Monthly Archives: September 2009

David Corbett Speaks PI–Fictional and Real Life

David Corbett worked 15 years as a San Francisco based PI with the firm Palladino & Sutherland, a profession that has infused his many great novels. His writing is tight, gritty, and page-turning and has led to Anthony, Barry, and Macavity nominations. It is with great pleasure that I welcome him to The Writer’s Forensics Blog.


DPL: You were a PI for many years. What types of cases does a PI typically become involved with?

DC: There are several types of PIs. Some work internal security for corporations, dealing with fraud, computer security, embezzlement and “shrinkage,” i.e., employee theft, as well as obtaining evidence and interviewing witnesses in lawsuits in which the corporation is a party. There are PIs who work for insurance companies, again obtaining evidence and interviewing witnesses, now in claim situations, verifying the insured’s statements and investigating possible third-party liability. Then there are general litigation PIs, which is what I was. They obtain evidence and interview witnesses in civil and criminal litigations, everything from slip-and-fall cases to divorces (with No Fault, you’re usually looking for hidden assets) to ponzi schemes and murders.

DPL: What’s the most interesting or unusual case you’ve ever worked?

DC: The most fun was a series of cases stemming from federal prosecution of a group of San Diego navy brats who grew into the most sophisticated marijuana smuggling operation on the west coast. They were called the Coronado Company—that’s where they all grew up and went to high school together, the naval station just outside San Diego. These guys were wild but not evil, and my work on these cases greatly informed my first novel, The Devil’s Redhead.

The People’s Temple trial was the most tragic and demanding case I worked on. The survivors were often broken people, hanging on through sheer grit. Some had returned to the street, or prison. For those who had gotten their lives together, at least somewhat, being exposed as a former Temple member could be very threatening. Many feared losing their jobs, or suffering some other form of stigma. There were two trials—the first ended in a mistrial, hung jury—and the defendant was convicted the second time around. The appeal counsel, who was a second-echelon lawyer in defense circles, decided this was his chance to climb into the first tier, and he chose to do it by impugning trial counsel and the rest of the defense team—including me. In particular, he attacked the defense’s refusal to pursue a psychiatric defense. If he’d only bothered to ask, he would have learned that the reason the defense didn’t pursue this tack was because the defendant had confessed to one of the therapists who interviewed him. A psychiatric defense would make that confession relevant and admissible. Worse, by claiming inadequate representation of counsel, he opened the defense’s entire investigation to the prosecution. The defendant was looking at maybe two years until the AUSA got his hands on those interview notes. Then he realized the full extent of the defendant’s culpability, sought a much harsher sentence, and won. The client was miserably represented by this lawyer, and the appeals judge stated in a published ruling that not only had the defendant received adequate representation of counsel, from what he’d seen, the defendant received exemplary representation. We were vindicated, but it was a long, hard slog.

Oddly, though, the one case that took the biggest toll on me involved transporting a transvestite junkie from San Francisco to rehab in Beaumont, Texas. He’d gone through two million dollars in eighteen months and his mother had decided to cut off the money unless he cleaned up. But heroin is like an anti-truth serum—it turns a lot of people into pathological liars and scammers. This guy was. He and his lover figured the rehab was just the price they had to pay to get the money spigot turned back on. But everybody around this guy was using him for money or drugs or both. The problem was, he was utterly unpredictable, and from one minute to the next I never knew what he was going to do. We flew first class to Texas because ti was the easiest way for me to control the guy, and after looking around at every in the section, he announces at the top of his lungs, “Gee, if it weren’t for me, you’d be the weirdest looking guy in first class!” I plied him with alcohol after that. After landing, he threw one ungodly fit at the airport, demanding we turn back around. I talked him out of that. Then he pitched another screaming snit in a restaurant that required some real finesse work. I was never so glad to say goodbye to somebody in my life.

DPL: Any dangerous or dicey situations?

DC: Just once, actually. I had to interview and subpoena a guy who’d been a driver for a San Francisco cocaine ring. He drove the coke from Miami to the west coast—this was when Colombia brought everything in through Florida. The ironic thing? He was now a doctor. I finally tracked him down to this clinic he half-owned in Hannibal, Missouri. The guy evaded me all weekend, and little by little I just kept increasing the pressure, talking to friends, business associates, his family, telling them I was working on an inquiry on the west coast—I provided no details, “for the sake of his privacy”—but it would be best if he spoke with me. That got everybody’s attention. Then, on a personal note, I learned my brother had been diagnosed with AIDS. Come Monday morning, I was royally pissed—my brother was dying and this twerp had managed to avoid me for four days. I knew the layout of his parking lot and knew the car he’d likely drive. I hunkered down in my car with a camera and a tape recorder—so he couldn’t claim I tried to threaten him, or if he ran, I could photograph his skeedaddle. The guy showed up, drove to the back of his office, where he was basically trapped, due to the layout. He was getting out of his car when he saw me come around the corner. He jumped back behind the wheel and, realizing I had his exit blocked, gunned the car and came straight for me. Like I said, I was pissed, which translates into an almost careless stupidity at times. Like this instance. I just stood there, daring him to hit me. At the last second, the Hippocratic Oath kicked in, I guess, and he hit the break. I leaned over the hood of his car, tucked the subpoena under his windshield wiper, then stepped out of his way. The only sound on my tape recording was of him revving his engine, trying to scare me when I was leaning over the hood. I still offered to withdraw the subpoena if the guy would talk to me, but he thought if he played dumb, we’d leave him alone. Idiot.

DPL: What about surveillance? What types of techniques and gadgets have you used?

DC: I’ve used a jam jar to piss in while I sat there in my car—how’s that for high tech? We really didn’t do a lot of surveillance. Wasn’t necessary in the work we did, by and large. When it was, we had one guy in the firm who got off on it and he got to do it. He was a curious dude. He set up a two-way mirror in the lobby of the Mitchell Brothers porn emporium with a clock in the background so he could videotape the cops coming in to watch the show for as long as a half hour before actually closing the show down. This was when Dianne Feinstein was mayor. She had an incredible obsession with the Jim and Artie Mitchell—the only two guys in SF porn who weren’t mobbed up. Go figure. The videos made the case go away. Gee, go figure.

DPL: Books and movies portray PIs and the police as either helping each other or squabbling. Which is most common?

DC: We’re usually adversaries, but not always. In a criminal case, we typically representing the defendant, and that means our job is to test the prosecution’s evidence—for example, find out if the witness statements are truly reliable and complete. They’re never complete—”the whole truth” is a hoax, at least in court–but often that doesn’t matter. We also try to track down witnesses the prosecution has either ignored or couldn’t find themselves. The biggest job is to impugn the informant—we used to call ourselves Snitchbusters. I have to admit, in all my years of working criminal cases, I can’t recall once when I thought the informant wasn’t way more sleazy than my client, but that’s show biz.

However, there are times when we will be working the civil side to a criminal case, working for the plaintiffs (victims), or for an insurance company with an interest in the litigation.

The former situation, working for victim-plaintiffs, came up in the first Michael Jackson case. We worked for the fourteen-year-old boy and his family in the child molestation case, and we tried the best we could to help the police, but we kept finding out from the sergeant who was out liaison at LAPD that they would assemble a witness list from our reports, pass it up the chain of command, and it would inevitably come back with certain key witnesses cross off. The suspicion was that, with Johnny Cochran at the helm of Jackson’s defense, he was pulling strings with old contacts in the DA’s office or with cops he knew. We could never prove this, and it was just a suspicion. But it all became moot when Cochran, fearing his investigators has been taped trying to tamper with witnesses—they’d been instructed by Cochran to go out and find ex-employees, tell them, “Michael loves you,” and offer them their jobs back at salaries they could hardly refuse—Cochran had a high-power conclave with his client and promptly pitched almost $20 million at the kid and his family. An unwritten part of the agreement was that the boy would not testify before the grand jury. This is illegal, but who was going to prove it happened?  Anyhoo, Michael slipped out of that one, as we all know.

As for the insurer situation, this happened with the Menendez brothers case. The insurance company was on the hook for a multi-million dollar payout if the brothers didn’t kill their parents. That gave them quite an incentive and a war chest LAPD could only envy. We helped locate and interview witnesses—or rather, we did these things, then passed our information along to the police.

Which brings up the crucial point: Nobody wants to give up control of an investigation. First person to the witness gets to frame the case in ways everyone else who comes later has to deal with. Sometimes you have to un-brainwash a witness who’s convinced, given what a previous investigator said, that all manner of unholy mayhem was perpetrated by your client, even if it makes no sense. An example, I had a client who made a fire claim on the basis of some collectibles that perished, essentially antique toys and manuals. These things were tossed loosely into boxes and burned to cinders in a garage fire. But the insurance investigator managed to convince witnesses that the client was claiming boxes of book had burned up, and books, packed tightly in a box, don’t burn to cinders. They’re too dense, not enough energy flow, etc. So all the firemen, by the time I got to them, were convinced my client was a lying scumbag because he claimed stuff burned up in a way that they knew, having been to the fire, couldn’t have happened. Some of them were willing to see that maybe they’d formed an incorrect impression given what the insurance investigator has said. But some of these guys were just bullheaded and there was no budging them off their biases.

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Posted by on September 30, 2009 in Interviews, Police Procedure, Writing


Metabolic Fingerprints

Metabolomics, also called Metabonomics, is the study of the unique chemical fingerprints the metabolic processes within the body leave behind. I like the term Metabolic Fingerprint since it’s easier to say.

In medicine, metabolism simply means the array of chemical processes that silently go on within our bodies. The digestion of food, the alteration or destruction of medicines or drugs by the liver, the conversion of protein to muscle tissue, the use of various sugars for energy, the repair of injured tissues, and every other chemical process within the body would fall under the broad umbrella of metabolism.

We are a product of our genetic makeup and our environment, the two working in concert to determine virtually everything about our lives. Our genes determine how each of our metabolic processes will work. For example, an individual with diabetes metabolizes sugar and produces chemical byproducts of this metabolism much differently than does someone without diabetes.

Since each of us has a different genetic makeup and each of us is exposed to different environmental influences, including diet, medications or drugs consumed, exposure to illnesses, workplace toxin exposures, stresses, and many other things, it would be expected that each of us possesses a different metabolism and therefore a unique Metabolic Fingerprint.

The key point Is that each of us is unique genetically and environmentally, each of us has different metabolic processes going on inside, and therefore each of us produces a unique combination of chemicals and metabolic byproducts in our body. A German research team has begun using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectroscopy to develop these Metabolic Fingerprints, or as they call them Metabonomic Fingerprints.

Does Metabolic Fingerprinting have a place in current medicine and forensic science? Not yet, but maybe soon. The beauty of friction ridge prints (standard fingerprints) is that they are unique and they do not change over a lifetime. If either of these were not true, then fingerprinting would not the useful forensic tool that it is. In order for any identification technique to be useful, it must fulfill both the criteria–it is individual and it does not change over time. This is not only true in fingerprinting but also in DNA analysis.

Do our Metabolic Fingerprints fulfill these criteria? The answer is maybe. We need to know much more. With the ongoing research using NMR spectroscopy and other modalities we may soon have the answer. The problem I see is that our metabolism changes from day to day simply because each day we are exposed to different nutrients, stresses, and environmental influences. Unlike fingerprints, which are static physical properties, our metabolic properties are in constant motion. If researchers can prove that our Metabolic Fingerprint is unique and does not change over time, this could be a useful tool for forensic investigation. If the metabolic analysis of biologic materials left at a crime scene could be matched to a particular individual, when fingerprints and DNA were not available, then this could serve as a useful method for identification. DNA can often be found in latent fingerprints (the so-called touch DNA) but not always. Perhaps one day, the oils left behind in a smudged and DNA-free fingerprint will be chemically fingerprinted and matched to a particular individual. It will be interesting to watch this research and see how it develops.

Science Base Article


Kudzu To Your Health

If you’ve ever lived in or traveled through the South you know what kudzu is. You’ve seen it blanket entire fields, consume barns and other structures, climb telephone poles and extend along the lines, and create a horizon that on one hand looks like a green velvet blanket while on the other appears as though some alien being has taken over the earth. Not unlike the blob.


Yes, there’s a house under there.



Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) was introduced to the US from Asia in 1876 for use as animal fodder, to help prevent soil erosion, and as an ornamental vine. It seemed to like the soil in the Southeast US, quickly taking root and spreading via its rhizome network. It grew so rapidly that it ate up fields and neighborhoods and became known by many colorful names: the “foot-a-night vine” or the “vine-that-ate-the-South.” It grows just that quickly.

But kudzu might be more than that as it seems to possess some significant medical properties. There is ongoing research into its use in such medical problems as migraine headaches, vertigo, cancer prevention, various allergies, gastrointestinal upsets, and as a treatment for alcohol abuse. Now comes a report that it might be useful in the “Metabolic Syndrome.”

The Metabolic Syndrome is an extremely common medical problem that is manifested by obesity, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol (the good one), insulin resistance, and type II diabetes. If untreated, the victims of this syndrome will ultimately develop atherosclerosis manifested by heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral arterial disease (PAD). Kudzu contains many compounds, including a group known as
isoflavones, which lower blood pressure, improve the cholesterol profile, reduce insulin resistance, and perhaps prevent the onset of diabetes.

And to think most people see it as a nuisance. Which of course it can be.


Posted by on September 26, 2009 in Medical Issues, Poisons & Drugs


The Plague Kills Researcher. Maybe.

This is one for all you doomsday-scenario writers. Seems that a Chicago researcher who dealt with plague organisms recently died and the bug was found in his bloodstream. A medieval death in modern times?

Actually, the Plague is not so medieval. A dozen cases are reported in the US each year. Not exactly an epidemic but it’s still around.

Not like in the 14th century when plague swept Europe in what became known as The Black Death. It arrived in 1348 on the backs of black rats brought from Central Asia aboard sailing vessels and spread rapidly, killing between 30-60% of Europe’s population, depending on who you read. It altered everything: travel, trade, religion, social interactions, governmental institutions, and of course the practice of medicine. If churches and doctors couldn’t save the victim’s of this scourge, then of what use were they?

We now know that the plague is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium and that it reaches humans through the bites of fleas that have fed on plague-infested rats. It is easily curable with antibiotics once the diagnosis is established.

Professor Malcolm Casadaban studied the genetics of plague bacteria at the University of Chicago. He died on September 13th. His autopsy showed no identifiable cause of death but he did have the weakened strain of the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, in his bloodstream. Fully-active plague is controlled and available only in labs equipped to isolate and handle it. The one Professor Casadaban studied was so weak as to be deemed dafe for use in less-controlled environments, such as his lab in Chicago.

Did the plague kill him? Maybe, maybe not.

Most infections kill after the bacteria damage vital organs, usually the lungs, the brain, or the kidneys, or after they spread throughout the blood and cause what we term septic shock–an infection in the blood that causes a dramatic drop in blood pressure, shock, and death if not treated promptly and aggressively. From what I’ve read about the professor’s autopsy none of this was found.

Add to this the fact that this was a weakened and non-virulent strain of the plague organism, one that should not cause death or major illness according to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it muddies the water. Did the professor get a not so weak batch? Did he have some underlying medical problem that made him susceptible to such a weakened bug?

So the question becomes: Did the professor die from a more-virulent plague strain, or did he have a weakened immune system or some illness that made him susceptible, or did he die of something totally unrelated, such as a cardiac event, and the finding of the bacteria in his blood is a classic red herring? Any of these is possible.

He is not the first medical researcher to die from something contacted in the lab. Marie Curie, who studied and even coined the term radioactivity, died in 1934 from aplastic anemia, a disease most certainly caused by radiation-induced bone marrow damage. Dartmouth chemistry professor Karen Wetterhahn, who specialized and did research in toxic metal exposures, died of Mercury poisoning in 1997 after a tiny amount of dimethylmercury found its way through her latex gloves and contacted her skin.

Bad bugs, raging through labs and escaping into the real world, have been a staple plot in fiction for many years. The presence of an unseen, microscopic killer is a frightening scenario and the source of great suspense. I’m sure those who lived in 14th Century Europe would agree.


Hallucinations and Dreams in the Blind and the Deaf

Psychotic hallucinations and normal everyday dreams have a lot in common. Both are constructed by the brain based on memories and stored data. Dreams and hallucinations often reflect the person’s experience in that they arise mostly from stored memories and odd interconnections among these bits of information.

Which raises a few interesting questions: Do deaf schizophrenics have truly auditory hallucinations? Do they hear voices or music or is it simply noise? And how would they know what sound and voices anyway? Do those who are blind have visual hallucinations? Do the blind see “real” people and objects in their dreams?

Brain, Human

It likely depends on when the person became blind or deaf. If later in life, after they had seen the world and had learned to talk, they would have a fund of visual and auditory memories to call on to construct their psychotic hallucinations. They would see faces and people, buildings and cars, and would hear voices and music and any of the other sounds stored in their memory banks. But what if the person was blind from birth (congenitally blind) or became deaf before learning to speak (pre-lingual deafness)?

Blind individuals can be considered in two broad categories. Congenitally Blind persons are sightless from birth, while Adventitiously Blind persons lose their sight at some later time. Children who are blinded before age five or so tend to have much in common with those who are congenitally blind. Since their blindness onset at such an early age, they possess little memory of images and colors and thus are less able to “see” things compared with those who became blind after age seven. This lack of imagery spills over into their hallucinations and dreams.

Many researchers in this area consider dreaming a “constructive cognitive process.” That is, we construct our dream worlds based upon our sensory experiences. What we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste contribute to the building of our dreams.

Most congenitally blind people are able to “see” spatial relationships in their dream constructs and some can even construct “visual forms,” but they do not “see” the actual objects. What they “see” in their dreams tends to parallel what they “see” in their waking lives. Some are able to construct at least amorphous images better than others. Those who become blind later in life tend to have dream visualizations that parallel their waking visual experiences before they became blind.

The congenitally blind and those who become adventitiously blind before age five may have vivid and detailed dreams but they do not “see” images of people or structures or objects. They tend to feel the same emotions and have similar reactions to nightmares, but their dreams are more amorphous.

Those who become blind between ages five and seven, may or may not see images. It’s individual.

Interestingly, many people who become blind after age seven may have visually detailed dreams forever, while others may do so for only 20 to 30 years. It is as if their memories of images fade and thus the images also fade from their dreams.

In a 1999 study from Queen Elizabeth Psychiatric Hospital in Birmingham, UK by Mckenna and du Feu, the auditory hallucinations of 17 schizophrenic patients with deafness prior to the age of two were evaluated. Ten (59%) reported “hearing” voices and many described the content of what was said. Did they really dig out voices they had heard before age two or were these sounds simply created by the brain with no real memories as guidelines?

In another study from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Münster in Germany, Schonauer, et al, studied 67 pre-lingually deaf schizophrenics. They found that even though these patients tended to have more visual and tactile (touch) hallucinations than they did auditory ones, auditory hallucinations with voices did occur. Interestingly, some reported visual hallucinations of sign language messages, and odd marriage of visual and “auditory” hallucinations. The authors explained this as “the influence of ‘the deaf way’ of sensory experience on imagery processes.”

The human brain is a complex and poorly understand organ and the issue of hallucinations and dreams in those with the loss of one or more sensory modalities is just one more example.


Posted by on September 20, 2009 in Forensic Psychiatry, Medical Issues


Got to Admire His Huevos

OK, this happened in my hometown. My only question is whether this young man is a future criminal or a mystery writer? Maybe both.

It seems that a middle schooler told police he had been kidnapped by a man in a “beat up red car” and that the man had threatened to kill him. The young man managed to escape with his band instrument but had to leave his backpack behind.

Police didn’t buy the story and soon the youngster came clean–he made up the entire story so he wouldn’t have to bring home the less than stellar school report card that was in his backpack. The boy is fine, though I’m sure in a bit of trouble on the home front, the police have a funny story to tell, and the backpack has yet to be found.

On a historical note: The aspiring criminal/mystery writer attended Ed White Middle School, a school named after the Apollo 1 astronaut who died in the tragic capsule fire on January 27, 1967 as it sat on Pad 34 at Cape Canaveral. Fellow astronauts who died with Ed White were Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chaffee. To honor these 3 men, the city of Huntsville named schools after them: the Roger B. Chaffee Elementary School, the Ed White Middle School, and the Virgil I. Grissom High School.

Apollo1 Crew

Times Article


More Decapitation and Reanimating the Dead

In my 9-7-09 post, I discussed the guillotine and how quickly death came after decapitation. The post was titled Guillotine and Death: How Long Does It Take?

The French weren’t the only ones interested in the answer to this question. A report in the August 18, 1900 edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) discussed a recent report from Professor A. Hoche in which he described his experiments on two decapitated criminals.

“It’s alive!”

Who can forget the scene where Dr. Henry Frankenstein animates his monster with the power of electricity? Though the “Modern Prometheus” of Mary Shelley’s book is much different from the monster characterized by Boris Karloff in the classic 1931 movie, our collective mental image of the monster will always be Karloff. Just as Connery is Bond, Karloff is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.


But truth and art are often not that far apart.

Dr. Hoche’s first experiment involved applying a powerful current to the freshly cut (just 3 minutes) spinal cord of a convicted criminal after his court-ordered decapitation. The effects were dramatic. The headless corpse responded immediately: the arms flexed, the hands clenched, the legs extended and spasmed, and even the chest expanded as if taking a breath. Bet that shocked the Professor and any onlookers. He noted that this reaction dampened with time and that after about 12 minutes no reaction occurred at all.

In the second experiment, he used a weaker electrical current and found that the response was much less. Both arms contracted as did the muscles of the chest and abdomen, but the legs remained motionless. Again the reaction lessened with time and at about 16 minutes no further reaction to the current occurred.

He also found that stimulating the brain itself did not cause any reaction.

He concluded that this loss of reactivity over time was due to blood loss and body cooling. The reason the brain did not react was that it lost blood and heat so rapidly that even two minutes was too long. Though his experiments were well-planned and conducted, his conclusions were erroneous. But he can be forgiven since he, nor anyone else at that time, had any real understanding of how the human neurological system worked.

What his experiments actually revealed was that different tissues and cell types within the body die at different rates after blood flow ceases. In all tissues, once blood flow is interrupted, the organ or tissue first begins to malfunction and if the deprivation continues they cells ultimately die.

The brain malfunctions and dies fairly quickly while the nerves and muscles take longer. The dogma is that if blood flow to the brain ceases, consciousness is lost in a very few seconds (this is the brain malfunction) and the brain cells die within 4 minutes. Nerves and muscles take much longer to malfunction and die.

In cardiology we routinely open closed arteries with angioplasty balloons and stents and do so very frequently after the artery has been closed for several hours. Here the golden rule is 4 hours, not 4 minutes, but that is highly variable. In the cath lab we might see that the area of the heart fed by the occluded artery will not contract well (the malfunction), but more often than not once the artery is opened this abnormal function resolves and the heart muscle survives, showing no evidence of residual damage. Not always but often.

So the brain malfunctions quickly and dies in a very few minutes; nerves and muscles take many minutes to malfunction and hours to die. Same process; different rates.

This is what Professor Hoche observed. The brain did not respond even after only two minutes; the nerves and muscles did, for 12 to 16 minutes anyway.

So the facial movements noted by those who observed guillotine executions were likely these types of residual neuromuscular actions and not a representation that the victim was still alive.

Or maybe they were—for a few seconds anyway.

On a literary and historical note, Frankenstein might never have been written had it not been for a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world. In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted with such force that it filled the air with millions of tons of ejected particulate matter. This rose into the high atmosphere, dropped world temperatures for many months and resulted in 1816 being called the “Year Without Summer.” Snow fell in New England in July!

During that summer, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her lover and future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron settled into Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva. The summer was so cold and wet that they spent much of their time in the villa talking and telling stories. They decided to have a writing contest and see who could write the best short story. Mary’s story evolved into the classic Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus.

There has long been controversy over how Mary came up with such a story, She said it came to her in a “waking dream,” but some have suggested that her father had told her stories of a doctor who did such experiments and others have suggested that she and Shelley had actually visited Castle Frankenstein, the birthplace of Johann Conrad Dippel, a physician and alchemist who did indeed perform reanimation experiments on corpses. Either way she wrote a kick-ass story that has survived for nearly two centuries and will survive for many more.


Mast Cells and the Timing of Wounds

An interesting article will appear in the October issue of the journal of Forensic Science International. It is titled: Mast cell reactivity at the margin of human skin wounds: An early cell marker of wound survival?


Let me explain.

First of all, this article deals with very sophisticated biochemistry in that they measured the activity of certain esterase enzymes in relation to time after injury. I won’t attempt to explain it, but simply point out that research is ongoing in this distinctly forensic arena. But it does bring up the question of how the ME can judge whether a wound occurred pre-mortem or post-mortem.

This is sometimes one of the most difficult determinations the ME must make and his opinion impacts many things. For example, let’s say two assailants attack a victim. One shoots him three times in the abdomen, the other stabs him in the chest after he falls to the ground. Which injury killed him?

Sometimes it’s obvious from the nature of the wounds and the organs and blood vessels injured by each wound. At other times it’s not so clear. One key determination is whether the victim was dead before the stab wound occurred or not. If so, the second assailant might dodge a murder charge; if not, then the stab would could be the proximate cause of death or could at least be a contributing factor, in which case he could face serious charges.

The ME would analyze the stab wound. If it is clean and without irregular edges he can state that the victim was not wiggling or struggling at the time of the injury and just might have been dead beforehand. Living folks tend to fight back and try to avoid stab wounds and this struggle is often reflected in the character of the wound. Dead people tend to lie still so that the wounds are clean, in and out.

If there is no bruising or bleeding into or from the wound, the ME would know that the heart had stopped and there was no blood flow before the wound occurred. If bleeding occurred, the heart must have been beating and the blood flowing at the time of the injury.

Sometimes this is all he needs, but sometimes this type of evidence isn’t clear.

So, what are mast cells and what do they have to do with this?

Whenever an injury occurs, several types of cells rush the area to begin the healing process. Platelets in the blood arrive and begin to clump together and plug any breech in the blood vessels. This action is the first step in what we call the Clotting Cascade, and without it blood clotting would not occur and even minor injuries could cause lethal bleeding. White blood cells, lymphocytes, and mast cells also appear.

Mast cells contain little packets of chemicals–histamine and certain enzymes–in their cytoplasm–the liquid part of the cell. When an injury occurs the mast cells move in and release these chemicals. When properly stained and viewed under a microscope the cytoplasm of a mast cell is filled with tiny blue granules. These are the chemical packets. As the chemicals are released, the granules disappear, a process known as degranulation. This only happens while we are alive. After death the mast cells do not degranulate.

Mast Cells

Mast Cells: The large blue blobs are the nuclei and the tiny blue dots in the cytoplasm of these cells are the granules.

To determine if a wound was pre- or post-mortem, the ME can excise some tissue from near the wound edges, stain it, and look at it under the microscope. If the mast cells have degranulated he will know that the victim was alive at the time of the injury; if not, he will know just the opposite.

This type of examination is rarely needed, rarely done, and can offer confusing results in some cases, but it is an interesting technique for determining the timing of a victim’s wounds.


Posted by on September 11, 2009 in Blood Analysis, Time of Death, Trauma


Cooning: A New Sociopathic Sport?

Wisconsin is a beautiful state with thick forests, beautiful lakes, and abundant wildlife. But from the backwoods comes a very disturbing story. It seems that 15 people, aged 17 to 22, from Beaver Dam High School, have invented a new sport they call “Cooning.” It involves hunting down wild animals, such as raccoons and possums, and beating them to death with clubs and bats that have been spiked with nails and screws.

They keep score!

I suspect the winner gets a trip to the psychiatrist. Hope he takes all his buddies with him.

The group has been cited with 158 violations ranging from killing protected animals to hunting without licenses and hunting with illegal weapons. Really? Those are the only laws they broke?

Though this particularly sick game might be new, these guys are not alone in their cruelty. Earlier this year three men were cited for running down and killing deer with snowmobiles.

What is going on in the back woods of Wisconsin?

This stuff makes me crazy. Maybe each of them should be given their little club and put in a cage with a full-grown and under-fed Bengal Tiger. See how that works out for them.


Cooning Club Journal Sentinel Article

Snowmobile Deer Killers Article

Official Court Complaint


Posted by on September 10, 2009 in Forensic Psychiatry, Interesting Cases



Kathy worked as an escort in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland with picturesque homes and valuable lakefront property. Yes, an escort, as in dating men for money. One evening, she dated a man—a stranger, a client she had never met before—and then disappeared. She left behind a devoted live-in boyfriend and an eight year old daughter. That was twelve years ago. No trace of her or her body have ever been found.

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The detective assigned to the case was a gung-ho type, giving every case his full attention. It didn’t matter to him whether Kathy worked as an escort or a kindergarten teacher—he would leave no stone unturned. He dogged the client, searched his home, interviewed his girlfriend. He came to the coroner’s office and collected me from my job as a forensic scientist in the trace evidence department; together we combed Kathy’s home for any clue and, expecting a body to turn up any day, samples of her DNA. Trying to identify the few questioned hairs and fibers—our only clues—I examined the suspect’s bedding and went through bags and bags of the (alleged) victim’s clothing. I learned only that Kathy had been partial to Ronni Nicole.

We got nowhere.

The murder—or, technically, the ‘disappearance’—was never solved. Kathy’s last client is still free, and her daughter is still motherless.

This was only one case of many I worked as a forensic scientist. The salacious quality of the victim’s job gave it a short spike in the news media, but quickly faded into the past along with the other hundred-plus other murders we had that year. But her story stuck in my mind—all our female-victim murders stuck in my mind, partially out of gender empathy and partially because they occurred less often, but also because this particular victim’s life prompts a host of mixed feelings. Was she some brainless bimbo, emotionally questing for an absentee dad while enabling men to think of women as some object they can rent like a car or a rototiller? Or did she simply make the practical choice of a working mother, opting for a job with convenient hours and relatively good pay. Or is the truth, is this victim’s character, somewhere in between?

And who killed her?

Unfortunately, I can’t answer any of these questions.

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I write fiction. Questions lead me to characters, and the characters lead me to their story.  So in my story, this is what happens: Still dealing with the fallout from the bank robbery gone bad in Takeover, Theresa MacLean is unable to summon much interest when beautiful escort Jillian goes missing—but when the woman turns up dead, Theresa is moved not only by guilt but empathy for Jillian’s infant daughter, Cara. She suspects Jillian’s new husband, wunderkind video game designer Evan Kovacic, but with no trace of foul play on Jillian’s body Theresa cannot prove that Jillian has even been murdered, much less by whom. No one can help her. Homicide detective Frank Patrick thinks Theresa is letting her grief deflect her from a more likely suspect, Jillian’s obsessive ex-boyfriend Drew. And with other bodies turning up, Theresa’s boss believes a serial killer is at work. Theresa is forced to face the master gamer on her own, but can she find her way through this maze in time to save Cara?

Maybe this is why I write fiction—so I can have those answers that real life has refused to reveal.

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Posted by on September 8, 2009 in Guest Blogger, Interesting Cases, Writing

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