Gunshot wounds: Suspicious, Suicide or Accidental??

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What about gunshot deaths? What type of gun was used? Is it still there? If it’s not, then it probably wasn’t a suicide! Or did a family member think hiding it would save the family the embarrassment of a suicide? – which it doesn’t – it only creates suspicion – usually toward the person covering it up… So many little factors to consider.  What does the blood say? Does it make sense with the story provided, is it where you would expect it to be? Is it smeared when it shouldn’t be? Are there any footprints or fingerprints in the blood? What type of wound is it? Is it one that the victim could have lived a few minutes? If they used a long gun, it is possible or impossible they could reach the trigger? What do the measurements say? We measure the from the end of the barrel to the trigger, and the end of the arm to the wound. Did they use something to reach the trigger? I had one fella that used a large bar-b-que brush to push the trigger because his arm wasn’t long enough – but the blood was where it belonged.  And of course the brush was right there next to him and under part of the shot gun. Is there a note or a video of their intent to kill themselves? Have they made any recent threats or comments about suicide? Were they familiar with guns?  Were they AFRAID of guns? If someone suggests it was an accident during “cleaning” the gun, then I want to know have they ever cleaned a gun before? Where was the gun usually kept? Did that person know the gun was there if it was not theirs? Many questions to consider when a gun has been used.

Something that really confuses family is they often say the person had been depressed but recently had been in a better mood, so they are shocked that they might have killed themselves after being so “happy” lately! The reason this happens is that the person has made up their mind to kill themselves and they begin to feel less stressed and relieved that their pain (emotional and/or physical) will soon be over. They tend to give things away, get their affairs in order, spend time with people they care about, etc… Sometimes we will find literature at the scene indicating suicide planning. There are people who have basically written the “how to’s” of suicide – which I won’t list the sources or titles here for obvious reasons.

I will cover the guilt and grief of those left behind after a suicide in a later post – and unfortunately I will partly be speaking from personal experience.

Hanging deaths: Suspicious, Suicide or Accidental?

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What makes a death suspicious? Besides the obvious, like a knife in the back – some deaths can be quite questionable and not what they seem! Suicides for instance… Is there more than one mark on the neck in a hanging – what is the angle of the mark, does it match the ligature – how was the ligature tied or fastened? Does lividity and rigor mortis match the found position of the remains? When was the person last seen alive? Was there a recent altercation – physical or verbal? Are there scratch marks on the neck showing hesitation or resistance? Any defensive wounds? Any notes or recent verbal threats of suicide?

Did you know it takes much less pressure than suspected to “hang” or “suspend” in the terms of a ligature death. It can be as simple as tying a scarf or belt from a bathrobe to a door knob something similar, then put your head in the loop and lean forward so that your neck is on the loop.  The weight of your head and torso leaning forward can create enough pressure to suppress your ability to breath, causing asphyxiation. Often accidental hanging deaths happen during experimentation with autoerotic asphyxia.

How does a death investigation begin??

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Each case starts with a phone call to my office of someone reporting a death. The call starts with basic questions, where is the body, were they on hospice care, any recent surgeries, falls, injuries, suspicious circumstances, unusual amounts of body fluid – vomit, diarrhea, blood and is it near the body or through-out the scene? Is family present? Any drugs, alcohol, open or empty prescription pill bottles? Was anybody home? Was their death witnessed? Did paramedics respond to the scene? Did they do any treatment? If no one was home, was the residence locked? Why did police/fire respond if no one else was home – who called and why?

These are just SOME of the questions we ask when we receive the initial phone call in order to determine what else needs to be done and where to take the investigation next. If the person has a significant medical history, no recent injuries, is at least 65 years old, has been seen by a doctor on a regular basis, no signs of medication abuse, no blood, no contacts for APS (adult protective services), no recent falls, etc… that it appears to be a natural death and the primary care physician is willing to sign the death certificate, then in those cases the person can go to the mortuary and we do NOT need to go out there. Usually in these cases I will send an email or fax to the primary care physician and advise them of the circumstances of the death and why we did not respond. Sometimes they need a little direction in how to word the death certificate so I assist with that too.

If someone is on hospice care it pretty much goes the same. However even a hospice case can warrant further investigation if there are signs of abuse or neglect such as bedsores that are not being cleaned and bandaged, unusual bruises or cuts, dirty bedding, lack of food, apparent dehydration, clogged feeding tube, missing medications, and odd incriminating spontaneous statements by family or caregivers. Then it goes from a medical-natural to something else.

As for the “something else” types of cases, I will get into those on a more individual format.  Stay tuned!!!!

My job…. what did I do???

I have come to realize that many people have no idea what I really do – even the folks (patrol officers, nurses, etc.) I worked cases with. I had an ER nurse ask me why I have a gun, because he thought I just went to hospitals and picked up the body. Many times dispatchers call and say they have an officer who needs us to come pick up the body… An investigator for the ME or Coroner does SO MUCH MORE than pick up the body…. In fact we usually have a contracted transport company do that for US!!

I am going to take the opportunity to try and clarify a bit – and while I certainly can’t cover every type of situation or investigation I will do my best to cover the general concepts and such. I will do so in increments so that each post in itself is not overwhelming with information.

First of all, although I am a trained crime scene investigator – I did not do what is considered to be typical CSI work.  I did NOT take latent prints (prints left on surfaces like doors, glass, etc) or work non death cases. I DID assist the CSI’s in collecting evidence from the body at the scene when evidence was likely to get lost or contaminated during movement of the body – such as loose hairs, fibers, GSR (gunshot residue), liquid or body fluids on the clothing or on the outside of the body itself.  Sometimes I performed fingernail clippings or scrapings at the scene sometimes or I place paper bags over the hands to protect them for processing during post (autopsy).

In my department we are sworn peace officers, but fall under a different code than regular officers. Our “powers” are limited.  We are armed in order to protect ourselves, our scene and evidence. I will get into more of the why that would be necessary when I cover notifications and working a scene.

Here are some examples of what I plan to cover over the next several posts.  The listed order is random and some topics may be combined. I may think of other things not listed….

Autopsy

Training

Body fluids

Medications

Terminology

Talking with doctors

Grief and notifications to family

Why do we have guns?

How are we different from “cops”?

COD and manner

The mortis brothers

“Unattended” deaths

Disease investigations

What are we exposed to?

How do we handle child deaths (emotionally)?

Decomposing bodies

Insects and what they can tell us

How do we determine identification?

Reviewing medical records

Hospice cases

Welfare checks

Indigent / abandoned bodies

What happens when we can’t identify someone?

How do we work a case?

Is TV for real or way off?

Suggested books and links of interest

Have I ever seen a body move suddenly or sit up?    (I can’t count how many times I get asked that!!!!)

If you have any questions regarding a post or have a question you want explained in regards to the what(s) and why(s) of my job, please post it in the comment or “contact” form which goes straight to my email!