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Monthly Archives: June 2009

Bunker Hill, Paul Revere, and Forensic Dentistry

Yesterday was the 234th anniversary of the Revolutionary War Battle of Bunker Hill. Never mind that it actually took place on and around Breed’s Hill, we know it as Bunker Hill and the obelisk monument that commemorates it says so. One of the casualties of that seminal battle was Dr. Joseph Warren, who was buried, along with many of the other 140 Americans killed that day, near Breed’s Hill. However, Dr. Warren’s story didn’t end there.

Warren, Dr. J

Dr. Joseph Warren

Everyone knows of Paul Revere and his dramatic horseback ride that alerted the colonist of the approach of British forces. I’d bet many of you still remember, at least in part, Longfellow’s poem. Revere was also a gifted metal smith and engraver and had been schooled in the art of dentistry. One of his patients was his friend Dr. Warren, for whom he made an ivory and silver bridge.
Many months after the battle, Warren’s family wanted his body disinterred for a private burial. To do this Dr. Warren’s corpse had to be distinguished from all the others. In rides Paul Revere. A positive identification came when Revere recognized the dentures he had made for his friend. This was one of the first cases where a corpse was identified by dental techniques and many point to this as the origin of forensic dentistry.

Boston 1775 Blog

Biology On-Line Article

Paul Revere Wikipedia

 

Alafair Burke Talks About True Crime and Crime Fiction

Alafair Burke has been fascinated with crime for many years, beginning with her childhood home in Wichita, Kansas, where the BTK killer made headlines, through her experiences as a well-respected prosecutor, and perhaps a bit of curiosity for all things criminal inherited from her father, James Lee Burke, a recipient of this year’s Edgar Grand Master Award. This fascination and heritage led her from the courtroom to crime fiction. She writes two wonderful series characters: NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and Portland Deputy DA Samantha Kincaid. Her latest book, Angel’s Tip, released last year in hardback, has just been released in paperback. Her next book, 212, will be out Spring, 2010.

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DPL: Writers often find inspiration in real-life stories and that was the case with Angel’s Tip where you used the murder of Imette St. Guillen by Darryl Littlejohn as a springboard. What circumstance or character from that case grabbed your attention?

AB: St. Guillen was a John Jay graduate student who was murdered by a Soho bartender.  She’d originally been out celebrating her upcoming birthday with a friend, but when her friend wanted to go home, she stayed behind to have one last drink on her own.  Her body was found off the Belt Parkway.  The happened in February 2006, when Natalee Holloway’s disappearance in Aruba was still in the news.  The women probably had little in common in life, but the similarities in the circumstances of their deaths had me thinking about so many nights when I was a younger woman.  Sometimes I was the one who’d had a few too many drinks and didn’t want to leave.  Other times I was the girl begging her friend to get in the car and come home.  I realized how lucky my friends and I had been on every one of those nights.
I was thinking about how I might be able to tap into what I thought might be a shared experience, at least among women, when the New York media reported that it had happened again.  A New Jersey high school student named Jennifer Moore was raped and murdered after her car was impounded while she was clubbing in Chelsea and she found herself wandering alone on the West Side Highway.  I knew I had the set-up for a good novel.  Those clubs in  Chelsea and the Meatpacking District seem like a slice of heaven when you’re getting past the red velvet rope and slipping into a VIP Lounge, but when the clubs close and a girl is walking by herself at four in the morning, New York’s a different kind of place.

DPL: Some writers say that they use real life cases as an inspiration for a story but that they do not do in depth research for fear that knowing too much or becoming too attached to the story will stifle their creativity. Did you find that a problem?

AB: I did not immerse myself in the details of any of the cases I had in mind, but of course the media coverage was thorough, and I read almost all of it.  A finished book is about a year of work for me, so by the time I’ve got the story down well enough to be writing, I have fictionalized the hell out of it.

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Posted by on June 17, 2009 in Interesting Cases, Interviews, Writing

 

Fingerprint Chemistry: More Than Just Ridges and Patterns

In an earlier post I talked about “Touch DNA,” where DNA can be extracted from some fingerprints. The typical fingerprint is made up of oils, dirt, skin cells, and other debris that are deposited whenever someone touches a surface. The cells left behind are the source of the DNA. But fingerprints reveal much more.

A new technique developed by R. Graham Cooks of Purdue University allows for chemical analysis of fingerprints. This technique is called Desorption Electrospray Ionization or DESI, for short. DESI can reveal drugs, explosives, and other materials the person might have handled. It can even be used when fingerprints are laid down one on top of another by several different people. Each person’s print has a unique chemical make up and it is this difference that allows examiners to separate these piled up prints from one another. The usefulness of this technique in analyzing crime scene prints should be obvious.

Read more about this fascinating new tool:

DESI Gives Fingerprinting Some New Respect

Finding Evidence in Fingerprints

New Fingerprinting Technique Has Surprising Advantages

Sticky Fingers

 

The Birth of a Serial Killer?

Is this the face of a fledgling serial killer?

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Let me say up front that Tyler Hayes Weinman has not been convicted of anything and remains innocent until proven otherwise. But he, or whoever did the series of cat killings and mutilations in Florida, could very well be a fledgling serial killer. Read about this horrible case:

Miami Herald Article

MSNBC Article

What is most disturbing about this series of crimes is that this psychopath is displaying some distinctly serial killer traits. Besides the cruel and inhumane killing and mutilation of these innocent cats, in some cases he posed the mutilated pets in the owners front yard. Posing often indicates some deep psychological need and often serves as the serial killer’s signature. It has nothing to do with planning, perpetrating, and getting away with the crime, but rather serves some profound need in the killer. Is this the case here? It would appear so.

The old dogma that serial killers have a common background that includes neglect and abuse of various types simply doesn’t hold true anymore. These killers come in many flavors and have widely varying backgrounds and life experiences. But profilers do believe that certain childhood behaviors are so common among this group of sociopaths that they can be predictive, at least to some degree. The big three are: bed wetting, fire starting, and animal cruelty.

Read more about Childhood Psychopaths in these two excellent articles by my good friend Dr. Katherine Ramsland:

The Childhood Psychopath: Bad Seed or Bad Parents?

The Scary Truth About Psychopaths

Visit Dr. Ramsland’s Website

 
 

Animal Hair, DNA, and Snowball the Cat

Earlier today I responded to a question posted on DorothyL about whether the breed of a dog could be determined from the dog’s hair. The answer is yes. More than that, if a follicle is attached or if the dog’s saliva is on the hair from his bathing, then it possible to extract the dog’s DNA. If a suspect dog is located, then DNA taken from the dog can be compared to that from the hair. If it matches, then the hair came not just from a dog of that breed but from this particular dog.

There is a famous forensic case known as Snowball the Cat, where this exact scenario helped convict a killer. I won’t go into the details here but check out this link to this very cool and milestone case:

Snowball The Cat

This case highlights the difference between CLASS evidence and INDIVIDUALIZING evidence. The finding of a dog hair of a certain breed or a white cat hair at a crime scene would serve to eliminate all dogs of a different breed or all cats of a different color as being the origin of the hair. That is, all dogs of the same breed or all white cats would be part of the CLASS that could have left the hair at a crime scene, but dogs of a different breed and cats of the different color are excluded. However, if DNA is obtained from the crime scene hair, either from an attached follicle or from saliva residue, and this is matched to a particular dog or cat, then that hair came from that animal to the exclusion of all others in that class. This would be INDIVIDUALIZING evidence in that it was not just any white cat but THIS white cat that left the hair.

This also brings up another interesting use of forensic evidence. It not only identifies but also LINKS a person to another person, place, or object. Let’s say that a woman is killed in her home and she has a cat very similar to Snowball. Let’s further say that a suspect is identified and his clothing has several white cat hairs on it. Microscopic examination could show that the physical characteristics of the hair on the suspect and that of the cat were consistent and therefore the victim’s cat could have been the origin of that hair (CLASS EVIDENCE). But if the DNA matched, the white hair on the suspect came from the victim’s cat and from no other (INDIVIDUALIZING EVIDENCE). This would link the suspect to the victim’s cat. Still doesn’t make him guilty of murder.

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Posted by on June 14, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

Exorcism, Alive But Not So Well

Rawiri Whanau and four of his sisters were convicted of manslaughter yesterday in Wellington, New Zealand. It seems that in 2007 they performed a makutu, a curse-removing ritual, on their niece Janet Moses. Things didn’t go well and the 22 year old died, apparently from drowning when water was forced down her throat in an attempt the rid her of the demons that they felt possessed her. Here are links to the story:

Sydney Morning Herald Story

MSNBC Story

Exorcism has been around for many centuries and has a colorful, if nothing else, history.

Wikipedia Article

Who can forget the movie, The Exorcist? Didn’t sleep for a few nights after that one, the sounds of Tubular Bells in my head. I remember yelling at the screen–as if that would help–every time they headed back up stairs to where Regan (Linda Blair) was lashed to the bed…”Let her go. He’s got her. Get the hell out?” They didn’t listen. Has it been 36 years since that movie came out? Geez.

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The Exorcist You Tube Trailer

William Peter Blatty’s story was based on the true account of a young boy known only as Robbie.

Prairie Ghost Article

Belief Net Article

I would suspect that many exorcisms in the old days took place as part of religious zealotry, but perhaps just as many for political gain, punishment, offing a rival, things like that. I suspect that in modern times, many victims are afflicted with mental illness rather than demonic possession, not to mention the mental state of the exorcists themselves. Most deaths are due to dehydration, starvation, exhaustion, drowning, trauma of various types–I mean you just have to beat the devil out of some folks–and reactions to various potions and drugs.

I wish the case of young miss Moses was an isolated event, but unfortunately it’s not. There are many other cases out there, many more bizarre than this one.

Romanian Nun Crucified by Priest: WikiNews and New Age Spirituality

Anneliese Michel Case

Atlanta Child Exorcism Death

Vietnamese Herbal Wine Exorcism Deaths

These are a few odd cases but there are many others. Google Exorcism Deaths and you’ll see. There’s nothing quite like that Old Time Religion.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

DNA, a Bloody Bat, and CODIS

In 1997 Susannah Chase was walking home from a pizza parlor in Boulder, Colorado. She never made it. She was found brutally murdered and raped, having been severely beaten with a baseball bat. She suffered at least four skull fractures, survived for a brief while, but ultimately succumbed to her injuries. A bloodied bat was found at the crime scene.

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Flash forward to 2000 and a state away. Diego Olmos-Alcalde was arrested in Wyoming for kidnapping another woman. In 2001 he was convicted and sentenced to 10-20 years in prison. The Wyoming Supreme Court overturned that decision on a technicality and he was retried in 2004. He was again convicted and given a sentence of 7-10 years, with credit for time served.

Now back to Colorado where DNA from semen obtained from Susannah Chase was subjected to genetic evaluation by a company known as DNAPrint Genomics in Florida. They applied new techniques that allow some degree of racial discrimination from a DNA profile. Their determination was that the semen found in Chase came from a Hispanic or Native American.

Flash forward one more time to 2008 when Olmos-Alcalde’s DNA profile was entered into the Combined DNA Index System ( CODIS). There was a hit. Olmos-Alcalde’s DNA matched that of the semen sample taken from Susannah Chase. Olmos was arrested and now is on trial for the 1997 rape and murder of Chase.

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A word about evidence: According to the Locard Exchange Principle, the heart and soul of forensic science, whenever an individual interacts with another person, place, or object there is an exchange of material. This may be simple hair and fiber, or maybe footprints, fingerprints, or tire tracks, or, as in this case, bodily fluids such as blood, saliva, or semen. But all the evidence does is create a link between an individual and another individual, place, or object. It is up to the courts to determine what this link means. This case is becoming a classic example of this type of evaluation.

The DNA evidence is as follows:

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Posted by on June 12, 2009 in DNA, Interesting Cases

 

Fetal Theft in Oregon

Heather Snively was 21 years old, pregnant, and looking forward to the birth of her child. Unfortunately she crossed paths with Korena Roberts, who apparently had been telling everyone that she was pregnant, with twins no less. She wasn’t. So I guess she needed a baby to cover her lie. Sounds as though she needed two but regardless she found an unwilling donor in the person of Heather Snively.

It is alleged that Roberts lured Snively to her home, killed her, and then cut her near-term child from her womb. The autopsy done on Heather Snively supports this scenario. On Friday, June 5, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue was summoned to the Roberts home, apparently because a child was in distress. They found Roberts’ boyfriend attempting CPR on a newborn and Roberts herself told police that she had just delivered the baby. It didn’t take long for doctors to figure out that that wasn’t the case. Then the body of Heather Snively was found a crawl space in Roberts’ home. Roberts was arrested for murder. The child did not survive and was later pronounced dead at the hospital. Here are some links to the story:

Oregonian Story

MSNBC Story

I know many of you are asking how on Earth is this possible? Not just the psychological defects that someone must have to do this, but physically how is it done? Is it that easy to remove a living baby for its mother’s womb? Not really.

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Posted by on June 9, 2009 in Interesting Cases

 

Albino Murders in Tanzania

Here’s an odd series of cases that you don’t see everyday. Apparently over the past 18 months more than 40 albinos have been murdered in Tanzania. These cases involve witch doctors and witchcraft and greed. Apparently the witch doctors have been killing albinos, selling their body parts, and using them to make various magical potions. Now it seems that 4 men are going to be put on trial for these activities. You can read more about it here:

BBC News Story

Tanzanian Albino Child

 

Disappearing Fingerprints

Fingerprints have undoubtedly been the most successful method of absolute identification in history. No two people have the same fingerprints, including identical twins. We carry our fingerprints with us everywhere we go, we leave them on surfaces that we touch, they are easily collected and analyzed, and there is a national fingerprint database (Automatic Fingerprint Identification System or AFIS) that allows law enforcement to compare prints collected from widespread locations. Fingerprinting has a long history and was first used in a criminal case in Argentina in 1892. Since then it has found its way into courtroom after courtroom and has helped solve innumerable criminal cases.

Why do we have fingerprints? Are they just for identification or do they serve some purpose? Actually, they’re critical to many of the things that we do on a day-to-day basis. Here’s an experiment for you: smear butter on your fingers and then try to pick up a glass full of water. Not easy to do and will likely create one heckuva mess. Our fingerprints give us traction and grip and allows us to hold on to things. In technical terms they are called friction ridges.

Certain cancer drugs, like capecitabine (trade name Xeloda), can eradicate fingerprints. When someone takes this medication for several years, it can rarely cause what is called hand-foot syndrome. This is a drug-induced inflammatory process that involves the hands and feet. The skin becomes inflamed, and then swells, blisters, cracks, and bleeds. Over time, this recurrent damage to the skin can result in a complete loss of fingerprints or at least a significant attenuation of them so that they are difficult to detect. This has led to problems for some cancer patients when trying to get through airports around the world.

Could you use this in a novel as a way for your bad guy to eradicate his fingerprints? Not likely. It appears that for someone to develop hand-foot syndrome they must be on the medication for a number of years, which makes it impractical. Plus, this is a chemotherapeutic agent, and as such, possesses numerous other side effects. Things like fever, chills, diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, weight loss, and stomatitis (inflammation and erosions of the mouth and throat). Wouldn’t that make for a pleasant villain? Also hand-foot syndrome is rare so there is no guarantee that your villain, even if he did take the drug for a couple of years, would lose his fingerprints. In fact, the odds are against him.

For years, criminals have attempted to remove their fingerprints by various methods. The infamous John Dillinger used acid while others have used fire, hot pokers, and all kinds of cutting instruments to try to cut away or alter their fingerprints in such a way that they cannot be identified. Actually, the exact opposite is the case. When someone adds cuts and scrapes and burns to the pads of their finger, they are actually adding even more unique identification marks. It is similar to a car tire that has picked up cuts and scrapes from the road, or rocks or bits of glass embedded into its treads. If a tire impression found at a crime scene reveals these types of wear patterns and foreign bodies and if a car is then located whose tire exactly matches the pattern, then that is very strong evidence that it was this tire that laid down the crime scene impression and that no other tire could have had the same constellation of wear patterns and foreign bodies. In other words, this only makes the tire more identifiable. The same is true with fingerprints. If an individual has scars on his prints that exactly match those of prints left at the crime scene, then he has done the police a favor by adding these very unique and individualizing characteristics to his fingerprints.

Here are a couple of articles on this drug and one on the history of fingerprinting:

Vancouver Sun Article

Natural News Story

The History of Fingerprinting

 
 
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