Monthly Archives: July 2009

Postpartum Psychosis and Heinous Acts

Postpartum Depression is common. Postpartum Psychosis is rare. Thankfully.

Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub. Horrible. Unfathomable. She was ultimately diagnosed with postpartum psychosis and was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Otty Sanchez did something worse. Much worse. But for likely the same reason. She murdered her 3 1/2-week-old son because the devil told her to do it. Unfortunately she did more than that. Much more. Though the official autopsy and police reports are not yet available, the media reports paint an extremely disturbing picture. Neither Stephen King nor Dean Koontz could make up this horror.


She apparently used a sword, a machete, and a kitchen knife to stab, gut, skin, decapitate, and dismember the infant. She bit off three toes and consumed parts of his brain and other body parts. She screamed that the devil had told her, made her, do this and slashed her own chest, abdomen, and throat. She survived. So did her other two children, ages five and seven, who were in the house at the time but were not targets of her devil-directed actions.

When I read the initial news report, I knew what the diagnosis would be: Postpartum Psychosis. Not only was the timing right, but what else could drive a mother to do this?

A family member reported that Otty had had psychiatric treatment in the past so her problems, though now much more acute and severe, were not new.

Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Psychosis are poorly understand psychiatric entities that come in many forms. If recognized and treated early, they tend to resolve quickly and without long-term problems in most sufferers. If not, they can linger and progress to full-blown psychosis. Many victims of these disorders have underlying schizophrenia, depression, and/or bipolar disorder.

First recognized in 1850, the classic presentation is for the psychiatric symptoms to appear just before or just after the delivery, usually after, and typically within 3-4 weeks after delivery. The person might become moody, withdrawn, sad, cry a lot, exhibit anxiety and agitation, suffer insomnia, ignore their new infant, ignore themselves in that they don’t bath or eat consistently, exhibit periods of mania or delirium, and experience hallucinations, such as visions or voices.

This should be considered a psychiatric emergency and the victim should be hospitalized and treated with antidepressant or antipsychotic drugs. If so, recovery and return to full normalcy is likely. Untreated you get an Andrea Yeats or an Otty Sanchez.

Postpartum Psychosis:

Wikipedia Postpartum Psychosis

Pregnancy Info

Otty Sanchez:

San Antonio News


San Antonio Express News


On This Day in Criminal History: The Atlanta Olympic Bombing and the Birth of VISAR

I’m sure you all remember the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, GA. What you might not know is that this event gave birth to the Video Image Stabilization and Registration (VISAR) system. This is the system law enforcement uses to clear up, stabilize, and enhance video images to help read licenses plates, ID convenience store robbers, and close in on abductors caught in security cameras.

As part of the investigation into the Olympic bombing, the Southest Bomb Task Force of the FBI approached Dr. David Hathaway and Paul Mayer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, my home town. I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Dr. Hathaway as part of my research for my upcoming medical thriller, Stress Fracture, due in April, 2010. He shared with me the VISAR process, how he developed it as part of this investigation, and how he has used it in other famous cases.

Dr. Hathaway, Marshall’s Solar Physics Group Director, had been using advanced video techniques as part of his solar research. The FBI brought him 13 seconds of very dark film, made at night by a news reporter with a handheld camera. It showed the silhouette a large backpack, sitting on the ground near a park bench. Hathaway and Meyer went to work and step by step, through trial and error, stabilized, sharpened, and brightened the image. Dr. Hathaway showed me the step by step process and the results were amazing. What had been mere shadows soon became a back pack, top flap open, explosive device inside, thick wires hanging over the lip. VISAR was born.

Subsequently, Dr. Hathaway became involved in several other famous cases: the Mike Bell murder, the Katie Poirer and the Carlie Brucia abductions, the Elizabeth Smart case, and the Columbia accident to name a few.

So much of our daily life is touched by NASA spin-offs, including this computer, the GPS in your car, and all those indispensable things your iPhone does.

NASA 1999 Article

Dr. Hathaway and Paul Meyer: Who’s Who at NASA


The Rapunzel Syndrome

Bet you’ve never heard of this. Neither had I. The Rapunzel Syndrome is an extremely rare condition with less than two dozen cases being reported. It is part of the larger group of conditions we call pica syndromes.

Pica is the repetitive eating of non-food items. Some of these are cultural (clay eating) while others are associated with various psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). These people consume things such as paper, paint chips, dirt, chalk, coins, rubber bands, paper clips and other metallic objects, hair, clay, almost anything you can think of. Clay eating is a type of geophagia–geo means earth and phagia means eating. It is not a rare occurrence, particularly in the south, since it is thought to be healthy to do so. It can lead to constipation and even bowel rupture, but most commonly causes anemia since the clay inhibits the absorption of iron from the GI tract. Paint chips were a common cause of lead poisoning in children until laws changed, requiring indoor paint to be lead free. Still some older buildings have leaded paint, maybe painted over a few times but still there, so that when the paint peels the leaded layer can be exposed and consumed.

Wikipedia Pica Article

Some of these ingested materials can form a ball known as a bezoar, the same thing your cat coughs up. This can be anything from a hard ball of clay to a tightly wound wad of hair. It can cause intestinal obstruction and intestinal erosions with bleeding and perforation. Both of these can be life-threatening and often require surgical treatment.

When hair is eaten, known as trichophagia (tricho means hair; phagia means to eat), it can form a hair ball (trichobezoar) in the stomach. This can cause the obstruction and erosions mentioned above, usually near the bottom of the stomach in the area known as the gastric outlet–where the stomach empties into the small bowel. Rarely the bezoar will form a long tail that extends downstream into the small bowel. This long tail of hair is reminiscent of Rapunzel’s hair in the Grimm Brothers famous fairy tale.

This tail can cause obstruction or erosion of the small bowel and can lead to death if not treated surgically in a timely manner. A recent article published Forensic Science International reports on the death of a child from this syndrome. Just under four years old, she appears to be the victim of neglectful abuse and is considered the youngest victim of this rare syndrome ever reported.

Medicine is filled with bizarre syndromes and this is definitely one of them.

Wikipedia Rapunzel Syndrome Article


Robin Burcell Talks About Hostage Negotiation, Forensic Art, and Storytelling

Robin Burcell wears many hats. She has spent over two decades as a police officer, detective, and hostage negotiator and is also a FBI-trained forensic artist. She is the successful author of the SFPD Homicide Inspector Kate Gillespie series and now has a new series with forensic artist Sydney Fitzpatrick.

Robin, welcome to the Writer’s Forensics Blog.

Robin Burcell .2008.small photo

DPL: You have four books in your Kate Gillespie series and Face of a Killer is the first starring Sydney Fitzpatrick. Which of these characters is most like you and which do you enjoy writing about the most?

RB: I would have to say that Kate Gillespie, a police officer, shares more of my characteristics than Sydney Fitzpatrick of the FBI. Kate was the first female homicide inspector for San Francisco PD, and as such, faced a number of obstacles in her path to get to that position.  I was the first female officer for my department and well remember the prejudices and battles of blazing that trail, so I felt that I could relate to a bit of what Kate might have gone through.  And since I worked the streets as an officer, I was able to channel my experiences into Kate’s character.   However, that being said, Sydney still shares my concerns in working with victims of crimes and, of course, when it comes to forensic drawings.

DPL: Most people know very little about hostage negotiation. What are the main techniques you use during these types of communication to resolve the stand off?

RB: That’s one of those “it depends” answers.  Each situation is unique. But to generalize, the biggest skill is to be able to think on your feet, being able to use your voice to calm someone if he is agitated, or convince him to cooperate. You have to be able to “read” the person you are negotiating with, and often have to change directions midstream, never knowing what might set off the person. Most cops have this skill to begin with, and use it on a daily basis.  The hostage negotiator has been trained even further.

DPL: Any interesting situations you’d like to share with us?

RB: There have been several instances where hostage negotiating training came in very handy while responding to routine calls.  On one occasion, I arrived at a house on a report of an unknown disturbance.  My partner and I were talking to a man in his forties, who was upset because he couldn’t make toll calls on his mother’s phone. He broke a mirror and his mother called us. I had pegged the guy at once as being mentally ill, and was on the phone with Mental Health trying to see if he was a current patient (he was) and was making arrangements to bring him in for an emergency evaluation. I had sized up the guy and, based on his behavior, called for additional back up. My instincts told me we were not getting this guy in control without a fight. My partner (a rookie with just a few months on the job) became frustrated at the man’s “up and down” behavior. Instead of waiting for the additional back up, he reached out to grab the man’s arm to take him into custody, and the man twisted away and whipped out a knife—holding it to his gut, stating that he was going to kill himself. That was my first face-to-face negotiation holding someone at gunpoint. (A suspect with a knife can kill an officer with that knife before the officer ever draws his weapon. It’s extremely dangerous.  Lucky for us—and him— the man was not intent on harming us, just himself.)  Several times as I negotiated, I felt my finger pull on the trigger as he appeared to be raising the knife, then releasing the trigger as he lowered it.  All the time I had to keep my voice calm, and then even more so when he started to get agitated, like when he overheard radio traffic about his call or when he heard the approaching sirens.  (As an aside, I actually wrote that scene into DEADLY LEGACY, but the editor decided the storyline with that character didn’t work out, so the scene was cut.)


DPL: Forensic artists do much more than simply draw pictures. What types of cases are they consulted on and what techniques are used by modern artists?

Read the rest of this entry »


On This Day in Criminal History: Andrew Cunanan

On this day in 1997, the body of Andrew Cunanan was found in a Miami boathouse, where he had taken his own life. This was eight days after he gunned down famed fashion designer Gianni Versace.


Cunanan was often described as a “high-class male prostitute,” who catered to wealthy older men. He lived and played in a world of wealth and hedonism until late 1996 when his world began to unravel. In mid-April, 1997, he threw himself a going away party in San Diego, telling most people that he was moving to San Francisco, while telling others that he was going to Minnesota to “settle some business.” He then bought a one-way, first-class ticket to Minneapolis.

On the night of April 27, 1997, he used a hammer to beat 28-year-old Jeffrey Trail to death in the Minneapolis apartment of Cunanan’s lover David Madson. The spree had begun. Five days later at a lake some 50 miles away, he shot Madson in the head and fled in the red Jeep the two had taken from Trail’s home.

Cunanan drove to Chicago where he took up with 72-year-old real-estate mogul Lee Miglin. After torturing and killing Miglin with pruning shears and a garden saw, Cunanan headed east in Miglin’s Lexus. On May 9th, he shot and killed William Reese in Pennsville, New Jersey, stole the dead man’s red Chevrolet pick-up, and headed south. Cunanan was now on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.

He reached Miami, Florida, where on the morning of July 15th, he shot Gianni Versace twice in the head in front of Versace’s residence, Casa Casuarina.

Versace 2 copy

On July 23rd, police were summoned to a boathouse, where Cunanan was hiding, by its caretaker, Fernando Carreira. As with many spree killers, Cunanan took his own life before police could apprehend him.

Multiple murderers are those that have killed more than one person. They are classified according to the location and sequence of the killings into Mass, Spree, and Serial types. The exact definitions of these types varies from expert to expert and from time to time, but the below definitions are as good as any.

Mass Murderers: Kill more than 4 people in one place at one time. These killers often have a clear agenda and want to send a message. This is the killer that walks into his workplace and shoots several people in a rapid-fire assault. The attack often ends with the killer taking his own life or in a “blaze of glory” with the police killing him in a shoot out. The motive is often some perceived wrong by his co-workers or employer. Examples would be Charles Whitman and the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Spree Killers: Kill several people at two or more locations with the killings linked by motive and with no “cooling off” period between. The spree killer goes on a rampage, moving from place to place, city to city, even state to state, leaving bodies in his wake. It’s as if an underlying rage pushes him to act and once he begins, he doesn’t stop or deviate from his goal. As with mass murders, the spree often ends in suicide or a confrontation with law enforcement. Andrew Cunanan is the poster boy of spree killers.

Serial Killers: Kill several people at different times and locations with a “cooling off” period between the killings. The cooling off period, which may be days, weeks, months, even years, in duration, distinguishes serial from spree killers. In serials, the murders seem to relieve some internal stress, at least temporarily, and they “cool off” for a period of time until the demons awaken once again, while in spree killers, the fires continue to burn. The catalog of serial killers includes some very famous names: Bundy, Gacy, Lucas, Ridgeway, Dahlmer, Kraft, Rader, and the list goes on.

Andrew Cunanan: TruTV Crime Library


On This Day in Criminal History: Monkey Trial Ends

The Scopes Monkey Trial ended on this date in 1925 with the conviction of Dayton, TN teacher John Scopes, who was found guilty of teaching evolutionary theory in violation of a Tennessee State Law known as the Butler Act. The trial attracted world-wide attention, even H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun, and pitted two American giants against one another: three-time presidential candidate, Congressman, and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense. The trial was a major milestone in the controversy between creationists and evolutionists, a debate that continues today.


Darrow and Bryan

In what the state believed was a violation of the Butler Act, Scopes used a textbook that contained the concepts laid out by Charles Darwin in his seminal On the Origin of Species. Scopes was charged for this violation. The eight-day trial played out in the sweltering summer heat and at one point was moved outdoors because the courtroom became too hot. Once the closing arguments were completed, it took the jury only nine minutes to convict Scopes. He was fined $100. Two years later the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the conviction and Scopes was never retired.

I first learned of and became fascinated with the trial in the 7th grade. This led me to my local Carnegie Library where I found a wonderful, just published book: Six Days or Forever by Ray Ginger. Loaded with quotes from the trial transcript, the battle between Bryan and Darrow is laid out in great detail. What did an impressionable 12 year old take from this book? That science and religion need not be mutually exclusive. That whether creation took 6 days or billions of years is irrelevant and isn’t the issue anyway. It’s what drove evolution that counts. And that, despite what many profess, no one knows the answer to.

Proverbs 11:29: He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.


Tracy and March

Two years later in 1960, along came my all-time favorite movie: Inherit the Wind. Though it took liberties with the facts, with Spencer Tracy, Frederick March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Claude Akins, Harry Morgan, director Stanley Kramer, and a screenplay ripped right from the trial, what’s not to love? Seen it 100 times, at least.


A few years ago, I visited Dayton and the Rhea County Courthouse where the trial took place. It was like walking into history, like walking on to the set of Inherit the Wind. The echoes of Bryan, Darrow, Tracy, and March can still be heard. If you ever find yourself in eastern Tennessee, visit Dayton. It’s a beautiful small town and a slice of American history.


UMKC School of Law



Posted by on July 21, 2009 in Interesting Cases, On This Day


The Zodiac a Merchant Marine?

If you believe Robert Tarbox, the Zodiac killer was a merchant marine. According to Tarbox, now 82, in the early 1970s a man came into his office stating that he was a merchant marine and that he was responsible for the Zodiac killings. He asked what the consequences would be if he turned himself in. Tarbox told him the outcome would not be good, that he could receive the death penalty or at best life imprisonment. The man left the office and was never seen again. Tarbox never told anyone about this until now, client privilege and all that being in play.

Over the years many names have cropped up as the possible Zodiac killer but none have panned out. The most recent, Arthur Leigh Allen, went all the way to DNA testing before his involvement in the killings was ruled out. The zodiac remains one of the great mysteries in criminal history.

Zodiac Sketch

SF Chronicle


Jeffrey Locker Case Update

My daddy always told me that nothing good happens after midnight and this is definitely the case in the Jeffrey Locker situation. As I suspected when I first read about this murder, it appears that the hooker he was planning to visit was involved. It seems that around 3 a.m., after Locker purchased condoms at a local deli, he made a call to a woman that he apparently saw a regular basis. It seems she drew her to him to Paladino Avenue where two accomplices were waiting. Police believe one of the men got in the back seat and the other the passenger seat, the guy behind him slipping a cord round Locker’s neck and holding him immobile while they tortured him to obtain his ATM PIN number. They then stabbed him to death, leaving him in his car, where he was found around 11:30 a.m.

Shortly thereafter, the images of a male and female were captured on video cameras as they made seven $200 cash withdrawals from Locker’s account at various ATM machines. The woman may also have been caught on another surveillance camera in the area of the crime scene.

*Jul 16 - 00:05*

Photo of Crime Scene.

It has been said many times that a cop’s best friend is the criminal, simply because most of them aren’t that bright. Let’s see, they’ll never find out about the phone call and snatching money from ATMs is no problem. Yeah, we can pull this off. Maybe get a few hundred bucks and have a little fun. What the hell, no one will ever know we did it. Do these people not watch CSI or the news?

Hooker’s on the Hook

Hook Holds the Key


Posted by on July 20, 2009 in Interesting Cases


Jeffrey Locker: Another Craigs-List-Like Murder?

Motivational speaker Jeffrey Locker was found in his car in East Harlem, his hands bound behind his back, a cord around his neck tied to the headrest, multiple stab wounds to his chest. This was around 11:30 a.m., July 16th. Witnesses said they had seen him earlier, around 3 a.m., in the Wagner Deli, where he bought a bottle of water and condoms. He had apparently called his wife earlier, telling her he had a flat tire and would be home late. He never made it.

05_Flatbed_2 - JULY

The autopsy was apparently done yesterday and no official report has been released, but some sources say that the stab wounds damaged his lungs, heart, and aorta–each potentially deadly.

The twists in this case are that he might have been there before, visiting a prostitute in a nearby project–not proven, just under investigation—and that he was in some way involved in the Lou Pearlman ponzi scheme and was in significant financial difficulty.

Though on first blush this looks like another man-visits-prostitute-and-gets-murdered story, the possibilities are intriguing. Maybe it was simply a robbery? Maybe it was a drug deal gone sideways? Maybe it was an angry creditor who set him up and killed him? Maybe it was…well…come up with your own scenario. This will be an interesting case to follow.




Posted by on July 18, 2009 in Interesting Cases, Trauma


Another Potential Serial Killer or Just a Spoiled Brat?

What the hell is wrong with kids today? Can’t they simply toilet paper someone’s yard for kicks? Why harm innocent animals? On the heels of the Tyler Weinman case down in Florida, NY has now entered the cruel and unusual animal killing fray.

Cheyenne Cherry. Such a pretty name. Such an innocent face. Book? Cover? Angry and impulsive or seriously psychopathic? Maybe both?

05_Flatbed_2 - JUNE

Cheyenne just pled guilty to burglary and baking a cat to death in a 500-degree oven. Just a joke according to the 17-year-old. Some joke. When confronted by pet activists outside the courtroom Cheyenne stuck out her tongue and said, “It’s dead, bitch.”

What the hell is going on?

NY Daily News

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