He mysteriously disappeared on October 12, 2012 from downtown Indianapolis, Indiana where he'd spent the evening entertaining himself at a few popular watering holes.
Peppers Bar, Applebee's Restaurant, Mindshaft, Landsharks...the 23-year-old friendly, fearless, and athletic Walton Matthew Ward spent an hour or two at all of these crowded establishments, socializing, dancing, and drinking at each one before moving on to the next.
At 10:30 p.m. when his mother buzzed his cell phone just to touch base with him again and chat for a few minutes, Ward assured her everything was okay and that, as might be expected, he was having a blast.
But shortly thereafter, at approximately two in the morning, there was a drastic change in that happy status. Ward was dragged from Landsharks by security staff into the parking lot, and during this event he placed an emergency 911 call which was terminated after only one second.
After that, the outgoing young man wouldn't be seen again until October 23rd when construction workers downtown discovered his body floating in the White River.
It all seemed suspicious, of course—a classic "Smiley Face" abduction and murder—but, notwithstanding signs of foul play, investigators informed the victim's mother and father that he went down to the riverbank on his own free will and, because he was overly intoxicated, fell into the water and "accidentally drowned.” His 911 call, they said, was "just a misdial.”
It's a story police in America's northland have told to hundreds of heartbroken parents of missing young males many times throughout these past 15 years: Their sons were drinking too much, completely lost their wits from inebriation, decided to go for a wintery swim in a nearby body of water to wear it off, and perished in the process.
There's just one problem, though. Matthew Ward wasn't drunk.
At work or on the road, toxicology tests, particularly those for detecting blood/alcohol, have become a major feature of modern society. And their frequent use these days by employers and law enforcement has brought about significant scientific improvements in them which, by now, ensure almost 100 percent reliability.
When test subjects are alive, that is.
Ascertaining accurate blood/alcohol levels in cadavers though is a whole different matter, with the same testing methods often generating figures so askew that the data is typically regarded as undependable without a painstaking, educated analysis.
That's because alcohol is a natural byproduct of decomposition, and, when the various internal systems of a corpse begin to putrefy, all these fluids, microbes and contaminants start to seep from organ to organ.
This will produce results that perplex inexperienced or shoddy medical examiners, such as prominent spikes in BAC readings. Truly skilled toxicologists on the other hand recognize that anywhere from a third to ALL of the alcohol in a decomposing corpse can be attributed solely to putrefaction, with very elevated BAC rates commonly found in the bodies of diabetics, as well as those submerged in water for a period of time.
In short, whether retrieved on land or at sea, healthy or diseased, the problem posed for technicians is essentially identical. The blood of any corpse is undergoing such rapid alterations in consistency and chemistry that, unless it’s obtained by vein shortly after a victim expired and promptly scrutinized, BACs from the blood of the dead have very little diagnostic value.
For this reason postmortem BAC tests on a decomposing body, if conducted at all, will usually be performed on other areas which in the living could not normally be probed. The bladder, the eyeball and the heart, for instance, are commonly analyzed for alcohol content, although findings in these organs tend to show a relatively wide variance.
Most experienced pathologists in fact are inclined to discount alcohol concentrations found in the heart muscle of a cadaver as well as those in the urine, because, at this point, these too have been corrupted and are no longer indicative of the true blood content at the time of death. Moreover, because heart and urine readings often sharply conflict, they are rarely used for legal purposes.
Of those iffy two, however, a UAC (urine alcohol concentration) is viewed by examining physicians to be the more accurate. But nevertheless, warns Dr. Nachman Brautbar, an expert witness and author of Principals and Pitfalls of Alcohol Toxicity, “the use of urine alcohol collected postmortem is not practical for forensic purposes.”
In such cases it is the Vitreous, the gelatinous mass that fills the space between the lens and the retina, that will provide the clearest, unadulterated picture of what amount of alcoholic liquids, if any, was actually consumed by an individual antemortem.
The eyes have it
The eyes are said to be the windows of the soul, and, even when dead, even when that soul is long gone, eyes can still act like portals to whatever else remains nestled within the dearly departed.
If there are spirits of the alcoholic variety, chemical traces of those toxins will be safely stored for quite some time within the eyes. Enough, in fact, that when adjusting for a reasonable rate of putrefaction, they can give a pretty good idea of how drunk a person was or wasn’t at the very moment when death occurred.
Although the eye is obviously subject to decaying processes too, it is basically an enclosed organ system and, as a result, less susceptible to rotted contaminants diffusing or leeching from other parts of the body.
It’s also easy to access without requiring a full autopsy; you just take a sample of the Vitreous Humor.
Everything before and after “but” is a lie
When a young man like Matthew Ward uncharacteristically goes missing, anxious parents are first advised by law enforcement that the disappearance is “intentional” and their son “doesn’t want to be found yet.”
When the term of his absence extends beyond what might be deemed normal or voluntary, then parents are frequently told that the police are “too busy” with cases of greater importance.
When the missing man’s body is finally spotted in the nearby waterway days, weeks, or months later, then authorities quietly close the case with a final determination that the deceased had gotten so sloppy drunk on the night he vanished he decided to go for a dip and stupidly drowned as a consequence.
Nevermind if it was too cold for swimming and the water itself frozen or not deep enough, or that the guy wasn’t heading there anyway and had even called for help. Cops know their version is still going to seem logical on paper because usually the "drown" victim had been out partying when last observed.
And remember, whether he’d gotten himself intoxicated to the point of staggering really won’t matter in the end because, since all corpses decompose eventually, it’s virtually guaranteed that a good deal of alcohol will be detectable in his system.
The alcohol concentration level in Walton Matthew Ward’s heart was 0.280, and the level in his urine 0.400. High readings in either event, to be sure. But, as investigators fully know, it’s only what was in his eyes that counts in this case, and that was a mere 0.132 before adjusting downward for postmortem putrefaction.
A detective from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department begrudgingly furnished the above forensic data to Ward’s loved ones, disingenuously adding, “but I don’t know what it means.”
Well, seriously, it isn't that complex. Simply put, it means that Matthew Ward’s BAC at the hour of his death was only slightly over the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle. It means that the tale of him entering the water on his own volition is false. It means the chances he “accidentally drowned” while in an alcoholic stupor are tiny to nil. It means his 911 call was not a mistake and should have been followed up immediately by the dispatcher, as is customary police procedure. It means his parents were right—their son was in danger.
So, there is now only one question left for the IMPD to honestly answer: Since Ward clearly wasn’t falling down drunk, and there was indeed “no blunt force trauma” to suggest he’d lost his footing and knocked himself unconscious either, then how on earth did he end up dead in the rocky shallows of the White River?
Eponymous Rox is the author of THE CASE OF THE DROWNING: Investigating the Smiley Face Serial Murder Theory