Dragon Con’s science track brought five experts to Room 202 of the Hilton on Saturday at 1 PM to discuss ways to get away with murder. Emily Finke, Joseph Meany, Raychelle Burks, and John Cmar entered into the topic with gusto.
Burks, the moderator, opened the program by asking the other panelists to assume they needed to get rid of a body—because “these things happen”—and to describe their “go-to” methods. Finke recommended getting the body to an unpleasant environment and using a lye bath to destroy it, noting that lye degrades the DNA in bones. She also suggested using a “mechanical process,” specifically, a wood chipper.
Burks interjected a warning not to do an online search for a “good disposal site near your house,” and everyone laughed. She said she thought a combination of the mechanical and lye methods would be best and added that lye creates a dark, gelatinous goo as residue.
Meany said, “If you do it right, you can separate that goo, make soap from the fat, and recycle.” As the room laughed, Burks added, “Don’t put that fat and lye down your home drain. It stops up the plumbing.” She described a case in England where the killer had disposed to the remains in that way but had been caught when crime scene investigators found a tooth.
“Teeth don’t go away,” Finke added, noting that they’re one of the best ways to identify remains. Cmar said he’d heard of a case on the news in which someone dismembered a body and did think to pull the teeth but didn’t notice the impacted wisdom teeth.
Burks then challenged the panel, “How do you make bodies? Pick one method.”
Finke said she favored hitting someone with a car while being an upperclass, white dude in a nice car and a nice area. “Manslaughter,” she said as the room laughed. “No need to dispose of a body.”
Meany suggested hydrocyanic acid, which can be made by mixing potassium cyanide and a salt that’s table with an acide, like vinegar. This yields potatssium acetate, which is often used on potato chips, and hydrogen cyanide gas, which has an amaretto taste.
Cmar opened his answer with “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” He would get cholera from a friend at the NIH. “It kills in two hours,” he noted, adding that he would mix it into the victim’s General Tso’s Chicken and then, when the person started feeling ill and went to the bathroom, he would lock the bathroom door.
“There are so many good chemical choices,” Burks mused. She commented that going “old school,” by suffocating someone was an option, straddling the chest to pin the arms, then covering the nose and mouth with a palm. Such a method would take about three minutes and so requires “dedication.” If she wanted a chemical approach and really hated the victim, she would use susinyl chloride, which is often used to relax muscles for intubation but also can incapacitate. It doesn’t put the person out, so the victim would know he or she was dying. She also mentioned strychnine, but with both of these chemical options, obtaining it would be an issue. A doctor in Texas, she reported, used drugs from the hospital pharmacy to murder his lover’s spouse, not a wise move since there are meticulous records of who has access to these things.
Meany said he’s often asked, “Can you make drugs?” and responds, “I’m on a list already.”
“What if you wanted to kill a lot of people?” Burks asked.
Cmar chose an infectious disease option, but he noted that cholera deaths in the US are rare, as are those from Ebola, and so would raise suspicions. Incubation periods are also a problem, he noted, but places where 50,000 or 60,000 people are packed in close quarters for a weekend would be very handy for spreading disease.
Burks noted the Tylenol poisoning scare, which was actually aimed at killing just one person. The panel agreed that current manufacturing precautions would make doing something like that, putting poison in bottles in pharmacies, very difficult and doing so at the source, the manufacturing plant, next to impossible. Someone trying to poison a nonprescription drug would have to go to multiple pharmacies and might well turn up on closed-circuit television. Burks added that tampering with a camera from underneath—allegedly, a word the panel used a lot—and testing response time would show whether the camera was live.
Meany added the government retains a list of Chemicals of Interest (COI). This makes research difficult because many common drugs and their components, as well as solvents like hexane, are listed. So is acetone, or nail polish remover, which can be bought at numerous pharmacies but can’t be ordered in drums.
Burks noted that hydrogen peroxide and acetone can be used to make an explosive, but it’s very unstable. She added that suppliers track quantities purchased within short periods and added that one purchaser in bulk used his own credit card to pay.
A common theme of the panel was the ease of slipping up by using personal credit cards, doing online searches from one’s own computer, and disposing of bodies in places that can be connected with the murderer.
An audience member asked how to “plant an instrument of death so it’s not traceable to you.” Burks suggested committing the murder at the disposal site, noting that national parks are badly underfunded and have treacherous terrain and animals. Finke said, “Start creating a pattern [of the victim going there] early.”
Cmar said there was a series of books about supernatural forces making people disappear from national parks, so that was an option.
Meany pointed out that there are sulfuric acid vents around hot springs and that rash people sometimes just jump right in, a generally fatal choice. He was intrigued by the idea of stuffing bodies into Old Faithful. Cmar reminded him that Old Faithful is one of the better-funded and most popular park sites but added that he now wanted to see the geyser erupt with bodies.
The panel also discussed various means for making murder appear to be suicide. Their consensus was that the murder method had to fit with the person’s activities and medical history. Someone known to avoid firearms, for example, would be unlikely to commit suicide with one.
Burks said the strategy would be different if one wanted never be questioned, as opposed to getting away with the crime in the end.
An audience member asked which kinds of scientists would be best at getting away with murder. Burks said that could be tricky. She felt chemists would have good shots but would also be suspected. Meany noted the increasing possibilities for hacking into the control computers on cars. “Or a mechanic with a grudge,” Finke suggested.
When asked how long it takes for lye to break down a body, Finke said that would depend on how much the corpse had been chopped up before that. Burks said surface area, concentration of the chemical, and temperature would be factors, but it would probably take less than two hours. Meany said thirty minutes could be possible, depending on those factors. He added that Drano is already-dissolved lye but would have to be purchased at nonsuspicious intervals. Cmar added that he could buy lye online and have it delivered to the hotel by Monday.
The same questioner asked the panel for their lethal drugs of choice. Propyfol or other opiates in high dosages, and that the “classic” arsenic would be another option. Finke said that pre-1947 taxidermy mounts used arsenic and that being around them can be highly toxic if a person has no prior exposure to arsenic.
When asked about autopsies, the panel noted that they’re not standard and that families may have difficulty obtaining them if a death doesn’t appear suspicious to the medical examiner or coroner. The situation is complicated by the fact that some areas have elected coroners who aren’t required to have any medical or scientific backgrounds. Burks added that a person’s age and medical history have a lot to do with what looks suspicious.
On a question about herbal poisons, Burks said that toxicology screens look for specific things of specific types , with medical examiners generally choosing the panels they request based on the deceased’s medical history and regular medications and what’s found in the person’s home. Someone into chemistry, botany, and natural poisons might order more and rare panels of tests.
Finke said it would be easy to trigger an asthma attack and make it appear natural. Cmar suggested putting a virulent strain of influenza in an asthmatic’s inhaler. Burks added that triggering allergies, especially in a person known to be slack about carrying an epi-pen, would look natural. One person asked about disposing of bodies via cannibalism, perhaps by taking stew to a potluck. Everyone agreed that disposing of the head would be a problem. Finke said there’s nothing wrong with human meat if the brain matter is kept separate but that butcher marks on bone are automatically suspicious. Scraping flesh from bone creates a trail of evidence.
Finke reminded the room that implants have identifying numbers, which are easy to track.
When asked about DMSO, dimethyl sulfoxide, Meany noted that it has an almond taste. Burks added that some poisons that are not water soluble will dissolve in DMSO. Mixing cyanide salt with DMSO and spraying park benches, where sweaty people will sit, or soaking clothing and allowing it to drip dry would be effective delivery methods.
The panel ended with enthusiastic applause.