Sheila and I have been watching an Australian murder/mystery series that recently included poison as a method of getting rid of one of the characters. An interesting case that hinged on who had access to the poison in question.
Mystery writers quite often use poison as a way to dispatch the victims in their books. Famed Agatha Christie used poison in several of her 66 novels, on 30 victims. Christie’s choices were based on what she needed to happen in the plot; did the poison have to be fast-acting or was it important to give the killer time to get away?
In “What poisons were in Agatha Christie’s books?” I listed a few of her favorite dastardly tools of death, but one of the critical aspects of choosing the correct one was its availability to the murderer. 🙂
Arsenic, belladonna, cyanide, etc. may be handy for a pharmacist or a chemist or a doctor, as in the Australian show, but what about the ordinary gal (poison is traditionally a woman’s choice) who wants to do somebody in? It’s not as if a housewife would normally have access to cyanide. Some medications would make you woozy or extremely nauseous if you overdosed, but over-the-counter meds are rarely going to kill someone unless a bucketful is consumed – unless an allergy is involved. There are some exceptions to that, but most will not do the job without some devious planning and execution.
So, what is a revenge-focused lay person to do? Assuming of course, that the fictional person is motivated, would have the guts to actually kill someone, and is not squeamish about the cleanup. Dead bodies are messy and hard to drag around.
We all have cleaning supplies readily available in the house or garage, so let’s take a look.
Bleach This is a fairly common household item used to remove stains from clothing or to kill surface bacteria. It’s well-known to be powerful as a cleaning agent and once upon a time, I poured too much into the machine when I was helping Sheila with the white wash. The shirts basically disintegrated and the ones that didn’t, smelled of bleach forever after. It would be impossible to get this smell past a victim’s nose, so it couldn’t be used in any subtle way.
Ammonia is often used to clean windows and is contained in many popular products in a diluted form. The ammonia smell is distinctive and too strong to be pleasant without perfume additives. Used straight out of the ammonia vat? It would burn the skin off your hands while you pass out from the fumes.
Remember, our housewife wants to get away with murder, not die while she’s carrying out the dastardly deed.
BUT, when these two cleaners (even diluted in the pleasantly scented store products) are mixed together they produce a lethal chlorine gas. If the products have been poured into non-descript spray bottles, the scenario might be to ‘accidentally’ mix up the labels and get the potential victim to help with cleaning after a messy spill in a closed space while the housewife leaves the room. The trick would be to switch the labels back before the cops arrive. Variations of this smelly method might involve cleaning a toilet with one of the clear liquids already in the toilet. After adding the other liquid, the noxious gas would suddenly waft upward toward the victim’s face.
Hydrogen peroxide is used as an anti-bacterial agent and some people even use it when gargling or for cleaning small cuts or abrasions.
White vinegar is used in cooking and in many restaurants as a gentle, yet effective, solution for shining the stainless steel.
BUT, when hydrogen peroxide and vinegar are mixed together, they create an acid, which can be quite harmful to the lungs. Harmful, but not necessarily deadly in small quantities.
Dishwasher detergents contain chlorine in highly concentrated amounts, but it’s hard to imagine how you could get an adult to ingest detergent willingly. Perhaps mixed in food? I wonder if it would foam while cooking…
Air Fresheners – Most air fresheners include formaldehyde which interferes with your ability to smell and phenol which can cause convulsions, coma, and even death in high enough concentrations and quantities. However, this amount would also kill our housewife while she worked with it.
Oven Cleaner contains lye (sodium hydroxide). A little bit of lye is used in old-fashioned soap compounds; too much of the stuff can dissolve skin off the bone.
Our housewife might just be better off to find out what food her victim is allergic to, then mix that with a tasty treat to be served at the next get-together. The invitation could read:
“Tea at 4pm. Body Doggie bags will be provided.”
The next time you look at the warning labels on the cleaning products, keep these real-life guidelines in mind:
DANGER: can be fatal if swallowed. Less than a teaspoon could kill a 150-pound adult.
WARNING: is harmful if swallowed, and drinking less than an ounce could kill an average sized adult.
CAUTION: is harmful if swallowed, and it would take anywhere from an ounce to a pint to kill an average adult.
*Please note: this article is posted for entertainment purposes only.
Last week’s article about what Crime Scene Techs really do can be read here.
Warning: parts of this article are extremely descriptive about the work of a CSI at a murder scene.
A Crime Scene Investigator (also known as an Evidence Recovery Technician) is a forensic specialist. A well-trained, experienced CSI tech has an organized plan of action when processing a crime scene. Most go through extensive training, if not in the classroom, then in the field while working with seasoned law enforcement officers, before being allowed to work solo. They study how to recognize evidence, how to document the process and the proper way to prioritize, recover, handle, and package that evidence at the crime scene.
Some of the TV shows and movies touch on the challenges in the job of a CSI, but generally the scriptwriters try not to gross out the viewing audience.
Occasionally, the collection of the evidence requires a strong stomach. If the CSI works a homicide or accidental death scene, they will likely be dealing with strong odors. Although air/water temperature may affect the rate of decomposition, a dead body begins to stink fairly quickly. Think rotting meat. CSIs have various ways of dealing with the odors. Some apply Vicks under their noses, some use medical masks, but some just get used to it.
In case you were wondering: A former CSI told me that the Tyvek suits we see at crime scenes during British TV shows, work very well to keep unwanted fibers and DNA samples away from the scene, but do not block the odors at all.
Sometimes, bodies are dumped in the water, and that affects the rate of decay. The condition of the body recovered from water is a surprise to most law enforcement officers the first time they see it. Unless recovered within the first day or so, the skin and muscle begin to change at such a rate as to become almost unrecognizable for what they are. Special bags are needed to contain the remains while bodies are removed from lakes or ponds. The bags have holes in the sides to allow the water to escape, without losing the body parts.
The condition of a body recovered in the heat can be a challenge on several levels. The body swells up and can pop if not handled correctly. In ‘cold cases,’ where the body has been sitting outside for months, perhaps only the skeleton will remain, requiring identification through dental records or bits of clothing still attached to the bones.
Homicide and some accident scenes can be bloody. It’s fair to say that most law enforcement personnel are deeply affected by the surprising amount of blood found at a murder scene or a particularly horrific accident scene. It’s tough to get used to that part of the job, however much experience you’ve had. But, it’s important to stay detached while collecting the evidence, taking the blood spatter photographs, and detailing the information, so that the victims can be represented properly in court.
On rare occasion, gloves and protective clothing that a CSI wears can rip or tear, exposing the CSI to possible infection or disease.
Stress and even grief can be factors that might affect the CSIs or ERTs. Working on fraudulent documents or stolen property is worlds away from dealing with dead bodies. Some larger departments offer (and even require) grief/stress counseling after emotionally tough cases, but the smaller departments just don’t have the resources for that. Imagine waking up night after night, reliving a crime scene in nightmares. In cases involving multiple deaths or children, the stress level can be especially high.
So, with all the possible negatives/challenges in the job of a CSI, why would anybody do it?
Because of the result. A job well done helps to put the bad guys away.
The job of a CSI changes based on geographic location and the needs of the department. Some towns have no budget for a full-time CSI and hand off cases requiring special evidence collection to County or State personnel. In general, big cities have more homicides and other crimes, so require full-time CSIs. In small towns, the Police Chief or Police Officer might do the investigating, collection and analysis of the evidence.
With those factors in mind, training requirements vary from region to region and from decade to decade. Some departments require college degrees (i.e. Criminal Justice or Forensics) for their law enforcement personnel, with the understanding that specialized training (i.e. photography, computers, etc) might be required as cases come up.
Then after getting hired, the CSI tech will spend some time as an apprentice to a more experienced person – think the ‘probies’ on NCIS, the TV show.
One realistic test to see if possible candidates are really suited to the job of CSI at a murder or accident scene is to have them visit a morgue or an ER. If they get through a busy, bloody night at an ER, they might be able to work in Homicide.
If not, I’m told that there is lots of work in Forensic Accounting and CyberCrimes for CSIs, that does not involve blood or body parts.
*Photos by Patti Phillips
TV makes the job of a CSI tech look like a lot of fun.
It looks like an easy job, too. Get a call from dispatch, arrive at a crime scene, pop on the gloves, shine a flashlight around, take a few photos, collect the evidence along with your team of 4-5 colleagues and go back to the lab an hour or so later, ready to process all of it.
Have the real CSI techs and law enforcement professionals stopped laughing yet? 😉
Here’s the reality:
Most small towns (under 50,000 people) have no CSI lab. None. The local police in smaller towns are able to collect fingerprints, but most have to send them off to a State Lab to be processed.
Many towns, even with a population of 100,000 people, don’t have a ballistics lab to check the caliber of any bullets/casings left behind at the scene or found in the victim’s body.
North Carolina (as of 2014) had a population of 9.9 million, and has three State crime labs – one full service and two regional labs.
New York State (as of 2014) had a population of 19.74 million, and has four State crime labs – one full service and three specializing in varied areas.
New Jersey (as of 2014) had a population of 8.93 million. It has seven State labs, with one full service and the other six specializing in various areas.
Texas (as of 2014) has a population of 26.95 million, with a full service forensic lab in Austin and 12 regional labs, some conducting only drug testing, and others close to full service.
And all of those crime labs are processing evidence from all kinds of crimes (burglary, robbery, rape, arson, cold case, assault, etc.) not just murders. It take a few hours to get the prints, preserve the evidence, bag and tag it for transport, but it takes months to get it processed, because there is a long line of cases ahead of yours. In some States, the wait is as long as 18 months. That is not a typo, folks. Eighteen months to wait until the evidence can be processed. Even if the case is a high profile one, moving to the head of the line might only shorten the wait to 2-3 months, because there are other high profile cases in line as well or cases that are already in court, waiting for clarification of the evidence.
There is no such thing as instantaneous fingerprint matches. See the article about fingerprint analysis here. There are now handheld machines that scan a viable fingerprint at the scene, but that only speeds up the collection process, not the identification of the fingerprint. (I was recently told that a new fingerprint reader can return an answer in 45 seconds, but some fingerprint experts are reserving judgment as to the accuracy of the matches.)
Get the picture? The State Bureaus of Investigation are short-staffed and the cases more numerous, as attorneys seek to prove or disprove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the evidence gathered at the scene linked their clients to the crime.
In general, the analysts examine all types of evidence related to criminal investigations and assist the criminal justice system. They can provide:
ALL of that evidence must be collected in a thorough and efficient manner by the Crime Scene Technician or Crime Scene Investigator. Cases are won and lost on how the evidence is handled – both the chain of custody and the collecting of the correct evidence can be factors in how a suspect is perceived.
I had a chance to chat with a CSI who has been in the field for about 10 years. She generously shared information about her day – soooo different from the image of the CSI jobs projected on TV.
She enters a crime scene after a Patrol Officer has cleared the house (made sure that no unauthorized person is in it). A Deputy might walk her through the house, and depending on the crime, the owner of the house then walks her through, pointing out items that might have been disturbed or areas where items are missing. She takes notes during the tours so that she can come up with a Plan of Action – how to process the scene.
In general, she will take photos first, and then collect the evidence. If a homicide is suspected, she might take video as well as still photographs.
She might see patterns of wreckage, or concentration of destruction, or even similarities with other cases, but it is not her job to focus on the M.O. (modus operandi) or narrow her collection efforts based on a hunch. She is there to collect all the evidence.
She might be looking for:
What a CSI leaves at the scene is sometimes as important as what he/she collects, so it is vital to be thorough. The detectives and attorneys decide what is significant to the case.
The trunk of a CSIs car is filled with the tools of the trade. They have kits for each type of evidence collection and if they know in general what the scene will call for, they may grab an additional kit from headquarters. They might even carry a tarp to cover the ground (creating a collection place for the evidence) if the scene is outdoors – such as a train wreck.
The CSI I interviewed works in Major Crimes for the Sheriff’s Department, and when she is called to a scene, she works 12-hour shifts, by herself. In most cases, she collects all the evidence, bags and tags it appropriately, and hands it all to the detective in charge. She works 14 days a month, equally divided between the day shift and the night shift. On occasion, a 12-hour shift is not long enough to collect everything at a particular crime scene, so she stays a bit longer to finish. If it looks as if she has to work for another shift, a Patrol Officer will guard the scene until she returns to finish collection on her next shift. If the case merits 24-hour collection (because of weather or the condition of the scene/body) the CSI on the next shift will continue the collection, with any evidence collected up to that point handed over to the new person.
Clear chain of possession of the evidence dictates that in a case where collection goes on for more than one shift, limited people will have keys to the building. There are evidence cards showing who collected it, and anyone entering or leaving the scene will have to sign in and out with the Patrol Officer on duty.
For information about Footwear Evidence, click here.
Next week: The life of a CSI – rewards and challenges.
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips