Web-only article: Crime Scene Investigation - JuniperCivic.com
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Originally published in the March 2008 Juniper Berry Magazine

Web-only article: Crime Scene Investigation

Kenny O'Keefe is a private investigator

Even with the dizzying advances of modern technology, and with those technological applications used by today's law enforcement, in many ways, the Lizzie Buhler death investigation in 1892 would still have many similarities to a homicide investigation conducted in 2008. (Note; Any unnatural death, whether accidental, suicidal, intentional or justifiable is classified as homicide by the Medical Examiner and investigated as such by law enforcement.)

Stronger scientific analysis and more sophisticated investigative methods aside, there are still fundamental rules of thumb today's investigator would follow, much as Coroner Brandon did in his investigation of the Buhler case. He ordered an autopsy be performed on Lizzie's remains. Forensic pathology is the term applied today, but whether it is a 19th century or a 21st century examination, investigators would be looking for the definitive answers from the medical examiner. How was Lizzie's death caused? Can you give an indication of which specific injury caused her death? Was it a cumulative combination of blows, or one devastating blow? Was she still alive when the train ran over her body, or was it likely she was already dead and placed upon the tracks to throw investigators off the scent and make a murder appear to be an accident or a suicide? (Referred to as crime scene staging in law enforcement circles.) Are there less obvious injuries to the body the investigators may have missed upon initial visual examination (small puncture wounds, lesser body bruising, defensive wounds, etc.) indicative of a struggle and inconsistent with a train impact?

A modern post mortem pathology examination would yield a treasure trove of evidence for today's investigator. If Lizzie Buhler was the victim of a murder and she struggled with her assailant, the perpetrator would have inadvertently left microscopic pieces of themselves (DNA) on the victim's body. This would include hair, skin, saliva, broken bits of fingernails and perhaps blood. There would also most likely be inanimate fibers upon the body which could be matched to particular and perhaps uncommon articles of clothing. The recovered items are called trace evidence in that each would be very traceable to a definitive and specific individual.

The pathologist would also measure the circumference, diameter, length, width and depth of each wound. I assume this basic and fundamental procedure was performed in 1892. The purpose would be to rule out or connect any items that may have been used as weapons in an assault on Lizzie Buhler. Any pipes, rocks, pieces of wood or any other instrument of blunt force found in or near the crime scene, or within reasonable proximity of a potential suspect (house, car, etc.) could be measured against the injuries to the victim. If a reasonable fit between instrument and wound is determined, testing would be performed to find trace evidence of Ms. Buhler on the weapon. Obviously these tests were not available in 1892, but if the weapon were not exposed to the weather elements or otherwise tampered with (washed with solvents, buried in soil, etc.) a close visual examination would most likely yield bits of the victim's hair, blood and scalp. There would have been no way in 1892 to determine if the human tissue belonged to Lizzie, but it would have been a very damning piece of evidence nonetheless.

In addition to the examination of Lizzie Buhler's remains, an examination of the train cars that ran her over would be conducted. Lizzie mother stated that her daughter left her home sometime around 10:30PM. Lizzie's body was discovered the next morning by Adam Krummick at 5:30AM. Mr. Krummick and nearby neighbors, (The Breedens), observed Lizzie's body upon the tracks cleanly sliced in two. This clearly indicates she was run over just once up to this point. Whether Lizzie was alive or dead just prior to the impact or whether or not she was a victim of foul play, suicide or an accident, a reasonable determination could be made as to the approximate time the train passed over her body. How many trains passed through the point where Lizzie was discovered between the hours of 10:30PM and 5:30AM?

Interviews with officials of the LIRR and any other rail service utilizing those tracks would be performed. As with the autopsy, we could go back in time to 1892, or fast forward to 2008, and the investigative method and philosophy would be very similar. What are the scheduling time lines for all trains between those hours? Which specific line of cars would have been used? What are the originating departure and terminus points? What are the time lines between points A and B?

The purpose in finding the train cars would be to determine if Lizzie were dead for a significant period of time prior to being run over. This would be accomplished by identifying the specific train cars and then observing the blood spatter on the undercarriage of the cars. To simplify a rather complicated scientific investigative issue, blood is pumped throughout the body by the heart. The blood courses through our veins and arteries at a very rapid pace. If the heart is still pumping, or has only recently stopped beating (we're talking just moments here) any traumatic slicing of those veins and arteries, as was the case with Lizzie, would result in the blood spewing onto the undercarriage in a geyser like effect, and the blood would have a pattern (spatter) that would tell us the direction the train was traveling. This would tell us two things. Number one, Lizzie was alive just prior to being run over and number two, whether the train was travelling from point A to point B or from point B back to point A.

The reason for this conclusion is simple. The blood spatter pattern is an immutable law of physics. Blood stains that are the result of a violent action (high velocity) will have a tear dropped pattern and the pointed end of the spatter stain (tail) will always point in the direction the blood traveled. The blood would have projected in the opposite direction in which the train was traveling. We now have our train direction at time of impact.

However, if Lizzie had been murdered, and if that murder occurred elsewhere, we should be able to determine that as well with the train examination. Once the heart ceases to pump blood, the blood begins to settle with gravitational pull. Blood will settle into the part of the body closet to the ground. For example, if someone dies lying on their back, the blood will pool on the lower back and buttocks region of the deceased. In addition, due to the blood no longer being fed oxygen, it begins to darken and discolor, losing the bright redness associated with an individual taking air into the lungs. If Lizzie were killed and later moved to the tracks (the crime scene staging) to make it appear as an accident or suicide, there would be significantly less, if any blood spatter, and what little spatter there was would be of a post mortem consistency (darker and with a different viscosity.)

This brings me to another issue with blood that would have been the same in 1892, 2008 and most likely will be the same in 22nd century. Lizzie Buhler suffered two blows to her head. The human scalp is relatively thin but carries a good deal of blood. The same is true of the sub-cranial portion of our skulls. That is why with head injuries, even those that are not necessarily fatal, we see a good deal of blood. A head injury that severe would have knocked her immediately unconscious and she would have fallen into place at the spot of impact. With the blows Lizzie suffered, there would have been an extraordinary amount of bloodshed. The coroner, as with today's investigators, would have searched for the pool of blood that would have formed where Lizzie would have fallen.

If that pool of blood is found beneath and around Lizzie's head at the tracks, we know she died at that location. We still don't know if it were the result of being struck by the train, either the result of a suicide, accident or by a murdering assailant, but we will have managed to greatly reduce the parameters of our crime scene and narrow our investigative resources to a single scene.

However, if our pool of blood is found elsewhere (creating a second crime scene) or worse yet, not found at all, the murder mystery deepens considerably. Found elsewhere, the investigators from both eras need to determine how the body was moved to the tracks, by whom, when and the most logical path taken from the murder scene to the tracks. Depending on the distance of the two crime scenes, both evidence observed (tire tracks indicating a vehicle was used to transport or markings on the ground consistent with dragging) and common sense (a trail of blood connecting both scenes) should partially answer some of the equation. The path determined will be searched for evidence of each (as well as a heads up to the pathologist to look for signs of dragging, such as scrapes and dirt on the body.)

Common sense would dictate if the body was carried by one or more individuals, it would not have been carried far, for fear of detection and also due to physical limitations. Even if Lizzie were very slight of build, that would still place her in the 90 to 100 pound range. Even an avid weightlifter would have trouble carrying that type of weight over a long distance and uneven terrain. If our suspect had help in moving the dead weight, it is unlikely they would have carried Lizzie further than 50 yards or so. If no pooling spot were found in an extensive and detailed search, the most probable investigative theory to prevail would be Lizzie was murdered indoors and then brought to the tracks when the killer felt least likely to be seen (which would fit nicely with a very early morning placement, i.e. just prior to 5:30AM.)

Carrying someone with that massive head injury and the subsequent hemorrhaging would provide investigators with a solid lead. It would be virtually impossible for the killer to prevent Lizzie's blood from spilling onto his clothes and skin. This brings us to our suspects.