Monthly Archives: December 2009

On This Day: Stagger Lee Shot Billy, 1895

The night was clear and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumbling down

I was standing on the corner when I heard my bulldog bark
He was barkin’ at the two men who were gamblin’ in the dark
It was Stagger Lee and Billy, two men who gambled late
Stagger Lee threw seven, Billy swore that he threw eight
Stagger Lee told Billy, “I can’t let you go with that”
“You have won all my money and my brand new stetson hat”
Stagger Lee started off goin’ down that railroad track
He said “I can’t get you Billy but don’t be here when I come back”
Stagger Lee went home and he got his fourty-four
Said “I’m goin’ to the barroom just to pay that debt I owe”
Stagger Lee went to the barroom and he stood across the barroom door
He said “Nobody move” and he pulled his fourty-four
Stagger Lee shot Billy, oh he shot that poor boy so bad
Till the bullet came through Billy and it broke the bartender’s glass.

Lordy, what a great song. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve listen to it or played it on the guitar. It just never gets old.

On this day in 1895 (some say it was Christmas Eve, others say it was Christmas Day) the events that spawned an iconic American song went down. So did young Billy Lyon who was shot and killed by Lee Shelton, a cab driver and pimp who went by the moniker Stag Lee. Apparently they had been drinking, gambling, and arguing politics. Stag Lee apparently shot Billy in the stomach, took his hat, and walked away. He was quickly arrested, and then tried, convicted, and sent to prison where he died in 1912. There was nothing special about this murder, just another shooting on the mean streets of St. Louis, but it was the stimulus for many songs that recounted the events of that day.

Stagger Lee, also known as Stagolee, Stackerlee, Stack O’Lee, Stack-a-Lee, and many similar names, has become an icon in the history of blues and rock ‘n roll. It is estimated that over 400 versions have been recorded over the last century, each with its own take on the story.

The version that most people know is the 1959 recording by Lloyd Price, which contrasts starkly with the version recorded by the great Mississippi John Hurt in 1928. It has also been recorded by The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Johnny Otis, The Grateful Dead, RL Burnside, Keb Mo, and many others.


Posted by on December 24, 2009 in Interesting Cases, On This Day


Fetal DNA Nails Rapist

AJ Kelly dodged a bullet. For a while anyway. Until evidence that he thought was long gone pointed the proverbial legal finger directly at him.

It seems that Kelly lived with a woman and her six children, two of which he had fathered. He turned his eye toward one of the woman’s daughters, an 11-year-old sixth grader. He raped her, passing along a STD and a pregnancy. He then apparently threatened the girl and her mother into silence and the girl, who had initially said that Kelly was the father of her unborn child, changed her story and blamed some anonymous teenager. The police were suspicious but could do little.

The young girl eventually lost the child in a stillbirth and the aborted fetus was cremated. Kelly was free and clear. There was no evidence to connect him to his criminal activity.

But bad people repeatedly do bad things. It seems that Kelly and the woman got into an argument one night and the police were called for this domestic dispute. The woman shouted at Kelly, saying he had raped and impregnated her daughter. When the police heard this, their suspicions moved once again to the front burner. But they still had no proof. How were they to hang anything on Kelly?

It turns out that when the young girl suffered the spontaneous abortion, she was taken to the University of Nebraska Medical Center. As they do with all such stillbirths, the hospital kept blood and tissue samples from the stillborn child just in case there is a future need to know what caused the loss of the child. Maybe some disease process or genetic defect that known about ahead of time could save the mother from going through a similar event in the future. The hospital did not do DNA profiling, but rather stored the samples in a refrigerated area where thousands of such samples were maintained.

Now that Kelly was a suspect in the rape and impregnation of the young girl, DNA profiling was obtained from the fetal materials, the young mother, and from Kelly. He readily gave up a buccal swab of his DNA since he saw no harm in doing so. After all, the product of his illicit activity had been cremated. He was home free.

Not so fast.

To perform DNA paternity testing, DNA is required from the mother, the child, and the suspect father. Two out of three won’t work but if all three are available DNA testing is highly accurate for determining paternity.

In this case, the profiling revealed that the odds that someone other than Kelly fathered the aborted fetus was 1 in 38 million. Kelly was tried, convicted, and is now serving 15 years to life.

This is yet another example of someone thinking they had pulled off the near-perfect crime only to have forensic science lurking in the background to help bring them before the court. I love it when things work out this way.


Posted by on December 18, 2009 in DNA, Interesting Cases


The Attack of the Killer Grits

I grew up in the South, Alabama to be exact, with things like fried green tomatoes, biscuits that melt in your mouth, catfish, turnip greens, okra, corn that grows far above your head, and of course grits. Grits are about as Southern as it gets. I liked them growing up but don’t care so much for them anymore. Not sure why that is, it just is.

No one is sure where grits originated but it’s likely that the early settlers in the Jamestown, Virginia area were exposed to “Rockahominie” by the Indians. Rockahominie was softened maize mixed with salt and animal fat. Grits probably descended from this and quickly became a staple among the settlers. Grits helped many Southerners get through the Civil War and the Great Depression. Corn was one of the few things that was plentiful and grits served as a cheap food source during these trying times.

I can still take you to many places throughout the South where old grist mills remain. Some used horsepower to turn the stones that ground the corn while others employed a waterwheel powered by a river, stream, or creek. People would bring their corn to the miller, who would grind it for them, often keeping a portion for himself in payment.

That brings us to the case of Carolyn Brown. She found a new use for grits. A method of getting even. Seems that her boyfriend, who has yet to be named, came home from work and an argument broke out. He told her that he was leaving her but then went to bed to catch a few winks. Probably not a great idea. Carolyn apparently fired up the stove and boiled up a mess of grits, which she then dumped on her sleeping boyfriend. He suffered second-degree burns on his face and arms.

Depending upon who you talk to, burns (thermal injuries) come in either 3 or 4 degrees. A first degree burn is a minor irritation and reddening of the skin such as a sunburn. A second-degree burn is one where the skin is damaged more severely and blistering and some skin loss occurs. A severe sunburn can do this as well as touching a hot stove or spilling an acid on your arm. A third-degree burn reaches deeper into the skin, damaging the lower dermal layers, the area where skin regeneration takes place. For this reason, burns of this magnitude cannot repair themselves as the more minor ones do. The skin will not regenerate and scar formation is the norm. These types of injuries typically require skin grafting. A fourth-degree burn is one where deeper tissues such as muscles and tendons are also damaged and to repair these requires even more extensive surgery.

First and second degree burns typically heal without problems and with little medical intervention. Third degree burns require grafting, extensive antibiotic therapy, and luck. The mortality rate in this type of burn can be quite high. If such injuries cover over 50% of the body, an extremely high mortality rate, mostly due to secondary infections, will follow. The skin protects us from infections and when it is removed by whatever means infection becomes a serious concern. For someone with this type of burn over 75% or more of their body, the mortality rate can approach 90%. Burns are not something to be trifled with.

The victim of this attack was lucky. Grits tend to be very sticky and pasty and are not easily removed. They glom onto the skin and hold the heat inside. Sort of like the cheese on that pizza you had last night. As it was, he suffered second-degree burns, but it could have been worse.

Grits go with many things but a domestic dispute isn’t one of them.


Posted by on December 13, 2009 in Interesting Cases, Medical Issues, Trauma


25 Most Influential People in Forensic Science

Great post about the 25 Most Influential People in Forensic Science this week on The Forensic Files Blog. Check it out.


Posted by on December 10, 2009 in General Forensics


Prescription Poisons: Two Odd Cases

Poisons have been used as a method of murder for many centuries. The Grand Dame of poisons has always been arsenic but there many others available, including prescription medications. A couple very unusual recent cases underline this fact.

Kisha Jones of Brooklyn decided to take matters into her own hands when she discovered that Monique Hunter was pregnant with the child that she assumed had been fathered by Jones’s boyfriend. It appears that she decided that if Hunter was allowed to carry the child to term that this baby would forever link Hunter and the boyfriend and more or less push Jones out. So what would any rational person do? Get rid of the baby, of course.

Cytotec (misoprostol) is a drug that is commonly used to prevent stomach ulcers. It also has the side nasty effect of inducing premature labor and abortion. The perfect drug for Jones’s purposes. But how was she to get a hold of it? Jones stole a prescription pad and wrote a prescription to Hunter for the Cytotec. She then convinced Hunter that she worked in a doctor’s office and that the medication was to prevent her baby from having Down Syndrome. Of course, Down Syndrome is a genetic disorder and Cytotec has no place in preventing its occurrence. Hunter, not knowing this, took the medication and as expected went into premature labor. Fortunately, the child survived.

In order to convince Hunter that she was indeed from a doctor’s office, Jones used to spoofing technique through a private company. Apparently the service allows the user to adopt someone else’s caller ID and even to disguise the user’s voice. In this case, Jones spoofed the doctors phone number and then disguised her voice so that it would not be recognized. Hunter believed that the call did indeed originate from her doctor and that she should take the new medication as directed.

The child’s survival did not deter Jones however. While Hunter was in the hospital, Jones called and said she was sending over breast milk for the baby. A man then showed up containing two containers of a white liquid. Hospital personnel became suspicious and called the police. The so-called milk was then tested and found to be contaminated with chemical. The police have not revealed what this chemical was but it was an obvious attempt at doing away with the baby. Sort of a retroactive abortion.

The second case took place in Iran. Ramin Pourandarjani, a doctor at Kahrizak prison, testified that protesters, who were arrested for marching and speaking out against the ruling regime, were tortured and murdered at the prison. These deaths had been reported to be from suicide or even meningitis but according to the doctor this was not the case. The Iranian regime took issue and apparently decided to silence the doctor. A significant amount of propranolol was placed in a salad that the doctor ate. Again the regime stated that his death was a suicide and that the doctor committed suicide because he was under investigation for failure to fulfill his duties and killed himself to avoid the investigation. Sure.

Propranolol is a class of drugs that we call beta blockers. These are very useful for the treatment of high blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmias, migraine headaches, certain types of tremors, and even stage fright. They dramatically slow the heart rate and lower the blood pressure and, if enough of any of them is taken, can easily lead to shock and death. This is apparently what happened to Dr. Pourandarjani.

So when you’re plotting your story and need that perfect poison, you have to look no further than your medicine cabinet.


Patient HM: An Odd Case of Amnesia

On December 5, 2008 Henry Molaison died. He was known as patient HM to the medical community. His entry into the annals of medical history began in 1953 when he underwent surgery for a seizure disorder. At that time, the evil and greedy pharmaceutical companies, that have since produced dozens medications to control seizures, had few effective anti-seizure medications in their medical bag of tricks. Those would come years and billions of dollars later. Because seizure disorders greatly disturbed most victim’s lives, many unusual and aggressive techniques were used for controlling them, including various surgical procedures.

HM apparently suffered a head injury at the age of nine and it was felt that this might be  the cause of his seizures. He would frequently suffer powerful convulsions and the disorder interfered with his ability to keep a job. For this reason he underwent surgical treatment in which a portion of his hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain, was removed. His seizures improved but a very unusual complication arose. HM developed anterograde amnesia. He was unable to form long-term memories. This condition remained with him until his death at age 82.

Amnesia is an odd dysfunction of the brain. Memories are trapped inside and cannot be accessed, and in some forms of amnesia, new memories cannot be formed and stored. Amnesia has many causes, including trauma, brain infections, severe stress, and a handful of other things. It occurs in several forms but I will only look at two here: Retrograde and Anterograde.

In Retrograde Amnesia the victim is unable to recall events that occurred prior to the onset of the amnesia. It can be complete or partial.  It can cover only the few minutes before the event all the way back to forever and anywhere in between. It can completely resolve, partially resolve, or never resolve.  It can last for minutes, days, weeks, months, years, or forever. When memory returns it can occur instantly, in fits and spurts, gradually, or never. Memories that do return can be complete, spotty, or with huge holes. Almost anything is possible. For example, a victim might remember faces but not names. He might remember events but not people. He might recognize who he is or not. In other words, his memory loss can be for almost anything and in any combination.

Anterograde Amnesia is marked by the inability to form new memories. Everyone you meet, every place you go, everything you see or read, and essentially everything you come into contact with makes sense at the time but no memories are formed so repeating any of these events is as if you were doing them for the first time. Imagine how debilitating this is. You meet your next-door neighbor, and the next day you don’t remember who he is or if you have ever seen him before. You read a book or see a movie but the next day remember nothing about it. You mail in your tax returns and don’t remember whether you did or not. Life can get confusing. HM had to live with this his entire life.

The movie Memento was based on this medical condition. Leonard, the protagonist of the story played by Guy Pearce, had anterograde amnesia. He resorted to making notes, tattooing important information on his body, and tried every trick he could think of to decide what was real, what was imagined, and who he could trust. Great movie. If you haven’t seen it you should.

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