Horror movies are tame compared to the
gruesome details of a forensic murder investigation

By MICHAEL LAYCOCK
Vancouver Courier
Dec. 7, 1997

The images come at us on the six-o-clock news almost daily: yellow tape, police officers taking photos, a body being taken from the murder scene in a bag.

But what happens next, and who does the dirty work?

“We are kind of your last hope if you happen to get yourself murdered,” coroner Bob Stair tells a group of about 200 people gathered at a forensic-science workshop at BCIT.

“We’re kind of the ‘death ombudspeople,’ if you like.”

Over the next seven hours, Stair and speakers on topics like autopsies and insects show enough gruesome crime-scene slides and tell enough grisly stories to make even horror-flick fans queasy.

The B.C. Coroners Service, a branch of the Ministry of Attorney General, investigates sudden and unexpected deaths in the province.

There were 85 homicides in B.C. to Oct. 9 this year, according to Coroners Service statistics. The preliminary figure for 1996 is 125, and about 70 per cent of the victims were male.

The bodies are typically found in a ditch or a shallow grave by someone out for a jog or stroll. A phone call to police sets a massive operation into motion.

“If you can get control of your crime scene in the first five minutes (of discovery), things will likely turn out okay,” Stair says. “Protection of the crime scene is paramount.”

Stair, a retired 26-year RCMP crime-scene examiner who has worked on more than 300 Canadian homicide investigations, also teaches forensic science at BCIT and works for the B.C. Coroners Service.

He says it’s tough enough to preserve a crime scene without the interference of scouring rain, cloaking snow, and wandering people.

“The efforts of the first-responders are crucial,” he says, adding that careful steps (like establishing a “safety zone” of yellow tape) are needed to protect the scene from the passing of many feet.

Once the scene is identified and secured, it’s time for the next challenge: to gather all the evidence.

“It’s imperative now that we get the most material (evidence) off a body as we can,” he says, adding that often the most damning evidence is at the microscopic and genetic level. He refers to the case of a murdered girl that was solved when a foreign pubic hair taken from the girl’s abdomen was matched to her attacker.

He also stresses the importance of carefully examining the body as it is found at the scene, not just at the morgue.

“It’s very difficult to be accurate if your forensic evidence is floating around in two inches of blood at the bottom of the body bag,” he notes dryly.

Depending on where the body is found, the next step in the process may be “full-contact archeology,” Stair explains.

Using tools as small as brushes or as large as backhoes, the team uses a 3-D grid pattern to search the surrounding area for evidence like footprints, clothing and hair fibres, bullets, shell casings, and even broken twigs.

The investigators, clothed in goggles, gloves and white synthetic “bunny suits” (which Stair says gives them “a Smurf appearance”), also need to protect themselves from contracting septic poisoning — a hazard posed by the bacteria that are rampant in decomposing remains — as well as HIV, the virus believed to cause AIDS.

The fingerprints of killers can be lifted from bodies for considerable periods after death, as long as decomposition isn’t too advanced and the prints haven’t been smudged when the body is moved.

Portable lasers and other lighting techniques can be used to make certain bodily fluids glow or to reveal fingerprints.

And bloodstain pattern analysis is a key part of reconstruction of the crime scene.

“Every blood drop tells a story,” Stair says, adding that such factors as trajectory can help determine motive — and can make the difference between murder and manslaughter charges.

The position and state of a dead body and its parts are often crucial in determining how long an individual has been dead. There’s not much holding our bodies together after our connective tissue breaks down, Stair says.

“Five days under a piece of plywood, and the body comes apart. You are a skeleton in a very short time — just something to keep in mind when you’re out hiking,” he adds grimly.

“The 360 bones in the body basically become free agents,” he says, so the whereabouts of the jaw bone is a good rough indicator of how long the body has been decomposing.

But investigators will still have to determine whether the scattering of the remains is due to natural (scavengers, rushing water, etc.) or unnatural causes.

Movies and television shows are often out to lunch when it comes to depicting death scenes, says Stair, who also moonlights as an advisor to well-known series such as Millennium and The X-Files. In real life, bodies dumped in water float face down, not face up, for instance.

Some of these misconceptions can lead to the warped and ineffective ideas killers have for disposing of bodies, Stair says, recalling cases in which bumbling murderers have actually *preserved* bodies by encasing them in tar or burying them in lime (instead of *lye*).

“There’s an easy way of cutting up a chicken, and there’s a hard way of cutting up a chicken,” Stair says. “A human being is actually really easy to cut up if you know what you’re doing.”

Killers usually accomplish “forensic disarticulation” (my favorite euphemism of the day) by cutting at the joints between bones with chainsaws, hacksaws, or axes in an effort to more easily transport the body.

“Primarily, people who are out there killing people are lazy,” Stair says, noting that shallow graves near the roadside are the disposal method of choice. “Bodies are heavy. It’s like moving a futon.”

Despite the grisly nature of the work, Stair says he likes it.

“It’s a good job,” he says. “It’s very challenging, it’s very exciting. It’s problem-solving that makes a difference.”

“Death is about the *living* in a lot of ways, too. We are accountable to the survivors, both society and the next of kin,” he says. “That’s the neat part of this job. It’s about real, living people who are influenced by what you do.”

Stair, a father of two grown-up children, says he has the hardest time emotionally with cases involving child victims.

“Kids are really hard. It doesn’t matter how often you do them, it’s hard not to apply their situation to your own life. They’re the pure victims. They’re the essence of innocence, and they’re at our mercy. They don’t have a chance . . . God, you’d have to be a robot if you didn’t feel those kinds of things.”

Dr. James Ferris holds up a human femur and part of a skull at one point during his talk on forensic pathology. The bones come from a woman who was killed in his native U.K. many years ago, and they’ve travelled with him across numerous international borders.

“Customs officials are not amused,” he deadpans.

Ferris, a forensic pathologist at UBC, has performed more than 8,500 court-related autopsies and testified in more than 900 homicide cases during about 30 years on the job. He has also travelled abroad to consult on high-profile cases like the Somalia inquiry.

The forensic pathologist’s role, he explained in an earlier interview, is to investigate unknown, unnatural deaths, carry out post mortems, and to determine the manner and mechanisms of death and disease.

When asked how his work compares to that of TV’s Quincy, he first gestures to a framed photo on his office wall.

The picture shows Ferris along with Jack Klugman (the actor who portrayed Quincy in the 1970s series) and former chief Los Angeles medical examiner Dr. Thomas Noguchi, one of the experts Quincy was modelled after.

“We do autopsies, we go to the scene, but we don’t do personal interviews,” Ferris says. “Quincy actually played the role of five or six people.”

And like the TV character, Ferris has had close calls with danger in the course of his work. He recalls his experience after an IRA shooting when he was working in Northumberland, England, in the early 1970s.

“We went to treat the two policemen who were shot, and it was like something out of a horror movie,” he says.

“We were out on the moors, and the nearest hospital was 40 miles away . . . We hid behind police cars as the raid went ahead. The guy they were looking for gave up. Things *can* get exciting sometimes.”

Exciting indeed. Particularly during a time when the IRA was known to boobytrap dead bodies with bombs.

Back at the BCIT lecture, Ferris shows a slide of himself sawing apart a frozen human head with a bandsaw. The next shot shows the slices stacked, in order, like so many dominoes.

The purpose of the grisly task was to see if the murder victim had suffered brain damage. The woman had been beaten and choked on her tongue.

The average brain decomposes very quickly after death, Ferris notes. Under the right conditions, it turns to liquid in about four days.

Another slide shows a murder victim with the letters “F-U-K-C” tattooed across the backs of his fingers — a case widely joked about in Vancouver police circles as “The Case of the Dyslexic Tattooist,” Ferris says. Tattoos can be extremely helpful in the process of identifying victims, he continues.

Careful teamwork is perhaps the most important factor in ensuring that hundreds of hours of forensic investigation don’t go down the tubes in court, Ferris says, citing Australia’s Dingo Baby case as an example of how terribly wrong things can go.

In that case, investigators mistook paint for blood, missed bloodstained clothing less than 100 metres from where the baby’s body was found, and generally acted in an all-around sloppy fashion. As a result, the case went unsolved.

Ferris says he particularly enjoys the intellectual challenge of his work, but adds it has its drawbacks.

“I used to get physically sick from some cases,” he says. “I remember in Ireland having to stop the car and throw up. But you become case-hardened. Most of us don’t like to admit it, but you do.”

Dr. Gail Anderson also does work that’s not for the squeamish. She’s a forensic entomologist (or, more colloquially, a “bug lady”), which means she studies the relationship between insects and dead bodies.

Insects’ life cycles, development rates and colonization times can provide crucial information about a victim’s time of death, wound patterns, and whether or not a victim has been moved or disturbed after death.

Anderson, who works for SFU’s school of criminology, acts as a consultant for the B.C. Coroners Service, the RCMP, and other police agencies.

She says she’s currently the only full-time practitioner in Canada, and she only has about 10 active colleagues in the U.S. Last spring, she was profiled in a one-hour documentary on the Discovery Channel.

“It’s vital to know *when* someone died,” she told the audience at BCIT, explaining that this information can help make or break a suspect’s alibi in court, aid in the identification of an unknown body, and help with the grieving process for surviving family members.

The science of forensic entomology can be traced back as far as 13th century China, and was used in Europe in the 1850s. It’s been successful because successive waves of insects arrive on bodies in a predictable sequence in a particular geographic area.

By examining the oldest insect species present on the body at recovery and the lack of evidence of later species, Anderson can determine a “window of time” of death.

“Insects are commonly the first on the scene of the crime,” Anderson said, noting that they usually arrive within minutes. “Different species like the body at different stages of decomposition.”

Flies, usually the first responders, are attracted to wounds and natural orifices like nostrils. There, they quickly lay their eggs, which in turn become maggots (immature blowflies). Other insects, such as domestic beetles, soon follow.

“The human body is a bag of food and nutrients,” Anderson explains. “What’s happening here is basically recycling.”

Maggots are particularly hungry creatures. Left to their own devices, and given the appropriate temperature and species, they can clean the flesh off a body in a matter of days.

But there are problems with using living evidence, she adds.

“My evidence is alive, and it gets up and walks,” she says, adding that investigators need to be aware of this when they’re combing the crime scene.

In addition, accurate collection of insects at the scene is vital — to a point where Anderson believes a forensic entomologist should examine the scene personally to avoid problems later in court.

Further complicating matters is the common situation of a victim who has been killed in one location and moved to another.

“Lots of people are killed in Vancouver and dumped in the Fraser Valley,” she says, noting that prostitutes are often victims of this practice. “But the type of insects you find in Vancouver are not the same as those you find out in the boondocks. Insects can show investigators where to look.”

Insects can also be used to determine the position and presence of wounds. For instance, a high number of maggots on a victim’s hands can indicate wounds caused while the victim was trying to defend herself.

Anderson’s work can be applied to living victims as well. Insect bites on a suspect’s body can be used to tie him to a crime, and the presence of maggots in a baby’s soiled diapers can become crucial evidence in a child-abuse case.

Recently, Anderson has even applied her expertise to poaching investigations in which bears have been killed for their gall bladders.

Anderson, too, enjoys her unorthodox line of work.

“I like the practical, real-world applications,” she says.

“I really like to be able to take my research right into court and help to convict or exonerate someone. It’s satisfying for me to know my research is valuable in real society. We try to prevent killers from killing again. It just matters to me that the truth comes forward.”

And she says it makes no difference to her whether the victim is a drug dealer or a six-year-old child.

“You still feel bad. They were all victims. These people should not have died.”

Near the end of coroner Bob Stair’s talk, one of the workshop attendees asks if he’s worried he might end up tipping off killers on how to get away with their crimes by talking about investigation techniques in a workshop.

“I’m always a little nervous because there’s probably one serial murderer in this room,” Stair replies, half-jokingly.

“But the average killer is probably busy doing other things.”