Category Archives: Corpse Location

Getting Rid Of A Body Isn’t Easy

Killers often think that disposing of a corpse is easy. And important. If there is no body surely they can’t be charged with murder. Right? Fortunately, they’re wrong on both counts.

A case in point: 23 year-old French art history student Eva Bourseau.


Seems that three of her classmates killed her over a dispute about a drug debt. Drug debts are never good things.

So okay, now they have a body. What are the going to do about it? As good students of Breaking Bad, they decided to dissolve the corpse in acid. At least they did use plastic rather than a metal tub, as, yes, acid loves to eat up metal.


But they also discovered that acid doesn’t always do the trick. Jeffrey Dahmer discovered the same thing.


Hell, even Dexter tried it.



Crime and Science Radio: When Disaster Hits: Naming The Dead: An Interview With NTSB’s Paul Sledzik

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How does forensic science help us in the aftermath of disasters such as plane crashes, floods, hurricanes and other events that result in mass fatalities?  We find some answers in this episode, when D.P. Lyle and Jan Burke interview Paul Sledzik.

In this episode, he tells us about historical responses to mass disasters, such as the General Slocum disaster of 1904, which caused the loss of over one thousand lives.  He’ll also talk to us about today’s processes for dealing with mass fatality events, the role of forensic scientists in processing mass fatality incidents, and the work done on these sites by forensic anthropologists and other specialists.

Near the end of the interview, we were also able to talk to him a little bit about his work on historical remains belonging to “New England Vampires.”

Bio: Trained as a forensic anthropologist, Paul Sledzik began his career at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC, as a museum technician. By the time he departed the museum in 2004, he had become a curator with responsibilities over the museum’s unique and historic anatomical and pathological collections. From 1998 to 2004, he served as the team commander for the Region 3 Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services. In the response to the events of September 11, 2001, he led the DMORT team in the identification of the victims from the crash of United flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Paul joined the National Transportation Safety Board’s Transportation Disaster Assistance Division in 2004 as a medicolegal specialist and in 2010 became the division director. The division coordinates access to information and services to support victim and family members impacted by aviation accidents and accidents in other transportation modes.

He has served as a consultant and advisor to federal and non-governmental agencies on issues of human identification and disaster response. A Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, his scientific articles have appeared in professional journals and textbooks. He has participated in the response to over 30 mass fatality events and transportation accidents.



National Transportation Safety Board

NTSB: Information for Families, Friends, and Survivors

NTSD: Family Assistance Operations: Planning and Policy

The National Museum of Health and Medicine

Federal Emergency Management Agency

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Public Health Emergency/DMORTs:

New story on study of preservation of DNA in mass disasters

The General Slocum Disaster, New York, June 15 1904 — over 1000 lives lost

General Slocum Disaster information at New York Public Library

“Sinking of the General Slocum” information at The Mariners Museum

General Slocum Disaster information at New York History.Info

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, New York, March 25, 1911 — over 140 lives lost

Documentary on YouTube 

History Channel site

Centennial program on NPR’s “All Things Considered” 

The Eastland Disaster, Chicago, July 24, 1915 — over 800 lives lost, including all members of 22 families

Eastland Disaster Historical Society description of the disaster

Montage of newspaper photographs of the event on YouTube

Eastland Disaster documentary on YouTube

“Brief communication: bioarcheological and biocultural evidence for the New England vampire folk belief.” (American Journal of Physical Anthropology)

The Great New England Vampire Panic



Crime & Science Radio: The Body Tells the Tale: DP Lyle and Jan Burke Interview Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

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The Body Tells the Tale: DP Lyle and Jan Burke Interview Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

Join DP Lyle and Jan Burke as they explore the world of death, corpses, and decay with Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Dr. Bass is the founder of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, the so called Body Farm. Jon Jefferson is a journalist, writer, and documentary film maker. Together they write fiction as Jefferson Bass. This will be a lively, or is it deadly, interview.



The Body Farm-Wikipedia:

Tour The Body Farm:

Video Tour of The Body Farm:

WBIR Interview:

JeffersonBass Website:

Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales:

Metro Pulse: The Cult of Forensics Expert Dr. Bill Bass:

Peter Breslow’s 2004 NPR Profile of The Body Farm:



Crime and Science Radio: Jan Burke Interviews Cat Warren, Saturday at 10 a.m. PST

Listen in at 10 a.m. PST this Saturday or catch it later in the archives.

What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs: An Interview with Cat Warren

Cadaver dog handler Cat Warren is the author of What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs, a terrific book on dogs who work in the military, in police departments, and by searching for both contemporary and historical missing remains.  She talks with Jan Burke about how cadaver dogs and their handlers are trained, the environments and conditions they work in, and what we do and don’t yet know about how dogs find the missing dead.


Cat Warren:

What do we know about dogs noses?:

Cadaver Dog (Andy Rebmann and Marcia Koenig’s site):

National Search Dog Alliance:

The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS):

FBI Statistics for Missing and Unidentified Persons in the US for 2012:


What the Dog Knows by Cat Warren

The Cadaver Dog Handbook, by Andrew Rebmann, Edward David, Marcella Sorg

Analysis of Lost Person Behavior by William Syrotuck and Jean Anne Syrotuck

Canine Ergonomics: The Science of Working Dogs by William S. Helton



Hyperspectral Imaging and Corpse Location

One of the most difficult things criminal investigators can face is locating a corpse that has been dumped in a remote location. Large number of searchers will fan out in any area where the body might be and spend many hours and days searching, often without result. Cadaver dogs can help in that they can detect the odor of decomposition, even in buried corpses. Arial infrared scanning can also be useful since a decomposing corpse tends to produce heat, which the scanner can detect against the cooler background of the surrounding soil. Also, aerial photography can help by indicating areas where the natural vegetation has changed in some way.

A decomposing corpse can initially produce a toxic environment for plant growth and can therefore make the vegetation less lush in that area. As the decomposition process progresses however it often serves as fertilizer and enriches plant growth so that they are greener, more lush, and appear different than the surrounding growth. Aerial photography can often detect this.

A new technique has been developed by scientists at McGill University. It is called Hyperspectral Imaging. It is similar to aerial photography but more sensitive. It also can be useful over a longer period of time.

Initially the chemicals of decay released by the body can inhibit plant growth and alter the way light is absorbed or reflected by the plants near the burial site. Early on they don’t reflect visible and infrared light as well but after several years they tend to reflect light much more readily. This new hyperspectral imaging system can detect these differences and therefore locate the burial site. Burial sites as old as 50 years have been detected using this technique. Exciting stuff and it will be interesting to see how this develops.

For more on locating and then identifying corpses check out my book Howdunnit: Forensics.


Hand-Held Sniffer and Body Location

So you’re bad guy has buried his victim somewhere on his vast farm. Your sleuth knows this but can’t prove it. Locating the corpse is critical to making the case. Search teams and cadaver dogs are brought in but the days drag by with no results.

Electronic noses were developed for this very circumstance. These devices are basically gas chromatographs. They sample air near the grave where the molecules of decomposition percolate up from the decaying corpse. Thomas Bruno, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently reported in New Scientist the development of a handheld sniffer device, which should allow investigators to more quickly cover large areas, allowing for more timely corpse location.

I earlier posted a note about microfluidics. This device incorporates some of that technology. The device contains a very thin capillary tube whose inner surface is coated with aluminum oxide. Air is then sucked into the tube. If this air contains any of the various amines produced by decomposition, these molecules will combine with the aluminum oxide. This new amine-aluminum oxide combination can be detected using UV light.

This device is still in the developmental stage but could prove to be a very useful tool for corpse location.


Diatoms on Clothing and Corpse Location

Drowning is one of the most difficult causes of death for the medical examiner to determine. You would think he would simply have to find the lungs filled with water to make this call but that’s not the case. If a corpse is tossed into a body of water, the lungs will passively fill with water as the air escapes and is replaced with the liquid. So the simple finding of water-filled lungs does not prove the cause of death was drowning.

But the medical examiner has a couple of tricks that can sometimes help. Though not always present, if he finds debris within the mouth and lungs as well as damage to the nasopharynx and the airways, both of which result from the victim struggling for air but only breathing in water, these findings would suggest that the victim was alive when he entered the water. Debris deep within the lungs can’t get there passively and must be inhaled.

And in some cases, diatoms can help.

Diatoms are microscopic organisms that live in all types of water. They can be found in oceans, lakes, and your own bathtub or swimming pool. These tiny creatures are protected by a silicon–containing shell that is quite resistant to damage. They survive in a corpse for a long time. Though controversial, they can be used for determining if someone drowned. In this circumstance, as water is inhaled in the lungs, these diatoms worked their way from the air sacs of the lungs into the bloodstream and from there escape into the tissues, particularly the bone marrow. The medical examiner can test the bone marrow of a suspected drowning victim and if he sees a large number of diatoms then he might conclude that the victim died of drowning.

Now it seems that diatoms might also help locate where a crime took place in cases where the corpse has been moved and the victim’s clothing contacted water. A recent study in the journal Forensic Science International suggests that diatoms can be found in the victim’s clothing. Cotton clothing that has contacted water will absorb and retain the diatoms from that water. If these can be located and identified then they can often be traced back to the source. Diatoms vary from location to location so comparing those found on the victim’s clothing with those of a certain location might be useful in placing the body at that location.

This can be very useful to investigators when a person has been killed near a body of water and then their corpse is dumped at another location. Locating the primary crime scene–the place where the murder took place–is extremely important to investigators since this often results in finding further evidence that leads to the perpetrator. If these diatoms can help make that connection, they might prove to be a useful investigative tool.


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