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Sometimes it’s the tiniest of details that offer the extra oomph needed to send a good story over the edge to “can’t-wait-to-turn-to-the-next-page” greatness. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on the point of view, many writers of whodunits and other such crime novels have not had the opportunity to visit an actual crime scene where the victim du jour has been murdered.

Sure, there are tons of books that describe the experience, and there are many writers conferences around the country that feature experts who detail the steps and equipment used to solve crimes. But a list of procedures and pictures of investigational do-dads don’t quite add the over-the-hump material that sends a tale into sensory overdrive.

Writers must express the sights, sounds, odors, and emotions that detectives experience as they process a crime scene. Actually, what I just described is what investigators should do before entering a crime scene—look, listen, and smell.

Those are three very important initial assessments, and that’s so for a variety of reasons.

  1. Look – Scan the area visually for anyone who may be involved with the crime. Sometimes people enjoy watching the police as they work, seeing if they’ll stumble upon something that may incriminate them. Also, it’s a safety issue. This is a time to trust no one because even family members of the victim(s) could become violent. One of the worst fights of my career occurred while attempting to protect a murderer from the victim’s family. There were two officers against a dozen angry, emotional, and violent people trying to go through us to get to the killer.

Be on the lookout for animals. Wildlife may be on the prowl for, as unpleasant as this sounds, a meal. Therefore, the officer may need to call upon animal control or area game wardens for assistance. The same is true for family pets who will often stop at nothing to safeguard their domain and/or the lifeless bodies of their owners.

Make note of any vehicles scene driving through or leaving the area.

Notice insect activity.

Visually scan the entire area for secondary crime scenes, areas where evidence of the main crime is located.

For example, Tom Ishotem killed Bill Isdead, using a hollow point fired from a .357. Tom ran twenty yards and then tossed the revolver into Ms. Irene Iseenitall’s front yard next to her blue-ribbon-winning salmon-pink Barbara Bush hybrid-tea rose bush she ordered from the Rogue Valley Roses over in Oregon.

Then the murderer hopped the hedges and disappeared into the night. Actually, he landed in a manure pile in Harvey Jenkins’ hog pen, but it sounded far more cool to say he vanished into the darkness, right?

Anyway, Ms Iseenitall’s front yard is considered a secondary crime scene because evidence, the gun, was found there. Remember, the spot where the crime actually takes place is “the scene of the crime.” All other locations where evidence is found are secondary crimes scenes.

2. Listen – Be alert for the hissing of broken gas lines, snarling dogs, and even the rattle of snake’s tail. After all, the cause of death could be the bites of a baker’s dozen of rattlesnakes. Listen for the sounds of footsteps and moving brush. The crackling of twigs. I once discovered a killer hiding in the tangle of bushes because he’d moved slightly which caused a thin branch to snap when his shirt caught a sharp end of the limb. Had he not done so (it was nighttime and raining) he may have gotten away.

3.  Smell – Again, take a moment to put your nose to work in the event there’s a gas leak. What about the lingering odor of a cologne or perfume? The fresh scent of gunpowder? But whatever you do, do NOT write that your hero smelled cordite. NO, NO, and NO! The manufacturing of that stuff ceased at the end of WWII. Again, NO!

Be alert for the odor of toxic chemicals—meth labs or even biological weapon manufacturing.

4. The first responder should ALWAYS assume the crime is currently in progress until they’re certain it is not. All too often officers are surprised by the guy behind the door (hypothetically) with a knife. However, that’s exactly what happened to my rookie butt one night when I stepped into a room, assuming the bad guy was either under the bed or in a closet. Thankfully, my experienced partner stopped the guy from inserting a serrated-edge steak knife between my shoulder blades. That’s a lesson I’ve not forgotten.

So, yes, tiny details, such as the sweet scent of a lovely Barbara Bush hybrid tea rose, the salmon pink ones, mingled with the odor of escaping propane from a loosened copper fitting, along with the putrid funk of Mr. Bill Isdead’s decomposing corpse, a scent that brings to mind a forgotten Purdue chicken left to thaw in a kitchen sink for two solid weeks, added to the chemically-offensive meth lab concoctions, would certainly add a bit more “flavor” to a tale than simply writing …

“Detective Johnson approached the scene with caution before entering the room where the body of Mr. Billisded lay dead. He wondered, whodunit.”

Look, Smell, and Listen!

 

Murder: Really bugs me

Many useful items fill an investigator’s toolbox—interrogations, fingerprints, footprints, informants, fibers and, well, the list goes on and on. But there’s one group of extremely important tools that are often overlooked—the squiggly and wiggly and fluttering and flittering and sometimes even slimy crime-solving creatures known simply as, well, bugs.

Yes, we step on them and we swat at them and some people even eat them. But as investigators, in spite of the creepy-crawler’s often stomach-churning menu selections, cops must often sign them on as partners when attempting to solve murder cases. Like detectives who specialize in certain areas—rape, robbery, narcotics, and homicide—insects, too, have their own areas of expertise, and they each arrive at various times during the course of the investigations to do what is it they do best. For example …

Maggots are event crashers by nature. They’re clueless when it comes to dinner party etiquette. In fact, they barge right in on unsuspecting hosts, the dead bodies du jour. Their manners are atrocious, actually. They never bother to wait for bacteria to complete the service settings, the breaking down of complex molecules through respiration or fermentation, before storming the scene.

The tiny and gross little squirmers who eat with one end of their bodies while breathing through the other, are the Animal House-type partiers of death. As disgusting as they are, however, they are useful as tools for solving homicides because …

When investigators find maggots on a body that are in their early larvae stages, when they’re 5mm in length, well, officers then will have a pretty good idea that the victim has been there for only a day and a half, or so.

Even the mere presence of certain insects is quite telling.

Dermestidae Beetles have better things to do than to show up early at parties. They’re a bit snobbish, preferring to wait until everyone else had had their fill—the time when the body begins to dry out—before making their grand entrance, at which time they’ll gorge themselves on drying skin and tendons.

Green Bottle Fly

These guys are the drunk uncles of the party. They show up to first to begin drinking the fluids found in and on decaying bodies. Then, after they’ve had their thirsts quenched they’ll often dive into a hearty meal of decaying tissue.

Green Bottle Fly ~ Calliphoridae

  • One of the first insects to arrive on the scene/body
  • Lays eggs in wounds or openings such as the eyes, ears, mouth, penis, and vagina

Rove Beetles

Rove beetles are late arrivers to the party and this is so because they’re scavengers whose meal of choice is the larvae of other insects, those who lay their eggs in and on decomposing corpses. They’re one of the “buzzards” of the bug world.

Ham Beetles are also scavengers, but they find the tougher parts of the decaying body to be the tastiest, such as skin and tendons.

Rounding out today’s lunchtime guests are the Carrion Beetles. These gourmet insects absolutely adore dining on the larvae of other insects, but also enjoy a scrumptious appetizer of decaying flesh.

Now, please do enjoy your own dinner!

 

While we’re alive our body temperatures are determined by metabolism. It’s a different ballgame, though, once the bucket is kicked.

After death, the body’s core temperature remains fairly constant for a couple of hours. Then it begins to cool by radiation, conduction, and convection, at a rate of 1.5 degrees per hour, until it reaches the ambient temperature—20-30 hours later.

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However, investigators shouldn’t use the body temperature as the sole means of determining when a victim died. There are factors that could, and do, alter the natural cooling process.

When the “moment” arrives and the victim succumbs to wounds, illness, or natural death, there are elements that may affect the cooling rate of the body, such as:

  • Ventilation: A room that’s well-ventilated could actually speed up the rate of cooling by increasing the rate of evaporation.
  • Humidity: A body in a humid location cools at a slower rate than one in a hot, dry climate.
  • Insulation: A body that’s wrapped in something (including excess body fat) cools slower than one that’s left out in the open.
  • Surface temperature: A body lying on a hot surface will cool at a slower rate than one that’s found lying on a cold surface.

And, of course, a body in a hot environment cools much slower than one found lying in a in the snow, or a vat of ice cubes.

There are also factors that come into play that could alter the body temps even before death occurs, such as:

  • Consumption of drugs, extreme physical activity, and fever could all increase the body temperature.
  • Hypothermia could lower the body temperature.

These factors would change the length of time it takes a body to reach the surrounding air temperature.

10.4 Toe Tag

Finally, the rate of cooling also affects other “after death” processes, such as rigor mortis—heat speeds up rigor and cold slows it down.

By the way, other factors may also speed up rigor, such as extremely violent exertion prior to death, and alkaloid poisoning. Factors that could slow the rigor process are hemorrhaging by exsanguination, and arsenic poisoning, to name a couple.

And … a handy rule of thumb for decomposition:

One week in air = two weeks in water = eight weeks under ground.

During their crime-solving duties homicide investigators hear a lot of details, sounds of gunfire and people running, bits of spoken evidence, and much more. But one thing they’d best pay particular attention to is what the body has to say, and believe me, it’s usually a lot.

Dead bodies always have a lot to reveal to investigators!

Putrefaction is the destruction of the soft tissue caused by two things, bacteria and enzymes. As the bacteria and enzymes do their jobs the body immediately begins to discolor and transform into liquids and gases. The odd thing about the bacteria that destroys tissue at death is that much of it has been living in the respiratory and intestinal tracts all along.  Of course, if the deceased had contracted a bacterial infection prior to death, that bacteria, such as septicemia (blood poisoning), would aid in increasing the body’s decomposition.

Temperature plays an important part in decomposition. 70 degrees to 100 degrees F is the optimal range for bacteria and enzymes to do what they do best, while lower temperatures slow the process. Therefore, and obviously, a body will decompose faster during the sweltering days of summertime.

 

A blood-filled circulatory system acts as a super-highway for those organisms that destroy the body after death. Without blood the process of putrefaction is slowed.

Therefore, a murder victim whose body bled out will decompose at a slower rate than someone who died of natural causes.

Bodies adorned in thick, heavy clothing (the material retains heat) decompose more rapidly than the norm. Electric blankets also speed up decomposition.

A body will decompose faster during the sweltering days of summertime.

A body that’s buried in warm soil may decompose faster than one that’s buried during the dead of winter. The type of soil that surrounds the body also has an effect on the rate of decomposition. For example, the soil in North Carolina is normally a reddish type of clay. The density of that clay can greatly retard the decomposition process because it reduces the circulation of air that’s found in a less dense, more sandy-type of earth.

Adult bodies buried in a well drained soil will become skeletonized in approximately 10 years. A child’s body in about five years.

People who were overweight at the time of their deaths decompose faster than skinny people. People who suffered from excessive fluid build-up decompose faster than those who were dehydrated. And people with massive infections and congestive heart failure will also decompose at a more rapid rate than those without those conditions.

The rule of thumb for the decomposition of a body is that, at the same temperature, 8 weeks in well-drained soil equals two weeks in the water, or one week exposed to the air.

Now, hold on to your breakfast …

The first sign of decomposition under average conditions is a greenish discoloration of the skin at the abdomen. This is apparent at 36-72 hours.

Next – Small vessels in the skin become visible (marbling).

Followed by, glistening skin, skin slippage, purplish skin, blisters, distended abdomen (after one week – caused by gases), blood-stained fluid oozing from body openings (nose, mouth, etc.), swelling of tissue and the presence of foul gaseous odor, greenish-purple face, swollen eyelids and pouting lips, swollen face, protruding tongue, hair pulls out easily, fingernails come off easily, skin from hands pulls off (gloving), body swells and appears greatly obese.

Internally, the body is decomposing and breaking down. The heart has become flabby and soft. The liver has honeycombed, and the kidneys are like wet sponges. The brain is nearly liquid, and the lungs may be a bit brittle.

Wrong kind of brittle, but who wants to end the post with crunchy lungs? So have some homemade peanut brittle and enjoy your day.