Monthly Archives: June 2009

Soyuz 11: An Asphyxial Tragedy

Space exploration is risky. Very risky. We all remember the two shuttle disasters:  Challenger (STS-51) on January 28, 1986 and Columbia (STS-107) on February 1, 2003. For a boy who grew up in Huntsville Alabama with the space program in his backyard, these tragedies hit very close to home. Much of the shuttle was built at Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center near in my hometown. In fact, throughout my life I have followed the space program very closely.

I met Werner von Braun on many occasions, the first being when I was in the 5th grade. I remember the ground shaking his rocket testing caused, interrupting baseball games and other activities. I was at the launch of Apollo 11, July 16, 1969 at 9:32 AM. I remember it like yesterday. And then on December 9, 2006, Nan and I attended the nighttime launch of the Discovery (STS-116) spacecraft as guest of NASA. It was also a great experience and the launch was breathtaking. For me, besides the launch itself, the highlight of that visit back to Cape Canaveral was meeting Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon. He served as Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 14, and flew along with Commander Alan Shepard, one of the original 7 astronauts, and Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa. Mitchell and Shepherd stepped on the moon on February 5, 1971.


This Apollo 14 flight was the next in line after the near disaster of Apollo 13. That was an incredible adventure where James Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise were nearly lost in space. I remember the city of Huntsville basically shutting down as every scientist in the area moved out to Marshall and worked around the clock, frantically attempting to jury-rig the space craft and bring the three astronauts safely home. Fortunately, they succeeded.

Apollo 13, the movie about this journey, followed the actual events almost to the letter. Many years ago I met Ron Howard at the then Maui Writers Conference. I thanked him for doing the story straight up and not turning it into some Hollywood bastardization of a truly heroic event. Interestingly, he said that the studios actually did try to change the story but that he and Tom Hanks stood firm and demanded that the script follow the reality. I thank Ron Howard for that to this day. If you’ve never seen this movie, you should.

But earlier in the space program there were also disasters for both us and the Russians. I vividly remember Apollo 1, where Virgil “Gus” Grissom, also one of the original 7 astronauts, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee perished in a capsule fire. This was severely damaging the space program and almost derailed JFK’s promise of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. But during those times NASA was invincible and pressed on. Few people realize that the Apollo 1 disaster took place on January 27, 1967, a scant 2 1/2 years before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Heady times and great memories.


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Posted by on June 30, 2009 in Asphyxia, Space Program


Billy Mays Redux

The autopsy is complete and there are no signs of head trauma, which means it was likely a cardiac event though other things need to be ruled out. Stay tuned.


Billy, Natasha, and Lethal Head Injuries

Remember when you were a kid and you banged your head doing something stupid? Remember how your mother kept coming in and checking on you during the night, waking you up, asking you ludicrous questions? Will it turns out, mom was right.

Yesterday, pitch man Billy Mays died unexpectedly. It is unknown at this time what the exact cause of death was since the autopsy has not been completed, however there is speculation that it could be related to a head entry he suffered on a flight. The plane landed very hard and apparently something fell from the overhead compartment and struck Billy in the head. After the plane landed, he walked off feeling fine and apparently only later began to feel unwell. It’s unclear at this time what his exact symptoms were but apparently when a friend spoke to him on the phone that evening he sounded odd or slow. He went to bed and was found dead early the next morning.


Who can forget the untimely and unexpected death of actress the Natasha Richardson? On March 16, 2009, she suffered a head injury while skiing in Canada. When she was brought off the mountain paramedics were waiting to see her but she said she was fine, sent them away, and went on to her hotel room. Apparently she felt fine for a couple of hours but then developed a headache and was taken to the local emergency room. She deteriorated rapidly and by the time they got her to a major hospital in Montreal, she was brain dead.

Richardson, Natasha

How could this happen? To answer this lets look at what happens in closed head injuries. These are bumps and bangs to the head where there is no skull fracture or open wound present, though an occult skull fracture can easily be part of these types of injuries. The point is that the individual does not look seriously injured and has no open wounds that would cause alarm.

Most blows to the head are harmless but occasionally they can cause damage to the brain tissue or to certain blood vessels within the head, which if injured can lead to bleeding inside the skull. We call any bleed that occurs inside the skull an Intracranial Bleed. They come in three basic types: Epidural, Subdural, and Intracerebral. The difference in these three types lies in the location and the cause of the bleed.

Intracranial Bleeds copy

An Intracerebral Bleed is one that occurs within the brain tissue itself, while the other two types occur in the space between the brain and the skull. Surrounding the brain in this space is a very tough sheath called the Dura Mater. The space between the Dura and the skull is called the Epidural Space, while the space between the Dura and the brain is called the Subdural Space. A bleed into the outer space (between the Dura and the skull) is called an Epidural Bleed while one that occurs in the space closest to the brain (between the Dura and the brain) is called a Subdural Bleed.

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June 27: On This Day in Criminal History: BTK

On this day in 2005, Dennis Rader, the self-monikered BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) serial killer pled guilty to 10 murders that took place between 1974 and 1991, ending one of the longest and most disturbing chapters in serial killer history. If you look up Psychopath in the dictionary it’ll be a picture of Rader.


His killing career began in the 1970s in Wichita, Kansas, where he bound, tortured, and murdered his victims in a horrific manner. He continued killing into the 1990s. His MO was to suffocate or strangle his victims to near death, revive them, and then do it again. Over and over, until he finally killed them. His victims were mostly women but his first attack was on a family of four, Joseph and Julie Otero and their children Joseph II and Josephine.

He sent taunting letters to the police and to local newspapers, graphically detailing the killings. He fell silent in 1991 and wasn’t heard from again until 2004 when he revived his letter-writing campaign, an act that led to his capture. The case had gone cold, the police having exhausted all their investigative avenues. Rader, apparently missing the limelight, sent another letter to police in which he confessed to a killing that had not previously been attributed to BTK. DNA from tissues found beneath that victim’s fingernails then moved front and center. Eleven hundred DNA samples were taken from local men but none proved to match.

Then Rader screwed up. In an act of incredible stupidity, he sent a letter to the police asking if there was any way to trace a floppy disc–remember those?–to a specific computer. The police lied, telling him there wasn’t. Rader then sent a message on a floppy. The police quickly analyzed the metadata on the disc and linked it to a computer at a local Lutheran Church, where Rader was a Deacon. His arrest followed. Maybe that’s what he wanted. Maybe he was tired of hiding out. Maybe he simply wanted credit. I’d bet on the latter.

One the most disturbing images of this creature took place during his in-court confessions, where he calmly and matter-of-factly documented each of the 10 murders in very graphic detail. Since the death penalty in Kansas was on hiatus during the time of the killings, he received 10 life sentences. He’ll be eligible for parole in 175 years. What’s that? 2180? Haley’s Comet will lap past us twice between now and then (2061 & 2136). Bet Dennis will miss both of those.

Wikipedia Article

TruTV Crime Library Article

Haley’s Comet


Forensic Psychologist Dr. Katherine Ramsland Talks About Serial Killers

Dr. Katherine Ramsland is a multi-published and widely-known expert on forensic psychology. She earned a master’s degree in forensic psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Duquesne University, and a Ph. D. in philosophy from Rutgers University. She currently chairs the Department of Social Sciences at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches forensic psychology and graduate-level criminal justice.

Ramsland, K

DPL: Katherine, welcome to the Writer’s Forensics Blog. Great to have you here.

KR: Thanks for the opportunity.

DPL: Let’s just jump right into it: Serial Killers? Nature or nurture?

KR: It’s a complex question, Doug, because it’s certainly both, but no one knows just how much of each part is most evident. In fact, the balance between physiological/genetic make-up and environmental influences (parenting, toxic substances, mental health resources, drug abuse, peers and role models, poverty, gang proximity) differs from one individual to another. A head injury, for example, could cause impulsive violence in one person, while the same injury has no effect on someone else, and a third might be violent without any head injury. That’s a simplistic way of saying that for any supposedly causal factor, it will not operate in the same way, across the board, in every individual. I heard a case once that I thought summed it up: Two brothers were watching a hanging scene in a Western. One was indifferent, the other masturbated to it. See what I mean? The combination of physiology, genetics, role models, reactions and responses is the most salient factor, but you can’t easily work with that in the categorical manner that criminologists and media professionals prefer. There really is no single influential fact across the cases, but for some reason, people want to believe there is. Maybe to isolate it would make us feel safer, but that’s not consistent with the phenomena. It’s one of the reasons I wrote “Inside the Minds of Serial Killers.” I was tired of the tendency to lump all serial killers together with a single type of motive or causal agency.

DPL: The recent case of the Florida teenager who has been charged with brutalizing, dissecting, and posing cats on the owners’ lawns has buzzed around the media. We know the triad of bed wetting, fire starting, and animal cruelty is in the background of many serial predators. What other behaviors might indicate future violence?

KR: The supposed “triad” is based on a very limited and non-randomized sample of interviews with incarcerated white male criminals in a few prisons who were willing to talk, so we don’t really know if it holds true as a general factor. I prefer other studies that have more validity. Future violence is actually best predicted with the various types of psychopathy scales that have been devised for children. The behaviors that stand out for budding psychopaths who are the most apt to become violent involve unmotivated deception, tendency to blame others, callous disregard, and ADHD – a combination of them all. Such children will tend to manipulation, deflect responsibility, damage property, steal, do poorly in activities that require sustained discipline and focus, and play cruel pranks. They will also exercise their need for control on others who are weaker, including animals, and this could involve experiments, mutilation and killing. The bedwetting part, which is not true across the board, seems to be tied into the same brain mechanisms that feed impulsivity, so this could be a brain disorder.

DPL: The posing of the cat corpses could be considered the “Signature” of this killer. What are the most unusual signatures you’ve encountered in your work?

KR:  Surgical removal of the eyes, biting in specific patterns, blood drinking, odd postmortem sexual practices, and specific types of complicated knots in ligatures. One of the most interesting cases lately involved the female serial killer in Iran who utilized methods from Agatha Christie novels. That’s more of an MO than a true signature, although it does reveal things about her personality, too.

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Dr. Jerri FitzGerald Survives the South Pole But Not Cancer

There are a handful of places on Earth that are as isolated as being on the moon. Where your chances of rescue are about the same as being rescued from the Sea of Tranquility. One of these places is the South Pole. This was the situation that confronted Dr. Jerri FitzGerald in 1999. The only physician at the station, she discovered a lump in her breast. As if that wasn’t frightening enough, her discovery occurred just weeks after the final flight of the season had departed. No chance of rescue for at least 6 months.

She performed her own biopsy, with the assistance of a member of the team who was a welder, using a local anesthetic and ice to kill the pain of the procedure. The biopsy proved to be positive for breast cancer. This was in March of 1999, the station shut down for winter, no flights in or go out until November. It was decided that she would have to delay treatment until that time.

However the cancer proved to be aggressive and grew much more rapidly than anticipated and she apparently developed large lymph nodes in her armpit. These changes in her condition indicated that treatment had to began quickly. The problem was getting the medications to her. In July, the U.S. Air Force staged a middle-of-the-night, middle-of-the-winter, very rare and dangerous airdrop to an ice field lit by fire. God bless our military. This is the kind of stuff that only James Bond could do.

She began the treatment regimen immediately and was evacuated when spring arrived to continue treatment. Her cancer went into remission but unfortunately returned in 2005. Now there is the report of her death this past Tuesday. This is a heroic story by all those involved not the least of which was Dr. Jerri Fitzgerald.


LA Times Story

New York Times Story


Manner of Death: Shadowy, Fluid, and Timely

When the medical examiner is faced with a violent or unusual death, there are several questions he must answer. He must identify the victim in cases where the identity is not known. After that he must determine, to the best of his ability, the time, cause, and manner of death. Each of these can be difficult and the manner of death can often be very tricky.

There are five manners of death: natural, accidental, suicidal, homicidal, and undetermined or unclassified. This latter category is when the medical examiner cannot determine the manner of death. An example would be a heroin addict found dead in an alleyway. Did he accidentally shoot up too much product? Did he decide to end his existence by giving himself a large dose? Did his dealer, fearing that the user might be a snitch, give him a more pure sample than he is used to taking? In this situation the matter of death could be accidental, suicidal, or homicidal, respectively. The problem is that at autopsy these would all look the same and therefore the medical examiner might not be able to determine by whose hand and for what purpose the death took place. That requires good investigative work.

In addition, the manner of death can change as new evidence is uncovered, which means it is fluid and not written in stone. Let’s say an elderly man dies of a presumed heart attack or stroke and is buried. Later it is determined that there was a large amount of inheritance involved and questions are raised as to whether his spouse might have murdered him. The body is exhumed and a lethal amount of arsenic is found in the tissues. This changes everything. This changes a natural manner of death to a homicidal one and a police investigation will follow.

Another interesting quirk about the manner of death is that it can be delayed for a very long time. Let’s say an individual is shot, paralyzed, and ends up hospitalized and on a respirator for a number of years. He then gets pneumonia and dies. A death from pneumonia is considered a natural death but had the victim not been shot and paralyzed he would not have been on a ventilator and on bed rest, two situations that promote the development of pneumonia. In other words, were it not for the gunshot he would not have died of pneumonia. When he does die the corner can list his manner of death as homicidal and not natural. This can lead to a police investigation, and an arrest and trial of the shooter for murder. The key here is that the cascade of events that led to his death began with the gunshot wound. This is what makes the death homicidal.

Such cases are not all that rare. In fact, murder charges were just filed in a case exactly like this here in Orange County, CA. Scott Sittler was shot and paralyzed in 1996 and had lived on a ventilator in an extended care facility since the shooting. He died this February of pneumonia. Brothers Erwin and Giovanny Sanchez and Daniel Cruz pled guilty to attempted murder in 1996 and now, with Sittler’s death, will face murder charges.

Orange County Register Story



Dr. Michael Welner and The Depravity Scale

Dr. Michael Welner is board certified in Forensic Psychiatry and Clinical Psychopharmacology. He is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and an Adjunct Professor of Law at Duquesne University School of Law. He founded and serves as chairman of The Forensic Panel and developed the Depravity Scale, a method for codifying and standardizing evil acts. I am pleased to have him as my guest on The Writer’s Forensics Blog.

Welner, Michael

DPL: Of all the medical specialities available, what attracted you to Forensic Psychiatry?

MW: I came to forensic psychiatry by accident. I was never drawn to blood n’ guts, and have never had a great fascination for bogeymen. All I wanted to do was take care of patients. And so I was near the end of my residency training, anticipating going out into treatment practice. I happened to go to a lecture in which we watched a videotaped interview of a teenage defendant accused of killing his whole family, who had raised the insanity defense. We, as a group of fourth year psychiatry residents, were asked to consider the criteria of the insanity defense and to then offer our opinion as to whether the defendant met the criteria for same.
Doug, I got so fired up in that discussion, working on all cylinders, that I left the lecture with an epiphany of, “If you can get this energized by something, you need to do it every day.” The next day I was on the phone with fellowship programs. I was fortunate then to be invited at an early stage to the fellowship program of Dr. Bob Sadoff, who became my mentor at the beginning of my career. It only got better from there.

Forensic psychiatry forces you to confront a case related question on several planes, simultaneously: the psychiatric, the medical, the legal, the investigative, and the tactical, and often the cultural. I cannot imagine another line of work in which the challenges you face have such complex depth and textures, ever shifting, and over a period of time. Incredibly stimulating, and the more experience one has, the more you see things that add to the microscopic depth of your capabilities. I’m terribly grateful.

Apart from that, you are working in the adversarial system. In clinical medicine, your work has less accountability. In the courts, your work is under high scrutiny, so you have to have a competitive temperament to excel and to get it right. That requires a lot more soul searching than one may realize. It’s a very athletic endeavor as much as an intellectual one, because you find yourself competing against previous high marks for your skills. That suits my temperament.

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June 20: On This Day in Criminal History: Lizzie Borden and Bugsy Siegel

1–1893: Lizzie Borden Acquitted of Murdering Her Mother and Father.

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one

Borden, Lizzie

Lizzie Borden Wikipedia

Trial of Lizzie Borden: Lots of photos

2–1947: Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel Shot Dead: The mafioso who unionized Hollywood and built Las Vegas was killed by a sniper as he sat on a living room sofa in Virginia Hill’s Beverly Hills home.


Bugsy Wikipedia

Bugsy Siegel: Murder in Beverly Hills


Caylee Anthony Autopsy Released

The autopsy report on the death of little Caylee Anthony was released this week. It is both interesting and disturbing. It showed:

No evidence of trauma–one speculation was that Caylee might have been killed by trauma, either intentional or accidental.

No drugs of any kind–another speculation was that the child might have been sedated and that the death was due to an overdose, again either accidental or intentional.

Several layers of duct tape were wrapped around Caylee’s mouth and face and it appears these might have been placed before of just after death. Could this have been to silence her? Could she have suffocated from the tape? Very disturbing thoughts.

The chemical analysis of the air in Casey’s (Caylee’s mother) car  trunk revealed 80 chemicals associated with body decomposition. In this test, air samples are taken from the trunk and subjected to various chemical analyses, the most important being chromatography, a test that can separate a chemical mixture and identify many of the components. If a decomposing corpse had been in the trunk, molecules of the gases produced would permeate the trunk carpeting. These would remain after the corpse was removed and would then be slowly released into the trunk space. Sampling and testing the air would then reveal whatever chemicals were present–in this case the chemicals associated with decomposition.

Autopsy of Caylee Marie Released: Be sure and read the autopsy and forensic reports linked to in this article. This will give you an idea of just how detailed these reports are.

Caylee Anthony: Autopsy Suggests She ‘Suffered Tremendously’


Caylee Anthony’s Mother Casey in Court

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