Sunday, September 20, 2009


I live in the Pacific Northwest and I have an irritating neighbor with no family. I was thinking of disposing of him locally but can't decide between a water burial in Puget Sound or a trip to an off-beat hiking trail in the Cascades. Based on the forensics of my neighborhood, which drop spot will help him disappear faster?

All else being equal, his corpse will disappear faster in the woods, but it will stay disappeared longer (giving you more time to establish an alibi) in the sound. According to Spitz and Fisher’s classic Medicolegal Investigation of Death, one week in the air equals two weeks in the water (and eight weeks in the ground). The salt water will delay the process even further.

At either site, the process will take longer in the cold months, so you should delay the murder until the first snows of winter. There are no guarantees, of course, but there are bound to be many less hikers around in the winter, and with luck the body will be down a hill and covered with snow, impossible to see. After the up and down temperatures of spring, decomposition should be well established by the time hikers return, again giving you more time to cover your tracks. Animals will help out and perhaps carry away the pieces of flesh with the bullet wounds that occurred when your fit of pique got out of hand.

Unlike what we see on television, dead bodies sink when put in water. They surface when decomposition advances enough that the tissues fill with air. (Tissues, not the body itself. It does not inflate like a balloon so poking holes in it will not ensure that it stays down, as my husband demonstrated lately by shooting a bloated fish with a BB gun.)

Apparently Puget Sound does not get cold enough to freeze, but still, the colder the water, the more time it buys you. If the water is particularly deep and cold, the body may never surface. (Hence the lyrics, “Superior, it’s said, never gives up her dead….”)

Of course there will be many other factors to consider. Transporting a dead body is difficult, messy and risky. The closer you can get your target to the dump site under his own power, the less distance you have to carry him, so if he’s a boater and not a hiker that might affect your decision. Frankly, if he lives alone and has no family, it might be better (and free you of months of suspense waiting for the body to turn up) to kill him in his own home. If he’s old enough for it to seem believable, poison something in his kitchen with digitalis and let it appear to be a heart attack.

Foxglove grows easily in Washington and I hear it’s very pretty. Or, if you can get close enough for a gunshot, make it look like a suicide (just don’t move the body afterward, and don’t get fancy and try to fake a note). Either way, with luck he will decompose in the safety of his own home for a week or two before anyone comes looking for him, disintegrating certain evidence and giving you time to work on your alibi.

Also, this might make it hard to sell the house, so if you have some extra funds you might want to snap it up yourself and expand your estate. Then you won’t have to worry about getting another nasty neighbor and having to start this process all over again.

Lisa Black spent the happiest five years of her life in a morgue. Strange, perhaps, but true. In her job as a forensic scientist she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s as a latent print examiner and CSI working with fingerprints and crime scenes. She has been published in Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Japan.


Gabi said...

You make a lot of very interesting points. I'm concerned about wind direction and smell (my other downstairs neighbor already spends too much time cooking something very esoteric on his grill), so I've eliminated the at home scenario. I do know an off-trail spot and it turns out, I've got a weekend in early April available. One week, huh? Maybe I'll buy some coyote chow at a not too local pet store for cash. Just to make sure. Thanks for the help!

CJ Lyons said...

OMG, Gabi! I'm soooo happy I don't live anywhere near you, you scare me, girl!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I too am glad an ocean separates me from Gabi. An ocean she might be only too happy to dump me in if I act up.

Now foxglove...I like that idea myself.

Thanks for a great week, Lisa!

Jen Forbus said...

This was hilarious. I have to say I didn't see that question coming from you at all Gabi, but maybe after you finish with your neighbor, you could do something about the one who just bought drums by me???

And did anyone else happen to notice that Lisa didn't seem to react to this question like she did the rest of the week? She just went about answering it. I think I might be concerned about BOTH these ladies! LOL

This was great fun this week, guys! Thanks!!

Kelli Stanley said...

Ah, foxglove ... one of my favorite flowers as a child in Washington (I was born in Tacoma) ...

But after reading Gabi's question, am joining CJ in relief that I'm now in California. ;)

Thank you so much, Lisa, for sharing your incredible expertise and wonderful time and writing with us!! I only hope we haven't scared you off too badly! ;)



Shane Gericke said...

"Here, honey, just a little foxglove from my garden to spice up your mashed potatoes ... no, of COURSE I love that you order me around all the time, what girl wouldn't ..."

Gabi said...

My trouble is if I were to prepare a dish of chicken and mushrooms in foxglove sauce no one who knows me would take it because I do not cook. Now if I can find a way to inject it into Cap'n Crunch, some of my friends might fall for that...

Thanks so much, Lisa, for both the immediate assistance and the great week!

Lisa Black said...

Thank YOU!! This has been such a fun week. Your questions were really, um, unique and I've had a great time with them! Thanks again for having me on the blog--we'll have to do it again next year.