his tires were screeching as he pulled into Akers Mill and stopped the car in the middle of the road by Maddio’s Pizza. With the help of a bystander named Anthony Pantano, he pulled Cooper out of the vehicle and began CPR.
Decomposition or the Smell of Death
Cooper had been dead for approximately 4-5 hours when Ross got him out of the car. Days after his arrest, Fox News reported that “two Cobb County law enforcement sources, who asked not to be named, said authorities were immediately skeptical of Ross Harris’s claim that his son’s death in a hot car was a horrible accident. When police arrived at the scene last Wednesday, sources say the smell inside the car ‘reeked’ and ‘it smelled to high heaven of a dead body’… the fact that Harris ignored the smell for that long was ‘clue number one he wasn’t telling the truth.’ ”
You may wonder why Ross even got in the car if there was, in fact, an overwhelming stench. Why not “discover” Cooper right there in the Treehouse parking lot? What did he have to gain by driving over a mile before seeing his son in the back seat? Those were the questions the prosecution had to answer, and this was what they came up with: Ross never had any intention of going to the movies. His plan all along was to drive to Akers Mill shopping center, because he wanted lots of people around when he discovered Cooper. He wanted the attention.
Frankly, that’s a ludicrous scenario. The Treehouse parking lot was full of cars when Ross left work that day, with employees still coming and going. In fact, as he’s walking to his car at 4:15, there’s another person walking directly behind him. If Ross wanted attention, there was plenty to be had right there.
At the July 3rd, 2014 probable cause hearing, Phil Stoddard described accessing the vehicle around midnight on June 18.
Boring: When you executed that search warrant and went inside that vehicle, did you notice anything?
Stoddard: It smelled like…it was a foul odor. It smelled like decomposition or death.
Carey Grimstead was with Stoddard when they accessed the vehicle. The report he submitted in 2014 made no mention of an odor in the car, but two years later he told the prosecutor that it was a “sweaty, musty kind of smell…an odor that I normally associate with death.”
Lumpkin: Did it smell like body fluids?
Grimstead: Lots of times it’s a sweaty, musty kind of smell. It’s very difficult to explain that smell to somebody who’s never smelled it before.
Lumpkin: But you didn’t document that at all in your very detailed report?
Grimstead: No, I did not.
Lumpkin: It wasn’t until about a year later that you decided to do a report to try to document that?
Grimstead: That is correct.
Lumpkin: Do you recall who it was who asked you to go back and do that?
Grimstead: I was reviewing my reports, because I knew the case was coming up to trial, so I wanted to be somewhat familiar with it. We were talking with Detective Stoddard and we talked about that.
Lumpkin: You were talking specifically about whether there was some smell?
Grimstead: Well, that had come up during the conversation.
Stoddard’s boss, Lieutenant James Ferrell, testified at trial that he arrived at Akers Mill around 5 pm. Ross’s car was still running, with the A/C on and the driver’s door open. Standing a foot away, he could smell “sweat, diapers, and then like the, ah, the odor of death.” He also claimed that he smelled an odor of decay in Cooper’s diaper when the medical examiner’s investigator manipulated the body at the scene.
Lumpkin: The smell you referred to in your report, you specifically indicated that when you leaned down you could smell the odor of decay in his diaper?
Ferrell: Yeah, I could smell the odor of whatever gases come off your body, a dead body.
Please note that the smell of death, decay, and gases that Ferrell testified to in 2016 wasn’t documented in a report until a full year after Cooper’s death.
Lumpkin: Was it detective Stoddard who came to you a year later and said hey, are you going to write that report now?
Ferrell: Actually he was putting together his case file for the D.A’s office and I ran into him. It just dawned on me that, hey, I need to write a report for you about the things from that night and that’s when i went back and wrote it.
Lumpkin: But as you indicated, you just got busy & distracted & didn’t do a report.
Ferrell: I did.There’s really no excuse.
Lumpkin: You just forgot.
Ferrell: I did forget. I failed to write it.
Dr. Frist’s testimony, however, contradicted Stoddard’s, Ferrell’s, and Grimstead’s
Lumpkin: When you have a death, sometimes gases can build up inside a body?
Lumpkin: And we don’t have that in this case?
Lumpkin: You said that, in your opinion, you did not believe there was a smell of decomposition?
Frist: Not per se, that’s correct. I just believe there was a stale smell.
Anthony Pantano actually climbed into the car to help Ross get Cooper out of the vehicle. He then positioned himself at Cooper’s head as Ross attempted CPR. Anthony testified at trial that he smelled nothing in the car.
Martin Jackson examined Cooper’s body at the scene. Having previously worked in his family’s funeral home, he was well acquainted with the odor of decomposition.
Evans: Did you smell an odor while you were manipulating him?
Jackson: Yes, there was an odor of urine present.
Lumpkin: In your report there’s a column that notes drugs or injuries or decomposed. None of those are indicated, right?
Brad Schumpert arrived on the scene at 5:30 p.m. to take measurements and photographs of Cooper’s body.
Evans: Did you get close enough that you could actually smell Cooper?
Schumpert: Yes. I’d describe it as a hot, musty, urine-soaked diaper…it was unremarkable.
Lumpkin: You didn’t note that detail in your report?
Schumpert: No, to me the smell was unremarkable. It’s a baby, a toddler, had a wet diaper.
The odor of decomposition began with Stoddard, but he performed a quick backpedal at trial. On cross-exam, he explained it this way: ” When we go to a scene and you smell death, it’s used interchangeably. Not the correct way to use it, because decomposition deals with the body actually breaking down, but I would use it – I smell decomposition or I smell death.”
It’s used interchangeably? No sir, no ma’am, no way. Stoddard had a long career with law enforcement, and had undoubtedly smelled decomposition before. It’s a powerfully distinct odor that can’t be confused with urine or sweat or anything else for that matter. It stands alone in the sense that once you smell it, you never forget it. Stoddard realized that a smell of decomposition wasn’t going to fly, so he covered himself by adding “the smell of death.”
The smell of death. All three men used that same exact phrase, but what is the smell of death? Well, it turns out there isn’t one. There are way too many variables involved to use that catchall expression. A body that has been undiscovered for days is going to have a smell of decomposition. A recently deceased body may have no odor at all. Dr. Joe Burton, former chief medical examiner for metro Atlanta, was interviewed for the AJC podcast about this case. “I’ve done 10,000 autopsies and if you asked me what death smells like, I couldn’t tell you.”
Dr. Burton went on to explain, “I think there’s a good chance he didn’t smell anything, because there wasn’t anything to smell. You have to get bacterial growth, and then it’s methane that you’re smelling. Five hours later the body’s beginning to decompose, but not to the point that you’d smell anything. If it was a big, fat person you might, but this baby had very little body fat and that’s what smells the worst. It would surprise me if the child smelled enough that you’d notice it when you got in, especially if you immediately turned on the air conditioner. It blows everything away from your face and that’s where I have mine aimed, at my face, all the vents.”
Brad Schumpert testified that the air conditioning was on in Ross’s car at the scene, with the vents angled upward toward the driver’s head. Even if there had been a stale odor in the car, the air would have blown it away from his face. Georgians will tell you that in the brutal mid-June heat, the first thing you do when entering your car is to turn the A/C on full blast.
This entire issue is very disturbing. Shortly after Cooper’s death, Stoddard told the media that Ross had to know Cooper was in the car because of a decomposition odor. James Ferrell neglected to write a report citing “decay and gases” until a year later when the case was ready to go to trial. Carey Grimstead’s 2014 report contained no mention whatsoever of an odor. A year later, after speaking to Stoddard, he amended his report to include an odor that smelled like death.
The lack of a decomposition odor, or any discernible odor, is cited in numerous hot car deaths. In July 2015, Arkansas Judge Wade Naramore forgot to drop off his 18-month old son, Thomas, at day care. Naramore left work early that day, ran errands, and then went home. Around 3 p.m., as he was driving to the day care to pick up Thomas, he realized that his son was still in the car, and had been for the last 7 hours. He smelled nothing, even when running errands with his deceased child in the back seat.
Kari Engholm, a hospital administrator in Iowa, forgot to drop her 7-month old daughter, Clare, at the babysitter’s in June 2001. After work, Kari drove to the post office and then to day care to pick up her son. As she opened the back door of the car to let her 3-year old in, she saw Clare, still strapped in her car seat. By that time, her daughter had been in the car for ten hours, with temperatures approaching 90 degrees. There was no odor to alert Kari, even as she ran multiple errands after work.
In June, 2018 pediatric nurse Nicole Engler’s husband was asleep after his night shift as an emergency room technician, so she decided to take their 21-month old daughter, Remi, to day care that morning. Like Wade Naramore, Ross Harris, and countless other parents, she pulled into work that morning believing she’d already dropped her child off. Completely unaware that Remi was still in her car seat, Nicole drove to a diner several hours later, telling the servers about an upcoming fishing trip the family was planning, as well as Remi’s latest accomplishments. At 4:30 she left work, walked to her car, and discovered her deceased daughter in the back seat. The Douglas County Medical Examiner’s office has ruled Remi Engler’s death an accident.