In the grand scheme of murder, knives and guns pale in comparison to the instruments death that are nearly invisible to the human eye.

Long before man shaped the first stone into a weapon, viruses and bacteria quietly killed humans and animals, paying no attention to high they struck down. These tiny but deadly organisms are capable of shutting down the body’s entire operating system, and they can and often do destroy every single organ in the body.

A terrorist attack involving deadly viruses and bacteria is a threat that looms over the heads of government officials. After all, a single, minute particle of either anthrax, botulism, tularemia, bubonic plague, ricin, ebola, and hantavirus, for example, can be easily cultured and multiplied many times over. And, this process can be performed in any home in the country with minimal time, training, and equipment.

How easy? Well, a potential terrorist could simply order a starter bug from a laboratory supply company (a reference lab), much like a reader orders a book from Amazon. The bug is shipped to the buyer as a freeze-dried sample in the regular U.S. mail, or with any of the other popular shipping companies.

New Picture (2)

Growth of anthrax on plate containing sheep blood agar – Dept. of Labor image

Of course, reference lab customers must have proper credentials to place an order for anthrax. However, packages could easily be intercepted by people with ill-intentions against the U.S. and its citizens. After all, how difficult would it be for a potential terrorist to gain employment in the biotech industry (new drug discovery)? This is a field that’s comprised of scientists from across the globe, experts who work with these bugs on a daily basis and sometimes with very little accountability, if any, in some instances.

Many of these science-folks come to the U.S. from other countries and would be virtually undetectable as terrorists until it was too late. And, if all else failed for the terrorist, they could find the bacteria in its natural environment, readily growing on dead plant material and/or in fresh water or rainwater.

Anthrax is caused by a spore-forming bacteria, Bacillus anthracis.

Anthrax lesion on the neck – CDC image

Humans can become infected through skin contact, ingestion or inhalation of spores from infected animals or animal products. Anthrax can be delivered as a powder, such as in the cases of the letters mailed to U.S. officials. However, a better, more deadly method of delivery would be in aerosol form. Once the bacteria are inhaled, the disease progresses so rapidly that, once the symptoms began to appear, it would most likely be too late to prevent the victim’s death.

Symptoms of anthrax contamination

Symptoms of anthrax contamination include, skin infections, fever, chills, fluid in the lungs, difficulty breathing, nausea, weight loss, fever, diarrhea, and abdominal bleeding. Contrary to the belief of some people, inhaled anthrax contamination is not contagious. It cannot be passed from one person to another.

Anthrax lesion on the forearm – CDC image

Anthrax study requires that the work be conducted in a Biosafety Level 2 laboratory (BSL 2 labs are required to have waste contamination equipment on hand). However, if the study is to be performed on anthrax in aerosol form, a BSL 3 lab is required (BSL 3 labs require testing in enclosed equipment with high-tech ventilation systems. Access is limited to only those working on current experiments).

A 2008 anthrax investigation involving aggressive interview tactics by law enforcement investigators led to a bit of public protest. Former FBI agent and behavioral scientist Clint Van Zandt and I were featured on NPR’s Talk of the Nation to discuss those tactics.

You may remember Agent Van Zandt from his involvement in high-profile cases, such as Waco/David Koresh, Timothy McVeigh, and The Unabomber. And, well, you know me …

*Above images – CDC.gov

Regarding DNA and saliva, I’d like to note that it is indeed possible to expel DNA when coughing or sneezing. However, the fact that it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s always found, just that it could be. And, if found, it could be the DNA of someone other than than a suspect or victim, such as cop or lab scientist who was involved in the collection or testing of the evidence. Here’s why …

First, in the lab, to tell the difference between saliva and sputum, scientists look for epithelial cells. These cells have a nucleus, and within a nucleus DNA is found. Saliva is almost always present in the mouth, especially when we are awake. When we sneeze saliva and the DNA contained within is expelled.

FYI – Lab scientist/techs scan collected sputum samples for the presence or absence of white blood cells. White blood cells, not red, indicate infection. The presence of epithelial cells from saliva indicates the sample is contaminated with saliva, which would result in improper test results. Sputum is tested for respiratory tract infections. 

By the way, red blood cells (erythrocytes) have/contain no nucleus nor do they contain mitochondria. Therefore, red blood cells do not contain DNA because there’s no nucleus in the cells.

Those of you who attended the WPA when world-renowned DNA expert Dr. Dan Krane presented a fantastic session on DNA evidence, may remember when he mentioned how DNA evidence is sometimes contaminated, such as using fingerprint brushes or gloves from one scene to process evidence in an entirely different location. DNA could be transferred using those items. He also pointed out instances where coughing or sneezing could distribute DNA to the surface of an item being processed. (Dr. Krane is a former colleague of my wife, Denene)

On with DNA and Sneezing

As an example of evidence contamination via sneezing, when discussing the Jon Benet Ramsey case, Dr. Krane says, “The DNA in tests could be there because of a contact that was weeks, months, even years before the crime occurred. It’s not possible to make inferences about the tissue source here. We can’t say that it came from semen or saliva or blood or anything. What if one of the medical examiners sneezed on one of these articles of clothing and it came into contact with the other one? There are just so many possibilities.”

Additionally, from another source, “It is extremely easy to contaminate biological samples; this can occur by failing to change gloves or clean instruments properly, failing to wipe down benches properly between testing, or by sneezing or even talking over a sample (Buckleton et al 2005:277).”

And, from the National Institute of Justice:

Contamination

Because extremely small samples of DNA can be used as evidence, greater attention to contamination issues is necessary when identifying, collecting, and preserving DNA evidence. DNA evidence can be contaminated when DNA from another source gets mixed with DNA relevant to the case. This can happen when someone sneezes or coughs over the evidence or touches his/her mouth, nose, or other part of the face and then touches the area that may contain the DNA to be tested.

To avoid contamination of evidence that may contain DNA, always take the following precautions:

  • Wear gloves. Change them often.
  • Use disposable instruments or clean them thoroughly before and after handling each sample.
  • Avoid touching the area where you believe DNA may exist.
  • Avoid talking, sneezing, and coughing over evidence.
  • Avoid touching your face, nose, and mouth when collecting and packaging evidence.
  • Air-dry evidence thoroughly before packaging.
  • Put evidence into new paper bags or envelopes, not into plastic bags. Do not use staples.

From the U.S. National Library of Medicine/National Institute of Heath/The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI):

4.2. Contamination

For DNA studies, one of the greatest laboratory barriers is the contamination of genetic material from other sources (e.g., from the examiner and other biological evidence). Contamination may occur during the sexual contact (e.g., if there is more than one perpetrator), during the period between the sexual contact and the FME, during the FME, and in the laboratory. In order to avoid it, examiners should take special precautions to prevent cross-contamination between evidences. For this purpose, it is important:

  1. to work under aseptic conditions to avoid microbial contamination;
  2. to always use disposable supplies to ensure individual protection (e.g., gowns, powder-free gloves, mask, or other protective clothing) and to avoid direct contact with the samples;
  3. to ensure that the room where FME takes place is regularly cleaned before and after patient use;
  4. to avoid sneezing, coughing, or talking over the samples;

Dr. Krane is one of the world’s foremost DNA experts, testifying worldwide as an expert witness in well over 100 criminal trials, in which DNA evidence was presented, such as the Jon Benet Ramsey case. He’s been involved as a top expert in other high-profile cases such as the DC Snipers, OJ Simpson case, and the infamous Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton “blue dress,” to name only a few. Dan also developed software that’s used in genetic analyzers, the devices used by scientists who conduct DNA tests.

My other source, in addition to our good friend Dr. Dan Krane, is, of course, my resident renowned expert, Dr. Denene Lofland.

Denene received a Ph.D. in Pathology, with an emphasis in microbiology, from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. As a former biotech company director, Denene managed successful clinical projects that resulted in regulatory filings of four compounds and FDA approval for two new antimicrobial drugs for the treatment of pneumonia and cystic fibrosis. The drugs are currently on the market.

Denene supervised several projects, including government-sponsored research which required her to maintain a secret security clearance. Her areas of expertise include medical microbiology, bioterrorism, and new drug discovery development. She has published numerous articles in a variety of peer reviewed scientific journals, contributed to the thirteenth edition of Bailey and Scott’s Diagnostic Microbiology, a textbook standard used in colleges and universities, published an article about anthrax in Police One magazine, and she has an upcoming tale in the Writers’ Police Academy’s anthology, After Midnight, Tales From the Graveyard Shift (edited by Phoef Sutton with foreword by Lee Child) ~ Level Best Books, publisher

Currently, Denene is an Associate Professor of Medical and Molecular Sciences at the University of Delaware. She also taught medical microbiology to medical students at a medical college in California. In her early days, prior to becoming a mad scientist, she managed the lab in a large, major hospital.

Over the years, I was fortunate to have the experience of witnessing Denene and her teams, and Dr. Krane’s team, perform numerous DNA testings using both gel electrophoresis and DNA Sequencers/Genetic Analyzers. I was once treated to conducting a test of my own in one of Dr. Dan Krane’s labs, an entire DNA test from extraction of sample to final result. I ran the test on the DNA of a strawberry, but hey, the process is the same as when using human samples. The strawberry was innocent, by the way.

Again, the fact that DNA is present in saliva, it doesn’t mean DNA is always found when someone sneezes or coughs, or talks over evidence (it’s even been found in traces of saliva found on a public phone receiver), just that it’s possible and that it does occur.


DNA Testing: The Process

The first step in the testing process is to extract DNA from the evidence sample. To do so, the scientist adds chemicals to the sample, a process that ruptures cells. When the cells open up DNA is released and is ready for examination.

extract-dna.jpg

DNA is actually visible to the naked eye. The slimy glob in the center of the circle below is DNA.

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DNA is tested in devices like the one below. They’re called genetic analyzers. This particular device is located in one of Dr. Dan Krane’s laboratories.

new-picture-1.jpg

DNA is loaded into wells inside the genetic analyzer. There are 96 wells in the gray, rectangular block shown below (inside the analyzer).

new-picture-2.jpg

An electric current separates the DNA, sending it from the wells through narrow straw-like tubes called capillaries. During its journey through the analyzer, DNA passes by a laser. The laser causes the DNA loci (a gene’s position on a chromosome) to fluoresce as they pass by, which allows a tiny camera to capture their images.

The image below shows DNA’s path through the genetic analyzer (wells are on the left; capillaries are the arcing lines leading to laser and camera on the right).

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Capillaries

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Doctor Stephanie Smith points to the row of eight capillaries, one for each well in the corresponding line of wells (12 rows of 8 wells).

At the end of the testing, the equipment produces a graph/chart called an electropherogram.

Peaks on the graph depict the amount of DNA strands at each location. It is this unique pattern of peaks and valleys that scientist use to match or exclude suspects.

Or, in the case of paternity testing, to include or exclude someone as a parent.

The image below is an electropheragram showing the DNA of a strawberry.

new-picture-8.jpg

Electropheragams are printed and it is this document that’s examined by experts for use in the ID/comparisons of sample contributors, such as suspects and victims.

Remember above when we discusses sneezing, coughing, and/or talking over DNA evidence? Well, here’s a DNA test result (electropheragram) of a contaminated sample, a mixture of DNA found on the body of a rape victim. The evidence was contaminated to the point that it was impossible to tell/prove whether or not Contributors 1 or 2 were involved in the assault. Notice that the peaks in the mixture do not quite match either suspect’s DNA.

Electropheragram showing tested DNA of two subjects, and a mixture of DNA collected from a victim. Results showing a mixture make it difficult to point to any one suspect, or if someone other than the suspect and victim contaminated the sample.

The image below shows a clear match between the DNA of the victim and suspect. The suspect was clearly in contact, in some way, with the victim.

 

DNA Facts:

Identical twins have identical DNA.

Humans are genetically 99.9% identical. Only 0.1% of our genetic makeup is different.

It takes about eight hours for one cell to copy its own DNA.

Red blood cells do not contain DNA.

DNA is used to determine pedigree in livestock.

DNA is used to authenticate wine and caviar.

Detergent and Alcohol will not destroy DNA.

DNA can be transferred from article of clothing to another, even in a washing machine. This is called secondary and tertiary transfer.

DNA testing is not 100% accurate.

*My thanks to Dr. Stephanie Smith and Dr. Dan Krane for allowing me to hang out in their labs to take the above photos.

*Thanks, too, to the good folks at crimescenewriter for the idea for this post. 


Have you reserved your spot at MurderCon? If not, there’s still time to do. Sign up today to attend this rare hands-on training event!

In the meantime, here’s a peek at the 2019 MurderCon instructors and speakers. The lineup is stellar!

MurderCon Instructors

3D-printed guns, firearms made from plastic, using 3D printers, can be fashioned in such a manner that they’re undetectable by typical metal detecting technology. Obviously, such guns pose a serious threat to law enforcement’s ability to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of criminals.

Some people who make these firearms include the proper metal parts to meet federally mandated requirements. They do so to comply with a federal ban on weapons that aren’t revealed by metal detectors.

Unfortunately, there are many people out there who bypass federal laws and produce 3D guns that will certainly be used to commit crimes. This is especially so for people who are unable to purchase firearms legally.

This type of weapon, the guns that can potentially go undetected by metal detectors, could be carried into high security areas, causing a nightmare scenario for travel security personnel, such as TSA, courtrooms, jails, etc.

The nightmare continues for investigators who’re working to solve homicide cases, robberies, assaults with deadly weapons. I say this because the 3D-printed, plastic firearms bear no traceable serial numbers. And, yes, plastic bullets are available for use in these guns.

I believe it was sometime in 2013 when blueprints for 3D firearms began to appear on the internet. The first 3D gun was named the “Liberator,” and blueprints for it were posted online. Within  a period of just two days, those plans were downloaded over 100,000 times.

The U.S. State Department soon contacted the gun-smithing group responsible for posting the plans, Defense Distributed Company, to request that they remove the blueprints from the internet. The company complied, however, the information was out and  was still made available through pirate-type sites.

For example, Ivan the Troll, the informal spokesman of an underground group of 3D-printing gunsmiths, told Jake Hanrahan of the website WIRED, that “he knows of at least 100 people who are actively developing 3D-printed gun technology, and he claims there are thousands taking part in the network. This loose-knit community spans across the whole world.”(Quote from a  Wired article titled 3D-printed guns are back, and this time they are unstoppable).

Ivan has recorded and posted online several videos showing how to make/print/assemble these illegal 3D firearms. However, YouTube, Facebook, and other social media sites remove them practically as fast as they go live. Still, sites still exist where those videos may be viewed, and they show and explain precisely how to make an illegal 3D printed firearm. For obvious reasons, I choose to not post the links. But they’re easy to locate. These “how-to” videos make it extremely easy for criminals to make their own untraceable firearms.

Fortunately, reputable companies and top scientists have evaluated the differences between 3D-printed guns and conventional firearms and then used a technique of analytical mass spectrometry to identify the various types polymers found in 3D-printed gun evidence.

Next, they created a reference library/database of the various polymer samples for future comparison of polymer samples found at crime scenes to found 3D firearms and to other locations where they polymer traces may be located. They could possibly be traced back to the source of fabrication.

A new technique, direct analysis in real time (DART), is available to detect and identify a large number of compounds found in Gun Shot Residue (GSR). DRT uses mass spectrometry to conduct analysis in real time. The process detects and identifies traces of polymer and GSR compounds on the bullets, casings, and in the GSR collected from the clothing of victims and suspects.

In short, in addition to investigators collecting and testing the usual GSR found at crime scenes, on a victim’s body and clothing, and on the clothing and hands of suspected shooters, CSIs and detectives should also search for material such as the polymers of various types and colors—ABS, PLA, PETG, and CPE.

Homemade firing pins are not the standard type and/or material found in traditional firearms. Those made in a basement workshop range from drill bit blanks of machined 1/800 steel, to the shafts of roofing nails. The machining of firing pins can easily be accomplished using using a simple Dremel tool purchased from a neighborhood hardware or big box store, or from online outlets such as Amazon, Walmart, Target, etc.

ATF Q&A Regarding 3D Printed Guns

Is a firearm illegal if it is made of plastic?

It is unlawful for any person to produce a firearm as proscribed in 18 U.S.C. 922(p).

“It shall be unlawful for any person to manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive any firearm—

(A) that, after removal of grips, stocks, and magazines, is not as detectable as the Security Exemplar, by walk-through metal detectors calibrated and operated to detect the Security Exemplar; or

(B) any major component of which, when subjected to inspection by the types of x-ray machines commonly used at airports, does not generate an image that accurately depicts the shape of the component. Barium sulfate or other compounds may be used in the fabrication of the component.”

What does “any other weapon” mean?

The term “any other weapon” means any weapon or device capable of being concealed on the person from which a shot can be discharged through the energy of an explosive, a pistol or revolver having a barrel with a smooth bore designed or redesigned to fire a fixed shotgun shell, weapons with combination shotgun and rifle barrels 12 inches or more, less than 18 inches in length, from which only a single discharge can be made from either barrel without manual reloading, and shall include any such weapon which may be readily restored to fire. Such term shall not include a pistol or a revolver having a rifled bore, or rifled bores, or weapons designed, made, or intended to be fired from the shoulder and not capable of firing fixed ammunition.

If an individual makes an item that falls into the “any other weapon” category, is that individual required to register the item?

Yes, an “any other weapon” category is an NFA classification which requires an individual to register the item with ATF.

How does one apply for a license?

The applicant must submit ATF Form 7(5310.12)/7CR(5310.16), Application for Federal Firearms License, with the appropriate fee, in accordance with the instructions on the form to ATF.  This form is for all FFL types, including type 03 Collector of Curios and Relics.  An application packet may be obtained by contacting the ATF Distribution Center.  If you have more than 1 Responsible Person (RP), you must also submit a Supplement to ATF Form 7/7CR, for each additional RP.

Can an individual now manufacture these firearms and sell them?

Any person “engaged in the business” as a manufacturer must obtain a license from ATF.

The term “engaged in the business” means— (A) as applied to a manufacturer of firearms, a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to manufacturing firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the sale or distribution of the firearms manufactured.

What is ATF doing to make sure this technology is monitored so it is not used illegally?

ATF makes every effort to keep abreast of novel firearms technology and firearms trafficking schemes.

What is ATF doing in regards to people making their own firearms?

An individual may generally make a firearm for personal use. However, individuals engaged in the business of manufacturing firearms for sale or distribution must be licensed by ATF. Additionally, there are certain restrictions on the making of firearms subject to the National Firearms Act.

What say does ATF have in the technology used to produce firearms?

ATF enforces Federal firearms laws and, currently, these laws do not limit the technology or processes that may be used to produce firearms. However, ATF enforces existing statutes and investigates any cases in which technological advances allow individuals to avoid complying with these laws.

Is ATF aware of the new 3-D printing technology producing firearms?

Yes. ATF routinely collaborates with the firearms industry and law enforcement to monitor new technologies and current manufacturing trends that could potentially impact the safety of the public.

(Above Q&A from atf.gov)

*Note: It is NOT legal for felons or somebody otherwise prohibited from possessing firearms, or  to build their own guns from any material.

*Featured image – FBI.gov

 

Okay, you’re at your desks with hands poised above the keyboard. Thoughts of murder, chaos, and of your 100th six-figure book deal churn inside your head like the winds of an F-5 twister that’s just touched down in a midwestern mobile home park. This. Is. Your Best. Story. And it is exciting.

Now it’s time for the call to action. The time when it’s your job duty to coax, draw, persuade, and perhaps even drag readers throughout the hero’s journey until they reach the final page of your book.

Along the way, of course, you’ll concoct dangers and thrills, twists and turns, and risks far more convoluted and sometimes more perilous than those undertaken by the average human. Readers do sometimes enjoy the fantasy of living life through the eyes of fictional characters, right? After all, being Jack Reacher or Kay Scarpetta for a few hours could be fun and thrilling.

So off you go, clacking away at the keyboard, transforming the tale you’ve spent months creating a saga, either on paper for you plotters or stored in your mind for those of you who’re pansters, that’ll sit on the top shelf in bookstores all around the world.

In your mind you picture the blurbs and promo ads sent out by your publisher and publicists. Each of them promise your fans “It’s THE book of a lifetime.” “A book you can’t put down until the final page is turned.” “Lock your doors before reading this thrilling ride into the unknown!”

“The crime of the century.”

“It’s THE PERFECT MURDER!”

Dr. Edmond Locard’s Exchange Principle

Creating a murder based upon terminological inexactitude, one that’s committed by a pretend villain in a make-believe world, a crime that’s to be solved by a fictional hero, can be a daunting task for many writers. This is especially so when the writer is clue-challenged when it comes to first-hand knowledge of actual death scenes. But help is on the way and it comes in the form of your imaginations, along with a little help from Dr. Edmond Locard.

So, whether you’re a panster or a plotter, my advice to you, the writer of twisted tales, is to carefully consider Dr. Edmond Locard’s Exchange Principle (see below) before writing the first word. Doing so could elevate your stories to levels you never thought were possible to achieve.

I know, you’ve done quite well in the past, but readers are changing. Their knowledge of forensics and police investigations is growing with each passing day and with each new TV show featuring brilliant experts who really know their stuff. And those folks don’t hesitate to share their expertise with an eager viewing audience, an audience who’ll later pick up a book to read for enjoyment only to find that the author doesn’t know the difference between cordite and kryptonite.

Getting “IT” Right

As a former police investigator, I’m often asked what I think would be the perfect murder and my response is typically quick and always the same … “there’s no such thing as a perfect murder.”

I say this because I’m a firm believer in Dr. Locard’s Exchange Principle, a theory stating that always, without fail, when two objects come into contact with one another, each of those objects will take something from the other or leave something behind. According to Locard, “It is impossible for a criminal to act, especially considering the intensity of a crime, without leaving traces of this presence.”

Locard’s Principle was on my mind throughout every case I investigated. It helped me to maintain my focus on the tiniest of details so that nothing went overlooked, not even the smallest of fibers.

Therefore, writers must, and I emphasize the word MUST, consider keeping this simple rule of thumb in mind when creating crime scenes and scenes of crimes, IF you’re going for realism. You do know there’s a difference between a crime scene and a scene of a crime, right?

Crime Scenes

Crime scene and scene of the crime are not synonymous. A crime scene is anywhere evidence of a crime is found (a dumpster where a killer dumped the murder weapon, the killer’s home where he deposited his bloody clothes, where the body was found, etc.). Scene of the crime is the location where the actual crime took place (where the killer actually murdered his victim).

 

Crafting the Perfect Murder

We’ve all heard about the killer who stabs someone with an icicle, a murder weapon that melts, thus leaving no trace evidence. Well, this is far from the truth since the killer had to approach the victim and he/she had to leave the scene. Therefore, he either left something behind or he took something with him (soil on the shoes, DNA, etc.).

There is trace evidence of some sort everywhere in every crime scene—footprints, DNA, fibers, blood, etc. The weak link in a case would be, unfortunately, the detective who doesn’t dig deep enough or long enough or hard enough to find the evidence. This is true in all cases. The evidence is ALWAYS there, somewhere, begging to be found. It’s up to the savvy detective to locate it.

Disposing of bodies in clandestine grave sites are a fantastic means to hide a big piece of evidence … the body. Still, the killer was at the scene of the crime, therefore he left evidence. He had to move the body to the burial site. More traces of evidence—footprints, toll receipts and images captured by cameras at toll booths, gas purchases, purchases of burial equipment, and on and on and on. And then there’s the hound dog who drags a human femur to his owner’s back doorstep. He, the killer had to arrive at and leave the scene. Again, the evidence is there for the taking—tire tracks, footprints, a leaf or mud stuck to the soles of his shoes, etc. The list is practically endless.

The Almost Perfect Crime

Embalming fluid

What if a killer committed the murder in a funeral home embalming room, a place that sees hundreds of dead bodies pass through its doors. It’s a place where death “evidence” is routinely and efficiently scrubbed away.

Think about it for a moment. A funeral home where tons of body fluids and DNA have the potential of co-mingling and are routinely cleaned away using chemicals that can and do eliminate the typical clues searched for by investigators.

Yep, blood, saliva, nitrous and other fluids are scrubbed from the room, and all other physical evidence (breaks in bones, gun shot and stab wounds, etc, are totally destroyed during cremation. It’s the perfect It’s the perfect spot for the perfect crime, right?

Well, not so fast. Remember Locard, “when two objects come into contact with one another, each of those objects will take something from the other or leave something behind.” The victim had to arrive at the funeral, therefore evidence of the trip there would generate some sort of evidence trail. However slight it may be, it’s there.

Still, an inexperienced investigator could miss the clues in a funeral home setting.

To make it even more difficult for the detective, there’s this …

Cremation: The Process

Coffin materials are generally selected so as to minimize pollution generated when cremation takes place. Non-combustable coffin do-dads are removed (handles, knobs, hinges, etc.). PVC, heavy metals, solvent-based paints and other toxic resins are also removed or not at all used.

Cremation containers should be completely enclosed, rigid, leak resistant, and definitely combustible. They may be made of cardboard or particle board, wooden, or even a those nice and shiny, highly polished caskets, as long as they’re combustible and non-toxic. Metal caskets cannot be cremated.

Implants of any types which contain power sources are removed from the remains. Also removed are prostheses, jewelry, and non-combustible parts of clothing.

Cremation takes anywhere from 30 minutes in the case of the very small, to over two hours. The human body contains between 65% and 85% water by weight, so a temperature high enough to facilitate the combustion process—up to 2,000 degrees F is where the cremation process typically occurs.

Not for the Squeamish!!

Combustion in the cremator occurs in two steps

  • The primary combustion in the main chamber. It’s here where tissue, organs, body fat, ligaments, tendons, and the casket itself burn off as gases.
  • The secondary chamber, where they continue to undergo combustion (bone fragments remain in the primary chamber). Inorganic particles, usually from the cremation container, settle on the floor of the secondary chamber.  The gases formed as a by-product of combustion—carbon dioxide, water, oxygen, etc.—discharge into the sky through a stack.

When complete, funeral home employees (or the villain of your story) sweep the remains into a tray where they’ll sit to cool. This step is similar to when grandma baked a pie and then allowed it to cool on the sill of an open window before slicing it into individual serving sizes.

Once sufficiently cool, the employee, or bad guy, sifts through the ashes to remove bit of metal, if any (evidence). Any bone fragments are pulverized until all until the remains are less than 1/8” in size.

The cremated and squashed remains are then transferred to a plastic bag and placed in an urn. Or, if this step involves a murderer, the remains would most likely wind up scattered in a field down by Old Man Kelsey’s creek.

The “Other” Cremation: Human Soup

Alkaline hydrolysis, AKA “water, or green cremation”, is a water-based dissolution process that uses alkaline chemicals, heat and pressure and agitation to speed up natural decomposition. Once complete, all that’s left behind is bone residue and a liquid … human soup. This “human broth” is, believe it or not, considered sterile and is simply discharged with into local sewer system and is then treated as any other wastewater product (the stuff that goes down the drains of your home).

Leftover bone material is then pulverized and placed into an urn. Since there is more leftover bone material than with cremation by fire, these remains require a larger urn. And, by the way, due to the larger amount of “leftovers,” it would be more difficult for the villain of your story, someone who most likely works in a funeral home setting, to hide the remains created by this method of cremation.

Still, these methods of hiding and/or destroying evidence are far more effective than merely shooting Bill Imdead and then leaving his corpse on the living room floor to be found by cleaning company workers.

The perfect murder? No, but pretty darn close.


*Someone who committed a murder inside a crematorium and then hastily shoved the body into the cremation chamber, and then fled the scene leaving the body to reduce to ashes, would leave behind a mound of clues—bone, teeth, jewelry, implants complete with serial numbers, etc. Sure, the body would be gone, but it would still speak to investigators … if they took time to listen.

Due to an unexpected and top secret assignment/situation, I am out of the office today. Therefore, this is a previously-posted article re-published from an island, using my phone as a wi-fi hot spot, while seated in the front seat of my vehicle (how’s that for a mystery?). Please enjoy … again, and I’ve added a chance to win a free limited edition Writers’ Police Academy collectible patch. Details at the end of the article. Now, off go …

According to the CDC (Centers of Disease Control), tularemia (Rabbit fever) is one of the six most concerning bioterrorism agents. Others include, anthrax, viral hemorrhagic fever, botulism, smallpox, and plague.

During WWII, the Soviet army stockpiled quantities of vials of Francisella tularensis.

Francisella tularensis, the organism that causes tularemia is one of the world’s most infectious pathogens.

Some believe the Soviets released tularemia on German soldiers in order to kill or weaken them prior to the Battle of Stalingrad. Others, however, believe the tularemia outbreak was caused by rats (carriers of the disease). Either way, an outbreak of tularemia could/would be devastating and it’s likely that the Russians, and possibly other countries, still stockpile it for use against their enemies. Even the U.S. explored using it during WWII.

A mere 110 pounds of F. tularensis dispersed over a city of 5 million residents would cause about 250,000 cases of severe illness, and 19,000 deaths ~ World Health Organization (WHO)

Fortunately, scientists have discovered a means of controlling the virulence of Francisella tularensis. They do so by using a technique called x-ray crystallography. The process produces atomic-level three-dimensional structures of targeted proteins. Two of those proteins, MglA and SspA, join together and, without going into a lot of complicated detail, subsequently stabilize a specific area of the F. tularensis genome that pathogenicity controls virulence. In other words, it stops the outbreak proactively with antivirulence drugs rather than attempting to kill it with antibiotics after an outbreak has occurred.

Anyway, so how does tularemia fit into a writer’s world? Well, lets see …

“Don’t be silly, Watson. A rabbit couldn’t be the murderer. No hands and, well, no motive. So release it from custody, immediately! However, the murder weapon was indeed a cute and quite fluffy, little bunny.”

“Don’t be silly. Of course she didn’t bludgeon the man to death with the animal.”

“No more speculation, please. Here’s how she did it …”

Murder by Bunny: Drop the Rabbit and Show Me Your Hands!

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, but, 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 the feces of wild animals—particularly feral rabbits. 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.

killer bunny

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.

As mentioned above, 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 can 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 careful when hunting wabbits, especially sick bunnies …


By the way, I am here (on an undisclosed island on a secret mission). Where am I? The first person who correctly guesses my location wins a free limited edition Writers’ Police Academy collectible patch.

I am here … Will you be today’s patch winner?

A Murder.

No known suspect.

Evidence collection.

Let’s run down our checklist to be certain we’ve gathered everything because, as you all know, the crime-solving clock is ticking nonstop and valuable time is slipping away, and so is the killer.

Let’s see, we’ve got fibers, bullet casings, fingerprints, weapon, clothing, glass fragments, shoes, shoe and tire impressions, photographed everything, and … “Hey, somebody catch that mosquito. We need to take it in for questioning. It may know something.”

CSI Frank the Fingerprint Guy rushes out to the official CSI van to grab the Handy-Dandy Mosquito-Catching Net 700 (the model one-up from the 600 series) and sets out on the mission of snagging the elusive biting bug.

It’s on the ceiling. Now the wall by the light switch. Back on the ceiling, on the curtains, the window, the blinds, the ceiling again, and now … Got It!

Frank the Fingerprint Guy gently transfers the bloodsucker into a container that’s safe for transport and then off they go to the lab to see what this little guy can tell them about the crime of murder. Who knows, the insect may even be able to provide the name of the murderer.

That’s right, mosquitos are indeed able to spill the beans about a criminal’s identity, and here’s how.

First, what is it that so many jurors like to hear about? Yep, DNA.

You can talk until you’re blue in the face about all the fancy footwork and door-knocking and interviews and bullet trajectory, and more, but that’s not what makes jurors salivate like they do when they hear you found the suspect’s DNA at the crime scene. That’s the golden goose. The bestest prize what there ever was. DNA. DNA. DNA. Give ’em D-freakin’-N-A!

And what is that mosquitos enjoy more than buzzing around the ears of evening picnickers? Yes, feeding on human blood! And what’s found in human blood? Yes, DNA! Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner!

Scientists have learned that blood extracted from mosquitoes remains viable for DNA analysis up to two days after feeding. Therefore, a savvy crime scene investigator could save the day by simply catching mosquitos found flitting about at crime scenes.

A quick DNA test of the blood found in the belly of the bug could quite easily reveal the name of the killer (if his information is in the system), and how cool would it be to bring in Mr. I. Done Kiltem and notice he has a fresh mosquito bite on his cheek? I know, right?

At the very least, the DNA test could tell police who was at the crime scene. Might not be the killer’s blood in the bug’s belly, but it could be that of an accomplice or witness or someone who could help establish a timeline. Either way, Bug Belly Blood could prove to be a bit of extremely valuable evidence.

Imagine the headline …

Bandit Bagged By Bug Belly Blood

Unfortunately, the window for DNA testing of blood in a mosquito’s gut is limited to two days because the blood is completely digested by day three.

 

 

“Hey, Sarge,” said Officer Trevor “Curly” Barnes. “Would you do me a favor and see if you can get a clear set of prints from this guy? I’ve tried three times and all I get are smudges. I must be out of practice, or something.”

“You rookies are all alike,” said Sgt. DooRight. “Always wanting somebody to do the dirty work for you.”

“But—”

DooRight dropped a fat ballpoint pen on a mound of open file folders. “But nothing. All you ‘boots’ want to do is bust up fights and harass the whores.” He pushed his lopsided rolling chair away from his desk and placed a bear-paw-size hand on each knee. “Well, paperwork and processing both come with the job.”

“I’m serious, Sarge. I can’t get a good print. I think the guy’s messing with me, or something.”

DooRight sighed and rolled his eyes, his trademark “I don’t want to but will” expression. “All right. Go finish up the paperwork and I’ll take care of the prints and mugshots.” The sergeant pointed a meaty finger at the young officer. “But hurry up and get your ass back down to booking. I get off in thirty minutes and I’ve got plans.”

“That’s right, it’s Thursday night, huh?”

“Yep, Bingo night. And me and the little woman never miss. So, if you ever hope to see a day shift assignment you’d better be back here in ten minutes to take this slimeball off my hands.”

Twenty minutes later, Sergeant DooRight was on the phone to Captain Miller, the shift commander. “That’s right, Captain. The guy doesn’t have any prints. Not a single ridge, whorl … nothing.”

A pause while DooRight listens. Officer Barnes leaned toward his boss, trying to hear the conversation. DooRight waved him away. “No, sir. Not even a freckle,” he said to the captain.

Another pause.

“Nope, not on any finger.” DooRight leaned back in his chair. “All as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Beats everything I’ve ever seen.”

More listening.

“Yes, sir. I checked his toes, too. Nothing there either. Slick as a freshly waxed floor.”

Sergeant DooRight opened a pouch of Redman chew and dug out a golfball-size hunk of shredded black tobacco leaves.

“Nope. Best I can tell he’s not from around here. Says he’s from Sweden and he claims his whole family’s like that. According to him not a one of them has any prints, and I can’t imagine the FBI will accept a card with nothing but black ink smudges. He said his family has a condition called adermatoglyphia. You ever heard of it”

A beat of silence.

“Me either, Captain.”

DooRight shoved the “chew” inside of his mouth, maneuvering it with his tongue until it came to rest between his teeth and cheek. He looked like a hamster after it had filled its mouth full of sunflower seeds.

The sergeant placed a hand over the receiver and turned to Officer Barnes. “I’d better call the little woman to let her know we won’t be playing Bingo tonight, and she ain’t going to be happy. No, sir.”

Credit: Nousbeck et al., The American Journal of Human Genetics (2011)

Adermatoglyphia, or “immigration delay disease” as it’s also known, is an extremely rare and unique condition originally found in members of only four Swiss families. What’s so unique about the condition? Well, for starters, people with adermatoglyphia produce far less hand sweat than the average person. But, perhaps the most startling characteristic is that people with adermatoglyphia do not have fingerprints.

In one instance, a female member of one of the affected families traveled to the U.S. but was delayed by border agents because they couldn’t confirm her identity. Why? No prints to compare.

Until recently, the cause of adermatoglyphia has been a mystery. Now, however, scientists have learned that the affected members of the Swiss families all had a mutation in the gene called Smarcad1. And this mutation is in a version of the gene that is only expressed in skin.

So, all you mystery writers out there…yes, there are people who do not have fingerprints.

Video tip of the day: Blood cells

 

Today’s CSI video tip of the day.

 

Trace elements examiner

 

Trace evidence can be simply described as a small, or tiny, piece of evidence left or taken away from a crime scene. If that definition sounds familiar, it should. In fact, everyone involved in a criminal investigation, including writers of fictional cases, should be aware of Edmond Locard’s Exchange Principle—“every contact leaves a trace.

In other words, everyone who leaves an area takes something with them. Likewise, everyone who enters a scene deposits something. Now, those “somethings” may very well be microscopic, such as DNA, but something is exchanged by every single person who enters and/or leaves a crime scene.

In the field crime scene technicians and investigators collect every single piece of evidence that could help solve their cases. They bag and tag and transport everything from cars, mattresses, and carpeting, to threads, dandruff, and chips of paint.

However, until those pieces of evidence are tested and confirmed by a laboratory scientist or technician, they are nothing more than inanimate objects without substantial meaning or purpose.

It is the laboratory scientist/examiner who adds the icing to the investigator’s cake by attaching a certified and positive identification and, an official quantity to the unidentified and/or unnamed evidence. In short, it’s not blood until the lab says it’s blood.

So, what does it take to be a forensic laboratory examiner? (I’ll be referencing the Commonwealth of Virgina. Things could very well be different in your area).

1. New trainee examiners within the Division of Forensic Sciences’ Trace Evidence Section, begin their training in only two specific areas, from a list of several—Explosives, Fire Debris, Glass, Hairs and Fibers, and Paint, or Primer Residue.

2. Trainees are closely supervised by an experienced trainer. The supervisor/trainer assigns the newcomer a training schedule, which includes studying the department training manual and completing a summary form as each section is completed.

3. The training period for a new trainee is approximately 12 months. Both oral and written quizzes take place throughout the duration of training. Testing regarding the use and knowledge of laboratory instruments is conducted by the chemistry manager, who issues either a pass or fail grade. All of this takes place while the trainee learns and works side-by-side with, and under the watchful eye of their trainer.

4. Trainees are required to maintain a notebook containing all training summaries and required reading as assigned by the trainer.

5. Trainees are required to read, study, and become familiar with instrument manuals provided by the manufacturer(s).

6. At the completion of the training program, each trainee must successfully complete an oral competency exam. The exam must be completed within 3 hours.

7. A second part of the final exam is a practical test, where the trainee demonstrates his/her ability to work a mock case and then present their findings in a moot court, complete with a “prosecutor, judge, and defense attorneys.”

8. Once the training program is complete the Chemistry Manager recommends that the trainee be certified. It is also time for the trainee to submit a buccal swab for DNA testing. The result is stored in the staff DNA database for comparison and elimination in the event evidence contamination comes into question.

9. Required reading is an ongoing process for trainees. Included in their lengthy reading list are:

Handbook of Forensic Services, FBI Laboratory

Moenssens, Andre A., et. al., Scientific Evidence in Criminal Cases, 3rd Ed., The Foundation Press, Mineola, NY, 1986, pp. 1-74.

10. Trace Evidence Section trainees must be familiar with the Federal Rules of Evidence.

11. Trainees must thoroughly understand the admissibility of scientific tests to include the difference between “Frye” and “Daubert.”

12. A vital part of the duties of a trace evidence examiner is the courtroom testimony regarding their findings. And, to sharpen those skills they’re required to read more page-turners, such as:

Burke, J. L., “Testifying in Court,” The Legal Digest, September 1975, pp. 8 – 13.

Hodge, E. and Blackburn, B. “Courtroom Demeanor,” AFTE Journal, pp. 7–14

Finally, it’s time for the trainee to…

…begin his/her first case, solo. Their next hurdle could/would be to tackle two new areas of trace evidence examination. To do so, they’d begin an abbreviated version of this process again, and would continue to do so until they’d mastered each category of trace evidence.

After all, who wouldn’t want to expand their horizons in 5 or 10 years by moving from examining bits of dandruff all the way up the ladder to analyzing tiny flakes of dried paint? The pace must be exhilarating.

My heart is pounding just thinking about it.

 

Drug analysis

 

Operating a motor vehicle is privilege granted to you by your home state. When applying for, and signing a drivers license, you agree to comply with a law enforcement officer’s request to submit to a breath or blood test, and possibly a urine test. The law governing this agreement is called the Implied Consent Law. Each state has some form of the law and, whichever state you happen to drive through, you are subject to their motor vehicle laws. In other words, what may be legal in your home state may or may not be legal in another. You are, however, responsible for complying with the laws of each.

For the purpose of this article I’ll refer to the laws and procedures in the Commonwealth of Virginia, for that is where I was a police officer and licensed breathalyzer operator.

When pulled over by a police officer you are required to do a few things upon request by the officer—provide a valid drivers license, proof of insurance, and you must submit to a breath or blood test, or both, if arrested for suspicion of driving while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. A refusal to do so may result in the suspension of your drivers license and other penalties.

Let’s skip a few steps and say the accused has submitted to the blood test and now that blood sample has been delivered to the lab for testing. The arresting officer requested tests for the presence of drugs. She also stated that preliminary breath tests indicated the absence of alcohol, yet, the driver’s actions strongly pointed to the influence of “something.”

In Virginia, the Department of Forensic Science (DFS) provides all DUI/DUID Blood Specimen Collection Kits. This kit contains two gray top blood vials, two Certificates of Blood Withdrawal, povidone iodine swab to cleanse the suspect’s arm, and evidence seals.

Only the following may draw the blood sample(s): a physician, registered nurse, licensed practical nurse, phlebotomist, graduate laboratory technician or a technician or nurse designated by order of a circuit court acting upon the recommendation of a licensed physician. Police officers DO NOT collect blood samples.

Vials are sealed and placed in a container provided by DFS. They are then mailed or hand delivered by the officer to the DFS.

At the DFS laboratory, scientists screen the blood sample for a standard panel of drugs (unless the officer indicates the possibility/suspicion of a specific drug based on investigation—she found a labeled pill bottle, etc.).

When possible, officers should be specific when requesting lab testing. For example, if the officer has reason to suspect the offender has consumed specific drugs, the description on the lab request form might read—Item 1. One DUI kit containing two vials of suspect’s blood: Toxicology – test for cocaine and marijuana.

If the drug is unknown, only the following are included in the initial drug screen panel.

Cocaine metabolite

Opiates

Oxycodone

Methamphetamine/MDMA

Phencyclidine (PCP)

Barbiturates

Benzodiazepines

Carisoprodol/meprobamate

Fentanyl

Cannabinoids

Methadone

Zolpidem

If a drug is detected during the screen, the scientist’s report will include the drug name and the quantity found in the blood. The report will also list the drugs NOT found in the blood. For example:

Oxycodone 0.12 mg/L.

The following substances were not detected:

Cocaine/Benzoylecgonin

Methamphetamine/MDMA

Phencyclidine

Barbiturates

Benzodiazepines

Carisoprodol/meprobamate

Fentanyl

Methadone

Cannabinoids

Zolpidem

Blood samples are sometimes collected in non-motor vehicle-related cases, such as child endangerment, manslaughter, drug-facilitated sexual assault, and possession/ingestion of illegal drugs (suspect swallows unknown but suspected drugs).

Sexual assault cases involving the drugging of the victim require the assistance of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) who will collect two blood samples and a urine sample from the victim, if the rape occurred less than 24 hours prior to examination. If the rape occurred more than 24 hours prior to examination, the SANE nurse will collect a urine sample only. These samples are kept separate from the Physical Evidence Recovery Kit (PERK Kit, which is sometimes and unofficially referred to as a “rape kit”).

Suspected poisoning cases are handled differently and require special handling and evidence collection procedures. This, my friends, is a topic for another day.

*Remember these procedures and testings apply to the Commonwealth of Virginia. They may vary in other states. But they are a good rule of thumb for fiction, or, if your story is set in Virginia, reality.

*DUID is an acronym for Driving Under The Influence of Drugs