Former Tri-City man to testify in George Zimmerman trial

By Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldJune 29, 2013 

A key figure in the trial of George Zimmerman, charged with murdering Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, has a Mid-Columbia connection.

Dr. Shiping Bao performed Martin's autopsy and is expected to testify before a national TV audience this week.

Bao lived in the Tri-Cities from 1995 to 2004, and was an important member of the team at Washington State University's U.S. Transuranium and Uranium Registries in Richland.

"He was an outstanding researcher," said the program's former director, Ron Kathren. "I used to say that if anybody in our group was going to be a candidate for a Nobel Prize, it was going to be him."

Bao was born and raised in China, where he earned a medical doctorate and a graduate degree in radiation medicine. He came to the United States as a young man, working as a researcher for three years in Tallahassee, Fla., before Kathren recruited him.

Bao told the Herald that he earned $15,000 a year in Florida, with no benefits or health insurance.

"It was a much better job," Bao, 50, said of why he came to Richland. "Much better pay, much more stable."

Bao's job, which also included work with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, involved providing medical advice on the cadavers of former nuclear workers who had donated their bodies for research. His contributions included coming up with a unique way of culturing cells from lungs.

"That was extraordinary," Kathren said.

After working with Kathren in the late 1990s, Bao left to become a researcher at XL Sci-Tech Inc., a Richland specialty materials and research company.

Bao has fond memories of living in the Tri-Cities, he said. His two daughters were born in Richland. He also remembers taking walks from his home to the Columbia River.

"It was so calm, so nice," Bao said.

Moving on

Ultimately, Bao decided that he wanted to put his medical degree to use.

Kathren said Bao initially was reluctant to take the test that would allow him to move into forensic pathology. Passing the board exam is required for people who studied to become doctors in other countries and want to practice medicine in the United States.

But several people, including Kathren and Ben Peng, an owner of XL Sci-Tech, encouraged him to take the test, Kathren said.

"We just beat on him until he said, 'I'll do it,' " Kathren joked.

Bao chose to move into medicine rather than spending his career as a researcher because his grasp of English still was limited, he said. Convincing government officials that you need funding is a big part of being a researcher.

"Being a Ph.D., you really have to be able to present, you really have to be able to write grants," said Tony Brooks, a now-retired WSU Tri-Cities radiation toxicology professor who worked with Bao and Kathren. "He said, 'I'm not going to be able to do that.' "

Bao, who earned his green card and became a U.S. citizen while living in Richland, studied for the board exam for two years. He thanks his employers for letting him take time from work to study.

"That's why America is the best country," he said. "Because they give you the opportunity if you can do it."

Bao went on to do his four-year residency in pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

He then spent three years in the medical examiner's office in Fort Worth, Texas, the last two as deputy medical examiner. The job gave Bao an opportunity to pull a little rank on his old boss.

"I called Ron Kathren and said my pay is as high as his," he remembers with a laugh.

The big case

In August 2011, Bao took his current job with Volusia County's medical examiners office, near his home in Daytona Beach, Fla.

The office also is responsible for autopsies in nearby Seminole County, which would become the site of one of the country's more controversial shootings in recent years.

On Feb. 27, 2012, Bao performed an autopsy on Martin, 17, a day after the unarmed black teen was killed in Sanford, Fla. Bao determined that Martin died of a gunshot wound to the chest from intermediate range. He ruled the shooting a homicide.

At the time, Bao thought the autopsy was routine. He had no clue the young man he was looking at would, in death, become a worldwide figure, discussed by President Obama and numerous celebrities.

"It was just another case," he said. "I finished the autopsy in one-and-a-half hours. I typed it up in one hour."

A national controversy erupted when local prosecutors didn't charge Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch commander in the gated community where Martin was staying. Protesters around the country alleged the decision was racially motivated.

A special prosecutor charged Zimmerman, 29, with second-degree murder in April 2012. He could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted. He claims self-defense, saying he and the teen got in a fight.

Based on pre-trial questioning, Bao said Zimmerman's attorneys are likely to try to attack his credibility when he takes the stand in the trial, which he's been told will happen either Wednesday or Friday.

He expects the defense to question why he left the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office in Fort Worth after three years there.

The reason he moved was simple -- he fell in love with Daytona while interviewing for the job of associate medical examiner, he said. He remembers staying in a high-rise hotel overlooking the beach.

"I looked out the glass down to the ocean," he said. "It's 4 a.m. and there are already people running on the beach. The sun, the sand, I say I want to come out here."

Even though English is Bao's second language, Brooks expects him to do well on the stand.

"It'll be hard for him, but he's gained a lot of confidence in his field," Brooks said. "That confidence will come through when they question him."

Bao keeps in touch with several of the people he got to know in the Tri-Cities, including Brooks and Kathren. He calls Kathren his "godfather."

Kathren, in turn, considers Bao an "adopted son."

"I've followed his life and career with considerable interest," Kathren said.

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