Archive for the ‘Death Investigation’ Category
Hugh Killdme let the spoonful of peas and carrots rest on his tongue. He closed his eyes, savoring the combined taste of his two favorite vegetables. In his mind, he pictured the green and orange delicacies as they danced and rolled in boiling hot water. He saw tendrils of wispy pea-carrot flavored steam shimmying and twisting their way from the blue porcelain Rachael Ray pot to the gleaming stainless steel hood above the range.
Hugh shifted his thoughts to the basement freezer. He’d ordered the Super-Duper Chill-Zero model from Acme (Wile E. Coyote isn’t the only character in the world who knows where to shop for a good deal).
The day after Acme’s number one best-selling frost-making machine arrived, he’d packed it to the brim with bags of frozen peas and carrots. Bought every single package within a twenty-mile radius. His lips split into a lopsided grin. Thirty seconds later he was graveyard dead.
The instant Hugh’s face crashed into his dinner plate, sending airborne little green pellets and perfectly cut squares of orange, his wife of thirty years scurried toward the basement to unplug the freezer, muttering along the way about never again cooking another pea or carrot as long as she was able to draw a breath. For that she was thankful. She was also thankful that the poison had worked so quickly. Not because her husband hadn’t suffered long, though. Instead, she had plans to play Bingo at the Presbyterian church over on Save-a-soul Drive, and to have her husband flopping around on the kitchen floor for hours would have absolutely ruined her evening. Probably would’ve ruined the shine on her brand new linoleum too. Her mother always said things have a way of working out. She, too, went quickly…bless her heart.
Questions about poisons. I get them all the time, and the number one question that most often pops up is, “What’s the best poison for a wife to use that would act quickly and be difficult for police to detect?” So lets dissect this one by visiting a current situation, one that’s making headlines.
First of all, police officers won’t be the folks who detect the poison. That’s the job of the medical examiner and/or laboratory scientists. Next, to detect a specific poison the medical examiner would have to request specific testing for the substance/toxin/chemical/etc. A tox screen is not a one-stop-shop and does not detect most poisons. This is where the police can be a big help to the M.E. and lab technicians and scientists. For example, a savvy detective may notice a bottle labeled “Husband Killer” on the kitchen table next to the head of the deceased. If so, he/she would collect the bottle as evidence and report his/her discovery to the M.E., who would then order testing for the potentially deadly concoction.
Another huge clue that sharp detectives should pounce on would be the fact that the widow works as a scientist for a bio-pharmaceutical company. And that’s sort of what happened in the case of Tianle Li, the Chinese woman who was recently convicted of murdering her husband, Xiaoye Wang. Her weapon of choice—thallium.
Thallium, a metal that’s used in electronic switches and some medical devices, was once used as a major component in insecticides and rat poisons. It’s basically odorless and tasteless. And it is well known as the “poisoner’s poison” because it is so difficult to detect in the human body. Thallium use as a pesticide was banned in the U.S. in the early 70′s.
Biotech and pharmaceutical companies are permitted to conduct research using dangerous chemicals, toxins, poisons, extracts, etc. That’s how Tianli Li obtained the thallium she used to murder her husband. As a chemist for Bristol-Myers Squibb, Li ordered thallium to research its effect on humans.
After receiving doses of thallium (how Li introduced the thallium into her husband’s body is not clear) Wang became ill with flu-like symptoms and checked himself into a local hospital, where he lapsed into a coma and died two weeks later.
Had it not been for a quick thinking nurse who’d read about a thallium poisoning case in China, Li would have gotten away with murder…the “perfect murder,” using the “poisoner’s poison” as her instrument of death. The nurse alerted officials who then conducted tests and indeed found thallium in Wang’s body.
So there you have it, my writer friends—two very important bits of information for possible use in your work (writing, that is). One – thallium is the poisoner’s poison because it is difficult to detect. Two – people who work in biotech and pharmaceutical research are able to purchase just about anything in the name of “science.”
By the way, it takes a while for most poisons to get the job done. Having your character go as quickly as Hugh Killdme is, well, fictional.
Death investigations are conducted by both police investigators and medical examiners or coroners. Each city, county, and/or state determines whether or not to utilize a coroner or medical examiner system.
A coroner is an elected official and may or may not be a medical doctor. In fact, even the ticket-taker at the local Bijou Theater could be elected as coroner in some places, as long as he/she meets the local requirements. In some locations the requirements are minimal, such as being a citizen of the area for a year, and being of legal voting age with a non-violent criminal history.
In some counties, in California for example, the county sheriff also serves as coroner. Elected corners with no medical background employ pathologists to conduct autopsies.
A medical examiner is a medical doctor that has been hired by a city or county to conduct autopsies and investigate the cause(s) of suspicious deaths.
The police are in charge of all murder scenes, but medical examiners and coroners are in charge of the body. Medical examiners and coroners do not interrogate suspects and detectives do not examine bodies.
Bodies are placed in sealed body bags and delivered to the morgue in specially equipped vehicles.
Upon arrival at the morgue, bodies are placed on gurneys and rolled onto scales where they’re weighed.
After weighing, the body is placed inside a cold room until autopsy. Black or dark gray, leak-resistant body bags are used pre-autopsy. The paper bag resting on the body of the murder victim at the top of the photo contains the victim’s personal belongings.
Former Butler County, Ohio coroner, Dr. Richard Burkhardt, M.D., at autopsy station.
Carts containing the necessary tools of the trade are wheeled next to the autopsy station within easy reach for the pathologists.
Bone saw for removing the top of the skull, and sometimes to make the rib cuts for access to internal organs.
As organs are removed they’re placed on hanging scales for weighing.
“If a medical examiner were allowed to do only one thing during an autopsy, that one thing should be to weigh the heart of the victim. The weight of a heart is key to most of death’s mysteries.” Dr. Richard Burkhardt, Butler County Ohio Corner. (Excerpt from Police Procedure and Investigation by Lee Lofland)
Once the autopsy is complete, an assistant begins the process of closing. Pictured above, an attendant replaces the top of the skull and then stitches the scalp back in place.
Pathologists make a “Y” incision, starting at each shoulder, meeting at the bottom of the sternum (the xiphoid process is the cartilaginous/bony tip at the base of the sternum), continuing to the pubic bone, typically bypassing the navel.
Body – post autopsy.
Samples of organs are often kept for future examination, and/or DNA testing.
Cold rooms also store amputated body parts. The gray trays on the right contain severed limbs. White, paper-like body bags, like the one lying on the gurney in the rear of the cold room above, are used post-autopsy for bodies waiting to be transported to funeral homes.
*Attendees of the first Writers’ Police Academy were treated to a behind the scenes tour of the morgue featured above. Hmm…only writers would consider a trip to the morgue as a treat.