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Crime and Science Radio: Crime and Science in the OC: an Interview with Bruce Houlihan, Director of the Orange County Crime Lab

Houlihan

BIO: Bruce Houlihan is Director of the Orange County Crime Lab in Santa Ana, California, and has been with the County of Orange for 29 years. He spent much of his childhood living in Tokyo, Japan, and also Southern California where he was born. After completing an undergraduate degree in chemistry and physics, he spent a year doing graduate study in chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, and another two years of graduate leadership study at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa. He has taught chemistry and physics at Vanguard University as a part-time adjunct for many years while working for the Sheriff-Coroner as a forensic scientist (formerly known as criminalists). After being hired in the mid 1980’s, he began work in the forensic chemistry areas, specifically toxicology and controlled substance analysis. He served as the president of the California Association of Crime Laboratory Directors, is a member of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, and is currently participating with NIST on the Organization of Scientific Area Committees during the current national dialog in forensics. Mr. Houlihan serves at one of the largest crime labs in the country, with over 130 forensic specialists, forensic scientists, and support staff. He lives with his family in Orange County, and in his spare time enjoys reading, creative thinking, and puzzles.

LISTEN: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/suspensemagazine/2015/12/15/crime-and-science-radio-with-special-guest-bruce-houlihan

Link will go live Saturday February 13, 2016 at 10 a.m. Pacific

LINKS:

Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department – Orange County Crime Lab http://www.occl.ocgov.com

Orange County Sheriff’s Department – http://ocsd.org

American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors http://www.ascld.org

American Academy of Forensic Sciences http://www.aafs.org

California Association of Criminalists http://www.cacnews.org

 

The Mystery Readers Journal Forensic Mysteries Issue is Out

2016 MRI Forensic Issue

 

The Mystery Readers Journal Forensic Mysteries Issue is out and it’s excellent. Filled with wonderful and informative articles by some really fun folks. Janet always does such a wonderful job and this issue is a testament to that.

If you don’t belong to Mystery Readers International, you should.

Details and links to join are here: http://mysteryreaders.org

Here is my contribution:

THE QUESTION I GET

Every writer knows that creating an engaging and believable story is the primary goal of fiction writing. Taking readers into the story world and holding them there isn’t all that easy. And making basic errors in fact can all too often snap the reader right out of the story. A writer’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.

I have been consulting with authors and screenwriters on medical and forensic science story issues for the last 20 years and over that time have answered around 6000 questions. I am constantly amazed by the creative mind of an author. This is particularly true in the crime fiction and thriller genres. Equally impressive to me is that these are the authors who do the research, who try to get it right.

So, what are the most common things that I get asked? Poisons and rendering someone unconscious for varying periods of time are near the top of the list.

Many great murder mysteries, past and current, deal with poisons. Why not? They’re excellent tools for fictional murder. They require no physical confrontation and can even be set up so that the deed occurs days, weeks, or months later, when the perpetrator is far away. Clean and simple. No mess to clean up.

But poisons do possess limitations. Let me dispel one myth right up front—-there are no untraceable poisons. It might not be found but if it is looked for diligently enough and with the available sophisticated techniques, it will be found. Common poisons such as narcotics, amphetamines, barbiturates, and sedatives of various types are part of virtually every drug screen and therefore are easily found by the toxicologist. Others such as plant toxins, and many unusual chemicals, are more difficult. These require that the medical examiner and the forensic toxicologist have a high “index of suspicion” that a particular toxin is involved before taking the time and expense required to uncover it. These suspicions are often aroused by the symptoms that surround the victim’s death.

Often, for plot reasons, the author would like for the victim to receive the toxin but not have any symptoms until the next day and then suffer a quick and dramatic death. The problem? Poisons don’t have timers. Those that kill quickly and dramatically do so quickly and dramatically. Right here and right now. Not tomorrow, or next week. There are of course toxins that require several days to work their mischief but the victim almost invariably will become ill and spiral toward death over a period of time not suddenly collapse on cue.

In other scenarios, the author needs for a character to be struck in the head and to remain unconscious for an extended period of time. You’ve seen it before. The character is whacked on the head, placed in the trunk of a car, taken to some remote hideaway, remains unconscious for hours, and finally awakens when someone throws water in her face. Hollywood has been doing this for years. Unfortunately, medical science dictates that this is extremely unlikely. A blow to the head that causes unconsciousness but without significant brain damage is called a concussion. Boxers face this with every bout. The key here is that there is no significant brain damage in a simple, single concussion. The victim might go out but usually awakens very quickly and certainly by 10 or 15 minutes. Think about that boxer. He gets knocked unconscious and two minutes later he’s complaining that he was struck with a lucky punch. In order for the victim to remain unconscious for hours, there must be some degree of brain injury. A cerebral contusion (brain bruise) or an intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding into or around the brain) are two situations where unconsciousness can last for hours, days, or much longer. But here, the victim is truly injured and typically requires medical treatment in short order. A simple splash of water won’t do it.

So as you sit at your desk pounding out your next story, don’t assume that what you believe to be true is indeed true. This is particularly problematic if you don’t have a scientific background or if you get your understanding of science from television. Do your research. Seek out credible sources, Ask questions. Never underestimate the power of the word author. People like to talk about what they know so give them the opportunity.

Regardless of how you do it, get the facts right. That’s your job. And your readers will greatly appreciate it.

 

Edgar Mitchell, the 6th Man to Walk on the Moon, Dies

Edgar Mitchell

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell

This is sad. Only 12 men have set foot on the moon and Edgar was the 6th. As Apollo 14’s Lunar Module pilot, his main job was to transport himself and fellow astronaut Alan Shepard to the moon’s surface and back to the Command Module safely. He easily did so. Apollo 14 was an especially tense trip after the near disaster of Apollo 13.

 

MItchell on Moon

Edgar Mitchell on the Moon

A few years ago I was invited by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to do the ribbon cutting for the opening of CSI: The Experience at the Space Museum in Huntsville, AL—my hometown. Marshall is very engaged in developing new and improved forensic science techniques and equipment.

It was a very special experience, particularly for a boy who grew up with Von Braun’s rocket boosters periodically shaking the ground and building rockets in my backyard. At the reception, which was held at the Davidson Center For Space Exploration, I met Edgar. He was an intelligent and witty man. So long, Edgar, you are a national hero.

 

Space Museum Night copy

Space Museum Huntsville, AL

Davidson Center

Davidson Center for Space Exploration

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2016 in Space Program, Uncategorized

 

Q and A: Can My Villain Cook Attempt a Murder Using Contaminated Food?

Q: My villain is a cook and he wants to kill the hero by feeding him tainted food. I want to avoid using a detectable poison, so I thought a deliberately introduced food-borne pathogen, such as ptomaine, botulism, E.coli, or salmonella, or something like those, would do it. But how do I get the bacteria/germs/whatever in the food? What will it do to him? How long would it take him to die, and what steps could the hero take to make sure he survives? What could the villain do to make sure the hero dies?

 

E. Coli

E. Coli Growing on a Culture Plate

 

A: This scenario will work but there are a few problems with it. First of all, using bacteria for murder is extremely unpredictable and most killers prefer a more predictable method. Just because your villain feeds contaminated food to the victim it does not mean that he will die because contaminated food rarely kills people but rather merely makes them sick. Typically people survive these types of illness—but not always. The best way to assure, or at least increase the probability, that your victim would die is to prevent him from reaching medical care.

Infectious processes most often kill by two mechanisms. The first is that they alter the function of the infected organ. For example, pneumonia can kill by infecting the lungs and filling the air spaces with bacteria and liquids we call exudates. This is simply the body’s reaction to the infection. Like a weeping wound or one that forms pus. This is what happens in the lungs and if so it interferes with the exchange of oxygen and the victim can die because the lungs fail. An infection in the kidneys can do the same thing by causing kidney failure and infection in the gastrointestinal tract, which is what would most frequently happen with ingested bacteria, can lead to severe diarrhea and dehydration or in some cases or severe bleeding and death can follow from shock.

But the most treacherous thing associated with any of these infections is the passage of the bacteria from the infected organ into the bloodstream. We call this sepsis or septicemia, big words that mean infection in the blood stream. When this happens the infection spreads rapidly throughout the body and very quickly the victim can suffer from septic shock–low blood pressure and shock from bacteria in the blood stream. This can lead to death in short order.

So regardless of which bacterium you decide to use, it would need to be added to the food and the victim ingest it. This would make him ill with gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and perhaps bleeding in either the diarrhea or the vomiting. If untreated such an infection could then spread to the bloodstream and be deadly. But the key here is that he must be prevented from reaching medical help. Otherwise he would be treated and survive. But untreated his chance of survival is dramatically reduced. So you need to figure a way to prevent him from reaching medical care once he developed symptoms.

As for what bacteria to use, both ptomaine and botulism would be very difficult to come by. They are rare and your cook would have no access to this type of organism. He could of course damage a can of some food product and leave it sitting in a warm environment and hope that the right bacteria grew but most likely it would not be the bacterium that causes botulism. That’s actually quite rare. So there would be no way for him to predict what organism would occur under that circumstance.

On the other hand, things such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Shigella are quite common causes of food-borne gastrointestinal illness. If your chef knew someone who was infected with one of these, perhaps from a recent trip to Mexico where these are not uncommonly encountered, he could then use this individual to supply the needed bacteria. How would he do this? The best way would be to obtain some stool from the infected individual. This could be from contaminated toilet paper or an un-flushed toilet. Gross but that’s the way it is. This could then be placed into some food product and allowed to grow, which he could simply do a closet at home. He could then add some of this bacterial soup to the food product and in this way introduce a large amount of bacteria to the victim. Even better would be if he could find a way to inject this intravenously into the victim but that’s not absolutely necessary.

Again, this would make the victim very ill with gastrointestinal symptoms. Then, as I said, you’ll need to devise some scenario that prevents him from reaching medical help and if so he could easily die from sepsis.

There is an excellent non-fiction book in which a murder is committed exactly like this. It involves the murder of Joan Robinson Hill by her husband Dr. John Hill. It took place in the 1960s in Houston Texas and is an incredible story. The book is titled Blood and Money and was written by Tommy Thompson. If you can a copy of this it might help. Dr. Hill apparently grew bacteria in petri dishes at home and infected cream puffs to kill his wife. He then admitted her to a small hospital in the outskirts of Houston and he managed her care, which amounted to preventing her from getting adequate treatment since he did not offer her the treatment she needed. It became a huge and convoluted case that did indeed involved blood and money.

 

Crime and Science Radio: Working Stiff: An Interview with Forensic Pathologist Judy Melinek and co-author/husband TJ Mitchell

1-30-16: Crime and Science Radio: Working Stiff: An Interview with Forensic Pathologist Judy Melinek and co-author/husband TJ Mitchell

 

Melinek

BIO: Judy Melinek, M.D. is a graduate of Harvard University. She trained at UCLA in medicine and pathology, graduating in 1996. Her training at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York is the subject of her memoir, Working Stiff, which she co-wrote with her husband, writer TJ Mitchell. Currently, Dr. Melinek is CEO of PathologyExpert Inc., and works as a forensic pathologist in Oakland. She also travels nationally and internationally to lecture on anatomic and forensic pathology and she has been consulted as a forensic expert in many high-profile legal cases, as well as for the television shows E.R. and Mythbusters.

T.J. Mitchell, her husband, graduated with an English degree from Harvard and worked in the film industry before becoming a full-time-stay-at-home dad to their three children. He is currently collaborating with Dr.Melinek in writing FIRST CUT, the inaugural novel in a forensic detective fiction series. WORKING STIFF is Mitchell’s first book.

LISTEN: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/suspensemagazine/2016/01/30/crime-and-science-radio-with-special-guests-judy-melinek-and-tj-mitchell

Link goes live Saturday 1-30-16 at 10 a.m. Pacific

LINKS:

Working Stiff:  www.drworkingstiff.com

Facebook: www.Facebook.com/DrJudyMelinekMD

Facebook:  www.Facebook.com/DrWorkingStiff

Twitter: @drjudymelinek and @tjmitchellWS

Pathology Expert Site: http://www.pathologyexpert.com

Work Stew Podcast Interview: http://www.workstewpodcast.com/?p=1142

Scribner Books Video Interview: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner https://youtu.be/TWyvqtFnA1M

The Real CSI: UCTV Lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFPW016ocXI&feature=youtu.be

NPR Science Friday with Ira Flatow: http://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/behind-the-scenes-at-the-city-morgue/

 

Forensics For Dummies, 2nd Edition Coming Soon

 

FFD 300X378

 

Just got the new cover for Forensics For Dummies, 2nd Edition.

It will be released from Wiley on 2-29-16

Pre-Order now

 

Maybe Columbus Wasn’t “The Father of Syphilis” After All

 

Columbus

 

It has long been believed that the sailors who crewed Christopher Columbus’s ships in his famous 1492 voyage contracted syphilis from the natives and transported the deadly disease back to Europe. But was this disease already in Europe long before Columbus was even born? According to a recent article in the Journal of Biological and Clinical Anthropology that just might be the case.

Of course, now most cases of syphilis are treatable and curable with antibiotics, but in 1492 things were a bit different They didn’t know what caused it and indeed that bacteria even existed. Antibiotics? Still centuries away. So syphilis was often deadly, and, if not, it was very disfiguring and incapacitating.

The real culprit is a spirochete called Treponema palladium. And it might have been in Europe as early as 1320.

 

syphilis

 
7 Comments

Posted by on January 19, 2016 in Medical History

 
 
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