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LONE WOLF - FBI K-9 Mysteries #1

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Forensics 101: Forensic Toxicology

In blog posts over the past four and a half years (!), we’ve covered many aspect of the forensic study of death encompassing forensic anthropology, forensic pathology, forensic odontology, and including many of the techniques used in crime scene analysis such as fingerprinting, shoe and tire casting, and arson reconstruction. But one topic we’ve never covered that can be a crucial part of any death investigation is forensic toxicology―the analysis of chemicals and biochemicals that may be responsible for a victim’s death.

The body of knowledge required for the complexities of forensic toxicology is extremely broad. Not only does the toxicologist need to be familiar with thousands of toxic chemicals ―including narcotics, poisons, prescribed medications, alcohol, and environmental chemicals―but he or she also needs to understand how each of those chemicals interacts with the human body from ingestion through elimination, including the speed of metabolic processing. Not only does the chemical itself need to be identified, but the concentration must be determined as well, since many legal pharmaceuticals can become deadly poisons when taken in excess. The field of forensic toxicology takes into account aspects and methodologies from a number of sciences―analytical chemistry, biochemistry, epidemiology, pharmacodynamics, pathology, and physiology. It’s a very complicated science.

A toxicologist also needs to consider evidence found at the crime scene including prescription bottles, visible trace evidence, and drug paraphernalia. A half empty prescription bottle near the bed might not mean the deceased took all the missing pills at once, but a syringe of heroin still in a drug addict’s arm might indicate that looking at narcotics would be a good place to start the investigation into cause of death.

Often, however, the original chemical is not what the toxicologist looks for; instead, chemical breakdown products indicate a substance's original presence. And while we are mostly considering toxicology as contributing to cause of death, there are multiple uses of toxicology in live subjects as well, some of which we will consider below.

Multiple human samples can be taken for toxicology testing:

  • Urine: While this is one of the most useful, non-invasive samples for drug testing, urine can’t indicate real-time impairment, only prior exposure to a drug. However, it can indicate the presence of chemicals up to several weeks after ingestion. Due to the private nature of sampling, regulations concerning collection must be put in place to avoid sample switching. Urine testing can be used with the living for real-time drug testing (ie. steroid use in sports) or post-mortem to help determine cause of death.
  • Blood: As opposed to urine, blood can be used to substantiate the real time effect of a chemical. For example a blood alcohol level of greater than 0.08% indicates a dangerous and criminal level of impairment behind the wheel of a car. Blood testing is often the main way of determining toxic levels of drugs or chemicals in the deceased (ie. carboxyhemoglobin to prove carbon monoxide poisoning during a fire).
  • Hair: Hair is used to prove long-time drug usage or to indicate exceedingly high dosages transferred from the blood steam. As human hair grows approximately 1 to 1.5 cm per month, the location of a drug in the hair shaft can indicate ingestion over long periods of time. Unfortunately, the characteristics of the hair itself can affect the results with coarse dark hair retaining more of any compound than fair, light hair, which can lead to suggestions of racial profiling.
  • Gastric contents: Depending on the time of death following ingestion of poison or prescription medication, the stomach contents can contain high levels of drugs or potentially undigested pills.
  • Vitreous humor: The vitreous humor is the fluid within the sphere of the eye. As it is isolated from the rest of the body, there is no chemical diffusion, and as the eye tends to putrefy more slowly than the majority of the body’s soft tissues, this allows needle sampling and chemical analysis in more decomposed victims.
  • Maggot sampling: In victims that are found following a prolonged period after death and are in a state of advanced decomposition, sometimes it is not possible to test the body’s tissues. If flies have been allowed to land on the body and lay eggs, and a sufficient time has passed to allow maggot hatching and feeding, the maggots themselves may contain the toxic chemical that killed the victim. Analysis of the maggots themselves may reveal the chemical cause of death of the victim.

Since multiple sample types and many different compounds must be considered during testing, there are many different complicated analytical chemistry methodologies that can be used for the analysis including chromatography, spectroscopy, x-ray diffraction, immunoassays, and mass spectrometry. Despite the complexities, forensic toxicology can often be the field of science to determine cause of death when many other forensic specialties come up empty handed, leading investigators to a better understanding of the victim’s life and death.

Photo credit: Horia Varlan


Report from the Writing Trenches – November 2015

My apologies for our absence last week, but it’s been a busy month of “all edits all the time” as Ann and I finished off our final post-critique team edits for LONE WOLF, the first book in our contacted trilogy for the FBI K-9 Mysteries with Kensington Books. Many, many thanks to our crit team extraordinaire― Lisa Giblin, Jenny Lidstrom, Rick Newton, and Sharon Taylor―for their insight into both the story and our writing. I even put a really tough question to them and they all came up with great ideas as to how to fix a problem we didn’t see, but they all identified. You guys are the best and you never fail to challenge us to be better writers!

I’m happy to say we handed LONE WOLF in to our editor yesterday, more than a week ahead of deadline. We’re both very happy with it, but with Peter Senftleben’s skilled assistance we’ll be able to make it even better. We’re very much looking forward to working with him on the manuscript.

If everything stays on schedule, LONE WOLF will release in just over a year, on November 29, 2016. Here’s the current blurb that outlines the book:

When a madman goes on a bombing spree, an FBI K-9 team of one woman and her dog is the key to stopping him before more innocents die and panic sweeps the Eastern seaboard.

Meg Jennings and her Labrador, Hawk, are one of the FBI’s top K-9 teams certified for tracking and search and rescue. When a bomb rips apart a government building on the National Mall in Washington D.C., it will take all the team’s skill to locate and save the workers and children buried beneath the rubble.

More victims die and fear rises as the unseen bomber continues his reign of terror, striking additional targets, ruthlessly bent on pursuing a personal agenda of retribution. Meg and Hawk join the task force dedicated to following the trail of death and destruction to stop the killer. But when the attacks spiral wide and no single location seems safe any longer, it will come down to a battle of wits and survival skills between Meg, Hawk, and the bomber they’re tracking. Can they stop him before he brings the nation to the brink of chaos?

So what’s next for us? We’re going to be starting right into the next book in the series. Meg Jennings and her search and rescue black Lab will be back, as will her team and all the main characters we’ll be meeting in LONE WOLF. But where LONE WOLF is a straight thriller, book two will have some definite mystery components. Here is the book’s preliminary back cover copy:

When a cryptic message arrives at FBI headquarters, agents will have only a few hours to solve the puzzle and scramble to save a victim who has already been buried alive.

A coded message is hand delivered to the Hoover Building in Washington D.C., taunting the FBI with the news of a victim, already buried alive, who will be dead within hours if they don’t act immediately. Once decoded, the message will supply the starting point for the search, but then it’s up to the Bureau’s K-9 teams to find the victim and save her life. But decoding the message takes too long, and by the time Meg Jennings and her Labrador Hawk discover the victim, she’s already dead. When the second message arrives several days later, Meg blatantly breaks Bureau protocol and shares vital evidence with her sister. Cara’s always been a genius with word games and Meg will deal with the consequences later, once a life has been saved. But as the messages continue to arrive, and as the number of victims rises, the team will have to fight to get ahead of the cryptic killer if they hope to stop him before more lives are lost.

This one is going to be a real nail biter and will become a very personal mission for Meg and the whole team. We’ll take some time to get ourselves organized for Christmas, but will likely fit some research into the holidays so we can really hit the ground running in the new year, once LONE WOLF is through its heaviest edits.

And for those who are curious, while we’ll be writing FBI K-9s #2 during the first half of the year, we’re hoping to start into Abbott and Lowell #6 during the latter part of the year as we intend to keep that series running concurrently with the FBI K-9s. Never a dull moment around here.

That’s it for our latest update. It’s going to be an exciting year ahead, with lots of work, but also the fun of new cover art and new launches. Stay tuned and we’ll bring you all the latest news as it arrives!

Photo credit: Dave McLear


We'll be back next week...

Okay, let's face it, if I really had time to fish, I wouldn't. I'd be sitting on the dock at the cottage with the adult beverage of my choice and a really good book. But as our manuscript for LONE WOLF (FBI K-9 Mysteries #1) is due in less than a week, Ann and I are head down working like loons (Ha, get it? Cottage joke there for the Muskoka crowd...). So I'll be back next week, feeling considerably lighter, no doubt. See you then!

Photo credit: Stephen McCowage


A New Era in Canadian Science

Today I’m going to move away from the usual Skeleton Keys themes of forensics, forensic anthropology, and writing to cover a topic that’s closer to my day job—scientific research in Canada. Several weeks ago, we had a general federal election. The results of that election were somewhat unexpected in that we got a Liberal majority government (where the successful party wins more seats than the other two parties combined), ousting the decade long Conservative government. Going into the election, most people were calling for a minority government (where the successful party wins the most seats, but not more than the other two parties combined) and predicted it was going to be a close race between the Conservatives and the Liberals. Well, in the end, it wasn’t close at all. Positive politics took the day (are you watching, American politicians?), beating out a campaign of fear and divisiveness. It was a pretty amazing moment.

To most Canadian scientists, this change in government was long overdue. The Conservative government was known as controlling, tight-lipped, and focused on staying on their message at all cost. And as far as they were concerned, that focus also held for government-funded scientists. Scientists were muzzled and not allowed to discuss their research unless they had government approval and a Conservative representative was present at the time of each media interview to oversee the message. If your research didn’t agree with their message, then you absolutely had nothing to say. Many times, good news or pure interest stories (like improvements in lobster and fish farming or the locations of shark births) with absolutely no bearing on policy were shut down by the powers that be for absolutely no discernable reason. Canadian science was presented out of country, often made the news out of country, but was not allowed to be covered in country. It was stifling insanity of the worst kind.

This is not how science works. Pure science is objective and reports the results no matter what they are. Scientists are human, and sometimes it’s hard not to form a hypothesis and try to get the results to slot into that hypothesis, but objectivity and openness is the goal. For many of us within the scientific community, this kind of suffocating oversight was completely unacceptable.

Another issue during the tenure of the last government was that research funding has turned into an old boys’ club, giving more money for long term projects to those who already were established and had funding, and making it very difficult for mid-range scientists or those just starting out to stay afloat by only offering them small, single year grants. When researchers spend more time applying for funding than doing actual research, the system is most definitely broken.

We’re thrilled to see science represented multiple times in the new cabinet, including a new position, the Minister of Science. Our first Minister of Science, Dr. Kirsty Duncan, holds a Ph.D. in geology and is well-known for her work on the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. However, it was her involvement in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that earned her a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Naveep Bains is the new Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, and Catherine McKenna is our new Minister of Environment and Climate Change. That last is a huge step forward as we move from a government which mostly ignored climate change to a government that considers it important enough to create an office to oversee Canada’s contribution to controlling it.

The new government has already spoken with scientists and the media and has officially lifted the previous government’s insistence on secrecy and restrictions on dealing with the media. Just last week, the Honourable Mr. Bains said, “Our government values science and will treat scientists with respect. This is why government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public.” To quote Wilfred Laurier and Justin Trudeau, ‘sunny ways’, indeed. The creation of the Minister of Science post and the liberation of scientists made such an impact that Nature, one of the highest ranked scientific journals worldwide, carried a breaking news story on it on the government’s first day in office.

So look out. Canadian scientists are back, and we’ve got something to say!

Photo credit: The Government of Canada


Amazing Genetic Tales: Chimeras

A chimera mouse with two of her non-chimeric offpsringA story hit the news last week that was meant to be an interesting human vignette, but the forensic aspects of it immediately jumped out at me. Ah, crime writers. Sometimes we see the world through a special lens!

The story begins with an American couple who conceived a child through in vitro fertilization. The mother carried to term and gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Unexpectedly, however, the boy’s blood type didn’t match either parent, and they became concerned a mix-up had occurred at the fertility clinic. The clinic maintained that on the day of the donation, the father was the only white man to donate sperm; since the child was clearly white, no mix-up had occurred. Still the couple wanted full tests run, so the father contributed a saliva sample and a paternity test was run which concluded that the boy was not his son. Needless to say, the parents were devastated, but they requested a more detailed test through the commercial genetic ancestry company 23andMe.

No one anticipated the results of that test. It was revealed that the man was not the boy’s father, but was instead his uncle. As we’ve discussed in the past, standard identification by DNA is established using 15 markers, but 23andMe uses a genotyping method (near and dear to my heart as we’ve just finished a 5-year Dengue study in the lab based on this technique) called GWAS—Genome-Wide-Association Study—to look at hundreds of thousands of genes for the purpose of building a detailed ancestry map. Because of this extremely thorough analysis, they were able to determine that the boy was the nephew of the man thought to be his father.

However, the man didn’t have a brother. So there was only one conclusion to be drawn from the analysis. Keep in mind the statistic that 1 in 8 single births start as multiple pregnancies, but one of the children is lost very early and, rather than being miscarried, is simply reabsorbed in the womb. Sometimes these cells are then incorporated into the surviving child, making that child a chimera—an organism made up of cells originating from genetically distinct individuals. The man must have been the only survivor of what were originally two fraternal twins, as absorbing an identical twin would have been indistinct from his own natural genotype. As a result, the sperm he produced carried his unborn brother’s genetic signature, but his saliva carried his own. It’s the first known case in the world of a chimera fooling a paternity test.

As a biologist currently heavily involved in complex genetics and genotyping, I was instantly interested in the details of this case. But as a crime writer, I immediately considered the forensic implications of this gentleman. Not that I’m suggesting he’s going to take this information and suddenly adopt of life of crime, but any man with this type of chimerism could be a rapist that would be beyond normal law enforcement’s ability to apprehend since typical DNA sampling techniques would not capture his true genetic state. Luckily, this is a very rare genetic occurrence, and though TV crime shows like CSI might use this scenario as a plot device, the chances of it happening in real life are exceedingly small.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons