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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Herb Baumeister

December 29, 2007

In 1993, a number of missing person cases involving young men went unsolved. Roger Allan Goodlet disappeared on July 22, 1994.  Goodlet’s mother contacted the police, but unsatisfied with their response, she hired a private investigator.  Soon Goodlet’s face appeared on flyers throughout the area.  Finally, the community and media began to ask questions about the young men who frequented the gay night clubs in the area and their disappearances. Days after Goodlet’s disappearance, Stephen Hale was the eighth man to vanish.  Police turned to the FBI Behavioral Science Unit for help.  The profile indicated the perpetrator was a white male, mid 30s, bisexual with a mid to high level IQ.  The profile would only be useful if the received information on a possible suspect.   

One potential witness came forward. Mark Goodyear told police about an odd encounter he had with a man who was a regular patron of the bars in the area.  When Goodyear and the man discussed the missing person flyer, the man seemed to feign concern. Despite Goodyear’s suspicions, he agreed to accompany the man home, where they engaged in erotic asphyxiation foreplay.  Goodyear was shaken by the encounter and reported the incident to police, but he was unable to pinpoint the location.   The man continued to contact Goodyear. During their phone conversations, the man admitted to accidents or bad nights, but he never confessed to murder.  By August 1995, ten men had vanished.   Goodyear spotted the man in a bar and took down his license plate number, which belonged to Herb Baumeister.   

Unlike most characters in true crime stories, Herb and Julie Baumeister lived a seemingly idyllic life. The meet while attending Indiana University and married after Julie’s graduation in 1971.  They founded a prosperous business, the Sav-A-Lot Thrift Stores, their children attended private schools and to all appearances they had achieved the American dream. 

Herb Baumeister serial killer 

Police didn’t have any evidence to tie Beaumeister to the crimes, so they questioned him and asked to search his home. Unable to obtain a search warrant, Police conducted a search from the air using an infrared camera in the hopes of locating graves. The search was unsuccessful. Julie couldn’t believe Herb was involved; however, the stress of financial hardship and the accusations damaged the couple’s marriage. Julie filed for divorce and feared Herb would flee with her children.  She decided to give police permission to search the property. 

The police found a burial ground behind the house. Bones, teeth and skulls were strewn on the ground.  Some of the bones were burned and broken; others were whole, large pieces. There were seven left metacarpal bones discovered, indicating at least seven victims. Despite the gruesome discovery, Herb Baumeister was not taken into custody.  Herb Baumeister committed suicide on July 4th, 1996.  He left a suicide note but made no mention of his crimes.  Witnesses came forward and confirmed Baumeister’s habit of bringing men home for sexual encounters.  Police speculated that Baumeister may have killed 50-60 people, beginning as earlier as 1980.  The I-70 murders were eerily similar. 

It seems inconceivable that Julie would not know about Herb’s activities. She did know that in 1972, Herb spent two months in a psychiatric hospital and was diagnosed with compulsive personality disorder.  Police did not consider Julie an accomplice because she was gone each night a victim was taken to the home. 


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.