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05/16/2000

Thallium and Murder

Next month marks the sixth anniversary of the murder of Nicole
Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Normally, I don''t write about
such gruesome events, although some might say that Pfiesteria
going after those fish was pretty rough stuff. At any rate, I was
fascinated by an article in the April 3 issue of Chemical and
Engineering News on a symposium at Pittcon 2000. Pittcon
stands for the Pittsburgh Conference, which of course was held in
New Orleans, but that''s another story. The symposium was titled
"Forensic Chemistry: Pathology, Toxicology, Criminalistics, and
Jurisprudence". This may sound like a pretty sophisticated kind
of symposium but the cases they discussed were down to earth, to
put it mildly. It occurs to me that one reason that we scientists
seem to enjoy our work so much is that many of the more
interesting scientific problems are like detective stories. Certainly
the searches for a cure for cancer, WIMPs and dark matter and
the ultimate fundamental particle(s) (strings?) qualify as mysteries
of the highest order.

Back to Pittcon, one of the key speakers was Henry Lee, who is,
among other things, director of the Connecticut State Police
Forensic Science Laboratory. You may remember Henry in his
role as a consultant and witness in the O. J. trial and as one of the
world''s foremost criminologists. According to the article, the
case that helped to first establish Lee as a topnotch mystery solver
was the famed "wood chipper murder" case. Yes, it''s a wood
chipper like those used by the tree people and right away you
know this is not going to be pretty. Surprisingly, the perpetrator,
Richard, was a former CIA employee and an airline pilot. His
victim was Helle, his wife and a flight attendant. She disappeared
in November, 1986 after working a flight from Germany to New
York. Henry Lee started his work on the case by noting the
carpet in Richard''s home was gone and there were signs of a
considerable amount of washing. So, it was off to the town dump
for a major dig, not a pleasant task and, furthermore, no rug. But
Lee did find out that Richard had rented a wood chipper and he
managed to latch on to that very same chipper.

But again, no luck. The chipper was clean. However, Lee
learned that someone had seen a man using just such a device
down by a lake during a heavy snowstorm. So it was off to the
lake. There, Lee and his colleagues again dug deep, melting snow
layer by layer. Sure enough, they found small pieces of bone,
hair, polished toenail and other items. DNA tests proved the
bone was from a female (today, the DNA test would probably
have proved a direct match to the victim), some hair was similar
to the victim''s hair and a tooth was identified from dental records
as one of Helle''s teeth.

So, to nail down the case, it was back to the wood chipper. How
to check to see if the bits of bone were indeed formed in the
chipper? Obviously, running a human corpse through the chipper
was not a viable strategy so Lee settled on a dead pig! Sure
enough, the patterns on the pig''s bones were the same as on the
bones buried in the snow. The use of even a dead pig did not set
well with one animal lover, who picketed Lee''s lab for two weeks
after learning of the experiment. Lee, still not satisfied, wanted to
run some hair through the chipper and, anxious to find a suitable
sample, cut off a goodly chunk of his own daughter''s long hair.
Lee''s wife didn''t speak to him for three weeks!

Even then, before the O. J. case, the jury presented a problem.
During the trial, one juror went out for lunch and didn''t bother to
return! Who knows, maybe they were serving chopped ham?
Anyway, after the mistrial, Richard was convicted in a second
trial and is now serving 40 years. While both literal and figurative
persistent digging solved this case, the science seems to me to be
relatively straightforward, albeit not very tidy.

Another, more sophisticated murder, was described at the
symposium by forensic toxicologist Frederic Rieders. The victim,
Robert, died in the Hershey Medical Center in September of
1991. When I was a lad living in Pennsylvania, we used to obtain
our cultural entertainment by driving to Hershey to attend the
Sunday afternoon concerts at the bandstand in Hershey Park. For
those of you who have been to Hershey Park recently, it was a
much simpler place in my day; no seated ride through the history
of chocolate and various other attractions.

But back to poor Robert. He had been assigned in July of 1991
to assist in the remodeling of the chemistry area of Wilkes
University in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He was soon admitted to a
hospital with flulike symptoms and neurological problems and
was diagnosed as having Guillain-Barre syndrome. After
treatment, he was discharged but got worse at home and finally
ended up being transferred in September of that year to Hershey.
There he was tested for heavy metals but not for thallium, an
element known to cause symptoms of the type Robert was
exhibiting. Robert''s wife Joann visited him regularly and was
quite solicitous of his welfare. On her last visit she made him iced
tea, which she helped him drink, holding his head as by this point
he was virtually paralyzed. Finally, tests for thallium proved
positive and a remedial treatment was started. However, the
treatment came too late and Robert succumbed.

At the university, a number of jars of thallium salts were found.
Various analytical techniques were used to try to determine the
source of Robert''s thallium. One approach was to try to compare
the trace metals in his system with the trace metals in the
university''s thallium salts. Again, as with the DNA tests in the
chipper case, the techniques available at the time were not up to
the task due in this case to the large amount of thallium
interfering with the trace metal analyses. Today, with so-called
ICP-MS (inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy) the job
could be done. (Coincidentally, I had never heard of ICP-MS
until a few months ago, when I was asked if the technique was
available at our university. It was my late friend Charlie who
pointed me to a person who was quite competent in this analytical
method.)

By December of 1991, the authorities decided that Robert''s death
was a homicide and they suspected that one of his coworkers at
the university might have spiked the iced tea Robert loved so
well. Indeed, his wife Joann sued the university for not storing
the thallium salts properly and his colleagues were tested for
thallium; none was found. Three years later it was decided to
exhume Robert''s body and Frederic Rieders was called in to do
more tests. He reasoned that the best approach was to look at
Robert''s hair. Hair grows roughly half an inch a month and
Robert''s hair was long enough that Rieders could look back about
a year and a half before Robert died. Sure enough, thallium was
found in the hair, the levels rising and falling over that time
period. But the crowning touch was that just before he died the
level of thallium rose dramatically, indicating that his biggest dose
was ingested while he was in the hospital drinking his wife''s iced
tea. Of course, Joann was indicted but it wasn''t until 1997, 6
years after Robert''s demise that she confessed she had been
adding rat poison to the iced tea starting two months after their
marriage. In those days thallium was used in rat poison and in
depilatories but its use in these products today is not allowed.
So, it wasn''t the thallium from the university at all and if today''s
analytical prowess were available then the case probably would
have been solved sooner. Joann''s confession to a third degree
murder charge, incidentally, spared her a possible death sentence
in a first-degree murder trial. She presumably is now serving a
10- to 20-year sentence.

Back to Henry Lee and O. J. At the symposium Lee showed
pictures of the Simpson-Goldman crime scene that had not been
used in the trial for various reasons. Lee pointed out three bloody
finger marks on Nicole Simpson''s arm, apparently from someone
grabbing her arm. What happened to them? Lee said they were
washed down the drain at the morgue! He also pointed out seven
low-velocity blood drops on her back. Michael Baden, former
chief medical examiner of New York City, said those drops could
not have come from either Nicole nor Ron Goldman but were
probably from the perpetrator. What happened to them? They
too were washed off! Another item not collected was a piece of
paper with blood imprints that was not deemed relevant but that
might have contained fingerprints. Any one of these pieces of
uncollected evidence might have decided the case conclusively.

In the past, when trace evidence was not routinely preserved, it
was common practice for the morgue employees to wash the
body so it would look "nice and clean" for the medical examiner.
Too bad the morgue personnel seem to have been such neatness
freaks in the O. J. case. It might have saved millions or even
billions of person-hours time lost watching the trial! It seems
ironic that much of the talk during the trial dealt with
contamination of the crime scene but I don''t recall mention of
overzealous cleanliness. With the exquisite sensitivity of today''s
analytical techniques for traces of DNA in tissues, toxic
substances, etc. it is obviously a challenge to preserve a crime
scene in its pristine state without contamination or inadvertent
loss of key evidence.

In contrast to this week''s dark subject matter, next week''s topic
will involve light.

Allen F. Bortrum




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-05/16/2000-      
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Dr. Bortrum

05/16/2000

Thallium and Murder

Next month marks the sixth anniversary of the murder of Nicole
Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Normally, I don''t write about
such gruesome events, although some might say that Pfiesteria
going after those fish was pretty rough stuff. At any rate, I was
fascinated by an article in the April 3 issue of Chemical and
Engineering News on a symposium at Pittcon 2000. Pittcon
stands for the Pittsburgh Conference, which of course was held in
New Orleans, but that''s another story. The symposium was titled
"Forensic Chemistry: Pathology, Toxicology, Criminalistics, and
Jurisprudence". This may sound like a pretty sophisticated kind
of symposium but the cases they discussed were down to earth, to
put it mildly. It occurs to me that one reason that we scientists
seem to enjoy our work so much is that many of the more
interesting scientific problems are like detective stories. Certainly
the searches for a cure for cancer, WIMPs and dark matter and
the ultimate fundamental particle(s) (strings?) qualify as mysteries
of the highest order.

Back to Pittcon, one of the key speakers was Henry Lee, who is,
among other things, director of the Connecticut State Police
Forensic Science Laboratory. You may remember Henry in his
role as a consultant and witness in the O. J. trial and as one of the
world''s foremost criminologists. According to the article, the
case that helped to first establish Lee as a topnotch mystery solver
was the famed "wood chipper murder" case. Yes, it''s a wood
chipper like those used by the tree people and right away you
know this is not going to be pretty. Surprisingly, the perpetrator,
Richard, was a former CIA employee and an airline pilot. His
victim was Helle, his wife and a flight attendant. She disappeared
in November, 1986 after working a flight from Germany to New
York. Henry Lee started his work on the case by noting the
carpet in Richard''s home was gone and there were signs of a
considerable amount of washing. So, it was off to the town dump
for a major dig, not a pleasant task and, furthermore, no rug. But
Lee did find out that Richard had rented a wood chipper and he
managed to latch on to that very same chipper.

But again, no luck. The chipper was clean. However, Lee
learned that someone had seen a man using just such a device
down by a lake during a heavy snowstorm. So it was off to the
lake. There, Lee and his colleagues again dug deep, melting snow
layer by layer. Sure enough, they found small pieces of bone,
hair, polished toenail and other items. DNA tests proved the
bone was from a female (today, the DNA test would probably
have proved a direct match to the victim), some hair was similar
to the victim''s hair and a tooth was identified from dental records
as one of Helle''s teeth.

So, to nail down the case, it was back to the wood chipper. How
to check to see if the bits of bone were indeed formed in the
chipper? Obviously, running a human corpse through the chipper
was not a viable strategy so Lee settled on a dead pig! Sure
enough, the patterns on the pig''s bones were the same as on the
bones buried in the snow. The use of even a dead pig did not set
well with one animal lover, who picketed Lee''s lab for two weeks
after learning of the experiment. Lee, still not satisfied, wanted to
run some hair through the chipper and, anxious to find a suitable
sample, cut off a goodly chunk of his own daughter''s long hair.
Lee''s wife didn''t speak to him for three weeks!

Even then, before the O. J. case, the jury presented a problem.
During the trial, one juror went out for lunch and didn''t bother to
return! Who knows, maybe they were serving chopped ham?
Anyway, after the mistrial, Richard was convicted in a second
trial and is now serving 40 years. While both literal and figurative
persistent digging solved this case, the science seems to me to be
relatively straightforward, albeit not very tidy.

Another, more sophisticated murder, was described at the
symposium by forensic toxicologist Frederic Rieders. The victim,
Robert, died in the Hershey Medical Center in September of
1991. When I was a lad living in Pennsylvania, we used to obtain
our cultural entertainment by driving to Hershey to attend the
Sunday afternoon concerts at the bandstand in Hershey Park. For
those of you who have been to Hershey Park recently, it was a
much simpler place in my day; no seated ride through the history
of chocolate and various other attractions.

But back to poor Robert. He had been assigned in July of 1991
to assist in the remodeling of the chemistry area of Wilkes
University in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He was soon admitted to a
hospital with flulike symptoms and neurological problems and
was diagnosed as having Guillain-Barre syndrome. After
treatment, he was discharged but got worse at home and finally
ended up being transferred in September of that year to Hershey.
There he was tested for heavy metals but not for thallium, an
element known to cause symptoms of the type Robert was
exhibiting. Robert''s wife Joann visited him regularly and was
quite solicitous of his welfare. On her last visit she made him iced
tea, which she helped him drink, holding his head as by this point
he was virtually paralyzed. Finally, tests for thallium proved
positive and a remedial treatment was started. However, the
treatment came too late and Robert succumbed.

At the university, a number of jars of thallium salts were found.
Various analytical techniques were used to try to determine the
source of Robert''s thallium. One approach was to try to compare
the trace metals in his system with the trace metals in the
university''s thallium salts. Again, as with the DNA tests in the
chipper case, the techniques available at the time were not up to
the task due in this case to the large amount of thallium
interfering with the trace metal analyses. Today, with so-called
ICP-MS (inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy) the job
could be done. (Coincidentally, I had never heard of ICP-MS
until a few months ago, when I was asked if the technique was
available at our university. It was my late friend Charlie who
pointed me to a person who was quite competent in this analytical
method.)

By December of 1991, the authorities decided that Robert''s death
was a homicide and they suspected that one of his coworkers at
the university might have spiked the iced tea Robert loved so
well. Indeed, his wife Joann sued the university for not storing
the thallium salts properly and his colleagues were tested for
thallium; none was found. Three years later it was decided to
exhume Robert''s body and Frederic Rieders was called in to do
more tests. He reasoned that the best approach was to look at
Robert''s hair. Hair grows roughly half an inch a month and
Robert''s hair was long enough that Rieders could look back about
a year and a half before Robert died. Sure enough, thallium was
found in the hair, the levels rising and falling over that time
period. But the crowning touch was that just before he died the
level of thallium rose dramatically, indicating that his biggest dose
was ingested while he was in the hospital drinking his wife''s iced
tea. Of course, Joann was indicted but it wasn''t until 1997, 6
years after Robert''s demise that she confessed she had been
adding rat poison to the iced tea starting two months after their
marriage. In those days thallium was used in rat poison and in
depilatories but its use in these products today is not allowed.
So, it wasn''t the thallium from the university at all and if today''s
analytical prowess were available then the case probably would
have been solved sooner. Joann''s confession to a third degree
murder charge, incidentally, spared her a possible death sentence
in a first-degree murder trial. She presumably is now serving a
10- to 20-year sentence.

Back to Henry Lee and O. J. At the symposium Lee showed
pictures of the Simpson-Goldman crime scene that had not been
used in the trial for various reasons. Lee pointed out three bloody
finger marks on Nicole Simpson''s arm, apparently from someone
grabbing her arm. What happened to them? Lee said they were
washed down the drain at the morgue! He also pointed out seven
low-velocity blood drops on her back. Michael Baden, former
chief medical examiner of New York City, said those drops could
not have come from either Nicole nor Ron Goldman but were
probably from the perpetrator. What happened to them? They
too were washed off! Another item not collected was a piece of
paper with blood imprints that was not deemed relevant but that
might have contained fingerprints. Any one of these pieces of
uncollected evidence might have decided the case conclusively.

In the past, when trace evidence was not routinely preserved, it
was common practice for the morgue employees to wash the
body so it would look "nice and clean" for the medical examiner.
Too bad the morgue personnel seem to have been such neatness
freaks in the O. J. case. It might have saved millions or even
billions of person-hours time lost watching the trial! It seems
ironic that much of the talk during the trial dealt with
contamination of the crime scene but I don''t recall mention of
overzealous cleanliness. With the exquisite sensitivity of today''s
analytical techniques for traces of DNA in tissues, toxic
substances, etc. it is obviously a challenge to preserve a crime
scene in its pristine state without contamination or inadvertent
loss of key evidence.

In contrast to this week''s dark subject matter, next week''s topic
will involve light.

Allen F. Bortrum