In general, an investigation into a suspicious death must show that the suspect had motive, means, and opportunity in order for a D.A. to pursue and prosecute a case.
A traditional mystery (not much blood and gore, with an emphasis on the howdunit, whodunit, and why) might focus on the little old lady who seems that she would never harm a soul. In fact, she may be the dastardly evildoer in a cleverly plotted story.
A detective must discover why the victim needed killing – the motive. Was the crime committed to cover up another crime? Was the mild-mannered little old lady, barely making ends meet through a glitch in her pension system, cashing social security checks that belonged to a long dead spouse now buried in the garden? Did the victim uncover the truth and need to be silenced before spilling the beans? Readers and jury members alike might relate to her desperate plight as a motive that pushes people over the edge.
The detective must show that the suspect had the means to pull it off.
What would a little old lady do? The victim had no outward signs of blunt force trauma from being struck by a baseball bat or golf club. The answer lies in the multi-colored display of foxglove, readily available in our senior citizen’s garden. Every part of the foxglove plant can cause allergic reactions and a few fresh leaves are enough to kill a person. Collecting the foliage can irritate the skin and eyes, so wearing gardening gloves, eyeglasses, and a mask (commonly worn in pollen season) would have protected her when working with her weapon of death.
A detective must figure out if the suspect had an opportunity to deliver the poison to the victim. The foxglove leaves look very much like large baby romaine, if a bit fuzzier. But lathered in salad dressing at a neighborly gathering, nobody would be able to tell the difference.
Or, the senior citizen could bake up a special plate of brownies and share them.
From J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to Agatha Christie, foxglove has been a popular way to ‘off’ annoying people in fiction. Snape uses foxglove to make a potion in Potions 101 and Christie mixed it with other, edible greens in the garden in “The Herb of Death.”
My wife, Sheila, picked up six plants in three different colors at the garden center. I warned her about washing her gloves after handling the plants. All protocols were followed and no brownies have been made recently at our house.
So, why do we allow foxglove to be grown if it can be deadly?
The botanical name for foxglove is Digitalis purpurea. “Digitalis” is heart medicine made from foxglove. With a controlled dosage, digitalis is valuable in treating heart failure, but the wrong amount of foxglove can cause irregular heart function and death. Long-term use of foxglove can lead to symptoms of toxicity, including visual halos, yellow-green vision, and stomach upset.
The good news is that measuring digoxin (a form of digitalis) concentrations in the blood can help detect foxglove poisoning. If the detective and the other investigators are savvy about plants and gardens and the neighborhood dynamic, asking the right questions will uncover the reason and method of the deed. Case closed.
*Please note: This post is for entertainment purposes only.
NOTE: This was updated in August, 2019 to reflect new information. 🙂
Part 2 – information about Evidence Collection Training Classes held at SIRCHIE.
Click here for Part 1 – PW: “Have you been fingerprinted?”
During the first two days of Evidence Collection Training, we used a number of chemicals, fingerprint powders, and brushes, and employed several different fingerprint lifting techniques on a variety of tricky surfaces. We discussed the benefits of both cheap and costly Alternate Light Sources.
Our notebooks were filling up and theories of the perfect crime were flying around the class. We kept quizzing Robert Skiff, our instructor, (Sirchie Training Manager/Technical Training Specialist) about ways to ‘get away with the murder of the decade.’ But, as we learned, there is no perfect crime. That pesky trace evidence will always be waiting at every scene for the investigator to discover it, photograph it, tag it, bag it, and transport it without losing the integrity of the sample.
It was time to visit the plant – see how the powders, brushes, and other crime scene paraphernalia were made.
Sirchie manufactures most of its products in-house. The specialized vehicles for SWAT, bomb rescue, arson investigation, and surveillance work, etc., will now be built in North Carolina, along with the smaller products.
Security was carefully controlled throughout our tour. Most of our group writes crime fiction, so we are always looking for a way our fictional criminals can break in (or out of) a wild assortment of locations. As we walked through the stacks and aisles of products, we commented to each other on the smooth organization and many checks Sirchie had in place. Cameras everywhere. Limited access to the assembly floor. Labyrinths a person could easily get turned around in. If we got separated from the group while taking an extra photo or two, we were found and escorted back by an always friendly employee.
Of course, we couldn’t turn into rogue students anyway. Our fingerprints littered the classroom and they knew where we lived.
Security plays a part in the assembly model as well. Each product they create is put together from start to finish by hand. There are no assembly lines because of trade secrets and a dedication to preserving product integrity. Personnel are carefully screened before being hired and qualification for employment includes graduate degrees. No criminal history whatsoever is allowed. Every employee comes through the Evidence Collection Training Class so that they understand what Sirchie does as a whole.
Templates for the various products are created in-house. The operators of these machines are highly trained experts. Quality control is paramount, so training is constant.
All the printing is done in-house. The printing area was stacked with cases of items being packaged for shipment. We saw strips large enough to process tire treads.
Field Kits are created for general use by investigators, but can be specifically designed for a special need. The small vials contain enough chemicals to test unknown stains and substances at the scene. Note the dense foam holding the vials and bottles firmly in place. The kits are usually kept in the trunk and probably get tossed around quite a bit. The foam insures against breakage during car chases and while bumping across uneven road surfaces.
There are fiberglass brushes, feather dusters for the very light powder, regular stiffer brushes, and magnetic powder brush applicators.
We were lucky enough to see fiberglass brushes being made.
If a handgun is seized for evidence, there needs to be a simple, yet effective way to track chain of possession.
*Bag the gun to preserve the fingerprints and
*drop the gun in the box.
*Then fill in the blanks on the box.
*Easy to stack and store until needed.
Think of all the cases that may be ongoing in a large jurisdiction – the evidence is not sitting at the police station. It’s in a warehouse someplace, and needs to be easily identified when required for court. In addition to several sized boxes for guns and knives, etc. Sirchie also provides an incredible assortment of resealable plastic bags for preserving evidence like clothing, unidentified fibers, etc.
Magnetic powder was being processed that day and then put into rows and rows of jars and jugs. Before it is sent out to the customers, each lot is tested for moisture content, appropriate ratio of ingredients and other trade secret tests. We joked about taking some back to class for the next round of fingerprint study and were surprised by how heavy the jugs were.
No, she’s not making bullets. She is assembling the cyanowand cartridges used for fuming with superglue.
SIRCHIE makes riot gear.
This is not a photo of something from a SyFy movie. At the center of the shot is a helmet template. The drills encircling the template are aimed at spots where holes are needed for each helmet, depending on the type of helmet in production. All the holes are drilled at the same time.
The Optical Comparator, as well as the other machines, is built to order by hand.
While in the warehouse, we learned that if a product is discontinued, it is still supported by Sirchie. That means that if a law enforcement officer calls up with a problem a few years after purchasing a machine, he can still get help. Reassuring for jurisdictions with a tight budget that can’t afford to replace expensive equipment every year or two.
Sirchie sends supplies to TV shows, so next time you’re watching a fave detective or examiner lift prints with a hinge lifter, it may have come from Sirchie.
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at the Sirchie Education and Training Center in Youngsville, North Carolina.
Sheila and Charlie Kerrian thoroughly enjoy their cross-country road trips, and besides taking loads of photos of the breathtaking landscapes, have met some truly intriguing people in law enforcement. There was the newspaper owner/editor Ava Logan; the psychic puzzler, Lexi Sobado; the 1880s midwife, Rose Carroll; the vegetarian detective, Becky Greene; and the time traveling sheriff, Will Denton – an eclectic bunch of crime fighters to be sure.
This trip was all about seeing the Pacific Northwest. Sheila’s parents had lived in Tacoma, Washington, for a while and spoke fondly of their time in the area. The plan was to fly out to Seattle, stop in as many coffee shops as they could (Charlie ran out of time well before running out of coffee shops to visit) and then travel by rental car through Oregon and on to California. A break in the drive in the middle of Oregon’s majestic scenery took them to the Cascade Kitchen.
Meet Rainy Dale and friends, in ranch and horse country Oregon:
“Twenty-seven hundred miles from home, Charlie and Sheila marvel at Oregon’s land between the Cascade Mountains and the high desert. Traveling through the central part of the state showcases the transition of coastal fir, spruce and cedar giving way to pine and sage. Black-ribbed buttes thrust out of the sandy loam. The last road sign announces their entry into (fictional) Butte County.
Hunger calls and they pull off the two-lane highway in the pokey little town of Cowdry where they find an unlikely-looking diner called the Cascade Kitchen. Farmland abuts the back of the truck-choked, gravel parking lot. A gleaming red horse stands at the hitching rail. Yes, there’s a hitching rail behind the diner and this horse’s reins are loosely swirled around the thick wood crossbeam. The animal seems perfectly happy to wait there, head low, eyes half-closed, one hip cocked. Maybe the restaurant offers oatmeal to go, perhaps with extra brown sugar.
Inside, garden variety décor screams mere diner, with a wooden sign suggesting they seat themselves. The vinyl booths are dinner-rush-full, but wow—at the first table, a good old boy in overalls and a baseball cap bearing the John Deere emblem is ripping into a ruby red bell pepper with fork and knife. Wild rice, sugar snap peas, and sausage spill out. Stuffed peppers in a diner!
Two seats are open at the lunch counter next to a young woman in jeans and a flannel shirt.
Why is she biting into a hamburger when better food is served here? Charlie and Sheila wonder as they climb onto the last available twirly stools.
The young woman makes eye contact via the mirrored wall facing the lunch counter, then turns to face them.
“You’re new here. Are you moving in? D’you have horses?” She pulls a business card from her shirt pocket and slides it down the counter in front of them.
Sheila and Charlie inspect the card together.
Rainy Dale, horseshoer.
“You’re a horseshoer?” Charlie asks.
A chuckle erupts from the uniformed deputy on the other side of the young woman. Charlie and Sheila look at the mix of people sitting on Rainy Dale’s other side. Two uniformed deputies, a middle-aged man with a crew cut and a young woman with a tight French braid who looks about Rainy’s age, probably young twenties, are finishing their plates. The chuckle came from the male deputy, who nods and says, “She thinks she’s a horseshoeing detective.”
“A horseshoeing detective?” Sheila asks. “That’s a thing?”
A ponytail keeps Rainy’s long brown hair out of her plate as she leans forward and uses both hands to stuff the last bite into her mouth. She looks at Sheila in the mirrored wall and nods.
Charlie reaches for the laminated menu. One burger option is local, grass-fed beef.
A tall, blond young man in a chef’s shirt comes through the swinging doors from the kitchen, plates in each hand. “A sample of blackened spears of butternut squash drizzled in maple-infused vinegar.”
Rainy smiles and wrinkles her nose. “Guy, that looks and sounds suspiciously like vegetables.”
“I’ll try it,” the male deputy says.
Charlie studies the man’s uniform—it’s slightly different from what the woman is wearing. The man’s shoulder patch reads Deputy above the shield, Butte County below. The young woman’s sleeve has two lines above the cloth badge. Reserve Deputy.
The horseshoer and the reserve deputy give each other the stink eye in the mirror. What kind of ire lurks between them?
Guy, the cook, fires up a tiny butane hand torch that hisses as he caramelizes sugar on a small, perfect-looking crème brulée. The scent of browning sugar wafts over them, making Charlie and Sheila think of eating dessert first. Guy carries the dessert to the man at the first table.
Charlie wonders how many homicides the deputy has investigated.
“How many sworn officers are in your Sheriff’s Department?” he asks over Rainy’s head.
(This is how law enforcement officers compare department size—by the number of sworn and non-sworn employees.)
The regular deputy nods as though recognizing he’s likely talking to a brother officer. “Twelve deputies in a county of seven thousand square miles. About as many people as square miles.”
Charlie whistles. “That’s not really enough personnel for full twenty-four-hour coverage. How do you patrol that much land with so few deputies?”
The deputy jerks a thumb to the young woman seated beside him. “With reservists like her.”
The reserve deputy quits making faces at the horseshoer and sips her soda.
This is the modern American West. More going on than would appear at first glance. Maybe Charlie and Sheila will stay a night or two.”
Many thanks to Lisa Preston for stopping by and introducing Rainy Dale, horseshoer, to the Kerrian’s Notebook readers. Rainy is a truly original voice, with a talent for sizing up people and their horses. Horses kick and people get dead around her, but….. 🙂
Click on the link and let Rainy tell her story in “The Clincher.”
“The Clincher,” is the debut novel for Preston’s Rainy Dale horseshoer series. An important scene in the book mentions a practical application of the sport of “Ride & Tie,” and the photo above shows Preston competing in a real life Ride & Tie race. Although her experience and love of horses and other animals did not start out to be research for any of her books, the knowledge gained throughout her globetrotting life flows richly on the pages.
Lisa Preston began writing after careers as a fire department paramedic and a city police officer. She was first published in nonfiction, with titles on animal care, such as The Ultimate Guide to Horse Feed, Supplements and Nutrition. Her debut novel, Orchids and Stone, (Thomas & Mercer, 2016), has been described as a book club thriller, or domestic noir. Her psychological suspense novel, The Measure of the Moon, (Thomas & Mercer, 2017) was also a book club pick. The Clincher (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018) debuted her mystery series featuring a young woman horseshoer. She lives with her husband in western Washington.
Please visit www.lisapreston.com for links to her bestselling books and more about this multi-faceted author of both non-fiction (animals and their care) and fiction.