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Category Archives: Poisons & Drugs

My Cough Medicine Did It

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Whenever someone does something stupid, like crash a car, get in a bar fight, or, say, stab someone 123 times, they are always looking for an excuse. Somewhere to lay the blame. After all, they couldn’t have done anything like that, so it must’ve been some outside person, or situation, or invisible force, or even a miasma. Perhaps alcohol or drugs. Maybe even cough medicine. Really? I don’t buy it.

That’s apparently the defense of one Matthew James Phelps, a young pastor in North Carolina, who apparently inflicted 123 knife wounds on his wife. He stated that a dose of Coricidin Cough and Cold medicine made him do it. Or as he said: “I know it can make you feel good and sometimes I can’t sleep at night.” Too bad he didn’t simply go to sleep.

No doubt various drugs can cause anger, aggression, and even psychosis in some people. Cocaine has done it, and Phencyclidine (PCP or Angel Dust) was notorious for it. Meth, too. There are others, but I don’t think Coricidin would be a likely member of that group. 

Possible? Maybe. Likely? No.

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Improved GHB Testing

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NMR Spectrograph

GHB is one of the so-called Date Rape Drugs—along with Ecstasy, Rohypnol, and Ketamine. I have an article on these on my website (See Below).

GHB has been difficult to detect, primarily because it’s rapidly metabolized (destroyed) by the body. But new techniques employing Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectroscopy allow the detection of GHB metabolites (breakdown products) as much as 24 hours later. This gives investigators a longer time period to uncover GHB in a victim.

GHB can also often be found in the victim’s hair up to a month or more after exposure, but this testing is not as yet perfected.

https://www.forensicmag.com/news/2017/08/chemists-discover-marker-date-rape-drug-testing

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

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25433016

More on the fascinating world of Forensic Toxicology can be found in FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES:

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

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Guest Blogger: Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D.: Review of Criminology of Homicidal Poisoning

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The Subtle Art of Poisoning

Expert discusses investigative criminological toxicology.

In 1993, Glenn Turner, a police officer in Georgia, named his wife, Lynn, as the beneficiary on his life insurance policy. After she began an affair with a firefighter named Randy Thompson, Turner grew sick and died. The medical examiner ruled it natural. Lynn quickly moved in with Randy. He purchased a life insurance policy but her overspending threatened a potential rift. Pretty soon, he, too, was sick. When he died, it was another “natural death.”

The mothers of these men joined forces and got a new investigation. By the fall of 2001, it became clear that both men had been poisoned with ethylene glycol, i.e., antifreeze, which causes organ failure. Lynn was arrested. An abundance of circumstantial and behavioral evidence linked her to the deaths, and the “black widow” was found guilty. In 2010, she committed suicide in prison by poisoning herself with a prescription medication.

This is just one of the seven “instructive” cases that Dr. Michael Farrell provides in his book, Criminology of Homicidal Poisoning. Others are “American Beauty Killer” Kristin Rossum and the Cooper brothers. He also discusses healthcare killers like Harold Shipman, many of whom used lethal levels of medications. Farrell, a private consultant on the use of poison in homicides, has a substantial background in psychiatry and medical research. This comprehensive textbook links forensic toxicology with criminology, making an important contribution to both fields.

Farrell not only describes how homicidal poisoning fits the most popular criminological theories for why people kill but also examines the nature and lethality of various poisons, identifies trends in poisoning, provides a history, and shows offender traits and victim characteristics. In one chapter, he even discusses issues for investigators and prosecutors who will be taking a poisoning case to trial.

These perpetrators have a lot on their side, and case reconstruction often depends largely on circumstantial evidence, with an emphasis on motive. (Kristin Rossum, for example, was having an affair, for example, and her husband, who’d supposedly committed suicide by fentanyl overdose, was known to be pill-aversive. Rossum had access to the drug.) It took years and persistent family members, along with acknowledgment of investigative errors, to bring Lynn Turner to justice.

Cold case investigators should take note! Many poisonings initially look natural or accidental, or can be passed off as a suicide. Suspicious circumstances, no matter how seemingly slight, should be investigated. Intentionality is key – what do these suspects gain from it? Poisoners can go undetected for years, especially if their victims are members of populations who are expected to die (the sick and elderly).

Successful poisoners are cunning, remorseless, and often greedy or looking for a way out of a difficult situation. They must have the intelligence to study the behavior of a poison and to plan ahead for its use and consequences. They need to know if they prefer a quick or slow death and how to hide the symptoms. Staging plays a significant part.

Stagers find ways to mask symptoms or defer investigation. They might oppose an autopsy and have a body cremated. They might write a suicide note or “confide” to a doctor that the victim was suicidal. They might clean up the scene, wipe a computer search, or surround a search with context that subtracts evidentiary value. They might have a ready explanation if poison is detected. (A minister who “discovered” his overdosed wife dead told police that she was a sleepwalker and must have taken the pills by accident.)

It’s a popular notion that females are more likely to use poison than any other means, which gives the false impression that males rarely poison. Male poisoners apparently outnumber females – at least, of those who are caught. Medical professionals are over-represented, possibly because they have more knowledge of, and access to, drugs and potential poisons. Over and over, we find that healthcare serial killers have administered the “wrong” meds or given an overdose. It’s important that we understand those who decide to kill someone in this manner.

Farrell believes that homicidal poisoning is underestimated. Given how easy it can be to overlook evidence, to accept other explanations, and make investigative missteps, he’s probably right. Poisons can be easy to acquire, and motives to use it are all-too-human.

Katherine Ramsland is a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she also teaches criminal justice. She holds a master’s in forensic psychology from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a master’s in clinical psychology from Duquesne University, a master’s in criminal justice from DeSales University, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Rutgers. She has been a therapist and a consultant. Dr. Ramsland has published over 1,000 articles and 60 books.

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Posted by on December 27, 2017 in Book Review, Guest Blogger, Poisons & Drugs

 

Beware: Health Food Can Kill You

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Aconite, also known as monkshood or wolfsbane, is beautiful and looks harmless. Not true. It’s a deadly poison. When ingested, it has potentially deadly cardiotoxic and neurotoxic effects. Its most often kills through the generation of deadly changes in the cardiac rhythm. Victims suffer shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, numbness and tingling of the face and other body parts, nausea, and ultimately paralysis, cardiac arrest, and sudden death. Pleasant, huh?

Aconite is easily available, not only at your local nursery but also at various health food stores where it comes in many varieties, including herbal teas. Several recent poisonings related to an aconite-containing herbal tea sold by a San Francisco company show how dangerous this chemical can be. Of course, other health food stores sell aconite and you can easily buy it on the Internet.

I always tell my patients that the second most dangerous place on earth, after a aircraft carrier deck during flight operations, is a health food store. Though most of the products they sell are mostly harmless, and mostly not helpful, some are downright deadly. Many years ago there was a Ma Huang crisis in that several people died from taking supplements laced with this material. Ma Huang is basically an amphetamine and, like aconite can cause deadly cardiac arrhythmias as well as a marked elevation of blood pressure and strokes.

The point is, none of these are regulated. The FDA, for all its warts, does indeed protect consumers. It’s very difficult to create, test, and bring a new drug to market. It cost billions and takes many years, sometimes more than a decade. The FDA requires strict proof that the medicine actually does what it’s designed to do and that its side effects and toxic potential are acceptable and well understood. This is not the case in products you buy at your local health food store. Many are mixed up by a guy named Joe in his garage in a cat box. Trust me, Joe is not a chemist, or a pharmacist, and he possesses no medical training. He might not even have a GED. But he can mix up some cool stuff and put it in fancy packaging and make it look real. And safe. And it might be. But of course, it might not.

The take-home message here is that do not accept the packaging, the product description, or its prime location at eye level on the display rack. Do your research. Find out what’s really inside and what its toxic potential is. And do not buy anything from a guy named Joe.

 

The Queen of Poisons and The Marsh Test

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Arsenic has, over the centuries, garnered many colorful names. It was called the “queen of poisons” because it was so readily available, easy to use, highly effective, and untraceable. Thus, it was used by many famous historical poisoners. Some called it the “king of poisons” but since over the years,  female killers have favored poisons, “queen” seems more apt. It was also called “inheritance powder,” for obvious reasons—-once the estate holder is dead and gone, the heirs can party down.

Arsenic is the nearly perfect poison. This was definitely true centuries ago when there was no way to trace it. But what about today, with modern toxicological techniques? Unfortunately, arsenic is still a pretty good choice for the poisoner. It’s not often looked for in unexplained deaths and its effects mimic many medical conditions, particularly neurological and gastrointestinal.

Back a couple of centuries ago, because of its common use, a method for finding arsenic in the dead or ill became an imperative. There were many steps along this path. This search for arsenic was essentially the beginning of forensic toxicology.

From HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS

Arsenic had been a common poison for centuries, but there was no way to prove that arsenic was the culprit in a suspicious death. Scientists had to isolate and then identify arsenic trioxide—the most common toxic form of arsenic— in the human body before arsenic poisoning became a provable cause of death. The steps that led to a reliable test for arsenic are indicative of how many toxicological procedures developed.

1775: Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) showed that chlorine water would convert arsenic into arsenic acid. He then added metallic zinc and heated the mixture to release arsine gas. When this gas contacted a cold vessel, arsenic would collect on the vessel’s surface.

1787: Johann Metzger (1739–1805) showed that if arsenic were heated with char- coal, a shiny, black “arsenic mirror” would form on the charcoal’s surface.

1806: Valentine Rose discovered that arsenic could be uncovered in the human body. If the stomach contents of victims of arsenic poisoning are treated with potassium carbonate, calcium oxide, and nitric acid, arsenic trioxide results. This could then be tested and confirmed by Metzger’s test.

1813: French chemist Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila (1787–1853) devel- oped a method for isolating arsenic from dog tissues. He also published the first toxicological text, Traité des poisons (Treatise on Poison), which helped establish toxicology as a true science.

1821: Sevillas used similar techniques to find arsenic in the stomach and urine of individuals who had been poisoned. This is marked as the beginning of the field of forensic toxicology.

1836: Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806–1880) developed the first test for arsenic in human tissue. He taught chemistry at Grey’s Medical School in England and is credited with establishing the field of forensic toxicology as a medical specialty.

1836: James Marsh (1794–1846) developed an easier and more sensitive version of Metzger’s original test, in which the “arsenic mirror” was collected on a plate of glass or porcelain. The Marsh test became the standard, and its principles were the basis of the more modern method known as the Reinsch test, which we will look at later in this chapter.

As you can see, each step in developing a useful testing procedure for arsenic stands on what discoveries came before. That’s the way science works. Step by step, investigators use what others have discovered to discover even more.

I ran across an excellent article on the Marsh Test and it’s definitely worth a read. I can imagine when this was performed in the courtroom it did elicit a few gasps.

A few useful links:

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

http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/marsh-test-arsenic-poisoning

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sandra-hempel-/arsenic-the-nearperfect-m_b_4398140.html

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/arsenic/history.html

 

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Chemical Assassinations: A Sordid History

Using chemicals for murder is not a new concept. It’s been around for many centuries. Socrates was killed with hemlock, and arsenic became so popular that it was known as “inheritance powder,” for obvious reasons. Chemicals have also been used in political assassinations.

Recently Kim Yong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was apparently assassinated using Sarin. It seems that a pair of young ladies had the toxin on their hands and made contact with the victim, transferring the toxin, causing his death. The details of exactly how they pulled this off are unclear. One of the big questions is how did they avoid poisoning themselves? The first thought of course is that they wore latex surgical gloves or something similar but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The second thing that came to my mind is that maybe they placed a barrier such as petroleum jelly on their hands before applying the Sarin or VX but this doesn’t appear to be the case either – – and this would be a risky move. Many have speculated that they took the antidote for this poison ahead of time. This makes sense and is definitely possible.

Sarin and VX are organophosphates similar to many insecticides. They are also classified as anti-cholinesterases in that they bind with the enzyme cholinesterase and block its actions. Cholinesterase is essential for nerve transmission throughout the human body. It’s complex biochemistry but in the end this chemical causes widespread derangements in normal bodily functions.

The symptoms that result are numerous and include chest pain, shortness of breath, headache, nasal congestion, constricted pupils, nausea, anxiety, seizures, and ultimately death. The treatment for Sarin exposure is to employ chemicals that counteract or override this derangement. The most common ones are atropine, Pralidoxime, and lastly the sedative and anti-seizure drug diazepam.

It is entirely possible that the young ladies involved in this assassination had pretreated themselves with atropine and possibly Pralidoxime. In fact the US military has such antidotes prepackaged in an autoinjector that is known as Mark I NAAK – –NAAK stands for Nerve Agent Antidote Kit. This is the most likely explanation for how they pulled this off.

Political assassinations using chemicals are not new. In 2006 Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium 210 that had apparently been placed in his iced tea.

Litvinenko

Dioxin was the culprit in the damage to Viktor Yushchenko.

Yushchenko

Perhaps the most famous chemical assassination took place in 1978 when Georgi Markov was jabbed in the leg with a point of an umbrella. At first it seemed to be an accident, no big deal, a mere pin prick, but Markov’s health quickly declined and he ultimately died. It was later found that a tiny pellet containing ricin had been injected into his leg, supposedly by the KGB.

Markov and Pellet

Deadly chemicals have been around for many millennia and have been used many times to bring about the death of others, political or otherwise.

 

Q&A with Expanded Audio Discussions Now on the Suspense Magazine Website

Q&A with Expanded Audio Discussions Now on the Suspense Magazine Website

Check out the new posts John Raab of Suspense Magazine and I put together. Read the Q&As and listen to the expanded discussions. Hope each proves helpful for your crime fiction.

Can DNA Be Used To Identify Multiple Assailants In a Three Decade Old Rape?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2016/12/20/d-p-lyles-forensic-file-episode-1/

In 1863, Could An Autopsy Accurately Determine the Cause of Death?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2017/01/09/in-1863-could-an-autopsy-accurately-determine-the-cause-of-death-d-p-lyle-answers-this/

Can My Female Character Cause Her Pregnancy To Become “Stone Baby” By Shear Will?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2016/12/31/can-my-female-character-cause-her-pregnancy-to-become-stone-baby-by-sheer-will/

More to come.

Want more cool questions from crime writers? Check out my three Q&A books.

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