There’s nothing in this world that can be compared to entering an abandoned house in mid July, in the south, to begin working a murder case. If the stifling heat, humidity, and smell of decomposing human flesh and organs don’t get to you, well, the flies, maggots, and other creepy crawlers certainly will. Without a doubt, it’s a full-on attack of the senses. But, it’s a job that falls into the laps of homicide cops—it’s what they do—and it’s a job that requires a special skill set. Not to mention a stomach made of cast iron and steel plating.

But, once you’re past the stench, gore, fly-swatting, and overall feel of ickiness, solving murder cases are a bit like writing crime novels … sort of.

Writers typically begin their stories knowing the identities of the murderers du jour, right? Protagonists typically work toward a “killer” ending to the story in which they travel, while their creators provide clues along the way that help their fictional heroes and readers solve the carefully plotted crimes.

Real-life detectives begin their journeys with an initial report that’s a written introduction to the basics—victim’s name, location where crimes took place, weather conditions, dates, times, responding officers’ names, time of arrival of the medical examiner, witness names and statements, if any, etc. This information, much like the very first Post-it note of a plotting author’s outline launches a story into a convoluted journey to the final page of a book, provides the starting points for investigations. And, those initial police reports often serve as guides that determine which direction the investigations should follow.

Remember, no two investigations are the same!

What follows the reading and studying of the initial police report or, an author’s first Post-it note, is an extremely detailed and meticulous prying, pawing, digging, and rummaging through each and every aspect of all the twists and turns and potential characters/suspects. No stone is left unturned, and no potential piece of evidence is left unexamined. For detectives, this often results in lots of long hours without sleep, meals, or time to rest. For writers, this means tons of sticky notes placed in all the right places, tons of research, police ride-alongs, and attending the fabulous Writers’ Police Academy.

When I approached a case where the suspect’s identity was unknown, and clues and information were scarce or non-existent—after collecting physical evidence—I often found it helpful to begin by first eliminating people who could NOT be involved, such as the people who had solid, unquestionable alibis. Then, I’d eliminate the folks whose innocence was proven by physical evidence (fingerprints and DNA didn’t match, etc.). It was often the last man or woman standing who committed the crime.

Writers, in lieu of using actual evidence to eliminate characters/suspects, they develop fictional evidence to do the same. And when something doesn’t seem quite right with a scene or character, well, the writers then simply removes a sticky note here and there and toss them aside. However, both detectives and writers typically file any discarded information in the event it’s needed at a later time. And, like writers, cops often find that information gained/gathered in one investigation just may be valuable in the next.

To Step Into a Murder Scene is Like …

So let’s open the door to the spooky house at the end of your street—the old Victorian that’s been empty for two years and is now surrounded by waist-high weeds. The once beautifully manicured lawn is now a graveyard for litter and other garbage left behind by transients and the kids who toss their empty fast food wrappers and plastic soda bottles over the rusted chain-link fence. Window panes are broken and many of shingles have fallen from the roof, leaving behind patches of tar paper and rusted nails.

For months now you’ve seen a homeless man going and coming, but this morning you realized that he hadn’t been around in the past two weeks. And there’s that strong odor. Like something is … dead.

So you call the police and the next thing you know your neighborhood is overrun by patrol cars and crime scene tape. You even heard one officer say something about murder.

Inside the “spooky” house, detectives are doing what they do best. They’re checking all the boxes on their mental checklist. And now their focus is on the victim.

The Effects of Death on the Human Body

Prior to the removal of a body from the crime scene, homicide investigators should note (and photograph) the presence of each of the following in his/her report:

1) Livor Mortis/Lividity (color, location, blanchability, Tardieu spots, other coloring). Are these consistent or inconsistent with the current positioning of the body?

Remember, lividity is the pooling of blood/purplish staining of tissue at the lowest portions of a dead body, caused by gravity. Livor continues to form for up to 8 – 12 hours after death. This process can be slowed to as much as 36 hours in a cool environment, including a morgue cooler.

To test for blanchability, a death investigator uses a finger(s) to push against the flesh. The pressure forces blood out of the capillaries in that area, causing the flesh to present as much lighter in color. If the pressure does indeed cause a change in skin color, the flesh is blanchable. This tells the investigator the body is still within the lividity period, meaning the victim died sometime within the past 12 hours, or up to 36 hours in cool surroundings.

You can try this on your own skin. Use a finger to apply pressure to the back of your hand. Release the pressure after a second or two and you’ll see the change in skin color (obviously you’ll use the finger of one hand to press against the skin on the back of your other hand). By the way, if you needed that instruction, well, the warning to remove Pop Tarts from their wrapper before heating are probably very important to you. And, if there was no change in your skin color, well, I hope your life insurance policy is up to date.

Tardieu spots are dark, circular areas—capillary ruptures.

2) Rigor Mortis

Muscles contain bundles of long, narrow cells. While we’re seated at our computers reading blogs and watching goofy videos, our muscles are, for the most part, at rest.

While resting, our muscles pump out calcium ions which build up electrical potential (energy). Then, when we’re ready to make that run to the mailbox to retrieve the latest royalty check, a nerve impulse causes those ions hook up with actin and myosin filaments and the muscles contract (become tighter). They remain in that state until adenosine triphosphate (ATP) binds to the myosin, and before you know it the muscles once again relax.

Got it now? No, well, don’t worry. All we need to know is that ATP has an obsession with oxygen. It absolutely has to have it to survive.

Actually, the body needs oxygen to produce ATP. Therefore, when a person stops breathing (no oxygen) the body ceases to make adenosine triphosphate. Without ATP our muscles can no longer relax. And when the muscles can’t relax, what happens? Right, the body stiffens, and that, my writer friends, is called Rigor Mortis.

3) Degree of decomposition (putrefaction, adipocere, mummification, skeletonization, etc.). Everything affects decomposition, from air temperature to animals and insects to shellfish, fish, alligators, snakes, and turtles, when the body is in water. Even soil types and clothing can affect the rate of decomposition. Interestingly, newborns who have not yet been fed, decompose slowly since the body is basically sterile. However, an injury or being fed will cause a newborn’s body to decompose more rapidly.

a) Putrefaction – the final stage of decomposition. Presents as discoloration of tissue, disfiguration, liquefaction of tissue, bloating due to gases forming in the tissue and organs.

The general order of putrefactive changes are as follows:

First to go are the larynx and trachea, followed by…

– stomach, spleen, and intestines

– lungs and liver

–  brain

– heart

– bladder, uterus, kidneys

– skin, tendons, and muscle

– bone

*The prostate resists putrefaction for a long time.

b) Adipocere – a waxy, soap-like substance that’s sometimes formed during decomposition. Normally caused by moist or damp conditions surrounding the decomposing body.

D. Insect and animal activity. Obviously, insects and animals can and do consume body parts. Animals may also scatter human remains, sometimes making the murder scene a bit more difficult to understand, at first look.

E. Scene temperature. Death investigators make note of the ambient temperature at the location of the body, and the method used to obtain it.

F. Description of body temperature. Is it warm to the touch? Is the flesh cold, or frozen.

It is extremely important to preserve the security of the body. Remember, the body is more than likely THE most important piece of evidence in a murder case. Investigators should oversee the labeling, packaging, and the removal of the remains by the M.E’s personnel, or EMS, etc. An identification tag should be attached to the body to prevent any mix ups later, at the morgue (yes, this has happened, and on more than one occasion).

Finally … No, police detectives do NOT use thermometers of any type, including rectal thermometers, to check the temperature of a dead body. It is not in their job description to do so. Yes, I once read the rectal thermometer thing in a book. So, no, no, and NO!

By the way, the image at the left is of a grilled pork chop. Had your stomach turning for a moment, huh?


*Remember, laws and procedure differ across the country. What happens in San Francisco or L.A. may be, and likely are, entirely different in Richmond or Baltimore or Dallas or Phoenix or Denver or Kansas or ….

*The black and white images contained in this post are from an actual crime scene, the largest mass family murder to occur in the U.S. It’s a case I featured in my true crime tale, Murder on Minor Avenue.

As part of my research prior to writing the story I visited the scene(s), interviewed dozens of people involved in two cases, including police detectives, neighbors, prosecutors, judges, family members, etc., and I visited the gravesites of the slain. Murder on Minor Avenue was published in an anthology called Masters of True Crime: Chilling Stories of Murder and the Macabre (edited by R. Barri Flowers) Publisher – Prometheus Books.

 

You’re in the prime of your life and you love to throw those crazy parties, the kind guests rave about for months afterward. They love that your backyard is a giant Slip-n-Slide hosed down by a fountain of beer. That you hire the best DJs with stage names like “DJ Hot Wing” and “DJ Jak Reach Her” shows your coolness level is off the charts. Alcohol flows from the taps in your kitchen and bath. Speakers the size of minivans pump out the jams at levels that drown out the sounds of the police helicopters hovering overhead. Neighbors have 911 on supersonic speed dial.

Yeah, those kinds of parties.

Your career as a top bestselling author is over the moon successful, the factor that funds your extravagent lifestyle. So successful, actually, that each of the 200 books you published last year are selling at the rate 450 per second. Lifetime and Netflix have purchased the rights to your entire backlist. Your latest book, Dark and Stormy Night, It Was, was just made into a blockbuster hit movie starring Jodie Foster and PeeWee Herman.

Reviewers say you’re destined to be remembered along with the greats of the thriller genre, such as Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Doe.

Edgar Allan Doe

Unfortunately, for you and your fans, four unwelcome party-crashers showed up at your latest shindig. Together, those four compadres who arrived one at a time—-the Mortis triplets and their cousin Demise—transformed your body into a cold and soulless and stiff chunk of instantly decomposing meat.

The process started back when you opted for a combination of liquor, cigarettes,and practically no sleep, over a healthy diet and exercise. You chose partying over the “right things” in life. Your excessive boozing and lack of responsibility, in fact, drove the family away from you and your circus-like lifestyle. And the moment they left, taking with them the last remaining bit of sanity in the household, was the point in time when the four party-crashers began eyeballing you as the perfect candidate for their plan. That was also the time when you started your dealings with the guy whose Uncle Vinnie operated a business out the a rear office in the Pleasure Palace strip club.

As your luck went, you’d decided to sleep with Vinnie’s wife and then Vinnie found out and he sent Demise to your party. Demise asked his cousins to tag along.

The Party-Crashers

Demise is the first of the crashers to the party. In fact, he always shows up before the others, but they’re never far behind.

Hi, my name is Demise

It’s Demise’s job to stop your heart and halt your breathing. He starts the changes to your body.

For example, the second Demise strikes, the skin begins to pale (pallor) and the muscles immediately begin to relax—all of them, which can produce some pretty unpleasant effects around the south end of the body, if you know what I mean. Then Demise steps aside to allow the Mortis triplets to do their thing.

The Mortis Triplets

The Mortis brothers, —Livor, Algor, and Rigor show up to the party separately, one at a time, and when they arrive … well, let’s just say the host is the center of their attention. And boy do they ever “spoil” him.

Algor mortis is simply the cooling down of the body after death. It’s the quest to reach room temperature.

One method of determining the time of death is to take the rectal temperature of the deceased. Next, subtract that number from 98.6 (average, normal human body temp), and then divide the remaining number by 1.5 (the average cooling rate of a body per hour under average conditions). The result is the approximate number of hours that passed after the victim kicked the bucket.

Livor Mortis, or lividity, is the pooling of blood in the lowest portions of the body. Lividity is caused by gravity and begins immediately after death. The telltale signs of livor mortis, the purplish discoloration of the skin, begins the moment the heart stops pumping. This process continues for approximately 6-12 hours, depending upon surrounding conditions, until it becomes fixed, permanently staining the tissue in the lowest parts of the body. When large areas become engorged with lividity, the capillaries in those areas sometimes rupture causing what’s known as Tardieu spots. Tardieu spots present as round, brownish blacks spots.

Rigor Mortis, the contracting and stiffening of the muscles after death, takes a couple of hours to begin and completes in approximately 8-12 hours. The process starts in the smaller muscles of the head and face and moves downward to the larger muscles. When rigor is complete, the process reverses itself starting with the lower large muscles and ending with the smaller face and head muscles. The entire process can last for approximately 48 hours. The body will quickly decompose after rigor is complete.

A person’s body goes stiff in the position they were in at the time of death.

Therefore, if a person died while lying on his back with one arm held straight up and the other straight out to the side, and the police discovered that same body in a bathtub, they’d probably conclude that someone moved the victim after death had occurred. After all, no one sits in a bathtub with their arms in those types of positions … do they? By the way, cops should not automatically rule out things simply because they’re different. Still, in the bathtub with one hand aimed skyward and the other pointing to a tube of Preparation H, a clump of tangled bobby pins, and a tin of ear wax remover. Yeah, somebody moved this one.

– Rigor mortis can cause contraction of the muscles in the epidermis, which also causes goose bumps to appear.

– Hair and fingernails do not continue to grow after someone dies. The skin around them begins to recede after death, which gives the appearance that they’re still growing.

– Age, illness, ambient temperature, fat distribution, and physical exertion just prior to death can all affect the rate of rigor mortis

When the triplets complete their tasks, well, the party’s over.

Sweet dreams …

Poison can be defined as any substance that kills or injures.

How do we know which substances are poisonous? Easy answer. Any substance taken in a large enough dose can be toxic. However, for the purpose of writing mysteries, let’s talk about a couple of deadly poisons that could add a special something to a story. And one, well, let’s just leave it at it’s a bit bothersome trying to convince a healthy, grown man to insert a lethal dose of suppositories into a place where the sun rarely, if ever, shines. How’s that for a twisted tale? Pun intended.

First, though…

NICOTINE

Nicotine is a pale yellow to dark brown liquid.

An unsuspecting victim can succumb to this fishy smelling drug’s effects within a few short hours, but not before experiencing severe diarrhea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat, and twitching. The drug starts killing by depressing the brain and spinal cord. Then it paralyzes the skeletal muscles. Coma may precede death.

Symptoms of nicotine poisoning can begin as early as thirty minutes after exposure. A killer may introduce the poison through inhalation, skin absorption, eye contact, or ingestion.

METHODS OF DISSEMINATING NICOTINE

  • Nicotine can be released into indoor air as a fine powder or liquid spray (aerosol).
  • Nicotine can be used to contaminate water.
  • Nicotine can be used to contaminate food.
  • Nicotine can be released into outdoor air as a fine powder or liquid spray (aerosol).
  • If released into the air as fine powder or liquid spray (aerosol), nicotine could contaminate agricultural products.

CHLORAL HYDRATE

(Mickey Finn, Mickey, knockout drops)

This clear liquid is also available in powder, capsules, and suppositories (and you thought I was kidding in the first paragraph).

Chloral Hydrate is a central nervous system depressant and when taken orally, the onset of symptoms occur quickly. Some early symptoms of chloral hydrate poisoning/overdose are confusion, shallow respiration, coma, pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), and absent reflexes.

An initial symptom of nicotine poisoning— drowsiness—can develop as quickly as 30 to 45 minutes. Death occurs within a few hours.

Chloral hydrate was one of the drugs found in Anna Nicole Smith’s body at the time of her death. The prescription for the drug was not in her name. Instead, it had been prescribed to Howard K. Stern, Smith’s friend, attorney, and companion.

After her death, Marilyn Monroe’s blood/ liver samples tested positive for both pentobarbital and chloral hydrate. Test results showed lethal concentrations of both.


Slip ’em a Mickey!

Mickey Finn, an Irish bar owner and top pickpocket in Chicago, is known for using a special concoction of drugs to spike the drinks of customers. Finn’s cocktail rendered consumers unconscious, an act that allowed the barkeep and the “house girls” to steal the unfortunate person’s valuables. The practice became known as slipping someone a Mickey, or giving them a Mickey Finn.

“Yes, Sam, you heard me correctly. The murder weapon was indeed a wisecracking, bucktooth bunny.”

“Don’t be silly, Daffy. I can’t imagine how she could bludgeon the man to death using a long-eared galoot.”

“No more speculation, please,” said the famous cartoon duck. “Here’s how she did it …”

Tularemia

Tularemia, or rabbit fever as it’s commonly called, is no stranger to the United States. After its discovery in 1911 in Tulare, California, the disease became known as a killing machine. It killed a large number of ground squirrels before finding its way into human bodies where it infected hunters and other outdoorsmen, and any others who came into contact with infected animals.

Today, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports roughly 200 cases of Tularemia (Francisella tularensis) each year in America. Only about two percent of those cases are fatal. However, since it is possible to transform the tularemia microbe to an aerosol form, the plague-like disease could be used as a very effective biological weapon.

Killers in mystery novels might find tularemia a most effective way to murder their victims, since pathologists and toxicologists do not routinely screen for it during autopsy. And, Tularemia is not easily detected by doctors.

Tularemia-carrying organisms are readily found in wild animals—particularly feral rabbits—in their feces. It’s also found in water and mud. Humans can contract tularemia by handling the hides, paws, or flesh of wild rabbits. They can also catch the disease by eating undercooked rabbit meat. Ticks, mosquitoes, and deer flies can transfer the sickness to humans through their bites.

A hunter with an open cut or wound can contract tularemia simply by skinning a rabbit. A murderous spouse could introduce the bacteria into her unsuspecting hunter-husband’s food (Tularemia-tainted meat), then blame the death on the infected rabbits the sportsman shot during his hunt. The wife could easily explain the symptoms away until her husband was too far-gone for medical help.

The disease offers a variety of symptoms, depending upon the way it is introduced to the victim. Inhaled tularemia, the method most likely to be used by terrorists, presents flu-like symptoms—fever, chills, loss of appetite, cough, and headache. Swollen lymph nodes, skin ulcers, and pneumonia can accompany these symptoms.

Certain strains of tularemia are currently incurable because they have been genetically engineered to be antibiotic-resistant. This disease, though deadly, cannot be spread by human-to-human contact.

The use of tularemia in germ warfare is not new to the military. In 1932 and again in 1945, the Japanese studied using tularemia as a possible biological weapon. Thousands of Soviet and German soldiers serving on the Eastern front during WWII succumbed to tularemia. There is some speculation that the disease was introduced to them intentionally.

The U.S. also developed and stockpiled tularemia (by freezing). The military conducted tests on the agent (code named Agent UL) by spraying barges containing monkeys in the waters off Hawaii. The spray was introduced by aircraft over several miles. As a result, over half the monkeys were infected with tularemia. Approximately half of the infected monkeys died.

An American fell ill with Tularemia when he ran over an infected rabbit while mowing his lawn. It was this instance that cemented the fact that tularemia could be contracted by inhalation. In 2000, an outbreak of tularemia occurred on Martha’s Vineyard. The cause of the outbreak .. lawn mowing. In 2003, a Nantucket maintenance worker ran over an infected rabbit with his lawnmower, however, it was not he who contracted the disease. Instead, it was a co-worker who used a stick to remove the animal to nearby bushes.

Terrorists could transmit the bacteria either in food or by an aerosol propellant. Large numbers of people could be infected at once with only a microscopic amount of the bacteria.

So, what have we learned from all this? That’s right, be vewy, vewy quiet when hunting wabbits …

No, I’m not talking about the spirit world, or of zombies. I’m talking about how the living use a victim’s body to help determine the time and cause of death.

First, what happens when a person stops breathing and their heart ceases to beat? The skin begins to pale (pallor) and the muscles immediately begin to relax—all of them, which can produce some pretty unpleasant effects around the south end of the body.

Then come the Mortis brothers, all three of them—Livor, Algor, and Rigor. These guys show up to the party, one at a time, and when they arrive … well, let’s just say the host is the center of their attention. And boy do they ever “spoil” him.

Algor mortis is simply the cooling down of the body after death. A pretty good rule of thumb method to determine the time of death is to take the rectal temperature of the deceased (#neverusethethumb, for obvious reasons—say NO to the rule of thumb!), subtract that number from 98.6 (average, normal human body temp), and then divide that number by 1.5 (the average cooling rate of a body per hour under average conditions). The result is the approximate number of hours that have passed since the victim kicked the bucket.

Livor Mortis, or lividity, is the pooling of blood in the lowest portions of the body. Lividity is caused by gravity and begins immediately after death. The telltale signs of livor mortis, the purplish discoloration of the skin, begins the moment the heart stops pumping. This process continues for approximately 6-12 hours, depending upon surrounding conditions, until it becomes fixed, permanently staining the tissue in the lowest parts of the body. When large areas become engorged with lividity, the capillaries in those areas sometimes rupture causing what’s known as Tardieu spots. Tardieu spots present as round, brownish blacks spots.

Rigor Mortis, the contracting and stiffening of the muscles after death, takes a couple of hours to begin and completes in approximately 8-12 hours. The process starts in the smaller muscles of the head and face and moves downward to the larger muscles. When rigor is complete, the process reverses itself starting with the lower large muscles and ending with the smaller face and head muscles. The entire process can last for approximately 48 hours. The body will quickly begin to decompose after rigor is complete.

A person’s body goes stiff in the position they were in at the time of death.

Therefore, if a person died while lying on his back with one arm held straight up and the other straight out to the side, and the police discovered that same body in a bathtub, they’d probably conclude that someone moved the victim after death had occurred. After all, no one sits in a bathtub with their arms in those types of positions … do they? By the way, cops should not automatically rule out things simply because they’re different. Still, in the bathtub with one hand aimed skyward and the other pointing to a tube of Preparation H, a clump of tangled bobby pins, and a tin of ear wax remover. Yeah, somebody moved this one.

– Rigor mortis can cause contraction of the muscles in the epidermis, which also causes goose bumps to appear.

– Hair and fingernails do not continue to grow after someone dies. The skin around them begins to recede after death, which gives the appearance that they’re still growing.

– Age, illness, ambient temperature, fat distribution, and physical exertion just prior to death can all affect the rate of rigor mortis.

 


MurderCon’s focus is homicide investigations!

The Writers’ Police Academy’s super-special event, MurderCon, features actual homicide investigation sessions in a first-ever, rare opportunity offered to writers. The material and venue are typically for law enforcement eyes only! For example …

David Pauly’s class:

Murder-Mayhem

This workshop deeply delves into Cause, Manner, and Mechanisms of death, Coroner vs. Medical Examiner systems, differences in legal terminology for murder, homicide, and manslaughter, as well as, the realities in death investigations that are equivocal in nature.

Physical, testimonial, and circumstantial evidence as introduced into the courtroom will be applied to death investigations. A case study of a very unique and rarely-seen murder by hanging, and the forensic evidence obtained from the physical autopsy will be presented during this detailed workshop. This presentation is a rare behind the scenes look and discussion of psychological autopsies, and when they are utilized in criminal investigations.

 

David Pauly retired from The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command as a Special Agent-in-Charge/Commander and Forensic Science Officer. He performed duties in over a dozen states, and frequently worked with local, state, and federal agencies. He also performed duties in Panama, South Korea, Afghanistan, Haiti, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Sinai, Egypt, Canada, Guam, and Nigeria. He holds a Master of Forensic Science degree from The George Washington University and is currently the Director of Applied Forensic Science at Methodist University, Fayetteville, NC.

David graduated the FBI National Academy (Session 195), Canadian Police College – Major Crimes Course, Miami-Dade Police Department – Bloodstain Interpretation Course, and National Fire Academy – Arson Investigation Course. He is a Fellow of The American Academy of Forensic Science, and is a current, or past member of the International Association of Identification, North Carolina Chapters of the IAI and FBINAA, International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts, North Carolina Homicide Investigator’s Association, The Vidocq Society, American Investigative Society of Cold Cases (AISOCC), and various other professional law enforcement and/or forensic science associations.


MurderCon’s 2019 Special Guest Speaker, Graham Hetrick, is the

star and host of the Investigation Discovery (ID) channel’s TV series, THE CORONER: I SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, now in its second season.

Graham Hetrick is a subject matter expert on drug abuse, child death and child abuse, organ tissue donation, violent crimes, medical legal death investigation, forensic methodology, and the grieving process. He has advanced training in blood pattern analysis, crime scene management, forensic sculpting, and shallow grave recovery.

Graham advises the news media and consults attorneys on the investigative process for cases facing litigation. He lectures widely on forensic autopsy, crime scene management, and critical thinking within the investigative process. He is an adjunct professor of forensics and human anatomy at Harrisburg University School of Science and Technology.

Over the last 35 years Graham has written and lectured on grief and loss recovery to the medical community, hospice groups and loss recovery organizations. He is also a motivational speaker for students and troubled youth who are trying to get control of their lives through a speech entitled “Doors.” Graham’s upcoming book explores improving the relationship between forensic evidence collection and organ tissue donation. His case studies are featured on the Investigation Discovery (ID) channel in THE CORONER: I SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, now in its second season.

Graham has served as the Dauphin County Pennsylvania Coroner since 1990. During his time there, he has supervised investigations of over 600 homicide cases, supervised the certification of over 13,000 deaths. He has also supervised the Forensic Science Internship Program for over six colleges and universities.

Since 2005, Graham, as an adjunct Professor of Forensics, teaches Crime Scene Investigation, Medical Legal Investigation, Introduction to Forensic Science, Forensic Case Studies, Human Anatomy, and Forensic Taphonomy & Human Identification.

Graham is the president of  the La Voz Latina Central, a bilingual newspaper serving six Central PA counties. He has been the president for the past seventeen years.

He grew up above a funeral home, with his father being the founder and owner of the Hetrick Funeral home in Harrisburg, Pa. and, from 1975 – 2003, Graham held the position of President and CEO of the family business, where he managed operations and developed after-care programs. The Hetrick Funeral Home is one of the first funeral establishments in Pennsylvania  to introduce funeral prearrangement.

In 2013, Graham was co-developer and consultant for Graham of Evidence, a TV pilot produced by A&E.


 

Reserve your spot today!

MurderCon Registration and Details

Yeah, well, don’t let those click-bait headlines get your unmentionables all bunched up, because ALL, and I repeat, ALL killings of human beings by other humans are homicides. And certain homicides are absolutely legal.

That’s right, L.E.G.A.L., legal.

New Picture

Yes, each time prison officials pull the switch, inject “the stuff,” or whatever means they use to execute a condemned prisoner, they commit homicide. All people who kill attackers while saving a loved one from harm have committed homicide. And all cops who kill while defending their lives or the lives of others have committed homicide. These instances are not a crime.

It’s when a death is caused illegally—murder or manslaughter—that makes it a criminal offense.

Murder is an illegal homicide.

For example, in Virginia:

§ 18.2-32. First and second degree murder defined; punishment.

Murder, other than capital murder, by poison, lying in wait, imprisonment, starving, or by any willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing, or in the commission of, or attempt to commit, arson, rape, forcible sodomy, inanimate or animate object sexual penetration, robbery, burglary or abduction, except as provided in § 18.2-31, is murder of the first degree, punishable as a Class 2 felony.

All murder other than capital murder and murder in the first degree is murder of the second degree and is punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility for not less than five nor more than forty years.

Therefore, those seemingly dramatic headlines that read “Shooting By Cop Ruled a Homicide,” well, they’re often nothing more than words used to affect people’s emotions, induce a reaction, or to encourage people to click over to their website, which, by the way, is how many “news” outlets pay the bills.

So please, un-wad those unmentionables and don’t be a victim of media sensationalism.

By the way, how many of you clicked over to this blog because of the headline/blog-post title? Gotcha …


There’s still time to register for this extremely rare opportunity where you will attend the same training offered to top homicide investigators from around the world! This course of instruction is typically for law enforcement eyes only, but the Writers’ Police Academy, in conjunction with Sirchie, the world leader in in Crime Scene Investigation and Forensic Science Solutions, has made it possible for to attend this, the only event of its kind in the world!

MurderCon takes place at Sirchie’s compound located just outside of Raleigh, N.C.

Please, do your readers a huge favor and sign up today while you still can.

MurderConRegsitration

For the day when you need just the right word to enhance a crime scene.

A.

Abrasion Collar – The circular pattern and charred, blackened skin surrounding the area/wound caused by a gunshot.

Adhesive Lifter – Any tape-type material containing an adhesive backing that’s used to retrieve prints from a surface.

Adhesive lifters manufactured by Sirchie

Atomized Blood – Patterns of blood stains that appear to have been caused by a fine mist, or spray. Think of the mist that expels from an aerosol can, such as paint or deodorant.

Adipocere – A waxy substance with a texture that’s similar to soap. It’s formed on the dead, decomposing bodies of animals and humans that are typically found in moist, damp locations. Also called Grave Wax.

Antemortem – Before death.

 

B.

Bilary Tract – Pertains to bile or the gallbladder and the ducts that move bile throughout.

Blow-back – Tissue and blood that’s found on the surface of a firearm that was in close proximity to a victim’s skin when a shot was fired. Blow-back material may also be found inside the barrel of the weapon. For example, a gun barrel is held close to a victim’s temple area when the trigger is pulled. Biological material then “blows back” toward the shooter and the weapon, adhering to those surfaces.

Bradycardia – Abnormally slow heartbeat that sometimes cause dizziness and chest pains due to low cardiac output.

Burking – Smothering a victim in such a manner where there are no telltale signs of the crime. The body is then sold for anatomical dissection.

The term “burking” was named after William Burke, who, in 1815, killed several intoxicated people after following them for the purpose of murdering them. He and a friend participated in the macabre activity. One of the two held a hand over the victim’s nose and mouth, using the other hand to hold the jaw up, while the other sat on the victim’s chest. The held this position  until the victim, either a man or woman, died of asphyxia. The sold the fruits of their crimes, the dead bodies, to medical schools in Edinburgh, Scotland.

[Titlow v. Burt, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 111459 (D. Mich. 2010)].

 

C. 

Cadaveric Spasm – A rare form of muscular stiffening that occurs at the moment of death, continuing into the rigor mortis stage. In fact, it can and has been mistaken for rigor mortis. The cause is unknown, but is thought to occur with violent deaths in conjunction with intense emotion. Also known as postmortem spasm, or instantaneous rigor.

Some scientists state that cadaveric spasm is a myth.

Bedford PJ, Tsokos M. The occurrence of cadaveric spasm is a myth. Forensic Sci Med Pathol. 2013 Jun;9(2):244-8.

However, in an April 2013 article for Forensic Science and Medical Pathology, Dr. Marcella Fierro, , former Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, said in the 30-years she served as a medical examiner she’d seen the occurrence of cadaveric spasm only three times. Note that she specified “only three times” when speaking of how often she’d seen the condition occur. But she had seen it.

“Do I believe in cadaveric spasm or accelerated or instantaneous rigor? Yes, but it occurs very rarely.” ~ Dr. Marella Fierro, former Chief Medicl Examiner of Virginia (1). You may know Dr. Fierro and not realize it. She is the inspiration for Patricia Cornwell’s lead character, Dr. Kay Scarpetta.

The three cases she spoke of were:

“… a smothered infant who was discovered grasping the asphyxiating blanket enclosing him so tightly in front of his body that it could only be removed with great difficulty.”(1)

” …a young man who died in a supine position during a seizure. His hands were fisted next to one another, symmetrically, high on his chest under his chin.” (1)
 

” … a couple found drowned in a swimming pool. They were facing one another. Her right foot was placed on his flexed left knee and she was grasping his head as she pushed him down. He had his hands on her waist. They were grasping each other tightly when found
and remained together as they were pulled from the pool.” (1)

(1) Resource – Fierro, Marcella. (2013). Cadaveric spasm. Forensic science, medicine, and pathology. 9. 10.1007/s12024-013-9414-x.

 

Having a surgeon hammer, chisel, and saw away and remove the femur and surrounding bone of my left hip was a bit odd, to say the least. But, I was provided instruction regarding what and how the bone-removal was to take place. I was told, in detail, about the procedure. And, I was assured that a highly trained and well-qualified team would be on hand to make certain that I rested comfortably during and after the removal of my body parts. Drugs were promised. Drugs were administered. Pain was minimal. Drugs were good.

Yes, I had the pleasure of knowing what was to take place and that someone would be on hand to care for my needs.

But there in that hospital bed I thought about the victims of brutal butcherings, where there is nothing to dull physical or emotional pain. There’s no one to comfort the recipient of the poundings and choppings by those who use edged weapons to take apart other humans as if they were no more than store-bought 3-D puzzles.

I thought of the horror of seeing an ax closing in toward the face at a pace of a home run swing delivered by a major league slugger. The sensation of a serrated steak or bread knife as it’s pushed and pulled through meaty flesh and then across hard, brittle bone.

I pondered about seeing a limb—a hand, or a forearm—falling to the floor as jets of squirting red blood sprayed the tile floor and the wife’s favorite “for company only” table cloth.

The dull thud as the ax blade struck the skull just above the ear, over and over again, until chips of bone splintered away to mingle with brain matter and coagulating blood that were already dripping down the walls in wet, slimy clumps of goo.

By the time those deeds are done the poor victim has most likely lost consciousness, sparing them from a pain that’s so intense that words have not yet been invented to describe it.

The assailant continues to meticulously and methodically dismember what is now a corpse. A bloody and unidentifiable pile of flesh and bone. A hand here, a foot there, the head in a paper sack for disposal in the lake, teeth in a neat little pile, and the rest in garbage bags. Well, some went down the toilet until it clogged.

I also recalled researching a book about the murder of a young woman who’d been butchered much in the same way I described above. A family dog found the woman’s femur in a stand of dry weeds next to a sewage treatment plant. The animal brought the human remains home and used it as a chew toy until the owner realized what it was.

Thinking of things in this light, well, my femur extraction was not that big of a deal.

*Warning, the images below are actual photos from a murder case*

While searching for a victim, these bones were discovered. Sadly, they belonged to the missing woman.

 

The killer used needle-nose pliers to remove the victim’s teeth, hoping that by doing so identification would be impossible.Notice the square edges where the pliers dug into flesh and bone while removing  the teeth.

 

More bone found scattered about the field. Femur at lower right.

 

Knife blade marks in bone.

 

Bone displaying knife cuts

 

A hack saw was used to partially cut through a bone. The killer then used his hands to finish snapping the bone in two.

 

Skull displaying serrated knife edge marks caused by “skinning” away the flesh from bone. The killer removed the woman’s face and scalp.

If you like to read about the actual case you’ll find in a true crime anthology called Masters of True Crime: Chilling Stories of Murder and the Macabre. The author of the tale is, well, me. I wrote it after conducting extensive research into this bizarre killing.

 

Writing a realistic murder scene can and should be a bit difficult for most authors since they haven’t killed anyone, I hope. So, if realism is the goal, as it should be at times, then research is of the utmost importance.

To help achieve the desired results, here are a few pointers for making a murder ring true. Warning, some of this is not for those of you with a weak of stomach.

And please, I’m not in any way suggesting that a book should feature the bloodiest murder scene ever written. Instead, I’m merely pointing out things that can and are sometimes a factor in actual cases. So pick what you like and toss away the rest. Or leave it all here. Just please remember that whatever you add to a scene must contribute to the story’s forward motion. If it doesn’t do that, well, it must go back inside your brain for storage until time to write the next book.

Dead People Have a Story to Tell

As someone who knows a bit about murder and solving crimes of the killing kind, I often find some fictional stories a bit lacking when it comes to detail that activates my senses. As they say, I’ve “been there done that,” a phrase that, in my case, includes killing someone which is typically not something most people can claim. Therefore, relying on the advice of people with experience is a good thing. This is so for all areas of cop and forensics stuff. The best information comes from people who’re in the field. The same is so for other areas of expertise. For example, should I need information about colonoscopies I turn to medical professionals not police officers. Although, cops do to tend to deal with more than their fair share of as* … well, you get the idea.

A dead body is, simply and sadly put, a piece of evidence found in crime scenes. But the body is different than other evidentiary items in that it has a story to tell and its tales are filled with intricate details waiting to be discovered.

Solving a homicide case, as I’ve said many times, is like assembling a puzzle. Clues and evidence are the irregularly-shaped pieces and the finished product. The picture on the box top is the identity—the face—of the killer. All the pieces are there, scattered about. It’s a detective’s skills, thought processes, creativity, and experience that brings them all together.

Using Music to Solve a Murder

As a musician who enjoyed music theory classes, studying about how music is made, I sometimes approached evidence in a murder case much like a composer uses chords to enrich and deepen a piece of music, only in reverse.

A chord is two or more notes played simultaneously. Chords are often designed to be played in harmony (a pleasing arrangement of simultaneously played notes). Discord occurs when one or more notes played doesn’t fit. It’s out of place and sounds harsh and unpleasant.

When determining which items were part of a case (true and necessary evidence), I first searched for the note(s) that were out of place … the discord. The pieces that didn’t fit the chord/puzzle. Those out of tune/disharmonious bits and pieces and non-clues were set aside, leaving only the things needed to advance the case. It’a a way to pave the way and avoid the waste of precious time examining things of little or no evidentiary value.

For example, here’s how it looks on paper.

Music scale

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and back to C

To make a natural chord the musician simultaneously plays the first, the third, and the fifth note of a scale. In this case, the scale above, the first, third, and fifth note of the C scale are C, E, and G. The result is a natural chord, a pleasing sound to the ear. The remaining notes, if played at the same time, would result in discord, or an unpleasant sound. They simply don’t belong.

The same is true when searching for items of evidentiary value—the Ds, Fs, and As were placed in the “later” file, with the Bs as a maybe. As the saying goes, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Eliminate unnecessary items, but always keep them in mind in case they may somehow fit into the puzzle at a later time. There’s music theory for this scenario, the added B note, but we’ll “tune” it out for now.

Dead Bodies

Writers’ Police Academy 2015 – CSI Lab Workshop

My life experiences differ from that of many writers. I’ve seen dead bodies mangled and torn apart by impact with fast-moving moving trains and automobiles. I’ve witnessed gruesome crimes scenes, places where reddish-brown coagulating and crusty blood and splotches of gray brain matter spattered living room walls like macabre floor-to-ceiling  abstract artwork.

Some murder scenes are messy. Others are not. Your tales are fictional so you can pick the type of scene that best suits your style and your audience. Gory is not for everyone. Nor is a clean scene where the villain does the deed simply by conking the victim over the head with Lee Child’s latest hardcover.

Slip and Slide

When blood and avulsed flesh and bits of brain and entrails first make contact with polished marble, tile, and even hardwood, those surfaces immediately become slimy and slippery like freshly waxed and still-wet floors. As a result, a killer could experience difficulty walking in a normal manner. Their footprints will reflect those awkward steps by the smearing and streaking left behind in the body fluids and other matter.

Bloody drag marks through rapidly coagulating blood are evidence a killer removed a heavy object by pulling it along the floor. The further from the kill site the thinner the trail becomes until it disappears entirely.


Swipes (Wipes)Caused by a bloody object being wiped across another surface (these stains are the reason from changing the name from bloodspatter to bloodstain).

When striking surfaces at an angle, blood spatter points to the position of both the victim and the murder weapon when the act was committed. Each droplet is practically a flashing neon sigh that says, “OVER THERE!”


Directionality – indicates the direction blood was moving at the time it struck a surface. The shape of the drops are good indicators of direction of travel.


Suicides can be extremely gruesome

I’ve seen suicide victims whose lives ended by shotgun blasts that absolutely disintegrated large portions of their faces and skulls. An eye here or there. Teeth over there. A chunk of bone and hair clinging and hanging to the ceiling by a wet and oozy and drippy stringlike spooze of slimy human something or other.

Suicide scenes are often eerie and depressing for cops. Writing about them could affect someone in the same manner. Use caution when doing so, especially if you’re drawing on real-life experiences about friends and/or loved ones.


Characteristics of a blood drop

  • blood drops are formed by gravity
  • blood drops cannot break apart unless contacted by an outside force
  • larger drops travel further than smaller drops (due to mass, not size)
  • blood drops always travel in an arcing path (impact injuries)
  • size ranges from a few millimeters to few centimeters
  • volume of a drop of blood is in direct proportion to whatever it’s dropping from (ax, stick, arm, leg, etc)

Crime scene investigators typically measure bloodstains that hit surfaces on the way up, not stains made by blood that’s on its way back down. Stains made when traveling upward are much more accurate for use as evidence because gravity is not as much of a factor in the pattern’s formation.


I’ve sat across a table or desk from murderers who told of the fear they experienced both before and after the slashing, cutting, stabbing, hacking, strangling, choking, chopping, bludgeoning, shooting, or beating they’d delivered to their victims. They told of a second of satisfaction they’d felt the moment their knife poked through the skin of their victim, feeling sort of like the popping-through of the clear covering of supermarket-packaged meats.

They explained the wait leading up to the time of the actual act. All the thoughts zipping through their minds. The anger and rage. The deep sadness. The overwhelming “knowing” they were about to kill another human.

Some told of a brief sense of relief after the deed was done. They explained that overall, for a brief split second, the feeling was that of relief, a heavy weight lifted from their shoulders and from deep inside their core.

Others spoke of tremendous remorse and grief, of self-pity and heartache. They worried about family, theirs and the victim’s.

Many were relieved that the killing was all said and done, something that was necessary.

A few simply didn’t care one way or another.

The thought of prison frightens many killers, especially those who’d ended someone’s life during “the heat of the moment,” with no forethought/premeditation.

A handful welcomed the idea of spending a few years in prison, no longer having to worry about the daily grind of day-to-day life and the responsibilities facing them on the outside. Many had served time in the past and knew the ins and outs. Life doesn’t mean much to those folks and it’s obvious. They’re callous and numb to emotion.

Unlike the uncaring murderer, your readers have emotions. It’s your job to stimulate those senses with images painted into the minds of your fans, using words generated from yours.

So make each and every letter count. It’s a responsibility that comes with the territory.


NEW!! Mystery Shoppers Corner

Since the holiday season is nearly here, I’ve decided to feature a few fun items for your mystery shopping needs and wants. Hopefully, I’ll post these regularly throughout the remaining weeks of 2018.

So, first up, for those of you who’re shopping for writer friends who enjoy a bit of spatter, especially at those mystery-type writing meetings …

Death is an entirely new chapter for our bodies. The final one, actually. And when it happens, either by natural causes, suicide, by accident, or at the hand of a murderer, the end result is always the same—our human forms immediately begin to decompose.

No matter how it happens, when death occurs, the body starts its downward spiral toward skeletonization, first by cooling until it reaches ambient temperature. Next is dehydration, followed by hypostasis/livor mortis/lividity (the gravity-pulled settling of blood at the lowest point within the skin capillaries and other tiny blood vessels—venules, and in the internal organs), rigor mortis, and then autolysis and putrefaction, and possibly mummification, adipocere formation, etc.

For the purpose of this article, and because they appear in many crime crime novels, we’ll explore the two processes of decomposition—autolysis and putrefaction.

Autolysis

Autolysis should be easy to remember for mystery, thriller, suspense, and especially true crime writers. How so? The process can be, in a macabre sort of way, compared to the horrors that took place inside Apartment 213, the residence occupied by a man named Jeffery Dahmer.

With Dahmer in mind, the role of autolysis in decomposition becomes clear. The serial killer from Milwaukee murdered and butchered several victims, keeping some body parts as souvenirs while dissolving others portions in acid. He also pulverized some bone into dust. Included in his ghoulish activities was cannibalism. Yes, he consumed portions of the men he killed and dismembered. The loosely used connection between Dahmer and autolysis is his taste for human flesh, the cannibalism. Yes, our bodies eat their own, sort of.

When death occurs, the body begins its downward spiral toward skeletonization, first by cooling until it reaches ambient temperature. Next is dehydration, followed by hypostasis/livor mortis/lividity (the gravity-pulled settling of blood at the lowest point within the skin capillaries and venules, and in the internal organs), rigor mortis, and then autolysis and putrefaction, or mummification and so on.

Enzymes inside our body’s cells begin digesting their own cells (self-digestion), a sort of reverse Filial cannibalism. This is the process known as autolysis.

Autolysis is affected by the environment. Heat, humidity, surrounding soil and water and even air current (winds) are all factors in the process of decomposition. Autolytic processes are deterred by the cold. In fact, body organs each suffer different rates of autolysis when exposed to low temperatures. Such is the case after death when a body is stored in a refrigerated morgue cold room.

For example, lungs begin to show signs of disintegration at 36 hours after death while stored in the morgue. At 60 hours, the tiny air sacs (alveoli) are demarcated by rows of red blood cells (erythrocytes).

FYI – red blood cells do not contain DNA

 

At 48 hours, in the cold room, myocardial (heart) fibers begin to show a bit of space/separation. Cells within the heart are no longer as well-defined and their exteriors look a little serrate.

Putrefaction

Putrefaction is decomposition caused by the microorganisms, such as bacteria, that live inside our bodies.

After the first 36 hours or so, the neck, abdomen, shoulders and the head area begin to turn a greenish color. Next to show up is bloating that’s caused the gas produced by bacteria munching away at the body of the victim. Bloating is most visible around the face.

The eyes and tongue begin to protrude as the gases inside push them forward. The skin blisters and peels away (slippage), and hair falls out.

Skin on the hands and feet sometimes slip off, creating grotesque human gloves and socks.

Red blood cells break down causing an effect known as marbling. These “marbled” patterns are quite visible on the face, abdomen, chest and arms and legs.

The body turns greenish-black and fluids begin to seep outward through the mouth, nose, and other natural openings. Cracks in the skin have formed by now and also leak the foul soup.

Grave Wax

Adipocere (aka grave wax), a white-ish, gray waxy substance—adipocere —forms on the face and extremities. After a while, its color changes to a yellow or tannish color. Typically, adipocere takes about three months to develop.

As with autolysis, putrefaction is accelerated by heat and slowed by cool.