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Category Archives: Interesting Cases

Dry Ice Can Kill You

OK, we all know that dry ice will keep things cool in your cooler, and even freeze things rock hard. You can also make that cool smoke coming out of a glass of water or maybe a centerpiece for a banquet or some such. Guess what? It can also kill you. 

It seems that at a birthday party in Moscow, they wanted to cool the pool down to take a nice bracing dip. So, they dumped some dry ice in. It cooled the water but also created a cloud over the top. Bet it looked really, well, cool.

The problem is that dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide (CO2). That’s the gas your body exhales through the lungs in order to get rid of it. High CO2 levels in the body are deadly. Normal ambient air is about 21% oxygen but contains only 0.04% CO2. So when the cloud of CO2 gas collected over the pool that obviously increased the level of CO2 while decreasing the level of oxygen (O2) by simple replacement. That is, each liter of air above the pool now contained a reduced amount of O2 and a greatly increased level of CO2. As the people breathed this mixture they became weak and dizzy and ultimately lost consciousness simply because they were not getting enough oxygen through their lungs to the bloodstream and ultimately to the brain. Apparently three of them died and many others were close. The take-home message is: don’t do this.

https://www.newser.com/story/287606/dumping-dry-ice-into-pool-kills-3-people-at-moscow-party.html

Lake Nyos

In 1986, a similar thing happened on a much larger scale at Lake Nyos in Cameroon. Some sort of geological event—-there is still controversy over exactly what happened—-created a CO2 cloud that spread across the area, killing over 1700 people. CO2 is heavier than air, so tends to hug the ground and settle in valleys and low areas. That’s what happened here. And at that Russian swimming pool.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Nyos_disaster

 

The Date Rape Drugs Are Still Alive

The Date Rape Drugs Are Still Alive

Though you might not have heard much about them lately, the so-called Date Rape Drugs are still around. Make no mistake about that. Many years ago they were in the news all the time. A woman sitting in a bar or a kid at a rave would have something added to their drink and hours later they would wake up in a strange place with a strange person. That’s the danger of these types of drugs. They make the victim very compliant, highly suggestible, and erase any memory for the events that occurred while under the influence of the drug.

Robert Koester

A recent case involving Robert Koester underlines the fact that these drugs are still a problem. I don’t believe it’s been determined what drug he used but allegedly over the past 25 years he has drugged and assaulted many young models. Apparently, he’s a photographer of sorts. I suspect that his most recent victims will have been given GHB because it’s commonly available. Rohypnol, another possibility, is harder to come by these days but is still out there.

http://www.newser.com/story/270990/photographer-accused-of-drugging-molesting-underage-models.html

https://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/robert-koester-model-photographer-accused-assault-abuse-misconduct-sexual-minor-plea-guilty-561451771.html

 

 

Andrew Luster

This case echoes the famous Andrew Luster case. You might remember he was the heir to the Max Factor fortune and was accused of drugging and assaulting many young women. He ultimately was sentenced to 124 years in jail but failed to show up for his sentencing hearing—Gee, I wonder why?—and fled to Mexico. Dog the Bounty Hunter tracked him down and returned him to the US for incarceration.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Luster

 

 

 

There have been numerous similar cases in the past. People like Joseph Rivera, the team of Michael Hagemann and Danny Bohannon, and many others.

http://articles.latimes.com/1997/jul/04/local/me-9736

Here is an article I wrote on these drugs:

http://www.dplylemd.com/articles/date-rape-drugs.html

I have blogged about this issue and some of these cases on previous occasions:

https://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/joseph-rivera-the-new-andrew-luster/

https://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/date-rape-drugs-stealthy-and-dangerous/

In a recent podcast on Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction, I discussed how one fictional character can subdue and control another character by employing various means, including these types of drugs:

https://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/criminal-mischief-episode-05-making-characters-compliant/

 
 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #31: Body Disposal Isn’t Easy

Criminal Mischief: Episode #31: Body Disposal Isn’t Easy

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/episode-31-body-disposal-isnt-easy

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

SHOW NOTES: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief-notes/31-body-disposal.html

Details/Order: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/howdunnit-forensics.html

From HOWDUNNIT:FORENSICS:

GETTING RID OF THE BODY 

Some criminals attempt to destroy corpses, the primary pieces of evidence in homicides. They think that if the police never find the body, they can’t be convicted. This isn’t true, since convictions have in many cases been obtained when no body is found. And destroying a body is no easy task. 

Fire seems to be the favorite tool for this effort. Fortunately, this is essentially never successful. Short of a crematorium, it is nearly impossible to create a fire that burns hot enough or long enough to destroy a human corpse. Cremation uses temperatures of around 1,500oF for two hours or more and still bone fragments and teeth survive. A torched building would rarely reach these temperatures and would not burn for this long. The body inside may be severely charred on the surface, but the inner tissues and internal organs are often very well preserved. 

Another favorite is quicklime. Murderers use this because they have seen it in the movies and because they don’t typically have degrees in chemistry. If they did, they might think twice about this one. Not that quicklime won’t destroy a corpse; it just takes a long time and a lot of the chemical. Most killers who use this method simply dump some on the corpse and bury it, thinking the lime will do its work and nothing will remain. Quicklime is calcium oxide. When it contacts water, as it often does in burial sites, it reacts with the water to make calcium hydroxide, also known as slaked lime. This corrosive material may damage the corpse, but the heat produced from this activity will kill many of the putrefying bacteria and dehydrate the body. This conspires to prevent decay and promote mummification. Thus, the use of quicklime may actually help preserve the body. 

Acids are also used in this regard, and once again the criminal hopes the acid will completely dissolve the body. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer tried this with little success. Indeed, powerful acids such as hydrochloric acid (HCl), sulfuric acid (H2SO4), and
chlorosulfuric acid (HClSO3) can destroy a corpse, bones and all. If enough acid is used over a sufficient period of time, that is. But this is not only difficult but also extremely hazardous. The acids will indeed destroy the corpse, but they will also “eat” the tub the body is in and chew up the plumbing. Acid fumes will peel the wallpaper and burn the perpetrator’s skin, eyes, and lungs. 

FORENSIC CASE FILES: THE ACID BATH MURDERER 

John George Haigh came to the English public’s attention in the 1940s when he confessed to not only multiple murders, but also to drinking his victims’ blood and destroying their corpses with acid. He seemed to favor sulfuric acid, which he kept in a vat in his workshop. He took the victims’ money and, through forgery, their property and businesses, and then basically laughed at the police as he admitted to the killings, believing they could not prosecute him without a corpse. He was wrong. He was convicted through forensic evidence and was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on August 10, 1949. 

So, whether it’s Mother Nature or the work of the perpetrator, something almost always remains for the ME and the other forensic scientist to work with. It may be an intact body, a partially destroyed corpse, or a single bone, but it will give them something to use in identification. Let’s take a look at how they do this—first with a body and then with only skeletal remains

BODY LOCATION 

With the exception of some photographic comparisons, all these forensic identification techniques require a corpse or skeletal remains. No body, nothing to work with. Often a discovered body is what instigates this identification process. But sometimes, investigators know a homicide has occurred, or has likely occurred, but they can’t find the corpse. The Laci Peterson case is an example. When Laci, who was eight months pregnant at the time, went missing on Christmas Eve 2002, in Modesto, California, it was not long before it became obvious that she had been murdered. Authorities launched a search of her neighborhood and the bay where her husband, Scott, had been fishing. In April 2003, the bodies of Laci and her unborn son Conner washed up on shore in San Francisco Bay. Scott Peterson was later convicted of the double murder. 

In homicides, finding and examining the corpse is critical. Searchers use a number of low- and high-tech location methods. All evidence is used to narrow the search area, including the victim’s work and leisure habits and witness statements. The victim may work several miles from home, so searching along this route would be undertaken. Maybe he frequently ran or walked in a nearby wooded area. Or maybe the suspect’s vehicle was spotted or some of the victim’s clothing was found in a remote area. These bits of information can greatly focus the search. 

One basic rule is to “look downhill” for a burial site. Let’s say it is believed that the body in question was buried near a remote roadway. In the area, the terrain rises above the road on one side and falls away on the other. Search downhill. Why? It is much easier to carry a body downhill than up. It’s just that simple. 

Once the area of search has been defined, a systematic approach to cover- ing the area should be followed. Freshly turned dirt, trenches, elevations or depressions in the terrain may be helpful. Fresh graves tend to be elevated above the surrounding area, while older ones may be depressed. This is due to settling of the soil, decay of the body, and collapse of the skeleton. Interestingly, the depth of the depression is greater if the body is deeply buried. This is likely due to the larger amount of turned dirt, which is subject to a greater degree of settling. Another factor could be that in deeper graves, the increased weight of the dirt over the corpse causes earlier and more complete skeletal collapse. 

Tracking dogs, if provided with an article of the victim’s clothing, may be able to follow a scent trail to the burial site. Specially trained cadaver dogs search for the scent of decaying flesh. They can often locate bodies in shallow graves or in water. Deeper graves may present problems.

Another important clue may come from changes in the vegetation over the gravesite. The turning of the soil in the digging process and the presence of the body change the soil conditions in the area over the grave. Changes in compaction, moisture, aeration, and temperature may attract plant species that differ from those around the grave. Or, the plants typical for the area may be present but the changed soil conditions may increase the thickness and richness of their growth. This may be visible, particularly from the air. 

Aerial reconnaissance and photography can be coupled with thermal imaging. Freshly turned dirt loses heat faster than normally compacted soil; it appears “colder” by such a device. Alternatively, a decaying body releases heat, which may reveal a measurable difference when compared to the surrounding area. So, the thermal images are inspected for either cold or warm spots, and these areas are then subjected to a more aggressive search. 

If a suspect area such as a mound or depression is found, special devices that locate sources of heat and nitrogen, both byproducts of the decay process, or that measure changes in the physical properties of the soil, may be employed. Ground-penetrating radar can “see” into the ground and often locate a buried body. Measurement of the electrical conductivity may prove helpful— a buried body often adds moisture to the soil, and the moisture increases the soil’s electrical conductivity. Two metal probes are placed in the soil, and an electrical current is passed between them and measured. Changes in this current may indicate where the body is buried. 

Magnetic devices may also be employed. A simple metal detector may locate the victim’s jewelry or belt buckle. 

A special device called a magnetometer, which measures the magnetic properties of soil, can also be helpful. Soil contains small amounts of iron, so it possesses a low level of magnetic reaction. Since the area where the body is buried has proportionally less soil (the corpse takes up space), it will exhibit a lower level of magnetic reactivity. The magnetometer is passed above the soil and locates any areas that have low magnetic reactivity. 

Body Encased in Concrete: https://www.breitbart.com/crime/2019/10/17/police-find-missing-womans-body-encased-concrete-arrest-two-suspects/

Body in Concrete in Plastic Storage Container: http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/10/13/14409189-murder-victim-found-entombed-in-concrete-was-former-fla-journalist

Acid in Tub: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/french-students-dissolve-body-in-acid-after-killing-girl-in-breaking-bad-murder-plot-10447943.html

Body Beneath Another Corpse: https://www.newser.com/story/240700/husband-hid-wifes-body-under-grave-of-wwii-veteran.html

Body Parts in Trash Bags: https://6abc.com/archive/6880388/

Cooked Spouse: https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/09/la-chef-told-police-he-slow-cooked-his-wife-for-days.html

Laci Petersen in the San Francisco Bay: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Peterson

Corpse in Freezer in Truck: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-07-18-mn-17076-story.html

And

https://murderpedia.org/male.F/f/famalaro-john.htm

The Science of Finding Buried Bodies: http://theconversation.com/the-science-of-finding-buried-bodies-77803

The Science of Finding Dead Bodies: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4515430/Researchers-reveal-track-corpse.html

 

Does Your DNA Contain Your Image?

DNA-Based Sketches

 

To say that DNA had revolutionized criminal investigations would be a huge understatement. Prior to DNA profiling, identifying a suspect with absolute certainty was more difficult. Fingerprints would work, of course, and eyewitness accounts, though flawed in many ways, could also help. But a criminal leaving behind biological evidence such as blood, semen, saliva, hair, skin cells, and other little bits, offers a method of identity that is second to none. DNA profiling has been used to catch many a criminal. But, in order for it to do its work, there must be something for the DNA analyst to compare the crime scene sample against. The DNA database, CODIS, helps because it stores millions of DNA profiles and if the perpetrator is in the system, a match can be made. But if he is not, the database is of little help.

DNA analysis can reveal the gender of the person who left behind the sample quite easily. But our DNA controls more than that. It determines how tall we will be, what our hair and eye color will be, our intellectual level, our ability to play music, and many other things. Familial DNA has been used to narrow down unknown samples to a smaller group, such as an extended family. And lately, this is been used in conjunction with the various ancestral databases to solve some crimes. But a newer technique offers another tool on the DNA front. It’s called DNA Phenotyping.

The principle seems simple: Since our DNA determines what we look like, would it not be possible to take a DNA sample and then create an image of the individual it belonged to? Maybe. At least great strides have been made in that regard. A case in point is that of research biologist Le Bich-Thuy, who was raped, battered, and strangled 24 years ago. DNA obtained from that scene was subjected to DNA Phenotyping and an image of the individual who likely perpetrated the crime was generated. Not only that, the image was age altered so that it would more accurately reflect what he might look like now. Fascinating case.

 

Coffin Birth: An Ancient Egyptian Mystery and the Solving of a Famous Case

Coffin Birth is a term used to describe the delivery of a baby postmortem. That is, the mother is dead and sometime later the child is expelled from the uterus. How does this happen?

During human decomposition, which begins almost immediately at death, the bacterial destruction of tissues leads to the formation of gas within the tissues as well as within the abdominal cavity. Most of the bacteria of decay reside within the G.I. tract so abdominal gas accumulation would be expected. As this accumulation progresses, the intra-abdominal pressure rises. If the victim is a pregnant woman, this pressure can collapse the uterus and force the fetus through the cervix, the vaginal canal, and out into the world. This is called a coffin birth. This can occur days or even weeks/months after death. The timing mostly depends on the speed of the decay process, which in turn depends on the ambient temperature.

Italian researchers have recently found a medieval grave that suggests exactly that. From the arrangement of the maternal bones and those of the near-term child, it appears a coffin birth may indeed have occurred.

https---blogs-images.forbes.com-kristinakillgrove-files-2018-03-1-s2.0-S1878875018303140-gr1_lrg

 

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Remember the famous Scott and Laci Peterson case? This is what happened to Laci and her unborn son.

Laci Peterson

Laci Peterson

Once the eight-month pregnant Laci was dumped into the San Francisco Bay, the decay process began. The coldness of the water caused a slowing of the decomposition so it took several months before enough gas accumulated to cause two important events that ultimately led to solving the case. First, her corpse became buoyant and floated to the surface and washed ashore, where it was found. The second is that a coffin birth occurred and her unborn child, Connor, was delivered and also washed ashore nearby. The location was near where Scott had said he had gone fishing on that Christmas Eve day. Locating the bodies placed him squarely at the disposal site. Gruesome and sad. Fortunately, Scott now resides in San Quentin.

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The Recovery of Laci and Conner

 

The Mystery of Chopin’s Heart

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Did Frederic Chopin die from Tubercular Pericarditis? And what the heck is that anyway?

Pericarditis is an inflammation has occurred of the pericardium, the sac that contains the heart. Most often it is due to a viral infection but there are many others causes. One of the worst is tuberculosis (TB).

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Tubercular Thickening of the Pericardium

 

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X-Ray Showing Thickened Pericardium
(White ring around heart shadow)

Tuberculosis has wreaked havoc in humans for centuries. It has been found in Egyptian mummies and has devastated entire populations. Treatment didn’t appear until the 20th century and in recent years new, more malignant forms have appeared. Even after several millennia, it remains a difficult medical problem.

It attacks the lungs and slowly destroys the tissues, leading to cough, fatigue, weight loss, and muscle wasting—-the reason it was called “the consumption.” It, at times, literally consumed the sufferer.

When it spreads to the heart, particularly the pericardium, it can quickly become deadly. A thick viscous fluid collects in the pericardial sac, compresses the heart, and interferes with its function as a pump. This fluid can also solidify into a leathery trap around the heart so that even survivors of the initial infection can suffer severe, long-term problems that we term constrictive pericarditis—-the encasement restricts cardiac filling and thus effects pumping.

Recent studies suggest that this is what happened to Chopin. His heart took a strange and convoluted journey. He had requested that at his death that his heart be removed and returned to his native Warsaw, Poland. When he died in Paris in 1849, his heart was indeed removed, placed in a crystal jar, and encased in a stone pillar at the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. In a recent examination, researchers found evidence that suggested he had suffered from TB pericarditis.

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Holy Cross Church

 

Charlie and Me

Manson

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

 
 
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