Posts

Poison can be defined as any substance that kills or injures.

How do we know which substances are poisonous? Easy answer. Any substance taken in a large enough dose can be toxic. However, for the purpose of writing mysteries, let’s talk about a couple of deadly poisons that could add a special something to a story. And one, well, let’s just leave it at it’s a bit bothersome trying to convince a healthy, grown man to insert a lethal dose of suppositories into a place where the sun rarely, if ever, shines. How’s that for a twisted tale? Pun intended.

First, though…

NICOTINE

Nicotine is a pale yellow to dark brown liquid.

An unsuspecting victim can succumb to this fishy smelling drug’s effects within a few short hours, but not before experiencing severe diarrhea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat, and twitching. The drug starts killing by depressing the brain and spinal cord. Then it paralyzes the skeletal muscles. Coma may precede death.

Symptoms of nicotine poisoning can begin as early as thirty minutes after exposure. A killer may introduce the poison through inhalation, skin absorption, eye contact, or ingestion.

METHODS OF DISSEMINATING NICOTINE

  • Nicotine can be released into indoor air as a fine powder or liquid spray (aerosol).
  • Nicotine can be used to contaminate water.
  • Nicotine can be used to contaminate food.
  • Nicotine can be released into outdoor air as a fine powder or liquid spray (aerosol).
  • If released into the air as fine powder or liquid spray (aerosol), nicotine could contaminate agricultural products.

CHLORAL HYDRATE

(Mickey Finn, Mickey, knockout drops)

This clear liquid is also available in powder, capsules, and suppositories (and you thought I was kidding in the first paragraph).

Chloral Hydrate is a central nervous system depressant and when taken orally, the onset of symptoms occur quickly. Some early symptoms of chloral hydrate poisoning/overdose are confusion, shallow respiration, coma, pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), and absent reflexes.

An initial symptom of nicotine poisoning— drowsiness—can develop as quickly as 30 to 45 minutes. Death occurs within a few hours.

Chloral hydrate was one of the drugs found in Anna Nicole Smith’s body at the time of her death. The prescription for the drug was not in her name. Instead, it had been prescribed to Howard K. Stern, Smith’s friend, attorney, and companion.

After her death, Marilyn Monroe’s blood/ liver samples tested positive for both pentobarbital and chloral hydrate. Test results showed lethal concentrations of both.


Slip ’em a Mickey!

Mickey Finn, an Irish bar owner and top pickpocket in Chicago, is known for using a special concoction of drugs to spike the drinks of customers. Finn’s cocktail rendered consumers unconscious, an act that allowed the barkeep and the “house girls” to steal the unfortunate person’s valuables. The practice became known as slipping someone a Mickey, or giving them a Mickey Finn.

As a police detective in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I investigated a vast assortment of criminal cases ranging from forged checks to robbery to B&E, major narcotics cases, murder for hire, occult crimes, and murder, to name a few. Solving those cases, including murders, often involved laboratory scientists who conducted a range of tests on various types of evidence.

Determining the Cause of Death

In Virginia  it is the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Office (OCME) that’s responsible for determining the cause and manner of deaths that that fall under a handful of circumstances. Those specific conditions are:

Pursuant to § 32.1-283 of the Code of Virginia, all of the following deaths are investigated by the OCME:

  • any death from trauma, injury, violence, or poisoning attributable to accident, suicide or homicide;
  • sudden deaths to persons in apparent good health or deaths unattended by a physician;
  • deaths of persons in jail, prison, or another correctional institution, or in police custody (this includes deaths from legal intervention);
  • deaths of persons receiving services in a state hospital or training center operated by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services;
  • the sudden death of any infant; and
  • any other suspicious, unusual, or unnatural death.

Autopsies in the state are conducted at one of four district offices: Manassas, Norfolk, Richmond or Roanoke. The chief medical examiner’s office is located in Richmond. At the time when I worked as a detective the Central Laboratory, where the majority of forensic testing of evidence was conducted, was located in a downtown in a building shared with the medical examiner’s office. Ironically, much like a TV show setting, the morgue was in the basement.

Dinner with the Inspiration for Kay Scarpetta

I know this may sound a bit morbid, but I often made my way to the morgue simply to hang out and to learn. After all, this was the morgue  that gave birth to Kay Scarpetta, the famous fictional medical examiner created by Patricia Cornwell. The character was based on real-life Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Marcella Fierro, a brilliant, renowned medical examiner. Dr. Fierro was the M.E. who conducted the first autopsy I attended, an event I detailed in my book police procedure.

When Denene received her PhD (in pathology) from the University of Virginia, we celebrated at the Commonwealth Club in downtown Richmond. Dr.Fierro and one of her assistants, Dr. Kay, joined us for dinner. Tell you what, nothing beats a good autopsy conversation during dinner.

Another point to ponder – Cornwell’s first book, Postmortem, was based on the case(s) involving the brutal murders committed by serial killer/rapist Timothy Wilson Spencer. Spencer was the first person in the country convicted of a capital crime through DNA testing.

Spencer’s victims were discovered nude or partly nude in their bedrooms with their hands firmly tied, with rope, belts, or socks secured tightly around their necks. Spencer entered their homes through windows and then raped, sodomized, and then choked them until they were dead.

In April of 1997, the man known as the Southside Strangler was electrocuted and pronounced dead at 11:13 p.m. I sat just a few feet away and watched him die a gruesome death. To read the entire story of that night, click here.

Okay, enough rambling and reminiscing, so back to the lab – The upstairs floors of the laboratory high-rise complex housed various labs where scientists and laboratory personnel examined and tested every from gunshot residue and fingerprints to blood stains and poisons.

When I and other officers delivered evidence to the lab we were required to check in with an official stationed at the front desk. It was there where we submitted the items and the accompanying forms (see below).

Request for Laboratory Examination forms must accompany all submitted items. I’ve hidden the suspects’ identifying information in the form above, this one from my own case files. The items tested positive cocaine and the individuals involved accepted plea deals.

After the evidence was logged into the system and assigned a number(s) it was officially/physically received by the lab’s police officer on duty. They then delivered the materials/items to their proper place(s) where it would then be picked up by the expert who’d conduct the testing.

While a the facility I often visited various labs to see how far along other evidence was in their respective processes—fingerprints, trace evidence, DNA, etc. One of the places I visited was the toxicology lab. I did so for three reasons. One – I found the place to be fascinating. Two – I knew the person in charge and we’d been friends for quite a while. Three – They offered free coffee and sometimes a doughnut or two.

Back to my fascination with the tox lab. I find poison cases to be intriguing since they’re often so personal. They typically require a bit of planning and a ton of patience. And, to solve those kinds of murders, it take a good toxicologist to help put the pieces together in a form that’ll point to the killer.

In Virginia’s tox labs, they (per their website) “analyze body fluids and tissues for the presence and concentrations of alcohol, drugs, and other potential poisons. Support is provided to Medical Examiners to assist in determining cause and manner of death, and to law enforcement agencies investigating crimes where drug or alcohol use may be implicated.

The toxicology lab is often key to DUI and DUID (driving under the influence of drugs) cases Here’s how (again, from their website):

“Driving Under the Influence (DUI/DUID)
The Toxicology Section receives all blood samples taken by law enforcement agencies during DUI/DUID investigations to determine alcohol and drug content. After alcohol, the most frequently detected drugs are marijuana, prescription pain relievers (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin), benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Valium, Klonopin), cocaine and zolpidem (Ambien, Intermezzo). While statutory limits exist for alcohol, PCP, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA (ecstasy) in blood, none are set for other drugs. Consequently, expert toxicology testimony regarding the effects of a drug or a combination of drugs on human performance and driving behavior is often necessary to establish impairment.”

And …

“The Department supplies Blood Collection Kits for use in DUI/DUID cases in Virginia. With these kits, the DUI/D Submission Information Sheet  may be used instead of a Request for Laboratory Examination Form.

  • Non-Implied Consent Cases
    Law enforcement agencies also submit blood, urine or other body fluids from suspects or victims of other crimes. Examples of these situations include drug-facilitated sexual assault, DUI/D investigations not pursuant to the implied consent statute, and child abuse or endangerment.
  •  Alcoholic Beverage Testing
    The Central Toxicology Section in Richmond also tests suspected alcoholic beverages submitted by law enforcement agencies.  Most of these cases involve the investigation of minors in possession of alcohol, open intoxicants in vehicles and illegal sale/distribution of alcohol.  These types of cases require the analysis of alcohol content.  Any beverage containing greater than or equal to 0.5% ethanol is defined as an alcoholic beverage (Code of Virginia § 4.1-100).”

TODAY’S MYSTERY SHOPPER’S CORNER

Since the holiday season is nearly here, I’ve decided to feature a few fun items for your mystery shopping needs and wants. I’ll post these regularly throughout the remaining weeks of 2018.

So, for day five of MSC, especially for those of you who’re shopping for writer friends who enjoy a bit of research and/or relaxation, here are my picks. By the way, someone asked why I post all Amazon links for the books I recommend. The answer is that they work well for and with this site, but by all means feel free to purchase books anywhere you like. But why not here by simply clicking the links I provide?

First up, Postmortem, Patricia Corwnell’s book based on serial killer Timothy Spencer.


Next is my book about police procedure. Inside, in addition to valuable information about cops and what they do, you’ll find a detailed chapter on autopsy as well as the complete story on the night I watched Spencer die in the electric chair.


Tactical pen/Self-Defense Weapon and Flashlight.


Multi-Tool Pliers and Handtools


Case Police Mini Trapper Pocket Knife

I think it’s fairly safe to say that no one writer has enjoyed a good poison more than the “Queen of Crime,” Agatha Christie. In fact, Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie knew so little about guns and ballistics that she maintained the use of toxins as a primary mode of murder throughout her career as an author.

Christie once worked as an apothecary’s assistant and, to continue in the role, she had to pass required examinations. To assist her, co-workers tutored her in chemistry and pharmacy. In addition, she received private tuition from a commercial pharmacist who later made an appearance as the pharmacist in her tale The Pale Horse.

Her knowledge of apothecary was so detailed that it once received a glowing review—“This novel has the rare merit of being correctly written”—in the Pharmaceutical Journal and Pharmacist.

Yes, she wrote what she knew, yet, if she came across a topic of which she was unsure she didn’t hesitate to seek help, such as the time she contacted a specialist to inquire about about putting thalidomide in birthday-cake icing (How much should the killer use? How long before the effects of the poison would begin to show?).

Christie was definitely good at what she did and she was a pro at weaving fact into fiction without making it seem like we were reading the factual stuff straight from a textbook like we often see today in some books.

I like to point to Jeffery Deaver as a modern day example of a true pro who knows his stuff and who knows how to cleverly interject very real facts into a tale.

With each book, Deaver enters into a grueling research period, examining every minute detail, and he conducts this research sometimes for months on end before he sets the first word to paper. But when he does, the result is a true masterpiece of believable make-believe. In fact, something, a bit of factual information I found in his book Roadside Crosses was the starting point for a section in my book on police procedure.

A character in Roadside Crosses mentioned using a write blocker when examining a computer hard drive, one that had been submerged in a body of water. Well, at the time I was planning the section on computer crimes and what I seen in Jeff’s book was the catalyst that prompted a portion of that particular section.

By the way, a write blocker is used by forensic investigators when they need to have a look inside a suspect’s computer. The device allows data to travel only from the suspect device to the computer copying the information, not the other way around. The analogy I used in my book was to equate the write blocker with a foot valve inside a well. The valve allows water to flow into a home but doesn’t permit it to run back into the well.

Back enough dilly-dallying, let’s return to Christie and her use of poisons, and she used several, such as strychnine (The Mysterious Affair at Styles), thallium (The Pale Horse), digitalis, cyanide (Sparkling Cyanide). She also used coniine (Five Little Pigs), which I find interesting because it’s an alkaloid extracted from hemlock. Spooky, huh?

However, today I’d like to delve a bit into Dame Christie’s use of arsenic since the toxin is one so many writers seem to gravitate toward. I know I see and hear and receive numerous written inquiries about it’s use. Sure, I know people often use me to get to Denene, my microbiologist/scientist wife who’s an expert on bioterrorism, but, as the Lynyrd Skynyrd song goes, “I Know a Little.”

“Say I know a little
I know a little about it
I know a little
I know a little about it
I know a little about love poison
And baby I you can guess the rest”

My knowledge of arsenic as it relates to the crime world is twofold—its use to kill, and the presumptive test to see if arsenic or other heavy metals are indeed present in someone’s system, the alert that further testing is required to determine the toxin that caused a victim’s demise. It’s the latter, the presumptive test that I’m sharing with you today, and here it is in a very brief and tiny and, hopefully, understandable nutshell.

The Reinsch Test

The Reinsch Test uses a strong acid, and copper, to identify the presence of arsenic, antimony, bismuth, and mercury. The metallic copper, when in the presence of concentrated hydrochloric acid, reduces arsenic (also antimony, bismuth and mercury) to its elemental form. If arsenic is present when the copper is introduced to the acid, it adheres to the copper as a visible but dull black film.

The Process

  1. First, obtain specimens for testing. Urine, gastric contents, or liver samples are the preferred specimens.
  2. Using a copper spiral of#20 gauge, or a foil copper strip, the technician/scientist, carefully winds the copper around a glass rod or a pencil. Next, the copper is cleaned by immersing it in concentrated nitric acid for a few seconds. The tech then immediately removes it and dunks the cleaned copper into a container of water. If the cleaning process was successful, and it should be, the copper will now appear as bright and shiny as a brand new penny.
  3. An arsenic reference solution must then be prepared by dissolving predetermined amounts of arsenic trioxide and sodium hydroxide. Then dH2O (distilled water) is added to the mix. The solution is neutralized with concentrated HCl (hydrochloric acid) and more dH2O.
  4. Place clean copper spirals (the ones coiled by wrapping around the pencil) into separate beakers or flasks.
  5. Place 20 mL urine, approximately 10-15 g minced tissue in 20 mL dH2O, or a specific amount gastric contents dissolved in 20 mL dH2O into a labeled beaker. By specific, I mean a number that evenly divides another number. Precisely speaking, this number/amount is an “aliquot” of gastric contents. An aliquot is a number that evenly divides another number, such as the number 5 is to the number 20.

I first heard this term, aliquot, back during the time when I was in a breathalyzer certification course. It appeared again when I was observing an autopsy performed by Dr. Marcella Farinelli Fierro, Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, who was the inspiration for Patricia Cornwell’s books and for her protagonist Dr. Kay Scarpetta. The term has been embedded in my mind for forty years, give or take.

Okay, I’m rambling again. Back to the procedure.

6.  Place 20 mL negative control urine in two separate beakers. Add 40 μL of 1 mg/mL of the premixed arsenic reference solution (from step 3 above).

7.  Slowly and gently add 4 mL concentrated HCl to each beaker.

8.  To avoid breathing or contacting the vapors, under a hood, heat the solutions to a gentle boil for approximately one hour. Then add 10% HCl as necessary to maintain the original volume. Do not allow the solution to dip below the original level.

9.  After one hour, remove the copper coils and rinse with distilled water. If the copper coils in the unknown samples become gray, black, or silvery, then the result is a presumptive positive for the presence of heavy metal.

10.  BINGO! You’ve now confirmed your suspicions. The victim was indeed poisoned. However, you’re still not sure of which heavy metal is the culprit, unless, of course, you found the victim’s wife holding a half-empty box of rat poison while standing over her deceased husband.

The next step would be to send a sample to a qualified laboratory where it would then undergo further testing to determine which heavy metal was used to kill the victim du jour.

11.  Tie up loose ends and then issue a warrant for the killer.

12.  Arrest the suspect.

13.  Go home, crank up the volume on track four of Skynard’s Street Survivor disc (I Know a Little), and settle in to read Roadside Crosses.

14. Take a break from reading to ponder the Georgians and Victorians who many believed were killed simply because they were particularly fond of the colors red and green—two colors whose components in those days were made of arsenic compounds. Therefore, many common items were thought to have become instruments of death, including clothing and kids toys.

For many years people believed a very real danger of arsenic poising was due to the common, ordinary wallpaper used in those days. Why? Again, due to the extreme popularity of red and green colorings. To stick the paper to walls and other surfaces, homebuilders back then used a paste of flour and water, and when the paste later became moist, such as in humid and/or damp climates, became an ideal breeding habitat for mold. And, in this macabre chain of perhaps fictional circumstances, some molds transformed the arsenic into a gas called trimethylarsine. This stuff then was released arsenic from the paper which was then inhaled by humans who occupied the space.

However, even though arsenic was used in the wallpaper colorings, some scientists today do not believe that arsenic was to blame for those untimely deaths. In fact, it’s been stated that the illnesses that caused many of those deaths were simply misunderstood and misdiagnosed illnesses—arsenophobia that ran wild in 19th century Europe—merely because something in the house smelled odd at the time someone died of unknown causes.

 

Writers of various genres are forever devising clever ways to send murder victims to their graves with undetected causes of death. One such favored method, poisoning, has proven quite reliable on the written page. Here are a few of the deadly toxins that thrive naturally. Why, even your spouses could get their hands on them. Yeah, keep that in mind the next time you decide to argue when you know you’re absolutely wrong.

Belladonna, often called nightshade, is a popular ornamental plant. It’s name means “beautiful woman” in Italian. A single six or seven drop dose of the plant’s toxic parts (roots, leaves, and berries) can cause death within a few hours. Victims could also suffer miserably for a few days before succumbing to the plant. Symptoms include, increased heart rate, rapid pulse and respiration, a loud heartbeat that can be heard from several feet away, fever, convulsions, and coma.

Jimsonweed, also known as thorn apple (pictured above), is a very deadly plant that’s sometimes abused as a hallucinogen. In fact, prison inmates working on roadside cleanup crews often harvest the plant’s tiny black seeds that, when consumed, produce the unusual high that’s associated with this prickly plant.

For example …

Once, while working as a corrections officer inside a maximum security facility, I overheard a young inmate who was vocally imitating the sounds of a motorcycle engine. And, amid the vrooms, zooms, growls, roars, and revving and snarling motor noises, were brief chuckles, giggles, and an imaginary argument with an imaginary fellow biker the man referred to as Buck. Buck, however, was, as I later understood, was fully-clothed, including  a helmet. And, I also learned that Buck was quit the acrobat and trick-rider.

Obviously, one of the major side effects of Jimsonweed consumption is delirium, and this guy’s hallucinations were working overtime as I rounded the corner of the open-stalled bathroom area.

The incarcerated man was totally nude and seated (you know where). Apparently the seed-induced trip caused him to perch his naked bottom atop an imaginary big old Harley, because he held his hands as if they were gripping handlebars, throttle, and brake controls, and he was pushing his fictitious bike to its limits. His body leaned forward over “the handlebars” to reduce wind friction, I supposed, and he did so while laughing like a madman, in short bursts of chimp-like squeals and screeches.

When he saw me his lips split into a tight grin as he wiggled his stubby and grubby fingers in my direction. The gesture was a childlike bye-bye wave aimed at me just before throttling the steel toilet into high gear. He shouted a few words to Buck (above the engine sounds) and he leaned further toward the front tire, crouching low while turning the throttle as far as mechanically possible. I assumed that he and Buck were riding off toward the horizon to avoid capture. They were doing 180 mph, or more. A guess, of course, because I didn’t have a radar unit handy. Not much need for one inside a prison, you know.

Their speed didn’t work, though. No match for my shiny, black fake leather shoes. Yes, miraculously, I was able to catch up to the pair—the inmate and Buck—on foot.

I easily apprehended the desperados and carted both to the medical department. Buck was released and soon disappeared. The prisoner, after a short stay in the infirmary, spent a few weeks in “the hole.”

In addition to delirium, other jimsonweed side effects are blurred vision vertigo, blindness, involuntary movements, convulsions, coma, and death.

Lilly of the Valley, aka Our Lady’s Tears, is found throughout the United States and Canada. The plants toxicity level is quite high, a level six, and causes an immediate reaction to the unsuspecting victim. Even the water in which the plant’s cut flowers is kept is deadly. Symptoms include, hallucinations, vomiting, clammy skin, hot flashes, coma, and death.