Monthly Archives: July 2011

Guest Blogger: LJ Sellers: A Visit to the Crime Lab

I visited the Eugene Police Department’s crime lab where the lead criminologist gave me a two-hour crash course in processing evidence. Many of the chemical references didn’t stick with me, but what I learned is that real-life evidence technicians (versus the CSI kind) spend most of their time processing latent fingerprints and watching/editing surveillance videos. Both are tedious pursuits that require attention to detail and patience, but what they produce is the critical evidence that leads to criminal convictions.

Here are the photo highlights of my visit.

This is a downdraft table where technicians use various colors of powder to process fingerprints. The downdraft sucks up the excess powder, which would otherwise go everywhere.

The Superglue Dryer: Technicians don’t really use superglue, only one of its chemical components: cyanoacetate, which mixes with steam to form a coating all over an object. The coating reveals latent fingerprints when it hardens.

The lab refrigerator holds many things, including entomology evidence. Evidence technicians grow and kill flies at various stages to establish time of death for bodies that aren’t found in a timely manner.

The large bay where technicians process cars, ATM machines, and other big items looks a lot like a homeowner’s garage, including a little blue kiddie swimming pool.

No lab is complete without a shower. Many of the chemicals technicians use are dangerous, and they must have access to an immediate way to rinse off their clothes or bodies.

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and the author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series: The Sex Club, Secrets to Die For, Thrilled to Death, Passions of the Dead, and Dying for Justice. Her novels have been highly praised by Mystery Scene, Crimespree, and Spinetingler magazines, and the series is on Amazon Kindle’s bestselling police procedural list. L.J. also has two standalone thrillers: The Baby Thief and The Suicide Effect. When not plotting murders, she enjoys performing standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.


Posted by on July 27, 2011 in General Forensics, Guest Blogger


Q and A: Will Ingestion of Bee Venom Kill Someone Who Is Allergic to Bees?

Q:    If a person is allergic to bee venom and the venom is ingested, would the person be likely to die? Would the venom show up on a tox screen at autopsy?

A:    Bee venom is a protein toxin and would be digested by the acids in the stomach if swallowed. And once digested it would not likely cause an allergic reaction. However, an allergic reaction would happen once the venom contacted the buccal mucosa—big word for the lining of the mouth. This could cause an anaphylactic reaction and kill the victim.

Anaphylaxis is a rapid allergic reaction to some antigen. These antigens are typically foods, drugs, or insect venoms. Common foods are peanuts and shellfish; common drugs are penicillin and iodine, which is found in many radiographic dyes; and common insects are bees as in your story. There a myriad other foods, drugs, and bugs that can cause anaphylaxis in the allergic person.

This rapid immune (allergic) reaction involves antigens (foods, drugs, bee venom, etc.) and antibodies, which are manufactured by the body and react to the specific antigen they are directed against. This reaction is a critical part of our defense against bacteria and viruses. The body recognizes the antigen, a virus let’s say, as foreign and builds antibodies that will recognize and attach to the virus. This reaction attracts white blood cells (WBCs), which release chemicals that kill or harm the virus, which is then consumed by the WBCs and destroyed.  This process is essential for each of us to survive in our bacteria and virus-filled world.

But, in allergic individuals, this reaction is rapid and massive and causes a release of large amounts of the chemicals from the WBCs and these chemicals cause the problems. They cause dilatation (opening up) of the blood vessels, which leads to a drop in blood pressure (BP) and shock. They cause the bronchial tubes (airways) to constrict (narrow severely), which leads to shortness of breath, wheezing, and cough. This is basically a severe asthmatic attack and prevents adequate air intake and the oxygen level in the blood drops rapidly.

The chemicals also cause what is known as capillary leak. This means that the tiny microscopic blood vessels in the tissues begin to leak fluids into the tissues. This leads to swelling of the hands, face, eyes, and lips and various skin lesions such as a red rash, hives (actually these are called bullae and are fluid-filled, blister-like areas), and what are called wheel-and-flare lesions (pale areas surrounded by a reddish ring). These are also called Target Lesions because they look like targets.

In the lungs, this capillary leaking causes swelling of the airways, which along with the constriction of the airways prevents air intake, as well as fluid accumulation within the air sacs, a condition called pulmonary edema. These derangements work in concert to prevent inspired oxygen from reaching the bloodstream.

The net result of an anaphylactic reaction is a dramatic fall in BP, severe wheezing, low blood oxygen levels, swelling and hives, shock (basically respiratory and cardiac failure), and death.

Usually anaphylaxis onsets within minutes (10 to 20) after contact with the antigen, but sometimes, particularly with ingested foods, it might be delayed for hours. With a bee sting it would begin in a matter of minutes. Bee venom in the mouth might also take only a few minutes to instigate the reaction.
Your victim would suffer swelling of the tongue and face—particularly of the lips and around the eyes—as well as swelling of his hands. Hives and wheel-and-flare lesions would pop out over the skin. He would begin to gasp for breath and develop progressively louder wheezing. As the oxygen content of his blood began to drop he would appear bluish around his lips, ears, fingers, and toes. This would progress until his skin was dusky blue. He would sweat, weaken, and finally when his BP dropped far enough would lose consciousness, lapse into a coma and die. Unless treatment was swift and effect that is.

Untreated anaphylaxis leads to shock and death in anywhere from a very few minutes to an hour or more, depending upon the severity of the reaction and the overall health of the victim. Treatment consists of blood pressure (BP) and respiratory support, while giving drugs that counter the allergic reaction. BP support may come from intravenous (IV) drips of drugs called vasopressors. The most common would be Dopamine, Dobutamine, epinephrine, and neosynephrine. Respiratory support might require the placement of an endotracheal (ET) tube and artificial ventilation. The victim would then be given epinephrine IV or subcutaneously (SubQ) and IV Benadryl and steroids. Common steroids would be Medrol, Solumedrol, and Decadron. These drugs work at different areas of the overall allergic reaction and reverse many of its consequences. The victim could survive with these interventions. Or not. Your call.

If you decide that your victim will die, then at autopsy, the findings are non-specific. That is, they are not absolutely diagnostic that an anaphylactic reaction occurred. The ME would expect to find swelling of the throat and airways and perhaps fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) and maybe some bleeding in the lungs. He might also find some congestion of the internal organs such as the liver. He must however couple these findings with a history of the individual having eaten a certain food, having ingested or being given a certain drug, or having received an insect bite or sting and then developing symptoms and signs consistent with anaphylaxis.

Nothing would appear on a routine tox screen but in the case bee venom as you are using, he might be able to find antibodies to the insect’s venom in the victim’s blood. Maybe not. So you can have it either way—yes he finds the antibodies or no he doesn’t.


Posted by on July 23, 2011 in Medical Issues, Q&A


A New Non-DNA Identification Technique?

Most Americans have a positive Mumps Skin Test. Why? Most of use were exposed to the Mumps virus at some time in our lives and therefore have Mumps antibodies in our system. The test reveals these antibodies. A positive test doesn’t mean you have Mumps only that you’ve been exposed to it at some time in the past. The skin test is not useful for the diagnosis of active Mumps but is often used simply to prove that a person’s immune system is intact and working.

We produce similar antibodies to very bacterium, virus, and other invader we encounter. This antibody building is going on every minute of every day as we are constantly exposed to these critters. Each of us has a different history of exposure to these various “bugs” and will necessarily have different types and amounts of antibodies running around our body. If these antibodies were tested for, each of us would have a unique “Antibody Profile.”

This individually unique profile just might be a method for identifying each of us and it seems that Global Forensics Ltd (UK) and Identity Sciences LLC (US) are marketing just such a TEST. The AbP ID test, developed by Idaho National Laboratory, seeks out Individual Specific Antibodies (ISAs), which are found in every tissue and body fluid. Since each of us has a unique antibody profile the discrimination should rival that of DNA Profiling. Maybe better since even identical twins, who have the same DNA, will have unique antibody profiles.

The test seems to be rapid (two hours), cheap, and doesn’t require a specialized lab, highly trained lab techs, or a large sample.

This is a technique that deserves watching. Begin with this VIDEO.


Guest Blogger: Creating Contacts in the Forensics Field

My guest today is Whitney Jones. Whitney, welcome to The Writer’s Forensics Blog.

The writer is a person who seeks knowledge. He or she is very comfortable researching in the library or searching through websites for the information they need in order to write a brilliant piece. However, sometimes the information that is stored in these tomes and files can be outdated. Processes change frequently, and especially those in forensic science.

Because of this, it’s almost necessary for writers to create contacts with individuals who spend their lives in fields relating to the writer’s interests. This isn’t always easy, but there are a few ways to create contacts in any field. If you’re trying to get the latest information on forensics, try some of these approaches.

First of all, consider who you already know. Maybe your second-cousin Vinnie just joined the police force as a traffic cop. Don’t be afraid to ask him for an introduction to someone who deals more with forensics. If it’s a smaller town where there’s less for police force to do, they’re more likely to respond positively. On the other side of the coin, large towns are more likely to have the kind of crime and medical issues you’ll be focusing on in your novel.

If you don’t already have contacts, try going to venues where the experts are likely to be at. For example, forensic scientists will usually have a booth up at police-sponsored charity events or fairs. Usually each department will have their own booth up with pamphlets and other goodies for kids. There’s usually a representative at each table who’s there to answer questions.

At this point the writer will just want to make first contact. There is no need to tell the expert that you’re a writer unless they ask about it. It will undoubtedly take quite a time investment before the expert will become a contact this way, but if you continue to come to the events and strike up a friendly conversation, you should be able to create a connection. Just remember to keep it professional, and never act like a groupie.

Another way for writers to gain contacts in the forensic field would be to take some classes. As writers are pursuers of knowledge, they would benefit greatly from taking some criminal justice classes. Your professor will likely have studied the justice system and crime for decades and are much more likely to sit down for a chat with a student than with a person who got their name from a college website. Consider the class an investment in both knowledge and contacts.

If there isn’t enough time to cultivate a contact or take a class, Google will be your best friend—to a degree. It will help you connect to experts’ blogs and find places like this blog that have up-to-date forensics information. If there’s ever a question of a blog’s veracity, don’t be afraid to try to contact the author and ask about sources.

Whitney Jones loves Diet Dr. Pepper and solving crime novels. Check out Whitney’s writings at The Professional Intern.


Posted by on July 16, 2011 in General Forensics, Guest Blogger


Foreign Accent Syndrome

Karen Butler had a dental appointment. All went well except for one little thing—when it was over she “talked funny.” Her dentist told her that once the pain and swelling resolved her voice would again be normal. Not true. Though Karen is American, she developed a new accent that seem to be a mixture of English, Irish, and other European languages. How is this possible?

There is a very rare neurological disorder called Foreign Accent Syndrome. It typically follows some form of brain injury such as trauma, stroke, or infection. There have been only around 100 cases identified. The accent can be anything–German, French, Chinese, anything.

In Karen Butler’s case she most likely suffered a small stroke while under dental anesthesia. This has not been proven yet but that’s most likely the underlying cause of her new accent.

An odd syndrome to say the least.


Q and A: How Long Does It Take For Someone To Die From Carotid Artery Compression?

Q: How long does it take for someone to die if their carotid artery is compressed?

A: The two carotid arteries lie in the front of the neck on either side of the trachea (windpipe) and carry blood from the heart to the brain. They supply 90% or so of the brain’s blood, with the rest coming from the two small vertebral arteries that travel along the spine and over the back-most portion of the brain. The carotids are interconnected in the brain so that in a normal individual compressing a single carotid artery will have little effect. Compressing both can cause a loss of consciousness in 15 to 20 seconds and death in 2 to 4 minutes.

One general rule in medicine is that if the heart stops, the victim will lose consciousness in about 4 seconds if standing, 8 if sitting, and 12 if lying down. This simply reflects the effects of gravity on blood flow. These numbers would also mostly hold true if both carotids were suddenly pressed shut—not easy to do—see below. But, to the brain, the complete interruption of blood flow through carotids would look the same as it would if the heart had stopped. Either way, the brain would receive no blood supply, and the brain needs a continuous supply of blood to function and survive.

Another medical truism is that dizziness, loss of consciousness, and sudden death are simply gradations along the same scale. That is, what makes you dizzy can make you lose consciousness, and what makes you lose consciousness can cause death. One of the things that can do this is compression of the carotid arteries. Brief compression, can cause dizziness, longer compression can cause loss of consciousness, and even a longer period of compression can cause death.

A major variable in play here is how severely the arteries are compressed. If only partially collapsed, the victim might have no problems. Severe and almost complete compression can cause loss of consciousness and death in short order. And anywhere in between. Significant and potentially deadly compression can result from strangulation–either manual or ligature–hanging, or an aggressively applied choke hold.

So, depending upon the nature, force, and duration of the compression, your victim could have no symptoms, become dizzy, lose consciousness, or die. Or could progressively move from one of these to the next. The time required for death could be a couple of minutes or many minutes if the compression is less severe or intermittent. As the victim struggled, he could intermittently release the strangle or choke hold and this would prolong the ordeal.

All these variable means that you can have it almost anyway you want. The killer could overpower the victim, render him unconscious in 20 seconds, and kill him in 2 minutes. Or the struggle could go on for many, many minutes. It’s up to you.


Posted by on July 9, 2011 in Medical Issues, Q&A, Trauma


Papa Died 50 Years Ago Today

I still remember the day I learned of Hemingway’s death. It was such a shock. I was in high school and had only recently discovered his books. My fascination with novels began with Jules Verne’s The Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Mysterious Island. From there I moved on to Edgar Rice Burroughs and ultimately to John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.


The first Hemingway book I read was The Old Man and the Sea. I was blown away with the greatness of the story and the simplicity of the writing, both Papa trademarks. That led to For Whom the Bell Tolls (which ironically I was reading when I learned of his death), A Farewell to Arms, and all the wonderful short stories, which I keep on my iPad. You can learn a lot by re-reading them from time to time.


That Hemingway abused alcohol and was depressed and probably bipolar is fairly well known. His depression had apparently worsened in the months before his death. It is rumored that he could no longer write, not even a single sentence. Whether this is true or not is unknown but for him the inability to create that perfect sentence would have been maddening. He who slaved over every sentence, every phrase, every word. It is probably what led to his placing a double-barreled shotgun to his forehead and pulling the trigger on the morning of July 2, 1961.

John Walsh has now written an interesting piece on Hemingway’s psychological spiral and the things that led to his suicide. For any Hemingway fan it is interesting reading.

So long Papa, you are greatly missed.


Posted by on July 2, 2011 in Medical Issues, Writing

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