Non-fiction forensics: weird ways in which real-world crimes have been solved
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Better than a delicious plot twist in a crime novel that’s both shocking and satisfying, some real-life crimes have been solved in the strangest of ways. In fact, some are so bizarre that they may seem like the cunning concoctions by Arthur Conan Doyle.
In modern times, baffling crimes are seldom solved by an eccentric genius like Sherlock Holmes. More commonly the critical discoveries come from teams of specialists called upon by the police.
“A lot of cases involve multidisciplinary teams such as botanists, soil scientists, pollen experts, entomologists and others as and when required,” says forensic anthropologist and archaeologist Dr Julie Roberts, who is a lecturer in forensic anthropology at Liverpool John Moores University and has helped solve many cases that are stranger than fiction. Here are some examples of confuddling crimes solved by some far from elementary methods.
Warning: some contain details readers may find upsetting.
Cracking a case with concrete
A peculiar case of a body entombed under a shelf inside a shed was cracked thanks to the composition of concrete. In 2014, Cheshire Police received a confession from a man who revealed the location of a hidden body in a bike shed in Ellesmere Port. “We looked inside and at the bottom end was a concrete block across the back like a wide concrete bench... It looked odd, as if it shouldn’t be there,” Dr Roberts says. She and her team used drills to excavate the concrete layer by layer, labelling differing deposits, such as concrete mixes and stones. “We found various items too – a packet from a knife brought from Asda, some bags, a pair of disposable gloves – a series of clues, almost like in a crime story.” The team also found a heavily wrapped body, along with a hammer. The body was carefully removed to the mortuary for analysis, where it was found to have severe head injuries. The cause of death was deemed to be multiple blows to the head.
A group of individuals who once lived at the property were identified as suspects, but it was analysis of the concrete that helped to catch them. “It looked to me like there were different mixes of concrete [within the block] but in order to check whether this theory was correct and could be presented in court, we enlisted the services of a concrete expert and structural engineer to comment on construction,” Roberts explains. They revealed that a retaining wall had been built and various layers of concrete of different mixes poured on top of the body.
“Meanwhile the police investigations found credit card receipts and they showed a suspect had bought the concrete with the card – a schoolboy error – so the concrete could be traced back to Travis Perkins,” Roberts says. While it wasn’t possible for the builders’ merchants to match a bag of concrete to the samples from the shed, they could say that different mixes had been made over periods of time, adding to the emerging timeline. “It turns out, the ring leader had been doing some DIY at home and had dropped some concrete mix on his drive, so we also could match the concrete sample from the tomb to that,” she adds. The evidence obtained from the concrete used in the crime helped to convict four people, including the landlord of the house.
Mulling over maggots and mosquitoes
Maggots may be disgusting when they are found devouring decomposing remains, but they are incredibly helpful when solving some serious crimes. The grisly job of analysing wriggling larvae and other insects falls to entomologists who can estimate the time since death or deposition of a body by looking at the different life cycles of mini beasts. An entomologist helped Dr Roberts solve a strange case in which someone had tried and failed to dispose of a body in a garden, using different methods. Her team was confronted with a block of concrete in a grave in a garden. Inside they discovered a burnt, dismembered body that was full of maggots, wrapped in bin liners. “We were able to work out the sequence of events. We knew the dismemberment had taken place before the burning, because the bones were burnt in cross section and we knew the infestation had taken place after the burning because the maggots weren’t burnt,” Roberts explains. The maggots were sent to an entomologist who said they were third instar (stage), which meant the remains had been lying around for about three weeks before being buried in concrete. “It gave us a time frame and a sequence of events that the murderer had done to get rid of the remains,” she says.
A winged witness helped crack another case in Finland in 2008. When investigators found a stolen car in Helsinki, they were unable to determine the perpetrator until they noticed a mosquito that had sucked blood inside the vehicle. They sent it to a lab and, lo and behold, the blood belonged to a known suspect.
Grasping the nettle
In a similar way to DNA and fingerprinting, plant material is unique – to plant species and ecological areas – allowing forensic botanists to narrow down the possibilities of where and when a crime was committed, as well as who did it.
Experts sometimes study pollens, plants, trees and aquatic environments – where the presence of microscopic algae like diatoms in the lungs can prove someone died from drowning in a particular body of water.
Botanical evidence can be used to identify clandestine graves by looking at disturbances in the soil and plants. For example, Ian Huntley was convicted of the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2003 in part due to evidence about nettle disturbance and pollen. At the hearing for the Soham Murders, Dr Patricia Wiltshire, forensic ecologist, botanist, palynologist (pollen specialist) and author of ‘Traces’, explained that while foliage around the ditch where the girls’ bodies were concealed appeared untouched, some stinging nettles had sprouted side-shoots, which only happens when they have been trampled. The rate of new growth led her to believe that the plants had been disturbed 13-and-a-haf days earlier, giving the police a better indication of when the girls had been killed. By comparing soil samples from Huntley’s car and the ditch, Dr Wiltshire was also able to prove he had been at the site.
Incredibly, forensic botany has been used in court for approximately 75 years. It featured in one of the ‘trials of the century’ when carpenter Richard Hauptmann was found guilty of the murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr, the 10-month-old son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, who was abducted from his crib in New Jersey in 1932 and found by the side of a nearby road.
Like a Hollywood crime film, this case featured a celebrity, ransom note, botched police investigation and public outcry. The police first investigated the outside of the house, but ignored footprints, although two impressions in the mud suggested a ladder had been used and a carpenter’s chisel was found nearby. Investigators later found a homemade ladder with a broken bottom section.
Arthur Koehler, of the Forest Products Laboratory, analysed the ladder and determined the type and grain of the wood used to make the ladder and found it matched a plank from Hauptmann’s attic. Wood comparison showed the two matched the curvature, number and width of growth rings. Furthermore, four nail holes precisely matched those in joists in the attic.
While the carpenter’s handwriting also played a role in the guilty verdict, it was wood analysis that sealed his fate. Koehler showed the jury that hand-plane marks on the ladder matched nicks and grooves of the carpenter’s plane and, to top it all, the chisel recovered from the crime scene was the same make and pattern as another in Hauptmann’s set.
Evidence that’s out of this world
Rovers are used for searching for life on Mars, but in 2012 one solved a mysterious death in California. In 1991, Bernado Bass killed Dawn Sanchez, but her body and the gun used in her murder, as well as Bass’s car, were not recovered and the case was dismissed due to lack of evidence. However, after an informant reported the car may have been broken up and buried in an abandoned junk yard, scientists from Carnegie Mellon Innovations Lab (CMIL), the US Geological Survey and Nasa’s Payload Directed Flight research team assisted the County of Santa Clara’s District Attorney’s Office with the search. Because the lot was large, it was too expensive to dig up everything and as it contained lots of metallic debris, using metal detectors would be ineffective.
So, the team used a Senseta MAX 5.0 Rover to look for evidence, including car parts and a possible body that could be collected. The rover used real-time processing algorithms in conjunction with magnetic and ground-penetrating radar sensors developed for autonomous earth science missions.
Based on the data collected, possible locations for excavation were pinpointed and car parts were retrieved that matched the suspect’s car. This innovative use of technology resulted in a conviction 18 years after the crime was committed and Bass was sentenced to six years in prison.
All that glitters is... evidence
If you have ever been ‘glitter bombed’ you’ll know the sparkly stuff gets everywhere. And it’s been used to solve crimes for decades – perhaps for the first time during the Cold War in Germany, when the US Army’s crime lab used it to solve a sexual assault case. But the investigator of that case realised the variety of glitter particles meant they could be useful for solving crimes.
The approach was used to solve a nasty crime in 1994 when a mother and her five-year-old daughter were murdered during a burglary. The little girl had been using glitter for art and particles were found near the bodies, bed and carpets. While the suspect initially walked free, he was rearrested five years later when the same type of glitter was found in his car, which was abandoned in a scrapyard, placing him at the scene.
More recently, glitter particles were the deciding factor in a hit and run incident. In 2004, an intoxicated woman denied colliding into a car, while driving her truck, which resulted in the death of a mother and child. However, her glittery makeup was discovered on the car’s airbag. <''>Im-purr-fect crimes
It was cat hair that led to the incarceration of a man in Canada. When a mother called Shirley Duguay disappeared in 1994, people suspected her estranged husband may have been involved, but it was her blood-stained jacket with cat hairs that proved to be Douglas Beamish’s undoing. One of the investigators remembered a white cat in Beamish’s home when he questioned him and DNA analysis confirmed the hairs on the jacket belonged to his cat, Snowball. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Similarly, dogs may be man’s best friend, but the hairs they leave behind are a criminal’s enemy. In 2001, a seven-year-old girl called Danielle van Dam disappeared without a trace in San Diego county. The suspicious behaviour of a neighbour, David Westerfield, attracted the attention of police. When officers searched his house, they found dog hairs. A DNA expert found the hair to be similar to that of the van Dam family’s dog, while a forensics lab also found dog hair in the man’s trailer. Prosecutors argued the hair was brought into the man’s house on Danielle’s pyjamas when she was abducted – evidence that led to Westerfield’s conviction.
And it was the plucky actions of a cockatoo called Bird that led to the conviction of his owner’s attacker. On Christmas Eve in 2001, Kevin Butler was bound, stabbed and beaten in his home following an argument and Bird came to his aid by pecking the heads of the two assailants so that he drew blood. Sadly, Bird died in the altercation but DNA was recovered from his beak and claws that matched that of Daniel Torres, who was a former employee of Butler’s. Torres’ blood was also found on a light switch in the house, placing him at the scene, as well as on two knives, all of which was enough for a judge to sentence him to life in prison.
A pretty polly-graph test
A fearless feathered friend may have helped catch his owner’s assailant, as one parrot proved avian pets are far from bird-brained and can make reliable witnesses.
A jury convicted a woman in Michigan for shooting her husband dead in 2015 after hearing that the remarkable African grey parrot, named Bud, had repeated “Don’t f****** shoot” in the victim’s voice.
Chewing over the evidence
Infamous serial killer Ted Bundy was convicted in part due to evidence suggesting that bite marks found on victim Lisa Levy matched his teeth.
Bite-mark analysis usually involves DNA testing, as well as many measurements and photographs being taken of marks before they disappear. Sometimes models are made or tools on Photoshop are used. Experts then look for characteristics.
However, forensic dentistry or forensic odontology is a controversial field, having led to wrongful convictions. One includes a man called Ray Krone who served 10 years in prison for murder, before he was cleared when DNA belonging to another suspect was found on the victim’s clothes.
Critics of the technique say skin is a poor medium for dental impressions, which are easily altered by stretching, movement or a change of environment, while dental profiles change easily too, due to disease or accidents, for example. Forensic methods also vary and bite marks may not be quite as unique as first thought .
Some critics think bite marks should only be used to rule out rather than identify suspects, or should only be used to say there is a probability of a suspect creating a mark.
It’s hard to believe some of these cases are for real (or fur real, as the case may be) but when it comes to forensic techniques, there are a host of unusual ways to catch a thief or murderer and reality can put the plots of detective novels to shame. From the analysis of microscopic spores and hair to large concrete structures, and the use of tech destined for space, forensic scientists use an array of techniques that are far from elementary. And while they may not share Sherlock Holmes’ dress sense, they do share his aim: “To know what other people don’t know.”
After all, as the famous fictional detective says, “when you have excluded the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
The ancient origins of forensics
Forensic science may seem like a new invention, in part because of the raft of technology used, from DNA testing to space rovers, but its roots are far older.
In fact, the word forensic comes from forensis, meaning “of or before the forum”, as cases were presented to groups gathered in Rome’s main square, some 2,000 years ago, with the accused and accuser able to present evidence.
The Romans even used bloodstain pattern analysis and footprints to solve crimes. Roman jurist Quintilian describes how a blind son was accused of killing his father to gain inheritance, with bloody hand marks leading from the body to his bedroom and a blood-covered sword. But Quintilian’s defence is that the stepmother probably did it, as the hand prints are intact and a blind man would have left drag marks instead.
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