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Category Archives: Cause & Manner of Death

Criminal Mischief: Episode #16: Arsenic: An Historical and Modern Poison

Arsenic

Criminal Mischief: Episode #16: Arsenic: An Historical and Modern Poison

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/criminal-mischief-episode-15-arsenic-an-historical-and-modern-poison

SHOW NOTES: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief-notes/16-arsenic-an-historical.html

PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

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From HOWDUNNIT:FORENSICS

Toxicology is a relatively new science that stands on the shoulders of its predecessors: anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and medicine. Our knowledge in these sciences had to reach a certain level of sophistication before toxicology could become a reality. It slowly evolved over more than two hundred years of testing, starting with tests for arsenic. 

Arsenic had been a common poison for centuries, but there was no way to prove that arsenic was the culprit in a suspicious death. Scientist had to isolate and then identify arsenic trioxide—the most common toxic form of arsenic— in the human body before arsenic poisoning became a provable cause of death. The steps that led to a reliable test for arsenic are indicative of how many toxicological procedures developed. 

1775: Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) showed that chlorine water would convert arsenic into arsenic acid. He then added metallic zinc and heated the mixture to release arsine gas. When this gas contacted a cold vessel, arsenic would collect on the vessel’s surface. 

1787: Johann Metzger (1739–1805) showed that if arsenic were heated with charcoal, a shiny, black “arsenic mirror” would form on the charcoal’s surface. 

1806: Valentine Rose discovered that arsenic could be uncovered in the human body. If the stomach contents of victims of arsenic poisoning are treated with potassium carbonate, calcium oxide, and nitric acid, arsenic trioxide results. This could then be tested and confirmed by Metzger’s test. 

1813: French chemist Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila (1787–1853) developed a method for isolating arsenic from dog tissues. He also published the first toxicological text, Traité des poisons (Treatise on Poison), which helped establish toxicology as a true science. 

1821: Sevillas used similar techniques to find arsenic in the stomach and urine of individuals who had been poisoned. This is marked as the beginning of the field of forensic toxicology. 

1836: Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806–1880) developed the first test for arsenic in human tissue. He taught chemistry at Grey’s Medical School in England and is credited with establishing the field of forensic toxicology as a medical specialty. 

1836: James Marsh (1794–1846) developed an easier and more sensitive version of Metzger’s original test, in which the “arsenic mirror” was collected on a plate of glass or porcelain. The Marsh test became the standard, and its principles were the basis of the more modern method known as the Reinsch test, which we will look at later in this chapter. 

As you can see, each step in developing a useful testing procedure for arsenic stands on what discoveries came before. That’s the way science works. Step by step, investigators use what others have discovered to discover even more. 

Acute vs. Chronic Poisoning 

At times the toxicologist is asked to determine whether a poisoning is acute or chronic. A good example is arsenic, which can kill if given in a single large dose or if given in repeated smaller doses over weeks or months. In either case, the blood level could be high. But the determination of whether the poisoning was acute or chronic may be extremely important. If acute, the suspect list may be long. If chronic, the suspect list would include only those who had long-term contact with the victim, such as a family member, a caretaker, or a family cook. 

So, how does the toxicologist make this determination? 

In acute arsenic poisoning, the ME would expect to find high levels of arsenic in the stomach and the blood, as well as evidence of corrosion and bleeding in the stomach and intestines, as these are commonly seen in acute arsenic ingestion. If he found little or no arsenic in the stomach and no evidence of acute injury in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, but high arsenic levels in the blood and tissues, he might suspect that the poisoning was chronic in nature. Here, an analysis of the victim’s hair can be invaluable. 

Hair analysis for arsenic (and several other toxins) can reveal exposure to arsenic and also give a timeline of the exposure. The reason this is possible is that arsenic is deposited in the cells of the hair follicles in proportion to the blood level of the arsenic at the time the cell was produced. 

In hair growth, the cells of the hair’s follicle undergo change, lose their nuclei, and are incorporated into the growing hair shaft. New follicular cells are produced to replace them and this cycle continues throughout life. Follicular cells produced while the blood levels of arsenic are high contain the poison, and as they are incorporated into the hair shaft the arsenic is, too. On the other hand, any follicular cells that appeared while the arsenic levels were low contain little or no arsenic. 

In general, hair grows about a half inch per month. This means that the toxicologist can cut the hair into short segments, measure the arsenic level in each, and reveal a timeline for arsenic exposure in the victim. 

Let’s suppose that a wife, who prepares all the family meals, slowly poisoned her husband with arsenic. She began by adding small amounts of the poison to his food in February and continued until his death in July. In May he was hospitalized with gastrointestinal complaints such as nausea, vomiting, and weight loss (all symptoms of arsenic poisoning). No diagnosis was made, but since he was doing better after ten days in the hospital, he was sent home. Such a circumstance is not unusual since these types of gastrointestinal symptoms are common and arsenic poisoning is rare. Physicians rarely think of it and test for it. After returning home, the unfortunate husband once again fell ill and finally died. 

As part of the autopsy procedure, the toxicologist might test the victim’s hair for toxins, and if he did, he would find the arsenic. He could then section and test the hair to determine the arsenic level essentially month by month. If the victim’s hair was three inches long, the half inch closest to the scalp would represent July, the next half inch June, the next May, and so on until the last half inch would reflect his exposure to arsenic in February, the month his poisoning began. Arsenic levels are expressed in parts per million (ppm).

An analysis might reveal a pattern like that seen in Figure 11-1. 

IMAGE in HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS

 The toxicologist would look at this timeline of exposure and likely determine that the exposure occurred in the victim’s home. The police would then have a few questions for the wife and would likely obtain a search warrant to look for arsenic within the home. 

LINKS: 

Arsenic Poisoning (2007): CA Poison Control: https://calpoison.org/news/arsenic-poisoning-2007

Arsenic Poisoning Cases Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic_poisoning_cases

Arsenic” a Murderous History: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/arsenic/history.html

Facts About Arsenic: LiveScience: https://www.livescience.com/29522-arsenic.html

Poison: Who Killed Napolean?: https://www.amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/on-exhibit-posts/poison-what-killed-napoleon

Victorian Poisoners: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Victorian-Poisoners/

12 Female Poisoners Who Killed With Arsenic: http://mentalfloss.com/article/72351/12-female-poisoners-who-killed-arsenic

 

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Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction: Episode #12: Fentanyl—A Most Dangerous Game

Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/fentanyl-a-most-dangerous-game

PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

SHOW NOTES: 

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is as much as 300 times more powerful than morphine sulfate. It can be injected, ingested, inhaled, and will even penetrate the skin.

It is used in medical situations frequently for pain management, sedation, and for twilight-anesthesia for things such as colonoscopies. 

Fentanyl is the number one cause of drug ODs.

Americans have a slightly higher than 1% chance of ultimately dying of an opioid overdose. That’s better than one in 100 people. In fact, 60 people die every day from opioid ODs. That translates to over 22,000 per year. In fact, US life expectancy dropped slightly between 2016 and 2017 due to opioid overdoses.

Thirteen people suffered a mass OD at a party in Chico, Ca in January 2019.

It is often added to other drugs such as heroin to “boost” the heroine effect. Unfortunately, Fentanyl is much more powerful than heroin and when the two are mixed it becomes a deadly combination. It’s also often added to meth and cocaine.


How powerful is fentanyl? A single tablespoon of it could kill as many as 500 people; 120 pounds as many as 25 million people. A recent bust, the largest in US history, recovered over 250 pounds of Fentanyl secreted in a truck crossing the US-Mexico border-—enough to kill 50 million people. 

When cops arrest people who possess or are transporting fentanyl they must take precautions not to touch or inhale the product as it could prove fatal. The opioid crises is the reason many cops carry Narcan (Naloxone) with them as either an injection or a nasal spray. It reverses the effects of narcotics very quickly. 

The “Dark Web” is a source for many things that can’t be purchased or the open market. Weapons, hitmen, and drugs. But even many of these dealers won’t deal Fentanyl.

Could fentanyl be used as a weapon of terror? Absolutely. A fentanyl aerosol sprayed into a room of people could easily kill everyone present in a matter of minutes. It is a powerful narcotic that acts very quickly and depresses respiration so that people die from asphyxia.

In 2002 a group of around 50 Chechen terrorists who took 850 people hostage in a Moscow theater. Many of the attackers were strapped with explosive vests. The standoff lasted 4 days until the Russians pumped Fentanyl-maybe carfentanil or remifentanil—through the vents and took everyone down. All the terrorists were killed but unfortunately, over 200 of the hostages died before medical help could reach them. 

Carfentanil—-Been around since 1974 but just now entering the world of drug abuse. Used in darts as a large animal tranquilizer. AN analog of fentanyl but is 100X stronger.

The famous Kristin Rossum “American Beauty” case involved fentanyl.

Kristen Rossum

 

Fentanyl Deaths Top Car Accidents: https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2019/01/15/accidental-opioid-deaths-top-car-accident-deaths-for-the-first-time/

Mass OD in Chico, CA: https://www.ems1.com/overdose/articles/393267048-Calif-mass-overdose-highlights-severe-new-phase-of-opioid-epidemic/

Narcan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naloxone

Even many “Dark Web” Dealers won’t sell Fentanyl: http://www.newser.com/story/268019/even-dark-web-dealers-refuse-to-sell-this-drug.html

Fentanyl As Terror Weapon: https://www.breitbart.com/asia/2019/01/03/report-experts-insist-opioid-fentanyl-could-be-used-as-tool-of-terror/

Fentanyl as WMD: https://www.bloombergquint.com/business/killer-opioid-fentanyl-could-be-a-weapon-of-mass-destruction#gs.UwnsSzO8

Carfentanil Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carfentanil

Kristin Rossum Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kristin_Rossum

 

 

Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction: Episode #10: Rattlesnakes and Murder

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Episode #10: Rattlesnakes and Murder Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/criminal-mischief-episode-10-rattlesnakes-and-murder

Past Criminal Mischief Podcasts: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

SHOW NOTES

“Good fences make good neighbors”—Robert Frost, “Mending Wall” 

I suspect Ryan Felton Sauter’s neighbor, Keith Monroe, would agree.

People commit murder for a host of reasons. Things like financial gain, revenge, lust, anger, to cover another crime, and many other motives. It seems that these motives can even include a dispute with the dude who parked his RV next to yours.

All sorts of weapons are used for committing murder. Guns, knives, poisons, explosives, ligatures, drownings, and gentle pushes off buildings or cliffs. Oh, don’t forget rattlesnakes. This seems to be what Mr. Sauter decided to employ. Simply slipping the reptile into his neighbors RV might not work since rattlesnakes make that buzzing noise to warn people away. So, wouldn’t it be best to simply remove the rattle. And I guess the best way for that is to bite it off.

You simply can’t make this stuff up.

But snakebites are not always the result of some criminal activity. In fact, they rarely are. Most snakebites occur accidentally. Hunters and hikers know this all too well. As a kid growing up in Alabama, and stomping around in the woods on a daily basis, I knew snakes well. I knew which ones to avoid and which ones were harmless. A black racer was scary and fast, but harmless. Stumble on a rattlesnake or a copperhead and that’s a different story. And until you’ve seen a water moccasin, or as we call them cottonmouth, you haven’t seen an evil looking serpent. These guys are thick, dark, and prehistoric looking. And very dangerous. Yes, they can bite you in the water. So before you jump into that swimming hole deep in the woods, you better make some noise and shake up the water runoff any cottonmouth might be around.

But other people are bitten while they are handling snakes. I don’t mean just biologist or herpetologist, those that study these creatures, but also those who use them in religious ceremonies. You might think that snake handling is a thing of the past and something that is only found in the South, but that’s not true. There are still several snake handling churches from coast-to-coast. Even though in many locations snake owning and handling is not legal, the laws get shaky when it’s under the guise of religion.

snakehandling

Their justifications come from Mark 16:17-18

“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

Snake handling in churches is often traced back to 1910 when George Went Hensley began incorporating them into his services at his Church of God with Signs Following. Many others have followed in his footsteps. And many have been bitten such as John Wayne “Punkin” Brown and Jamie Coots, whose son Cody was also bitten while preaching but saved when friends defied the church dictates and got him medical treatment.

For the most part, medical treatment is not offered in the circumstances because it is felt that it’s up to the Lord whether the preacher survives or not. After all, it is religion and the Lord can save you then what’s the point? Not to mention, that many of these groups feel that sipping strychnine is also good for you and will prevent you from dying if you are bitten by a snake. Yeah, that makes good medical sense. Add another poison to the poison authority in your system.

I use much of this in my third Samantha Cody book, Original Sin. One of the bad guys in this story is a snake-handling preacher. During my research for this book, I stumbled across a wonderful book titled Salvation on Sand Mountain. Sand Mountain is maybe 30 or 40 miles from where I grew up so obviously the title intrigued me. Once I got the book and began reading it I discovered it was wonderfully written and then discovered that it was nominated for a National Book Award. It is written by Dennis Covington and is the story of Glenn Summerford, a snake-handling preacher who attempted to kill his wife with a snake.

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From ORIGINAL SIN:

“I knew you’d come back to us,” John Scully said as Lucy and Sam walked into the church. He and Miriam were standing near the pulpit. 

“Back?” Lucy said. 

“Back to the church.”

“That implies I was ever here.”

“You were,” Miriam said. “From the moment you breathed your first breath.”

“You’re not making sense.”

Scully smiled. “You have always been a part of us. Martha and your parents saw to that.”

Lucy glanced toward Sam. “Am I missing something here?”

“Doesn’t make sense to me either,” Sam said.

“You were baptized into the church when you were only days old.”

“No offense, but I don’t remember that. And no one ever bothered to tell me.”

“But deep inside you know it’s true,” Scully said.

“I don’t think so.”

Felicia walked in, carrying a wooden box. She placed it on a table to Scully’s left. The unmistakable buzzing of snakes rose from the box. Scully raised the lid and casually removed a fat rattlesnake. Its buzzing now adopted an angry tone.

Lucy and Sam each took a step back. 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Sam said.

“Don’t worry. I’m immune to the poison.”

“I’m more worried about me and Lucy,” Sam said.

“He’s been bitten a dozen times,” Miriam said. “His faith protects him.”

“That and a little strychnine,” Scully said.

“Strychnine?” Lucy asked. Her attention never drifted from the snake that now waved its head around as if looking for a suitable target. She felt perspiration gather along her back as her heart rate clicked up a notch. God, she hated snakes.

“A little sip neutralizes the poison,” Miriam said.

“I must have missed that day in med school,” Lucy said.

Miriam offered a maternal smile. “Can’t learn everything from man’s books. Only from the word of the Lord.”

The snake coiled around Scully’s arm, head raised. Lucy felt as if it was watching her. She took another half step back, Actually, she wanted to run out the door, but fought the impulse.

“Why snakes?” Sam asked. “What do they have to do with Jesus?”

Lucy knew Sam was playing cop now. Ty and Bump had told them about Scully’s insane beliefs. And Sam had told her that Gladys Johnston had said the same thing. Sam was merely asking questions she already knew the answer to. Seeing if Scully changed his story in any way. 

Now it was Scully’s turn to offer a paternal smile. It faded and his gaze seemed to glaze over. He spoke.

And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;

They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.

And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.

The quote Sam had shown her. The one Scully had written on the back of a menu.

“Mark Sixteen,” Felicia said.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Sam said. “This is the scripture that tells you to play with snakes?”

Scully gaze hardened. “It’s not play. But you wouldn’t understand.”

 

LINKS:

https://www.mystatesman.com/news/local/police-caldwell-county-man-uses-rattlesnake-neighbor-dispute/NUFO8d5JNM4ggWDdliKS2I/

Snake Handling In Religion Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snake_handling_in_religion

Snake Handling Churches: http://www.cerm.info/bible_studies/Apologetics/snake_handlers.htm

Church of God With Signs Following: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_God_with_Signs_Following

George Went Hensley—the First Snake Handler?: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Went_Hensley

Punkin Brown: http://www.hiddenmysteries.org/religion/pentecostal/snakeskill-fool.shtml

Jamie Coots Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamie_Coots

Cost Coots: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6070685/Snake-preacher-gets-bitten-four-years-father-killed-rattlesnake.html

Salvation on Sand Mountain: https://www.amazon.com/Salvation-Sand-Mountain-Snake-Handling-Redemption/dp/0140254587?_encoding=UTF8&redirect=true

Original Sin: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/original-sin.html

 

Weather Balloons and an Elaborate Suicide

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Alan Abrahamson went for a morning walk. The security cameras where he lived documented this and they also recorded the sound of a gunshot. Later, Abrahamson’s body was found, the victim of a gunshot wound. Looks like a murder. But it wasn’t. It was an elaborate suicide.

No weapon was found at the scene. How could someone commit suicide with a gun and yet the gun not be present? Did someone pick it up and walk away? Without reporting the crime? Didn’t make sense. But the scene revealed other things—-most notably a red streak of blood angling away from his chest wound and toward his shoulder. In addition, it was found that in the days prior to his death he had purchased a pair of weather balloons and a tank of helium. As investigators reconstructed the scene, it appeared Abrahamson had rigged the balloons to the weapon, shot himself, and as he died, the weapon slipped from his hands, was carried skyward by the balloons, ultimately out over the Atlantic Ocean never to be seen again.

Why he wanted to stage his suicide as a murder is unclear but it’s a very elaborate scheme. Maybe it had something to do with insurance, or framing someone, or maybe just to have a clever exit. The only person that knows is no longer with us.

 

Your Eye Drops Can Kill You

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Anything can be a poison, it all depends on the dose. This includes the drops you use to clear your eyes. 

The active, and dangerous, ingredient in many of these preparations is tetrahydrozoline hydrochloride. If ingested in sufficient amounts, it can elevate the blood pressure, drop the heart rate to dangerously low levels, reduce body temperature, and cause nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, blurred vision, an unsteady gait, seizures, coma, and death. And you thought those little dropper bottles were harmless.

In a new case, it appears that Lana Clayton killed her husband by adding a few drops to his water over several days. He apparently fell down the stairs. Since this chemical causes walking difficulties, blurred vision, and even seizures, he could easily have staggered and fallen down the steps. Or even been pushed. Regardless, a significant amount of the chemical was found in his blood at autopsy.

I’ve blogged about this before in discussing a case of possible munch Munchausen By Proxy. Samantha Elizabeth Unger apparently poisoned her children by adding a few drops of the medication to their juice on multiple occasions. Here is the link to that post:

https://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/03/visine-and-munchausen-syndrome-by-proxy/

 

Criminal Mischief #02: Cause and Manner of Death Notes

Criminal Mischief #02: The ME’s 3 most important determinations: Cause, Manner, and Time of Death

Part I: Cause and Manner of Death Notes

CAUSE/MECHANISM OF DEATH:

Cause of death is why the individual died
Heart attack, GSW, traumatic brain injury, diseases

Mechanism-physiological derangement that causes death

One cause—several mechanisms

Example: MI-arrhythmia, cardiogenic shock, rupture 

Example: GSW—heart or brain damage, exsanguination. wound infection

One mechanism—several causes

Example: Exsanguination—GSW, ulcer, meds, disease 

Just as a cause of death can lead to many different mechanisms of death, any cause of death can have several different manners of death. A gunshot wound to the head can’t be a natural death, but it could be deemed homicidal, suicidal, or accidental.

MANNERS OF DEATH: For what purpose and by whose hand

NATURAL: Natural deaths are due to the workings of Mother Nature in that the death results from a natural disease process. Heart attacks, cancers, pneumonia, and strokes are common natural causes of death. This is by far the largest category of death that the ME sees. 

ACCIDENTAL: Accidental deaths result from an unplanned and unforeseeable sequence of events. Falls, automobile accidents, and in-home electrocutions are examples of accidental deaths. 

SUICIDAL: Suicides are deaths that come by the person’s own hand. Intentional self-inflicted gunshots, drug overdoses, or self-hangings are suicidal deaths. 

HOMICIDAL: Homicides are deaths that occur by the hand of another. Note that a homicide is not necessarily a murder. Homicide is a determination of the ME; murder is a legal charge that is determined by the courts. Though each would be ruled a homicide by the ME, the legal jeopardy is much different for a court verdict of negligent homicide as opposed to first- or second-degree murder. 

UNDETERMINED OR UNCLASSIFIED: This extra category is used in situations where the coroner can’t accurately determine the appropriate category. 

Examples:
Car/pedestrian
Heroin/Drug OD
GSW

Psychological Autopsy

Manner determines whether there is an investigation

Manner not fixed—can change
Proximate cause— the cascade of events

To Learn more about this subject grab a copy of
FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES

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Listen to the Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/criminal-mischief-02-cause-and-manner-of-death

Follow the shows on FB: https://www.facebook.com/criminalmischiefwithDPLyle/

See all shows here: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

 

Criminal Mischief: Show #1 Murder Motives Notes

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If you haven’t yet listened to my new podcast series, CRIMINAL MISCHIEF: THE ART AND SCIENCE OF CRIME FICTION on the Authors On The Air Global Radio Network,  then jump on board. Here are the notes for Show #1 as well as links to listen to the show and to follow future shows. Hope it proves fun and helpful to your storytelling.

Murder Motives Notes

Types of Crimes: theft, burglary, robbery, embezzlement, assault, rape, ID theft/ransom, extortion, forgery, arson, kidnapping, DUI, drug dealing, trafficking, pimping/prostitution

Motives for Murder:

Financial – – insurance, inheritance, business takeovers, avoidance of alimony
Property disputes
Revenge
Political
Cults & Religions
Murder for hire
Empathy and sympathy
Crimes of passion
Domestic
Protect self-image or secrets
To protect others
Blackmail
To cover another crime
Social and hate crimes
Sex, jealousy, obsession
Mental illness – – delusions and hallucinations
Drugs and alcohol

Listen to the Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/1-murder-motives

Follow the shows on FB: https://www.facebook.com/criminalmischiefwithDPLyle/

See all shows here: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

 
 
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