Forensic Botanists Discover Clues to the Crime

February 25, 2008

Fiction writers need to be aware of the advances in forensic science and techniques for gathering and analyzing evidence so their stories are relevant in today’s market.  The following true crime story was featured on a show called Forensic Files which airs on TRU TV. I thought it was interesting because police investigations are becoming more sophisticated.  Shows like CSI dramatize the facts, but there are still elements of truth.   Fourteen year old Genna disappeared from her home and no one witnessed anything suspicious in the neighborhood.  The next day, her nude body was found in a ditch 20 miles outside of town.  The coroner determined cause of death was strangulation, however there were other injuries, including blunt force injuries to the head and post mortem pressure marks. These marks would normally fade quickly, but when the blood doesn’t circulate away from the pressure spot the color remains.  Police checked the Genna’s home, but found no signs of struggle.  Police began to check into alibis of Genna’s family, her mother, her older brother and her step father Doug.   Doug said he was at work in the morning, however, the security cameras were off that day.  He provided a second alibi, a fast food restaurant.  Amazingly, the fast food restaurant’s cameras weren’t working either, so police could not verify Doug’s alibi.  They searched his car and didn’t find any blood or signs the vehicle had been recently cleaned.  They did find plant material under the car.   Forensic Botanists examined the material and found yellow star thistle which was present at the crime scene and on the body.  Diagnostic characteristics are unique aspects of the plant which differentiate it from other plants of the same species, such as developmental life cycles of each plant.  The plant was too common to tie Doug to the crime scene. Police investigators returned to the marks on Genna’s body to find more evidence.  Photographs of the marks were sent to a Photogrammatrist, who was able to create a 3 dimensional image of the skin pattern and precise measurements of the object which created the marks.   Acting on a hunch, investigators placed a model, similar is size and weight to Genna, in a vehicle similar to Doug’s and found the pressure marks were made by a seat belt buckle and an edge of carpeting.  He was convicted, but maintains his innocence to date.

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Spree Killers

January 23, 2008

Spree killers target innocent bystanders, thrilling in the destruction of the public’s well being. Their acts of violence are motivated by revenge or a misguided need to be noticed.

On April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant opened fire at a popular café.  He killed 35 people and wounded 19 others in a single day.  Bryant was a troubled and tormented youth, lashing out in anger.   He lashed out in defense against bullying and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and mild retardation.  As a young adult he became isolated and desperate sought companionship, striking up conversations with random women.  His attempts were thwarted and he became angry at society in general and planned revenge.    After the shootings, Bryant fled to a nearby inn and was surrounded by police.  He set the inn on fire and was badly burned.  He recovered from his injuries and was sentenced to 35 life sentences after pleading guilty to murder.  

Martin Bryant

Social exclusion seems to be a common indicator in spree killers. Test subjects were tested to see the impact of social isolation and rejection.   After being rejected, subjects were asked to fill in blanks on several words.  Rejected subjects repeatedly choose violent words. 

On August 1st 1966, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother, then packed a footlocker full of weapons and drove to the University of Austin.  From a clock tower on the college’s campus Whitman killed 15 people and wounded 31 others.  Whitman was raised in a physically abusive home. He left home at 15, joining the Army and was sent to the University of Texas on scholarship.  He married but struggled to overcome the violence of this past.   He was court martialed after a violent public outburst and his scholarship revoked.  He is ashamed of his behavior, but unable to control them. He wrote about his struggles in his journal and confessed his desire to kill bystanders from the clock tower to a psychiatrist.  After the attack, an autopsy was performed and a tumor was discovered.  

Charles Whitman

Borderline personality disorder is a mental illness that can cause impulsive behaviors, fits of rage or inappropriate emotions.  The amygdala is the part of the brain that regulates fear and anger.  Those with borderline personality disorder have heightened activity in the amygdala, which may inhibit an individual’s ability to control their rage.

  

19 year old Charles Starkweather and his 14 year old accomplice, Carol Fugate embarked on a killing spree after Starkweather killed Carol’s parents.  They claimed 10 victims, lashing out at any one who crossed their path.  Starkweather was an outcast at school, bullied and teased, he fantasized about revenge. Carol and Charles had a passionate affair and planned to marry, but her family stood in their way, so they were eliminated.  Starkweather shot Carol’s mother, stepfather and 2 year old sister then took their blood lust on the road.   They killed seven more people before they were apprehended. Carol Fugate claimed she was a hostage but both were convicted.

Charles Starkweather and Carol Fugate

Spree killers are becoming more deadly and methodical, attacking at schools, malls or other crowded public places.  Understanding the motives and traits will hopefully help law enforcement prevent tragic blood shed in the future.  


Joel Rifkin

December 27, 2007

Joel Rifkin often solicited prostitutes from Manhattan’s lower East Side, known as the Stroll.  Over a four year period, he killed seventeen prostitutes, dismembering and disposing of their bodies.  His crimes went unreported and the victims’ disappearances unnoticed. Trooper Sean Ruane noticed a vehicle with no license plate. When he attempted to pull the vehicle over, the driver fled, and a high speed chase ensued. The driver was Joel Rifkin and he was transporting the body of Tiffany Brescinani. 

Rifkin was cooperative with authorities and admitted to strangling Bresciani.  After killing her, he stored the body for three days before attempting to dispose of it. Detectives were amazed with his detached demeanor and eventual confession.  Rifkin directed detectives to burial sites of two bodies.  

Joel Rifkin with police officers 

Police interrogated Rifkin for twelve hours and he was able to recall details of each murder, dating back to 1989.  Rifkin lived with his mother and sister during his crime spree. Police searched his room and found personal belongings from the victims: id, underwear, jewelry, which helped Rifkin to remember and relive his crimes. He also collected news clippings of other serial killers. 

He became the most prolific killer in New York State history.

 Joel was adopted and raised in a loving family. He was tormented in school so he developed strategies to escape abuse and avoid people.  As he became more isolated, his rich fantasy life eventually overpowered his real life.   He sought out a prostitute to lose his virginity. His first sexual experience fulfilled his need to be in control and eliminated the possibility of rejection. In 1986, Rifkin’s father Ben was diagnosed with cancer and committed suicide months later.  With his father’s death, Rifkin turned to prostitutes with greater frequency, considering it his “drug of choice”.  

In February 1989 Rifkin committed his first murder, bludgeoning a prostitute and strangling her.  After the murder, he went to bed and slept and only contemplated the problem of removing her body hours later. Using an exacto knife, he dismembered her body to remove it from the home. He drove around and discarded the body parts at various locations.  

He returned to his regular routine and vowed to never kill again, but the urge never left him. He killed again and with greater frequency.  He killed most of his victims in his home, after having sex with the girls he would beat them and strangle them. The bodies were kept in the basement until he could discard them.  He considered the women objects and never thought of the families they left behind. He grew more and more bold; even propping a dead body in the passenger seat of his car and stopping for gas.  

Rifkin pled not guilty by reason of insanity and his lawyers fought the submission of his confession, claiming it was coerced.  The prosecution provided evidence of Rifkin’s cunning and deception to prove he was sane at the time the crimes were committed, and aware they were wrong.  The defense claimed he was a paranoid schizophrenic and unable to control his actions.  Rifkin was disinterested and detached during the trail, often falling asleep during the testimony.   He was found guilty and sentenced to over 200 years in prison.  

He didn’t fully grasp the impact of his actions until the events of 9/11 when families desperately sought missing people.  He realized the consequences of his actions but he isn’t able to guarantee he wouldn’t kill again if given the opportunity.