Category Archives: Cults and Religions

Cobras, Murder, and DNA

Does a snake make a good murder weapon? You bet. Sooraj Kumar tried to kill his wife with a cobra. The first time he didn’t get it right so he tried again. It worked. Fortunately, he was convicted.

This isn’t a new idea. One ongoing argument is whether Cleopatra was murdered or took her own life with that poisonous asp. 

Then there’s the case of Ryan Felton Sauter. A clumsy attempt at best.

The late Glen Summerford, a snake-handling preacher, employed rattlesnakes in the attempted murder of his wife Darlene. He was also convicted. This took place about 50 miles from where I grew up so it resonated and I used this concept as I plotted my 3rd Samantha Cody thriller, ORIGINAL SIN.

I also used it in an early episode of my podcast Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction.


Charlie and Me


No, I never met Charles Manson, one of the many things in life for which I’m grateful. However, he had an effect on my life. I grew up in the South. We never locked our doors. I’m not even sure we had a key. Neighbors looked after neighbors and crime was not a common occurrence. A different world.

Then, 1969 came along. With the Tate-Labianca murders, the American psyche changed and Woodstock died. Flower power took on an entirely different aura.

When it was discovered that a diminutive miscreant named Charles Manson and his so-called hippie Family were the culprits, it sent the chill even deeper into our collective bones. If this strange assortment of losers could wreak such havoc, who was safe? Then, Vincent Bugliosi’s wonderful book HELTER SKELTER came out and the real story was revealed. This group not only committed murders but they prepared for them by doing what Charlie called “creepy crawling.” They would break into people’s homes at night, creep around, maybe rearrange some furniture, and leave. This was training, Charlie-style. This is when I started locking my doors.

My encounter with “Charlie’s World” took place in 1975. I was doing my cardiology fellowship at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. I came to California for the first time to run in San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers race and then on to Los Angeles to visit my friend Ben, who lived in Marina del Rey. I got in late at night and so the next morning Ben asked what I wanted to do on my first day in LA. The conversation went like this:

Me: Do you know where Benedict Canyon is?

Ben: Sure.

Me: That’s where I want to go.

Ben: Why?

Me: You’ll see.

And we were off. As we wound up into the canyon, Ben asked what I was looking for. My response: Just keep driving and I’ll know it when I see it. We soon came to Cielo Drive and told him to turn. We followed the road to its dead-end. Ben’s little orange Fiat was pointed at a high chain-link gate. I got out and walked to it, gripping the metal with my fingers. The property was only partially visible as was the house.

Tate Gate

Ben asked where we were and what this was. I pointed to the house and said, “Rght there is where Sharon Tate was murdered.”

I had to see it. I had read the stories in the newspapers and of course Bugliosi’s book, but it all read like fiction. It was hard to believe that something like that actually happened. I had to see concrete evidence. And here it was. The scene of the crime.

So Charlie died. Good riddance. I’m just sorry he wasn’t executed long ago. He wiggled through the system thanks to Rose Bird’s court briefly overturning the death penalty in California.

But in the end, Charlie succumbed. AMF.

Charles Manson

Charlie 2012


Charlie, What the Hell Happened, Dude?

Prison hasn’t been kind to Charles Manson. Or maybe it’s his psychosis shining through. New pictures of the now 77 year old Charlie were released ahead of his upcoming parole hearing. Not sure he will show up for it as he has missed them in the past, but if he does I’m sure he will deliver another disjointed and convoluted rant about his views on life, death, and the world in general.


The Tate-LaBianca murders shook LA and indeed the entire nation and led to the wonderful book, Helter Skelter, by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. The book definitely changed me. Growing up in the South, we never locked up our house. Not when we went to the movie or out of town, never. No need to. There was essentially no crime and neighbors looked after each other. Manson changed all that for me. Not just the murders but also the creepy crawly missions Charlie sent out his minions to perform. They would break into houses in the LA area, creep around inside, maybe move some furniture or something like that, and then leave, completely undetected. I read somewhere that they did this over 100 times. Good training for the later murders.


My first trip to LA came during my cardiology fellowship in Houston in 1975. I visited a friend who lived in Marina del Rey. I got in late one night so the next morning he asked, “So this is your first day in LA. What do you want to see first?” I asked if he knew where Benedict Canyon was and he of course did. “That’s where I want to go.” He asked why and I simply said, “You’ll see.”

Driving up Cielo Drive was an experience. My heart raced and I kept wiping my hands on my jeans. This was it. The road Susan Atkins, Tex Watson, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel walked up to reach the Tate house. The road dead ended at a tall chain link gate and beyond the house where Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and innocent bystander Steven Parent died. I had read Bugliosi’s book and simply could not believe it. The story must be fiction. Of course, I knew it wasn’t. I knew these horrible murders had occurred. Everyone knew that. But I needed to see it. Needed to have something concrete. Standing there, fingers entwined in the chain links, looking at the Tate house, I knew the entire insane ordeal was absolutely true.


Susan Atkins recently died but Charlie and the others remain in prison. It’s too bad Charlie ducked his execution date when California suspended the death penalty and his death sentence was commuted to life, but at least he’s slowly wilting away. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.


Sweat Lodge Death Trial Begins

“You will feel as if you are going to die. I guarantee that.”

“You will have to get to a point where you surrender, where it’s OK to die.”

In an earlier post I talked about the hyperthermic deaths that occurred during the self-discovery sessions led by self-help guru James Ray. His sweat lodge ordeal ended in the death of three and hospital visits by nearly two dozen others. It appears that his trial is about to begin in Arizona.

I bet he now regrets the above words. Bet he’s sweating as if he were in his own sweat lodge.

The defense? Well, the participants were adults. They signed wavers. I wonder if those wavers mentioned the temperature and lack of ventilation and jam-packed conditions inside the lodge? Or that there would be no on site medical facility or personnel? Or that their 36 hour fast ended by a single meal just might leave the participants a bit dehydrated even before they entered the jerky factory. Brains, hearts, and kidneys don’t tolerate such conditions well.

Common sense, or as we say in the South “walking around sense,” seems to have flown the coop in this deal.

This one will be interesting to watch.


Religious Rite and Darwinian Evolution

Darwinian Evolutionary Theory encompasses such tenants as natural selection, survival of the fittest, and environmental adaptation. Simply put, those members of a species who were best equipped to survive whatever environment they faced did so while those less well equipped perished. The survivors then passed on the genetics of whatever adaptation they had been blessed with and the entire species evolved and thrived.

Nature is full of examples.

The bigger, stronger, and faster gazelles avoided becoming cheetah food while the slower ones did not. They passed along their added speed to the next generation. Longer necked giraffes could better reach the tender leaves of certain trees so could survive where those with shorter necks could not. This adaptation was likewise passed along. Snow leopards blessed with a winter white coat avoided predators, while those that didn’t were easy targets. Soon all snow leopards carried that genetic advantage.

These are the basic tenets of evolutionary change.

We see this in medicine on daily basis. Bacteria are constantly adapting to survive the antibiotics that are used against them. Those bacteria who can avoid death by penicillin are free to procreate and pass on this resistance to the next generation. The very deadly infection known as methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA) is an example of this. Staph aureus is a nasty little dude. Infections of the skin, the lungs, and particularly the cardiac valves by these bacteria often prove deadly. Methicillin is a form of penicillin originally designed to attack these very organisms but with time they developed resistance to all penicillins, including Methicillin. This is one of the reasons antibiotics should be taken until completion of the prescription but unfortunately many people feel better after two or three days and stop whatever antibiotic they were prescribed. This allows those bacterial organisms, which might ultimately have been killed, to survive and adapt to the presence of the antibiotic. This is passed on from generation to generation and nasty little bugs like MRSA are created.

So what does all this have to do with religious rites?

It seems that every year the Zoque of Southern Mexico gather at a particular cave known as Cueva del Azufre for an annual ritual. The cave is inhabited by molly fish. A portion of the ritual is to impregnate the water of the cave with the mashed root of the Barbasco plant. This root contains a powerful anesthetic that stuns the fish so that they can then be used in the religious ritual.

A recent study by Mark Tobler of Texas A&M University showed that over time the fish in this cave have become more resistant to the anesthetic toxin. They have adapted to the traditions and religious practices of the Zoque. Not consciously of course, but from the fishes’ point of view the drug is an environmental stress that has resulted in some change in the biochemistry of the species so that they can survive in this altered environment. This adaptation has been passed from generation to generation.

The irony of a religious rite promoting evolutionary change is thick to say the least.


Religion and Exsanguination

Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions and other blood products on religious grounds. It is within their right to do so, of course, but it does lead to some tricky medical situations. I’ve had many patients who were Jehovah’s Witnesses over the years and indeed their refusal to accept transfusions have led to problems, even deaths.

Many surgeons will not deal with people of this faith for that very reason. It ties their hands. It puts them in a very difficult situation in that if excessive bleeding occurs during surgery, the patient can easily die. Liability aside, it is a tragedy to see someone die before your eyes when you know saving them is simple. I know. Been there.

When I trained in cardiology at the Texas heart Institute in Houston, Texas I had the great pleasure of working with perhaps the most technically skilled surgeon ever–––Dr. Denton Cooley. He truly had magic in his fingers. He perform procedures that no one else would have touched. He took the most difficult cases in the world and often made them look simple. He did not hesitate to perform surgery on Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I remember one such case quite vividly. A young woman, just 21 years old, who came in for a repair of Tetralogy of Fallot, a complex continental heart problem that is typically partially relieved at a very early age and then the definitive correction waits until growth is complete. That was the case in this young woman. Tetralogy is in the group of congenital cardiac problems that we call cyanotic heart disease. Complex physiology and I won’t go into it here but what is relevant is that sufferers of these types of heart problems invariably bleed a great deal when surgery is performed. That was the case with this young lady.

I remember the night that the nurses and I spent circling around this young woman’s bed while she basically bled to death. It took several hours. It took long and repeated consultations with the family in which I explained over and over that saving her life was easy but watching her die was hard. They stuck to their beliefs. Until it was too late. It was probably around two in the morning when she finally passed. Not a dry eye in the house.

As I was writing my final notes and preparing to go tell the family that the worst had happened, one of the nurses came to me and said the family wanted to talk to me. I went out to the waiting room. The family said that they had talked it over and had decided that if a blood transfusion would save her life then that would be okay.

Anger does not do justice to the emotions that I felt. I think I broke a molar trying not to show it. It’s one thing to have devout religious beliefs. It is another thing to allow those to interfere with the health and well-being of another person. And it is indeed another thing entirely when those beliefs are not as rock solid as one would have you believe. Had they stuck to their religion, had they stuck to their beliefs, then this would’ve simply been a very sad situation, but the fact that their beliefs wavered at the 13th hour was infuriating.

And now a similar situation has arisen in a legal case. Harry Morales was stabbed and died from his wounds when he refused a blood transfusion because he was a Jehovah’s Witness. The person who stabbed him, Isead Galva, was brought to trial for the murder. The defense argued that even though their client had stabbed the victim, it was his refusal to accept standard medical care in the form of a life-saving blood transfusion that ultimately led to his death. Mr. Galva was acquitted at least in part on this basis.

I don’t know about you but I find this equally infuriating. So what if Mr. Morales held religious beliefs against blood transfusions? So what if his refusal to take that form of treatment did lead to his death? He should never have been there. He should never have had to make that decision. The act that instigated the cascade of events that led to his death was the knife wound allegedly delivered by Mr. Galva.

Two cases. Same outcome. But very different.

The first was a young woman who had a medical condition that would kill her were it not repaired. She died because of the religious beliefs of others (she was unconscious due to the anesthetic of surgery early on and later because she was in shock, so consent for a transfusion could not be obtained from her directly). The change of heart that came too late was the maddening part of that situation.

The second case is a man and a family that stuck to their beliefs. But he should never have been there and they should never have had to make that decision. It was not a life-saving procedure that put Harry Morales in danger but rather the criminal act of another.

The world sometimes spins in maddening directions.


Kenyan Serial Killer Cult?

Okay, I’m not sure I buy this one but you’ve got to admit it’s a wild story.

It seems that Kenya has a serial killer. 32-year-old Philip Onyancha has confessed to killing 17, or maybe 19, people, mainly women. He told the police that his goal was to kill 100 people and that he was instructed to do so by middle-school Elizabeth Wambui. According to Onyancha she is a member of a cult and she told him that if he killed 100 people and drank their blood he would have good fortune. The police are suspicious of his story. You think?

It does give new meaning to the term “fortuneteller.”


More Raising the Dead: Making Zombies

Let’s talk about Zombie Powder. Yes, Zombie Powder. Yes, it’s real. Yes, it will create a Zombie. Of sorts. Not really the living dead but something like it.

Zombie Powder is the toxin of the Pufferfish (Arothron meleagris), also called the Blowfish. The toxin is called Tetrodotoxin or TTX.  It is in the family of toxins that we call Paralytic Shellfish Poisons or PSPs. TTX can also be found in the California Newt and the Blue-ringed Octopus. Other PSPs would include Saxitoxin, found in shellfish such as muscles and clams, and Ciguatoxin, found in tropical fish such and groupers, snappers, and sea bass. Similar intoxications can follow the growth of certain algae during “red tides.

These toxins are classified as neurotoxins in that they alter the neurological system of the body. They interfere with electrical transmission to the muscles and this results in weakness and paralysis, numbness and tingling, slow and shallow respiration, an inability to speak, and a slow and weak pulse. Under these circumstances the victim can indeed appear dead. With the respirations so slow and the pulse is so weak and the skin taking on a dusky color due to very low blood flow, it is easy to see that the victim would appear dead even though he was not.

But this condition does some fairly bad things to the brain. The low blood pressure and low respiration decrease the amount of oxygen going to the brain and this can result in permanent brain damage. We call this anoxic encephalopathy, which is a big word that means brain damage due to lack of oxygen supply. The results are almost a chemical frontal lobotomy. The victim can manifest all types of neurologic problems down the road but commonly the victim will have a flattening of the personality and a loss of cognitive ability. In other words he moves and talks very slowly and appears almost zombie-like. The surgical version of this happened to Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The Japanese delicacy “fugu” derives its kick from TTX. Eating it is basically mild PSP poisoning. It gives the diner a flushed and tingly feeling. The fish must be prepared to perfection or it can be deadly. Kind of like gastronomic Russian Roulette. The chefs that do this are specially trained and licensed and even these guys screw up from time to time. You’ll rad about it int he paper every now and then when group of fugu enthusiasts die in a restaurant.

In Haiti, the toxin is used in certain VooDoo religious rituals and is also used in the “Zombification” of field workers. It can be sprinkled into the shoes of the victim or added to his food and takes effect in a few minutes or up to an hour or so. It absorbs through the skin or the GI tract.

Dr. Wade Davis is an expert in this. He was involved with the controversial movie “The Serpent and The Rainbow.” Rent it and watch it. Not a great movie but it might help you understand this powerful drug.

How to make a Zombie? you ask. Simple. Sprinkle some of the powder in the victim’s shoes. When he slips them on the next morning he will become dizzy, short of breath, weak, and collapse. Then, lay him in a shallow ditch, cover him with leaves, and come back in three days and “resurrect” him. He will be calm, controllable, and a good field worker. That’s often what an anoxic encephalopathy will do.

In the late 1980’s this happened to one of my patients, JIm (not his real name). Jim owned a truck axle factory in Haiti. Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier wanted it but Jim refused to sell. So, Baby Doc had some of his Tonton Macoute goons Zombie-ize–is that a word?–Jim and took the factory. It took the US State Dept a month to get him out of Haiti. He later appeared on NBC News and on Nightline to discuss his experiences with Baby Doc. One of his most vivid memories of that time was awakening on the hard cold floor of a 300-year-old prison, stretched out on the mat, with a rat chewing on one of his numbed feet. He later was so brain-damaged that he could not keep a job. He could walk and talk and perform daily activities normally but he could not think things through and running a business was out of the question. He was however a gifted artist and drew some wonderful pen and ink drawings of his ordeal.

So if you want to use TTX in one of your stories, where would your bad guy get it? Haiti for sure. Or perhaps in the Algiers area of New Orleans where VooDoo is still practiced.


Vampire Unearthed in Italy–No, Really

Recently, an archaeological dig near Venice, Italy turned up a female skeleton with a brick wedged in the mouth. Forensic archaeologist and anthropologist Matteo Borrini suggested that this unusual finding indicates that her neighbors must have believed she was a vampire since the brick could be part of an ancient vampire-slaying ritual. It was felt that if you forced a an object such as a brick into the mouth of the vampire they could no longer feed on the blood they needed and would therefore starve to death. That makes sense to me. I imagine it’s hard to bite someone’s neck if you have a brick in your mouth.

Why was this woman believed to be a vampire or for that matter why was anyone labeled this way? It’s possible that some of the ancient vampire stories come from the paucity of knowledge about body decomposition. As a body decays, the stomach contents, the lungs and other organs in the body, and the brain tissue begins to break down. This turns into a blackish liquid that will come out the nose and the mouth. We call these purge fluids. These very dark liquids, even today, can be mistaken for old blood and confused with pre-mortem traumatic injuries. Back then, it is easy to see that people might believe this to be evidence that the person had been a blood drinker.

The excavation where this unfortunate woman’s exhumation occurred was a 16th century burial ground where many victims of the black plague that hit Venice in 1576 were laid to rest. As the body count climbed, grave sites would be reopened so that more bodies could be dumped into the same site. Perhaps the burial party saw these purge fluids on some of the corpses and believed that they must have been vampires, who were now, in death, regurgitating their bloody meals.

Somehow this doesn’t conger up images of Sookie Stackhouse or Bella Swan.


Guru On Hot Seat: Sweat Lodges and Heat Stroke

James A. Ray is still a Spiritual Warrior… for anything new to live something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?

This was a Twitter tweet apparently posted by self-help guru James Ray. I guess what needed to die were a few kidneys, hearts, brains, and people. And now for his incredibly dangerous “Sweat Lodge” sessions, Mr. Ray might just find himself facing murder charges.

On October 8th, James Ray oversaw a retreat at the Angel Valley Retreat Center in Sedona, Arizona, where approximately 60 people gathered for a session of self-examination, meditation, and other activities orchestrated by the guru. Unfortunately one of these activities was spending a couple of hours in an enclosed 415 square-foot Sweat Lodge. The homemade structure consisted of a wooden frame covered with blankets and tarps and measured 53 inches in the center and 30 inches around the outer edges. Cozy just isn’t the right word.

AZ Sweat Lodge

So we’re talking 60 people packed into a short, squatty 2-car garage with no windows or doors in mid-afternoon in Arizona for two hours. It is reported that a flap was opened briefly every 15 minutes or so to drag in some fresh air, but after two hours in such an arrangement, as would be expected, the temperature within the packed lodge became dangerously elevated.

To make matters worse, the participants apparently fasted for 36 hours before having breakfast on that day, which suggests that many were likely at least somewhat dehydrated before entering the lodge at 3 p.m. A single meal will not make up for a day and half of fasting. It’s worth noting that the participants, who ranged in age from 30 to 60 or so, paid around $10,000 to attend the retreat.

It was two hours later that the first victim collapsed and at the end of the day nearly 2 dozen people were hospitalized and two people had died. A third victim died of multiple organ failure a week later. Others suffered kidney damage.

Sweat lodges have been around for a very long time and were used by many early American Indian tribes as part of their religious and cleansing ceremonies. Apparently they had enough experience and common sense not to spend too long in the lodge. Native tribes were well schooled in observing the environment and conforming their behavior to survive the weather, predatory animals, and other things that mother nature threw at them. It was a harsh existence but common sense and passed-on knowledge and tradition allowed them to survive and prosper. Not so much of either in this case.

Have you noticed those little signs hanging in the sauna or steam room at your local health club? You know, the ones that say not to spend more than 15 minutes and to keep yourself well hydrated? I guess James Ray didn’t get the message.

The situation these people found themselves in is very similar to a sauna or perhaps being abandoned in the desert. The result is what we in medicine call a heat injury. These come in various degrees of severity but the two most important are heat prostration and heat stroke. These are simply the same disease with one being further along a deadly pathway than the other.

When the body is exposed to heat, such as someone running a marathon or someone abandon in an Arizona desert, the body works to lower its core temperature, mainly through sweating. The evaporation of sweat from the skin draws heat from the body and lowers the core temperature. We’ve all experienced this natural phenomenon. But, as the body loses water, the blood volume contracts, and the blood flow to the skin is reduced. This is simply the body saving its most important parts. Under stress such as this, as the blood volume declines, blood is shunted toward vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and brain and away from the skin, a less vital organ.

But this decrease in blood flow to the skin has some very dangerous effects. The skin is the body’s natural radiator and as blood flow through it diminishes, it no longer works properly, is no longer able to dissipate the heat that is collecting within the body, and the core temperature begins to rise. The heart and the brain begin to malfunction. The kidneys, which now are receiving much less blood flow, began to fail. The electrolytes — things like sodium and potassium — within the blood began rising, and sometimes falling, to abnormal levels which will then interfere with the function of many things within the body, the most important being the electrical system of the heart. This will ultimately lead to cardiovascular collapse and death.

But even if this doesn’t happen the brain can become severely damaged from the elevated body temperature. Any time the body temperature rises above 104°F the brain is not happy. Once it rises to 106 or 107°, brain damage is likely if not certain.

When a marathon runner or football player collapses, heat injury is often involved. Sports such as these, when performed in excessively hot weather, can cause heat prostration, heat stroke, and death. This is what happened in the sweat lodge in Arizona. And in children left in cars while mom has a couple of drinks. And the vans left abandoned in the desert packed with illegal immigrants. And the trains that ran to Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen.

How do these heat injuries occur? What distinguishes heat prostration from heat stroke? As the body temperature begins to rise, from either exercise, environmental exposure, or both, the body will begin to produce more sweat in an attempt to lower the body temperature. This process will continue for as long as it possible. But as the body begins to lose water and the blood volume begins to contract, the blood is shunted away from the skin, the radiator no longer works properly, and the body temperature begins to rise. The victim will then simply sweat more, which only makes things worse.  It is at this point that the body will begin to malfunction. The victim will become weak and dizzy, maybe confused and disoriented, and maybe develop muscle weakness and cramps. Physical activity is no longer possible. This is heat prostration. The treatment is to move to the shade, drink plenty of liquids, pour water over your body and have someone fan you with a towel or whatever is available, and rest. This is often all that is necessary to avoid serious injury.

But, if the activity is continued, or if the individual is not able to leave the hot environment, the temperature within the body will continue to rise. When the core temperature reaches 106-107 brain injury begins. One of the first areas involved is near the base of the brain in what we call the hypothalamus. This is where the temperature regulation center resides and when it begins to malfunction, several very bad things happen. Sweating ceases and, with the radiator now shut off, the body core temperature rises even further. The victim, who typically is already experiencing most of the above symptoms, will now collapse and become unconscious. There can even be seizures and death can follow very quickly. This is called heat stroke and is a true medical emergency.

Someone suffering from heat stroke must undergo the cooling things that I described above except that, since the victim is unconscious and can’t take fluids by mouth, the severe dehydration can’t be corrected in the field. Transportation to the hospital should be immediate. Once there, intravenous fluids in very large amounts are given and the victim might be placed in an ice bath — basically a tub filled with ice water–since rapidly lowering the body temperature is critical to survival. But even if these measures are undertaken, the victim might still die or be left with permanent brain injury.

So you can see that these people, who trusted the guru, were placed into a very dangerous situation, apparently without proper monitoring, without proper knowledge of what was going on, and without proper medical care being available. At least everything that I have read on this case so far seems to point in that direction.

Interestingly, it seems that back in 2005, during a similar sweat lodge session, 911 was called after someone passed out.

Will James Ray be charged with a criminal act? Was this tragedy an accident or was it something else? Maybe negligent homicide? We’ll wait and see.

CBS News


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