One of the first pathologists in Greenville reflects on unsolved cases

GREENVILLE, NC (WNCT)- Dr. Lee West is one of the first pathologists to practice in Greenville. He has performed thousands of autopsies. He says he solved most of them. Dr. West thinks technology has come a long way since he first started. He says if the handful of cases he couldn’t solve happened today, they wouldn’t be left unanswered.

“I have either performed or participated in between 3 and 4 thousand autopsies,” Dr. West said.

81-year-old Dr. Lee West, is one of the first pathologists in Pitt County. For over 50 years he’s determined the cause of death for thousands of people in Eastern North Carolina. A handful of them stay with him, and one in particular sticks out.

Dr. West said, “There was just no findings on that body that would give us any clue as to what happened.”

The body of Sheila Brown was found in the woods near Ayden in 1973. West performed the autopsy and couldn’t find a cause of death, investigators closed the case as death by natural causes. As Brown’s daughter looks at her mother’s picture she wonders what really happened.

“The not knowing what happened, is really hard, the not knowing,” Iris Brown, Sheila Brown’s daughter said.

Iris Brown has lived her whole life with what she says is an empty space in her heart.

Brown said, “I would have dreams of what it would’ve been like to have my real mother here.”

Now more than 40 years later, her mother’s case may go from cold to hot. The Pitt County Sheriff’s office re-opened it in June. Pathologists say if the technology today was available back then, a lot of the cases left undetermined, including Brown’s could’ve been solved.

“We would’ve been able for instance to look and see and find greater evidence of wether or not she had been sexually assaulted,” Pathologist Dr. William Oliver said. “If she had not been sexually assaulted we would have a much better chance of finding a genetic issue with her heart that may not show up anatomically, instead it can only show up through genetic analysis.”

Oliver says tools, microscopes, and laboratory technology have come a long way since 1973. Iris Brown says she knows nothing will bring her mother back, but finding out how she died, would bring piece of mind.

“That would make me feel wonderful, just to know what really happened,” Brown said.

Dr. West says its always frustrating to work hard on a case and come up empty handed.

“Because you put a lot of effort into the examination and all and when you don’t come up with an answer of course you’re disappointed,” Dr. West said.

Iris Brown says she hasn’t heard from the Pitt County Sheriff’s office in months. Last thing she heard, investigators were still trying to exhume her mother’s body.

Dr. West is helping with the case, but is retired from medicine.

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