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Monthly Archives: May 2009

Jimi Hendrix Was Murdered? Say It Ain’t So

Anyone who knows anything about rock music knows Jimi Hendrix. Purple haze, All Along The Watchtower, Crosstown Traffic, Voodoo Child (Slight Return), the many variations of John Lee Hooker’s Red House, and of course, the incomparable Electric Ladyland album. And those of us who play guitar know that absolutely no one, no one, has ever played it better than Jimi. That’s why any discussion of who is the greatest guitar player of all time has to begin and end with Jimi Hendrix simply because he was better than all that came before and all that followed. Not negotiable. You can take that to the bank.

So now an article appears in the UK Daily Mail, suggesting that the guitar player might have been murdered. This isn’t a new allegation but this one comes from James “Tappy” Wright, a long time roadie for Hendrix. He has now come forward to say that Jimi’s manager, Michael Jeffrey, made a drunken confession that he had murdered the rock star. This confession apparently took place approximately a year after Hendrix’s death. And dear old James is just now coming forward with the story. Why now? Could it be the book he has just published? But that’s the cynic in me talking.

According to the roadie, Michael Jeffrey stuffed pills and poured red wine into Jimi’s mouth, which resulted in him vomiting and aspirating the wine and drowning. This type of aspiration asphyxia is not uncommon in alcohol and drug abuse. Both alcohol and sedatives can cause nausea and vomiting and, when the individual is either very stuporous or in a coma, anything vomited can be inhaled into the lungs and cause death from aspiration. The question here is whether Hendrix fed himself the drugs and wine, which he apparently had a habit of doing, or did someone force them on him. At this late date there is absolutely no way to determine what is the truth.

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Daily Mail Article

This brings up an interesting forensic topic. If someone dies from a supposed drug or alcohol overdose, what is most important? The amount of drug in the stomach or that in the bloodstream?
In Jimi’s case. the official cause of death was listed as “barbiturate intoxication and inhalation of vomit.” John Bannister, the surgeon who attempted to save Hendrix when he arrived at the hospital, says that he remembered there was a large amount of red wine in his lungs and his stomach and that to him there was no doubt that Hendrix had drowned in the red wine. The question raised by James Wright is whether this red wine was vomited up from Hendrix’s stomach or, as he claims Jeffrey told him, it was poured down Jimi’s throat.

The kicker here is that apparently Jimi’s blood-alcohol level was very low, indicating that the alcohol in his stomach had been recently consumed. Alcohol absorbs very rapidly from the stomach and into the bloodstream. Anyone who has taken a drink on an empty stomach can vouch for that. The fact that the blood-alcohol level was low means that the Jimi had not consumed the alcohol over a long period of time but rather within an hour, or likely less, before his death. Otherwise one would expect the blood-alcohol level to be higher.

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Tess Gerritsen Talks Medical Thrillers

Tess Gerritsen, a now-retired physician, is the New York Times Bestselling and multi-award-winning author of a dozen medical thrillers, including Harvest, Bloodstream, The Surgeon, The Apprentice, and The Keepsake. Her fiction career began while she was on maternity leave from her medical practice. Initially writing romantic suspense, she quickly transitioned to medical thrillers, her first, Harvest, hitting the bookstands in 1996. Since then her gritty, pulse-pounding stories have won her many fans around the world. Including me. So when she agreed to an interview, I was thrilled.

TGerritsen Photo 1

DPL: Your protagonists include a medical professional (Medical Examiner Maura Isles) and a cop (Detective Jane Rizzoli). Which do you find most enjoyable to work with? Easiest to write?

TG: I find Jane the most enjoyable to write, because she’s so unlike me. She’s aggressive, straightforward, and quick to express an opinion, which means it’s always easy to show, on the page, exactly what she’s thinking. Maura is far more introspective and reserved, and sometimes even I wonder what’s going through her mind!

DPL:  As a physician you know medicine and even though medicine and forensic science share a common language they are in many ways very different. How do you research the forensic science you need for your stories? Any favorite sources or websites?

TG: I have a huge library of reference books, everything from medical textbooks on surgery, pathology, and infectious disease to forensic texts dealing with taphonomy, geology, and radiology. Since I already have a background in science and medicine, it’s much easier for me to do the research — and understand exactly what I’m reading. All those years of medical training have certainly come in handy. I also love to use  the Journal of Forensic Sciences, where you can find some of the most recent research, as well as some fascinating case studies. Every so often, I’ll use one of those true cases in my books. That’s where “Airplane Man” came from in THE APPRENTICE.

DPL: What’s the coolest forensic detail you’ve used in your books?

TG: It was a detail that showed up in THE APPRENTICE. Suppose you’ve found a strand of a scalp hair — and that’s all you have. You know nothing about where it comes from, or who it belongs to. It turns out that by examining the root and hair shaft, you can tell whether that hair was pulled from a living person — or whether it came from a scalp that was already in the process of decomposition. Hair plucked from a living person looks different from hair plucked from a corpse.

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Posted by on May 29, 2009 in Interviews, Writing

 

Chatting with Dr. Cyril Wecht

The other night I had a long phone conversation with my good friend Dr. Cyril Wecht and was able to pick his brain on several interesting forensic topics of interest to writers. Dr. Wecht is an internationally renowned forensic pathologist who has published extensively and has been involved in some of the most famous, and infamous, cases in the history of modern criminal justice. Cases such as: JFK, RFK, MLK and James Earl Ray, Elvis, Marilyn, O.J., Tammy Wynette, Sunny von Bulow, Lacy Peterson, Stacy Peterson, Anna Nicole Smith, Mary Jo Kopechne, JonBenet Ramsey, Vince Foster, Ron Brown, Kurt Cobain, and the infamous Manson Family Tate-Labianca murders, just to name a few. Dr. Wecht graciously consented to answer my questions.

Wecht Photo

DPL:    How many autopsies have you performed in your career?

CW:    If you go back to 1957 when I started my residency…what is that?…52 years?…then I have performed over 16,000 postmortem examinations myself and consulted on another 36,000.

DPL: That’s an amazing number. The most common question writers ask me is: Is there an untraceable poison or at least some that are very difficult to uncover by autopsy and toxicological examinations?

CW: This is an excellent question and one that vexes forensic pathologists around the world. I would say that the two most common circumstances where a poison is not found are when the toxin used is outside the experience of the examiner or when the toxin is something that is normally found in the body or would expected to be there.

The first category would include exotic poisons such as those from spiders and snakes and other exotic creatures. These aren’t searched for simply because no one ever thinks to. I mean, if you have a corpse and you’re looking for a cause of death, why would you think to search for the toxin of a Japanese blow-fish or a rare African snake? And if you don’t think of it you won’t search for it. None of these turn up on routine toxicological screens so they have to be searched for specifically.

The other category are things that are normally present or would be expected to be found in the body of the victim. Potassium chloride (KCl) is a normal constituent of our blood and cells. It is also very deadly. It is the third drug used in the three drug lethal injection death penalty scenario. An injection of potassium chloride intravenously will cause virtually instantaneous death and the potassium after death is essentially untraceable. It’s supposed to be there. Insulin in a diabetic is a similar situation. Even if elevated insulin levels are found at autopsy, it could easily be attributed to an accidental overdose. Diabetics do this all too frequently. Or what about the cardiac patient who is taking digitalis? An excess amount of digitalis can cause cardiac arrhythmias and death. But finding an elevated digitalis level in the victim’s blood could easily be construed as a medication accident and the thought that a homicide had occurred might never enter the examiner’s mind.

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Amanda Knox, DNA, and the Italian Courts

The Perugia, Italy trial of American student Amanda Knox and her Italian ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito is poised to enter its fifth month.

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A third suspect, Ivory Coast national Rudy Guede, has already been tried and convicted for his part in this crime. The question now is whether Amanda and Rudy were involved in the murder of Meredith Kercher or not. Many feel that Amanda is the victim of an overzealous, and possibly corrupt, police investigator. Just ask best-selling author Douglas Preston. He and Italian investigative journalists Mario Spezi were nearly charged as a suspects in a famous serial killer case known as The Monster of Florence by the same investigator. In fact, Mr. Spezi was jailed for a time and Doug was asked, not so politely, to leave Italy. All because they were doing research and exploring this famous unsolved case. You can read about their incredible story in their book The Monster of Florence: A True Story.

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Now the Amanda Knox trial is entering its “forensics phase” and the prosecution is beginning to lay out its DNA evidence.

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Posted by on May 25, 2009 in DNA, Interesting Cases

 

Agatha Christie Inspires Serial Killer

Now there’s a headline you don’t see everyday. It seems a 32-year-old Iranian woman identified by the single name Mahin may have killed six or more people. Her motive appears to be financial gain in that she would drug the victims, murdered them, and then steal their valuables. The odd twist? During her confession, she stated that she was inspired by Agatha Christie novels and used them to plot her activities. A case of life imitating art. You just can’t make this stuff up.

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Agatha Christie

UK Guardian article

 
 

Is it Stacy or Lisa?

A badly decomposed corpse was found in the Des Plaines River near Chicago yesterday afternoon. It is in an area where the search for the body of Stacy Peterson had taken place earlier. This immediately raised speculation that this could be her remains or perhaps those of another high-profile missing person, Lisa Stebic. It could be either, or could be the body of some other unfortunate young lady. An autopsy is being performed today but that could take some time before the identity of the remains is released.

Interestingly, last Sunday, a blue barrel was found approximately a mile downstream from where the remains were located yesterday. This is important since Drew Peterson’s stepbrother Tom Morphey had previously told police that he helped Peterson load such a barrel into his truck around the time of Stacy’s disappearance.

Both of these findings could be instrumental in breaking this case and it’s ironic that they are occurring while Drew Peterson sits in jail with a murder charge hanging over his head. This could be just the evidence that the police have been looking for.

What will the medical examiner look for during the autopsy to help identify the corpse? I’m not sure exactly what the condition of these remains are, but if they are indeed Stacy, it is likely they are mostly skeletal given the many months that she has been missing. Even if this is the case, the bones still offer a wealth of information. The jaw and pelvic bones can reveal the victim’s sex. In the jaw, what is termed the posterior ramus of the mandible is curved in males but straight in females. In women, the pelvic bone is wider, to allow for childbirth, and what we call the sciatic notch, a notch in the pelvis where certain nerves pass through, is much broader than it is in males. Using these two bones the sex of any skeletal remains can usually be determined. Long bones, such as the femur (upper leg bone), can be used to estimate the victim’s height even if most of the other bones are missing. There are mathematical formulas for this determination. Of course dental records can be checked and DNA can be obtained from the bones or from any teeth present. These can easily establish a true identity. Hopefully we will know the results of the autopsy before too long.

The barrel can also supply a wealth of forensic information. Or it might supply nothing at all. Bits of tissue and bodily fluids and hair might be found clinging to the walls of the barrel and these could be DNA matched to the corpse and thus a link the corpse and the barrel to one another. Fingerprints might be found, probably not on the outside of the barrel since it has likely been in the river for many months and they would have likely washed away, but inside the barrel, particularly along the inner surface of the lid, some just might have survived. Also hair and fibers might be found inside that could be linked to the killer or to his home. Clothing fibers and fibers from carpets and automobile floor mats are often used to connect elements of a crime to one another. Here are a couple of articles on this unfolding story:

ABC News Story

Fox News Story

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

Crispy Corpses

Today I want to make a few comments about the burning of human corpses. First of all, I’d like to thank Leslie Ellen Jones Ph.D. for posting a link to an excellent article on the myths that surround corpses and fires on the Sisters in Crime eGroup today. I will supply a link to this article at the end of this post so that you all can read about this fascinating topic.

Unfortunately people die in home fires on an almost daily basis. Sometimes the medical examiner is faced with the difficult task of identifying a charred corpse. It’s not always as easy as it sounds. The face is unrecognizable, fingerprints burned away. If there are no dental records or DNA available, then the ID process can grind to a halt. I should point out that sometimes a body is so severely charred that there are no undamaged tissues remaining and those that are have been cooked to the point that usable DNA can’t be extracted. Here the ME might be able to glean some DNA by drilling into the teeth. The enamel will sometimes protect the pulp tissues enough so that usuable DNA survives. Or not. It could go either way.

Killers often attempt to dispose of bodies with the use of fire or by some other seemingly creative means. Some use acids, some use lye, and some even employ the old wood chipper. But the most common is by the use of fire.

Sometimes they will attempt to burn the building that the body is in, other times it will be an automobile, and at still other times they’ll dig a shallow pit an attempt to burn the body there. The problem is that most corpses won’t cooperate. It’s very difficult to destroy a human body. Think about it. When a body is cremated it is placed in an oven, very similar to a kiln used for ceramics, the temperature is raised to the neighborhood of 1500° or so, and the body is left there for a couple of hours. This will reduce the body to ash but even here sometimes bone fragments and teeth survive.

Most fires simply don’t get that hot for that period of time. At least not the part in contact or below the body. Let’s say a body is placed in a house and the house is then torched. As the house burns its support structures collapse, bringing the house with them. This might bury the body beneath the burning wood. Since heat rises  and the wood fuel is above the body, the corpse is relatively protected from the ravages of the fire. This is why corpses pulled from burning buildings are often severely charred but not completely destroyed. The same can be said for automobiles and fire pits. Bottom line is that it is just very difficult to destroy a body with fire. In the article there is a case of a body being burned in the trunk of a car. The physics of that situation are discussed there so I won’t repeat them here.

Another topic covered in the article is that of the position of a charred corpse. Sometimes the heat of the fire will desiccate (dry out) the muscles, causing them to contract, and when this happens the body will often take on what is called the pugilistic or fighters stance. The arms will curl against the chest or beneath the chin and the knees will flex slightly. Very reminiscent of the position a boxer takes in the middle of the ring. This doesn’t always happen but when it does it’s both dramatic and spooky.

The article also discusses the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion. Does this even exist? No one really knows. This topic is the subject of great discussion and controversy that borders on the metaphysical. There have been many cases of bodies found that were severely burned but the areas surrounding the body have been completely free of  fire damage. It appears as though the body simply burned up and that there was no external source of ignition. These are often cigarette smokers and a burning cigarette supplied the fire source. This can happen in enclosed areas where the oxygen supply might be limited. In this case, once the fire starts, rather than bursting into flames, the body smolders. As the body temperature rises and the skin splits from the heat, the body fat is exposed. This creates what is called a “wick effect.” Much like the tallow of a candle. The result is that the body slowly smolders, with the fat supplying the fuel, until it is reduced to a black, greasy mass. There’s an article on this subject in Wikipedia. The link is below.

Body Burners: The Forensics of Fire

Spontaneous Human Combustion–Wikipedia article

I hope this sparks some ghoulish story ideas for you.

 
 
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