March 7-10

On Monday, March 7, I took a prearranged absence day from school and was at the office all day. I was hoping to see some autopsies or go on a call, but none were scheduled for that day and no calls came in the entire time I was there. Teri was on call so I spent the whole day in her office reading books from her collection about serial killers and the adventures of a former CSI, eating chicken, and fetching papers from the printer.

On Tuesday more happened. A call had come in that morning and the decedent from that call was at the morgue, so Teri took me with her to try to get the man’s fingerprints. He had been dead about 10 days before his body was found, so decomposition had started. He had a green color to him and his fingers were extremely putrefied and we couldn’t get prints using the scanner or ink. Teri said if we really needed the prints, she could rehydrate his fingers, but that would take at least another two hours. Mike said that since he was still facially recognizable, we did not need to get his prints. Teri also told me that in certain cases with decomp, she has been able to peel the whole dermis of the decedent’s hand off, place it over her own hand (with gloves on of course) and get the prints that way. She probably shouldn’t have told me that because now I really want to try it.

On Wednesday, I was given the task of putting blood spots in their case files. It does not sound very interesting, but I could read the case files as I was putting blood spots away. I read all of the homicides I came across, and most of the traffic and child fatalities, along with some suicides. Most of the deaths were naturals and those were not as interesting to read. The pictures below are of the shelves the case files are stored in (I went through about three of those whole cabinets with blood spots) and what a blood spot envelope looks like. The actual sample is in the envelope, and the front of the envelope has the decedent’s name, case file number, date of death, and the medical examiner who performed their autopsy. The picture is of the back of one of the envelopes since I can’t be taking pictures of someone’s personal information.

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Thursday was definitely the most interesting day of the whole week. That morning there had been a double traffic fatality, so Teri filled me in on that and told me all the details. Then around 3 she got a call for a body that had been found floating in a pond. Jeff had been diving in that same pond previously, trying to find the body of a missing man. So we got in the car and went out to the pond and Jeff came as well. There were a ton of people there. Along with us, there were paramedics, the forensics team,  the Greenville County Underwater Recovery Unit, and about seven cops, along with the bio-care van. The man had drifted over to the side of the pond and Jeff and four deputies got in the water to keep him near the edge and shield his body from the news helicopters. They got him in a body bag and onto a stretcher, which they then put on the bank and tilted so all the extra water would run out of the bag. Then we took his body over to a tent (also to shield from the view of the helicopters and the family, who were waiting at the front of the property) and took the necessary pictures, then double bagged the body and it was put in the bio-care van. Teri and I went to make the notification to the family. We were pretty sure it was the missing man, but we couldn’t make a positive ID so Teri asked the man’s father and step-mother (the next of kin – they are always notified first) what tattoos he had and they told us exactly. They matched the ones found on the body so unfortunately we had to tell them that it was their son that had been found in the pond. Teri had me get their contact information and then they went and told the rest of the family. Here are some links to the story that were published by local news stations:

Adam Worley’s body found in Greer pond; was missing for a month

http://www.goupstate.com/article/20160311/WIRE/160319963

This has been a very interesting week, and I am looking forward to going back again. I am glad that I am trusted enough to do things like make sure blood spots get to the right file and get someone’s contact information accurately.

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Arson

Arson is a destructive crime in today’s world, with the capability of destroying valuable property and causing thousands of dollars in damage. There are three types of fire starters – pyromaniacs, arsonists, and juvenile fire starters. Pyromaniacs get some sort of gratification from starting fires and very methodical about it. Arsonists set fires for specific reasons such as profit, revenge, or attention. Juvenile fire starters are under 21 years of age. They usually start fires in their homes, schools, or vacant buildings. Because they are younger, they are often gullible and can be coerced into setting fires for less than a professional arsonist can be hired for.

In any fire, there will be a point of origin, or the place the fire started or was set. The point of origin can be found by locating the spot with the greatest amount of damage. It makes sense that the point of origin will be the most damaged and the extent of damage will lessen the farther away from the point of origin it is located. Even if a structure is completely burned to the ground, a skilled investigator will still be able to locate the point of origin.

Signs of arson:

  • Irregular burn patterns: these indicate that an accelerant was used in the fire. Gasoline and lacquer thinner are examples of accelerants, which are commonly poured on a surface such as the floor and set on fire so the fire will be bigger and spread faster. The picture below is an example of a situation where an accelerant was used on a tile floor.

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  • A quickly burning fire: pine wood burns at a rate of ¾ an inch per hour. A quickly burning fire can indicate that an accelerant was used.
  • A claim of an electrical fire: less than 7% of fires are actually results from an electrical fire. Wires should be closely investigated to either back up or disprove the claim.
  • Inventory or possession shortage: often if a homeowner or business owner is planning to burn their property and claim insurance, they will remove the most valuable items. Inventory may be unusually low or the homeowner may have recently removed valuable items from the home.
  • Total destruction of a car: often if the fire begins in the engine block of a vehicle, it will not spread into the passenger compartment on its own. Other signs of arson in a vehicle include cut fuel lines, missing gas caps, or used matches. The springs from the seats of the car can also clue in investigators that the fire was a product of arson. The heat from a car fire alone will not be hot enough to cave in the roof of a car or cause seat springs to sag or become distended. Both of these situations are clues that an accelerant was used in a vehicle fire and was therefore arson. Distended seat springs can be seen below.

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In a case of suspected arson, investigators look for three things to convict a suspect – an intentionally set fire, motive, and opportunity, also called the “arson triangle.” Let’s say Bob’s warehouse burns down one night, but it was old and falling apart anyway and in need of repairs tht Bob can’t afford at the moment. Investigators found clues that an accelerant was used – there’s your intentionally set fire. Bob is trying to collect insurance on his warehouse and whatever was in it – there’s the motive. But Bob was out at a bar the night his warehouse burned to the ground – he has an alibi so he had no opportunity to set the fire. This doesn’t mean investigators won’t dig deeper to try to find out who set the fire (maybe Bob hired someone to torch his warehouse), but for now, Bob is in the clear as far as an arson suspect goes.

Arson investigation can be very involved and can take a while, but it is important that it be processed correctly and accurately. If it is not, an arsonist may get away with setting fires and destroying property.

Source: Barracato, John S. Fire…Is It Arson? U.S.A.: Aetna, 1979. Print.

February 29-March 4

Not much of anything happened on Monday except spontaneous planning. I got out of class early because it was a test day, so I got to the office early enough to eat lunch. During lunch, Mike told Gary that Parks wanted him and Teri to go to Columbia for the Coroner’s Association meeting. Later when Gary and I were in his office, Mike walked by and said that I should go with them and I said yes of course. Gary was second out this week and Sonny was first out but no calls came in on Monday, so I wasn’t doing much except for homework.

Tuesday was a lot more interesting. Gary picked Teri and I up in the morning because there was no point in all of us driving to the office at the crack of dawn just to get in one car and go to Columbia. We got there around 10 and the meeting started a few minutes after that. Everyone introduced themselves and then the next hour was arson training by Craig Collier, a SLED (South Carolina Law Enforcement Division) employee. He went over the responsibilities of the coroner in the event of a fire fatality. After that, there was an approval of minutes and some reports were given. One of the coroners went over new and old business, then the meeting was adjourned. The three of us went to a special law enforcement store after that, then went and stuffed our faces at Fatz. After that, we drove back home and got to the office around 3:30. There was nothing to do after that, so we just goofed around until 4:30 and Gary dropped Teri and I off.

The rest of the week was uneventful. One call did come in on Thursday, but it came in around 4, it was raining, and the death was a natural, so I decided not to go along. The decedent lived in a mobile home, so it would have been all cramped and uncomfortable anyway, and I didn’t want to be a nuisance with two paramedic teams, family members, two deputy coroners, and then an intern all trying to stuff themselves into a mobile home. That would not be a great situation for anyone, and then after all that was over, I would have had to be taken 30 minutes back to the office to get my car and drive home. It was in everyone’s best interest for me to just goof off at the office for another 30 minutes. Friday was much the same – we ordered Domino’s and messed around all afternoon, but no other calls came in while I was there. Teri had me put together the packets she uses when she goes on call, which consist of a coroner report, fingerprinting papers, a family assistance guide, her business cards, gloves, and blood spot papers. I put together about fifteen of those, then she put me to work cutting up blood spot forms and putting them in envelopes. It is extremely important not to get anyone’s DNA on those so the sample is not contaminated, so I had to wear gloves to cut those up. I also cut up about 50 fingerprinting sheets that are used in the morgue when the coroner takes fingerprints. The forms have to be cut into strips for the decedent to be fingerprinted properly, and it just makes the whole process easier. The picture below was my view for about an hour while I put all the packets together and cut up the blood spot and fingerprinting sheets.

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Other than that, the most exciting thing that happened was that Gary was very animatedly telling me about his high school track coach and accidentally knocked a full cup of coffee right over the edge of his desk. So then I had to run like a maniac through the office to get paper towels and I was laughing so hard I had tears running down my face.

Teri is first out this next week, and Gary is in Columbia all week for coroner school. I am taking a prearranged absence day from school on Monday and will be with Teri all day. Hopefully I will be able to see some autopsies in the morning and be able to go on a call or two, since it seems they mostly happen in the morning.

Identifying a Body without DNA

In this day and age with advanced technology, DNA testing is widely used to identify human remains even when the body is partially dissolved, cut up, or burned. Sometimes, however, it is better to use other methods of identification because DNA testing can be expensive and in the case of remains not preserved well, not effective.

There are 3 alternate ways to identify a body:

  1. Dental x-rays and Dentures

Unique dental aspects, like “tooth root curvature, tooth position, impacted teeth, extra teeth, and tooth crown anomalies” often are preserved even if other parts of the body do not (“3 Ways to Identify”). Any x-rays taken before the decedent died can be compared to any taken after the person died. Dentures work almost the same way. They are uniquely shaped and formed for each person who uses them, and some today are inscribed with the name or initials of the person they belong to, which makes identifying the owner even easier.

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2. Surgical Implants

Because surgical implants are constructed of highly durable materials, and often placed deep in the body, they usually survive the conditions that cause the rest of the body to deteriorate. They also are usually marked with serial numbers that can be traced back to the specific patient they belong to. Examples of these surgical implants include hip and knee prosthetics, pacemakers, or coronary artery stents (“3 Ways to Identify”).

3. Skeletal diseases or injuries

Certain diseases can cause enough damage to the skeletal system that it can be used to identify a body if only bones are found. Diseases such as tuberculosis, syphilis, or psoriasis can do so much damage that it is visible in an x-ray (“3 Ways to Identify”). Fractures or already healed breaks in bones can also be clues to the identity of a person. Any unique fractures can be compared to recent medical records and compared to the decedent for matches.

Even though DNA is often the more convenient route to go, it is not always possible if the body is in poor condition. These methods are commonly used when other techniques are not possible, and can be highly accurate if the tests are performed correctly.

Source: “3 Ways to Identify a Body When DNA is Not An Option.” Forensic Outreach. N.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.

 

 

 

February 22-26

Jeff was on call this week, but once again no calls came in while I was at the office and overall it was just a very slow week. On Monday, Gary and I took a family to the morgue to see their loved one who had committed suicide. Usually we don’t take families to the morgue, but they were from out of town so it was a special case. That was really all we did on Monday, other than scanning case files into the system. The older files are being taken to a different storage place to make room, so they all had to be entered into a system electronically.  On Tuesday, once again no calls came in, and no one was at the office, so I ended up leaving an hour early.

Wednesday and Thursday were basically the same. No calls came in, so I just hung out with Gary and did some homework. Friday was a little more interesting. I was assigned the official paper shredder, so I did paper runs to the shredder for Dee. We had a hot dog party for lunch and my official nickname of “Red” was given to me. Then Jeff took me with him to make a notification, which ended up being a total bust. We were going to notify a man that his mother had been found dead that morning, but the apartment that was listed as his address was occupied by someone else and no one knew where he moved to. So we ended up going to Sunrift and getting new diving equipment that Jeff can use when recovering bodies from water. We also went to a shop to get extra keys made for Jeff’s truck since he locked himself out last week. After that, we went back to the office and Gary and I watched Chicago Fire for 30 minutes until Hulu crashed. So then we played with Ino until 4:30 when it was time to go home.

I am still enjoying my internship, even though the past 2 weeks have been a little slow. I am planning on using a prearranged absence day soon so that I will be able to go to the office in the morning and hopefully see some autopsies and be able to go on another call.

Detection Dogs

Because dogs have a much better sense of smell than humans, they are often trained and used to detect scents that humans can’t pick up on. There are a few different types of detection dogs, and the differences are important when considering what dog to use for a specific task. The handler, or person training and working with the dog, also needs to be able to read the dog well and pick up on if the dog is detecting something or not.

Types of detection dogs:

  1. Narcotics dogs – they are trained to pick up the scent of drugs and are commonly used at airports. With enough training, they will be able to pick up on the scent of drugs even when it is being masked with another scent.
  2. Tracking dogs – these dogs are trained to sniff a scent and follow only that scent. For instance, if a suspect of a crime is on the run, the handler can have the dog smell something belonging to the suspect such as a pillowcase or a piece of clothing. The dog will then follow that specific scent wherever it is present and can lead investigators to the suspect.
  3. Bomb detection dogs – these dogs are trained to sniff out any substance of a bomb if it is present. It is trained to not disturb a scene, as an explosive could detonate, but will alert its handler to the presence of a bomb.
  4. Arson detection dogs – a dog trained to detect arson will sniff out the presence of accelerants commonly used by arsonists. Especially in a case where the damage of the fire covers a large area, these dogs are extremely valuable to show investigators where accelerants were used.
  5. Search and rescue dogs – when someone goes missing or is lost, these dogs are used. They are trained to be useful in a variety of environments, such as in snow or in heavy water.
  6. Body detector dogs – sometimes in situations like a landslide or earthquake, people may be trapped in the aftermath but are still alive. It is in situations like this that body detector dogs are brought in to find living humans so they can be rescued.
  7. Cadaver dogs – these dogs are trained to respond to decomposition, so when the presence of a decedent is suspected, these dogs are brought on scene to lead investigators to the body.
  8. Human remains specialist dogs – these dogs begin as cadaver dogs in general, sniffing out the presence of any decomposition. They are then further trained to respond only to a specific type of human remains.

The importance of these dogs is often not realized by the general public. I did not realize how important they were either, until I started at the coroner’s. They have a cadaver dog, Ino, that stays at the office and is used to detect decomposition. Recently Ino hit on a body of water where someone told investigators that someone committed suicide. Investigators have been diving there the past few days trying to recover a body. The work of detection dogs can be invaluable in their line of work, so it is essential that they be trained correctly to do their specific job.

Source: “Forensic Detection Dogs.” Kryptiks Lair German Dogs. N.D. Web. 27 February 2016.

February 15, 17-19

Monday I had off from school, so I was able to go to the office a few hours earlier than usual. Kent was on call this week, so I was hoping that something would happen because I had not gotten to ride with him yet to a scene. No calls came in, and the office ended up closing at 1:30 because of weather. So all I ended up doing on Monday was fetching Bojangles and doing homework.

The same happened on Wednesday and Thursday – no calls came in while I was there, and for some reason it seemed like no one was ever at the office. All I did on both days was do homework. Friday was a little more interesting but not by much. Kent had gone out earlier for a baby death and there had also been a natural but that was it. Kent and Teri knew I was in the office, but Mike didn’t, and while I was there a call came in for a gunshot victim. For some reason Mike went on the call instead of Kent, I did not even know a call came in, and Mike didn’t know I was at the office, so from all that confusion Mike accidentally left me behind. Gary thought it was hilarious. I was not as amused.

Hopefully something will happen next week while I am there, because sitting there doing nothing gets old pretty quickly and there is only so much homework I can do before I want to throw myself into traffic.