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

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?

,

Cops Use Mosquitos to Solve Murders: Bandit Bagged By Bug

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.

 

Immigration Delay Disease: People Without Fingerprints

 

“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: Red Blood Cells and DNA

Video tip of the day: Blood cells

 

Today’s CSI video tip of the day.

 

Anthrax: The Silent Killer

Anthrax: silent killer

 

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 silently killed humans and animals alike. These tiny but deadly organisms can shut down the body’s entire operating system, and they can 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 of the killer bugs, such as anthrax, botulism, tularemia, bubonic plague, ricin, ebola, and hantavirus, can be easily cultured and multiplied many times over. 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. And, 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 who work with these bugs on a daily basis with very little accountability, if any, in some instances.

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

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

New Picture

Anthrax spores

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.

New Picture (1)

Skin lesion caused by anthrax exposure

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 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).

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A 2008 anthrax investigation involving aggressive interview tactics by law enforcement investigators led to a bit of public protest. 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.

So You Want To Become A Trace Evidence Examiner…

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.

 

Blood Analysis: DUI/DUID, Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault, And More

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