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Category Archives: Interesting Cases

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.

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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.

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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

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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

 

DNA Solves the 80-Year-Old Death of Belgium’s King Albert I

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Belgium’s King Albert I was found dead on February 17, 1934. The experienced rock climber was found at the base of a large formation with a gash to his head. Speculation that he was murdered ran rampant. During World War I, he had resisted Germany and attempted to block German troops from entering his country. They eventually did, but he fought them every step of the way. Was Germany somehow complicit in his untimely death?

Many felt that he had been killed elsewhere and his body dumped where it was found. The evidence suggested otherwise. His glasses were found nearly 40 feet above him – – he was very far-sighted – – and his climbing rope was still attached to his body. But, the most important evidence that suggested a fall rather than a murder was blood on the leaves near the King. If this blood was indeed Albert’s, then he must have shed it at that location, meaning he was at least briefly alive when he reached the ground at the base of the rock formation. If he had been killed elsewhere and dumped, there would have been no blood around the body. Dead folks don’t bleed. The leaves were apparently collected and preserved.

Flash forward to 2014. The blood of the leaves was tested. Not only was it human blood and but also it was matched against two relatives of the King. These results suggested that the blood was indeed the King’s blood and it had likely been shed from a head injury he received from his fall. This 80-year-old “murder” case seems to be a tragic accident.

 

Peanut Butter Can Kill You

 

Peanut butter can be deadly. If you’re allergic to peanuts.

Our immune system protects us from all sorts of bad things – – bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Our bodies recognize these foreign invaders and the immune system immediately goes to work manufacturing antibodies against the intruders. These antibody signal for help and pretty soon white blood cells show up along with their buddies known as mast cells. These cells release an array of chemicals that help damage the invaders, which are then consumed by the white blood cells. And life goes on.

But sometimes the immune system overreacts. It produces a massive amount of chemicals that can cause a drop in blood pressure, a tightening of the bronchial tubes, a leaking of fluids within the tissues and, most deadly, the lungs. We call this overwhelming reaction anaphylaxis. It is typically immediate and severe.

Such a reaction happened to Miriam Ducre-Lemay. She was allergic to peanuts. Her boyfriend had apparently eaten a peanut butter sandwich and had given her a good night kiss. Then everything went off the rails. She suffered an acute anaphylactic reaction and by the time paramedics arrived it was too late. This illustrates that it only takes a very small amount of an antigen (in this case the peanut oils in the peanut butter) to initiate a severe anaphylactic reaction.

 

Webinar: What Were They Thinking? The Planning of the Perfect Murder

Join me for a fun Webinar hosted by Sister in Crime-Atlanta on Tuesday, June 13, 2017 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time. You must be a member of that chapter to join is but if you’re already a SinC National member it’s only $20.

Here is the info on the event:

When your character plans and executes “The Perfect Murder,” he always, ALWAYS makes a mistake or two. These errors ultimately lead your sleuth to the solution. In this session, Dr. D.P. Lyle deconstructs the planning, execution, and post-crime behavior of two headline-grabbing murderers–O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson—to help mystery writers and fans better understand fictional killers from social, psychological, forensics, investigative, and motivational points of view. Q & A follows a 1-hour presentation. Forensic questions welcome!

Webinar: https://www.meetup.com/Sisters-in-Crime-Atlanta-Chapter/events/239240813/

SinC-Atlanta: https://www.sincatlanta.com

 

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