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Category Archives: General Forensics

Criminal Mischief: Episode #48: Three Famous Toxicology Cases

AOTA

Criminal Mischief: Episode #48: Three Famous Toxicology Cases

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/three-famous-poisoning-cases

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

SHOW NOTES:

Poisons and drugs have been used as murder weapons for many centuries. Sometimes the poison itself does the killing and other times it simply facilities the use of another method. Here are three famous cases involving poisons and drugs.

Kristin Rossum: The American Beauty Murder

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

Murderpedia: http://murderpedia.org/female.R/r/rossum-kristin.htm

Stella Nickell: Product Tampering

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

Murderpedia: https://murderpedia.org/female.N/n/nickell-stella.htm

Daily News: https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/wash-woman-poisoned-husband-planted-tainted-pills-1986-article-1.3163801

Kurt Cobain: Murder or Suicide?

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

All That’s Interesting: https://allthatsinteresting.com/kurt-cobain-murdered

CBS News Photos: https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/new-kurt-cobain-death-scene-photos/

 

Carbon Dioxide Shows Up (And Kills) in Unexpected Places

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is everywhere. It’s the predominant gas you exhale with each breath. It comes from many other sources, including grape fermentation. This was tragically evident when four members of a winemaking family in Italy attempted to stir their barreled wine. Things didn’t go well.

https://www.newser.com/story/311791/freak-winemaking-accident-kills-4-members-of-family.html

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is present in very low amounts in the atmosphere but when its concentration increases above 10%, it replaces the Oxygen (O2) available for breathing to the point that hypoxia (low oxygen) results and death from asphyxiation becomes a real risk. In the wine-makers’ case, the CO2 generated by the wine fermentation built up within the enclosed space and reached toxic levels. The result of excess CO2 and lowered O2 in the air is confusion, disorientation, collapse, coma, and death from asphyxia.

Not as dangerous as its cousin, Carbon Monoxide (CO), CO2 remains a deadly gas.

On 6-29-21, I recorded a podcast on Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction about Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning.

For more on CO2, CO, and other deadly gases, check out:

OR

 

Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction: Episode #47: Amnesia and Trauma

Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction: Episode #47: Amnesia and Trauma

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/episode-47-amnesia-and-trauma

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

SHOW NOTES:

Amnesia has been a part of fiction for many years. Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity is a classic example. The character was apparently based on the real-life case of Ansel Bourne, who in 1887 was likely the first documented case of amnesia. Even Agatha Christie suffered her own brush with amnesia—or maybe not. This one has been the source of argument and conjecture for decades.

I frequently receive questions from crime writers about amnesia so it remains a common topic. In fact, amnesia questions were included in my Question and Answer books. One of the best:

Can A Blow To the Head Cause Unconsciousness and Amnesia?

Q: How hard do you have to be hit on the head to be knocked unconscious? Is there a particular place on the head, that if struck would be more likely to cause unconsciousness? How long does it usually last? How hard do you need to be hit to cause partial or temporary amnesia? What sort of things do people forget in these situations? How long does it usually last? Are there any other physical symptoms a writer should be sure and include in a scene with head trauma?  

A: In medical terms a blow to the head, or anywhere else, is called blunt force trauma as opposed to sharp force trauma as would occur with a knife or some other cutting instrument. When the blow is to the head, it is called a blunt head injury.

The degree of force required to render someone unconscious is completely unpredictable and varies from situation to situation and from person to person. Though a minor tap on the head is not likely to cause unconsciousness in anyone, almost any blow of significant force can. It makes no difference where the blow strikes the head as far as causing unconsciousness is concerned. That is, a blow to the front of the head is no more likely or less likely to cause unconsciousness than would one to the side or back of the head.

The period of unconsciousness in a simple concussion, which is what loss of consciousness due to blunt force head injury is called, is measured in seconds or minutes. Unlike Hollywood where the bad guy is slugged in the jaw, knocked unconscious, and then written out of the script after that — or at least the hero no longer has to worry about him — is not what happens in real life. Think about every boxing match you’ve ever seen. One guy smacks the other one, knocking him unconscious, and 30 seconds later the guy is awake and complaining that it was a lucky punch. This is what really happens. 

Unconsciousness from a simple concussion can last several minutes and maybe even up to 10 or 15 minutes, though that would be unusual. Typically the person wakes up with a minute or so but might be slightly groggy or confused for a while, again for several minutes. But if he is unconscious for longer than a few minutes, the odds are that a serious injury to the brain has occurred or that bleeding into and around the brain has happened, Both of these situation are true medical emergencies. It doesn’t sound like that’s the situation you are posing with your questions.

Amnesia can indeed follow blows to the head. Typically the blow has to be powerful enough to render the person unconscious or at least woozy before amnesia enters the picture. But I should point out that other than the time period the victim is actually unconscious there is no loss of memory in the overwhelming majority of people who suffer head injuries. Amnesia is not rare but it is not common. But amnesia can occur after head injury, so you can absolutely use this in your story.

Amnesia comes in many flavors but they are usually divided into retrograde and anterograde types. Anterograde amnesia is very rare and is a situation where the person cannot form new memories. This was the subject of the excellent movie Memento. I won’t dwell on this since this is not the type of amnesia your questions deal with.

Retrograde simply means whatever came before. This type of amnesia is the most common in that the person forgets things that happened before the injury. This amnesia can cover events that occurred for only a few minutes before the injury, a few hours, a few days, weeks, or months, or can go back to forever. The person can forget some things and not others, such as he might not remember his name but might remember his address and phone number. He might remember some people but not others. He might recognize people but not be able to recall their names. 

Or he could have what is called global amnesia in which he remembers nothing, not his name, not where he is, not where he came from, and virtually everything else. This type of amnesia can be temporary or permanent. It may only last for a few minutes, hours, days, or months or in some people it can last forever and be a permanent loss of memories. 

When memories begin to return, they can come back suddenly and completely, partially, or in fits and spurts. The person might remember some things within a few minutes but other things might be lost in the cloud of amnesia forever. Virtually anything can happen so this means that your story can be crafted in almost any way you wish.

The other symptoms that can be associated with a concussion of this type are headaches, dizziness, poor balance, nausea, blurred vision, and generalized weakness and fatigue. These symptoms usually are minor and only last a few hours but they can become more problematic and last for many days and in some people for many months. There is no real treatment other than time and perhaps medications for headaches if they become chronic.

LINKS:

Ansel Bourne Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ansel_Bourne

The Real Bourne Identity: The Psychology of Ansel Bourne:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/mind-brain-and-value/202010/the-real-bourne-identity-the-psychology-ansel-bourne

Mysteries of the “Mystery” Author Agatha Christie’s Disappearance in 1926: https://historycollection.com/mysteries-of-the-mystery-author-agatha-christies-disappearance-in-1926/

Mayo Clinic: Amnesia: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/amnesia/symptoms-causes/syc-20353360

My Q&A Books:

MURDER AND MAYHEM

FORENSICS AND FICTION

MORE FORENSICS AND FICTION

 

Thorne & Cross: Carnival Macabre: What Hollywood Gets Wrong with DP Lyle

Tamara Thorne and Alistair Cross have a new gig, Carnival Macabre, which replaces their excellent Haunted Nights show. But it didn’t tamp down their zaniness.

I had a great time talking about Hollywood, crime, and storytelling. Take a listen.

https://carnivalmacabre.libsyn.com/thorne-cross-carnival-macabre-what-hollywood-gets-wrong-with-forensics-expert-dp-lyle

Top 10 Writers’ Medical Mistakes

D. P. Lyle, MD

The Quick Death: No one dies instantly. Well, almost no one. Instant death can occur with heart attacks, strokes, extremely abnormal heart rhythms, and cyanide and other “metabolic” poisons. Cyanide and a few other chemicals prevent the body’s cells from using oxygen so death arrives in a hurry. But trauma, such as gunshot wounds (GSWs) and blows to the head, rarely cause sudden death. Yet, how often has a single shot felled a villain? Bang, and he drops dead. In order for that to occur, the bullet would need to severely damage the brain, the heart, or the cervical (neck) portion of the spinal cord. A shot to the chest or abdomen leads to a lot of screaming and moaning, but death comes from bleeding and that takes a while.

The Pretty Death: I call this the “Hollywood Death.” Calm, peaceful, and not a hair out of place. Blood? Almost never. The deceased is nicely dressed, lying in bed, make-up perfect, and with a slight flutter of the eyelids if you look closely. Real dead people are ugly. I don’t care what they looked like during life, in death they are pale, waxy, and gray. Their eyes do not flutter and they do not look relaxed and peaceful. They look dead.

The Bleeding Dead: Your detective arrives at a murder scene a half hour after the deed. Blood oozes from the corpse’s mouth and from the GSW in his chest. Tilt! Dead folks don’t bleed. You see, when you die, your heart stops and the blood no longer circulates and it clots. Stagnant or clotted blood does not move. It does not gush or ooze or gurgle or flow or trickle from the body. 

The Accurate Time of Death: Determining the time of death is neither easy nor very accurate. It is always a best guess and is stated as a range and not an exact time. Yet, how many times have you seen the detective or the ME confidently announce that the victim died at “10:30 last night”? I always wonder exactly how he made this determination. Was it rigor mortis, body temperature, or lividity? Was it the presence of absence of certain bugs? Of course, the problem is that none of these is accurate. In real-life the ME would say that death likely occurred “between 8 p.m. and midnight.” But that might make him appear wishy-washy and Hollywood likes its heroes to be smart. Smarter than they could possibly be.

The One-punch Knockout: You’ve seen and read this a million times. The hero socks the bad guy’s henchmen in the jaw. He goes down and is apparently written out of the script, since we never hear from him again. It’s always the henchmen, because the antagonist, like most people, requires a few solid blows to go down. Think about a boxing match. Two guys that are trained to inflict damage and they have trouble knocking each other out. And when they do, the one on his back is up in a couple of minutes, claiming the other guy caught him with a lucky punch. Listen to me. Only James Bond can knock someone out with a single blow. And maybe Mike Tyson. Your car-salesman-turned-amateur-sleuth cannot.

The Disappearing Black Eye: If your character gets a black eye in Chapter 3, he will have it for two weeks, which will likely take you through the end of the book. He will not be “normal” in two days. A black eye is a contusion (bruise). It is caused by blood leaking from tiny blood vessels, which are injured by the blow. It takes the body about two weeks to clear all that out of the tissues. It will darken over two days, fade over 4 or 5, turn greenish, brownish, and a sickly yellow before it disappears. On a good note, by about day 7, your female character may be able to hide it with make-up.

The Quick Healing: This is a corollary to the above. If your character falls down the stairs and injuries his back, he will not be able to run from or chase the bad guy or make love to his new lover the next day. Give the guy a few days to heal and make him limp and complain in the interim. If he breaks an arm, he’ll need 4 weeks minimum.

The Untraceable Poison: No such thing. With fancy equipment like Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectroscopy (GS-MS) virtually any chemical can be identified. The combination of these two tests gives a “chemical fingerprint” of the compound in question. The trick is to disguise the death to look like something else so that an expensive and time consuming full toxicological examination will not be done.

The Instant Athlete: Your PI drinks too much, smokes too much, and eats donuts on a regular basis. He will not be able to chase the villain for 10 blocks. Two on a good day. If he must, then make him capable. Remember “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) in Marathon Man? He had to run for his life as Dr. Christian Szell (Sir Laurence Olivier) and his Nazi bad guys chased him endlessly. But earlier in the film we learned that he ran around the reservoir in Central Park everyday. He could run for his life.

The Instant Lab Result: The world is not like CSI. They get results in a New York minute. In the real world the same test can take days, even weeks. A preliminary or presumptive test may be done quickly, but most confirmatory testing takes time. And the coroner will not likely release a report until the results are confirmed.

 

Poisons: The Perfect Murder Weapon on YouTube

Poisons: The Perfect Murder Weapon with DP Lyle, MD

MWA Rocky Mountain Chapter Event on YouTube

Many thanks to the MWA Rocky Mountain Chapter for hosting this event and asking me to do it.

Great group.

 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #43: Gunshot Wound Analysis

Criminal Mischief: Episode #43: Gunshot Wound Analysis

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/43-gsw-analysis

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

SHOW NOTES:

In the criminal investigation or injuries or deaths from gunshot wounds (GWSs), the anatomy of the entry and exit wounds, particularly the former, can reveal the nature of the weapon, the bullet size and characteristics, and of great importance, the distance between the muzzle and the entry wound. This distance can be a game changer when distinguishing between a self-inflicted wound (suicidal or accidental) and one from the hand of another (accidental or homicidal). It can also support or refute suspect and/or witness statements and help with crime scene reconstruction. A wound from a gun several feet away can mean something much different as opposed to one pressed tightly against the victim’s skin. 

FROM FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES:

Studying Entry and Exit Wounds 

Even when a bullet enters a body, leaving an entry wound, it does not necessarily come back out, or create an exit wound. More often than not, the bullet remains within the victim. When evaluating GSWs, an ME searches for and examines entry and exit wounds and tracks down any bullets retained within the victim. Although the distinction isn’t always apparent, the ME also attempts to distinguish between entry wounds and exit wounds because doing so can be critical in reconstructing a crime scene. Knowing the paths the bullets followed can implicate or exonerate suspects or help determine which bullet caused lethal injury. 

The character of a wound produced by a gunshot depends upon several factors, including:

1—The distance between the victim and the muzzle of the gun

2—The caliber and velocity of the bullet

3—The angle at which the bullet enters the body (if it does) 

4— Whether the bullet remains within the victim or passes completely through, exiting the body (a through‐and‐through gunshot wound)

The anatomy of a gunshot entry wound depends upon the distance between the gun muzzle and the point of entry. Wounds may have an abrasion collar (a), tattooing (b), charring (c), or a stellate pattern (d). 

The ME can estimate the distance from which a single bullet was fired by looking closely at the entry wound: 

If the muzzle was 2 or more feet away from the victim, the entrance wound usually is a small hole, with an abrasion collar (a blue‐black bruising effect in a halo around the point of entry). Some black smudging can also occur where the skin literally wipes the bullet clean off the burned gunpowder, grime, and oil residue it picks up as it passes through the barrel of the gun (a).

If the muzzle was between 6 inches and 2 feet from the point of entry, the skin may appear tattooed or stippled. This effect is the result of tiny particles of gunpowder discharged from the muzzle embedded in the skin, in a speckled pattern around the wound (b).

If the muzzle was less than 6 inches from the victim, the gunshot produces a hole, a more compact area of stippling, a surrounding area of charring (from the hot gases expelled through the muzzle), and a bright red hue to the wounded tissues (c).

If the muzzle is pressed against the victim when the gun is fired, hot gases and particulate matter are driven directly into the skin, producing greater charring and ripping the skin in a star‐shaped or stellate pattern (d).

Exit wounds, on the other hand, typically are larger than entry wounds because the bullet lacerates (cuts or tears) the tissues as it forces its way out through the skin. The shape and size of an exit wound depend upon the size, speed, and shape of the bullet. 

For example, soft lead bullets are easily deformed as they enter and pass through the body, particularly if they strike any bony structures along the way. When that happens, the bullet may become severely misshapen, which, in turn, produces more extensive tissue damage that often results in a gaping, irregular exit wound. 

Distinguishing entry wounds from exit wounds is not always easy for the ME, particularly when the exit wound is shored, which means clothing or some other material supports the wound. The ragged nature of most exit wounds is caused by the bullet ripping its way through the skin. However, if the victim’s skin is supported by tight clothing or the victim is against a wall or other structure, the skin is less likely to tear. The exit wound therefore will be smaller and less ragged, and it will look more like an entry wound. 

FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES Info: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/forensics-for-dummies.html

Howdunnit:Forensics Info: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/howdunnit-forensics.html

 

Guest Blogger: Lisa Black: WHEN FRAUD TURNS TO MURDER

WHEN FRAUD TURNS TO MURDER

We all chuckle at the emails to announce that the heir to a foreign fortune wants to give us a hefty chunk of it to help them get it out of the country, the friend requests from European models or silver fox military contractors, and the phone calls from the IRS telling us deputies are on their way to our door with a warrant for our tax-evasion request. But the losses suffered by the ones who don’t hang up or who write back to that email, though a small percentage, are no laughing matter. Reports indicate over 1.5 billion dollars were lost to scammers last year—that’s billion, with a b. 

But some have lost more than that. 

Romance scams can break more than hearts. Lonely housewife Renee Holland of Pennsylvania sent nearly thirty thousand dollars to a scammer posing as a U.S. soldier in Iraq, then attempted suicide when he didn’t show up at her airport as planned. Her husband, former military himself, tried to understand. They moved to Florida and tried to start over, but the stress of guilt and caring for an elderly father drove her right back into ‘Chris’s’ arms. Two days before Christmas 2018, her husband shot her, her father, and then himself.

The foreign fortune that needs your help to move is commonly called the Nigerian prince scam, or a 419, that number being the criminal code for fraud in Nigeria. Sometimes it’s couched as a business opportunity, sometimes a palatable form of money laundering, or sometimes it’s a pure gift, but will always involve money required up front for ‘fees’ and ‘transfers’ before you ever get that big ol’ check. Jiri Pasovsky, a 72-year-old retired doctor in the Czech Republic, gradually lost his entire life’s savings buying in to a fictitious Nigerian oil business and spent over a year lobbying to get it back. Pasovsky was no stranger to deceit—while a real doctor, he had also been an agent for the Czech secret police under Communist rule. In the 60’s he lived in Afghanistan, pretending to work with a team of Czech doctors but in reality, monitoring his fellow countrymen. He joined the CIA, but only in order to unmask fellow Czechs trying to defect to the States—but his cover disintegrated when a fellow secret agent made it to the west. This work must have been part of the pension he lost to the oil scheme and in 2003 he made the last of his many visits to the Nigerian Embassy there in Prague to demand they recover his funds. There he shot fatally shot diplomat Michael Lekara Wayid, 50, and wounded the man’s receptionist who came to intervene. 

The Jamaican version of this is the lottery scam, in which a phone call informs potential victims that they’ve won a prize of millions to be collected…as soon as they pay the taxes on the winnings. Once they get a vulnerable person on the line, the calls don’t stop. In 2015 they hounded dementia patient Albert Poland, 81, out of over five thousand dollars—a relatively small amount in scam land, but enough to drive the retired factory manager to suicide. 68 year old Heidi Muth flew from California to Jamaica to track down her money in 2017; her body was found with multiple stab wounds on a street in Montego Bay. But while the scam produces death in America, it leaves a massacre in Jamaica: over two hundred deaths per year on the island are linked to scam gangs, even after a 2013 law gave prosecutors the tools for sweeping raids and numerous arrests.

Then there’s German expat Christian Gerhartsreiter, who faked the rich and famous lifestyle so well that he made a career of it, churning through identities for nearly thirty years, two marriages, and a double homicide. He spent his last ten years of freedom posing as Clark Rockefeller—yes, of those Rockefellers. Apparently, once you stroll into the club, no one questions whether you belong there. But when his long-suffering wife decided to divorce, she began questioning everything, leading to the discovery of his former landlady’s son buried behind his house. The daughter-in-law’s body has not been found. It didn’t help that Gerhartsreiter had buried two of his own bookbags along with the body, or that he drove the dead man’s truck for several months afterward.   

But authorities are fighting back. Indian cybercrime detectives, working with the U.S. and other countries, arrested over two hundred people in one area of their country for running call centers which raked in over $50K a day, mostly from Americans and Canadians. In another case, 24 people in the U.S. are currently sitting in jail for running an IRS scam in which they would launder the money an Indian call center wrung out, one prepaid gift card or wire transfer at a time. In 2018, 28 U.S. and Jamaican defendants were sentenced in a lottery scam. And in just the past two years citizens of Canada, Nigeria and the U.S. were convicted in romance scams.

In the meantime, we will continue to hang up on the phone calls that tell us we won a contest we never entered, unfriend the fashion model or hunky soldier, and never, ever, click on the link. 

 Lisa Black is a latent print examiner and CSI for a police department in Florida. In her August release, Every Kind of Wicked, forensic scientist Maggie Gardiner and homicide detective Jack Renner track down a nest of scammers. http://www.lisa-black.com

 

Bad Luck X2: First Your Head Gets Lopped Off, Second You End Up In A Wall

The guillotine was an integral part of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that followed. Ask Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. But at least their bodies, and their heads, ended up in a cemetery. It seems that several hundreds of others weren’t that lucky. They simply got plastered into a wall. That’s what a recent discovery at the Chapelle Expiatoire suggests.

https://www.newser.com/story/292873/in-walls-of-chapel-a-chilling-find-on-french-revolution.html

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/28/french-revolution-remains-discovered-in-walls-of-paris-monument

I’ve blogged about the guillotine before. It was a brutal but fascinating piece of equipment with a history that is more than a little bloody. It also indirectly left a future king in prison and his heart on the lam. 

Guillotine and Death: How Long Does It Take?: https://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2009/09/07/guillotine-and-death-how-long-does-it-take/

Mitochondrial DNA and the Heart of a Future King: https://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2009/08/05/mitochondrial-dna-and-the-heart-of-a-future-king/

 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #36: Identifying Skeletal Remains

Criminal Mischief: Episode #36: Identifying Skeletal Remains

LISTEN:https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/episode-36-identifying-skeletal-remains

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

SHOW NOTES: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief-notes/36-identifying-skeletal.html

8 Body Parts Forensic Scientists Use To ID A Body: https://www.forensicsciencetechnician.org/8-body-parts-forensic-scientists-use-to-id-a-body/

Investigating Forensics: Forensic Anthropology: http://www.sfu.museum/forensics/eng/pg_media-media_pg/anthropologie-anthropology/

Analyzing The Bones: What Can A Skeleton Tell You?: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/analysing-the-bones-what-can-a-skeleton-tell-you.html

FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/forensics-for-dummies.html

HOWDUNNIT:FORENSICS: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/howdunnit-forensics.html

 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #35: Corpse ID

Criminal Mischief: Episode #35: Corpse ID

 

 

Most corpses that are the victims of foul play are easily identified because they’re found in familiar places and reported by folks who knew them. But those found in remote or odd places with no ID create problems for investigators. In these cases, identifying the corpse is a critical step in solving the case.

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/episode-35-corpse-id

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

SHOW NOTES: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief-notes/35-corpse-id.html

Crime Museum: Postmortem Identification: https://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/forensic-investigation/postmortem-identification/

The Conversation: How Do We Identify Human Remains?: http://theconversation.com/how-do-we-identify-human-remains-121315

NamUs: https://www.namus.gov

Crime and Science Radio Interview with Todd Matthews of NamUs: http://www.dplylemd.com/csr-past-details/todd-matthews.html

 

FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/forensics-for-dummies.html

 

HOWDUNNIT:FORENSICS: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/howdunnit-forensics.html

 
 
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