Books, Real Life Crime

Fire Forensics and The Flame Retardant Torso

We just got “The Debt Collectors” launched, which is based on a few cases that I and my partners have worked over the years.  It’s been fun, at times, to relive the events upon which my stories are based; at others, though, it’s been admittedly difficult.  I digress…I wanted to write about several truths in “TDC.”

Fire is one of the two most destructive and vital elements on Earth.  It ravishes entire landscapes and spares few in its path.  All of nature’s belongings, with little exception, are turned into fertilizers that allow that same landscape, with enough time, water, and sun, to literally rise again from the ashes of its former self.  Water, the bane of fire’s existence, is equally destructive.  While fire forces physical, structural changes in matter, turning solid to ash, or melting solid to liquid and transforming liquid to gas, water operates completely differently.  Water also forces physical changes, sometimes absorbing solids, like salt, or disintegrating solids like granite over time.  Water erodes the strongest known solids in our Universe, and she only needs enough time and energy to do it.  Still waters run deep, but crashing waves much more easily carve rock.

Because they are so naturally destructive to the rest of the world around us, it’s then easily predicable that fire and water are two of the most damaging and destructive forces that can touch our crime scenes.  Erode or vaporize evidence.  Wash away DNA.  Dissolve fingerprints.  Bloat or dehydrate tissues.  If you have any doubts about the effectiveness of this duo, consider this: last I read about it, most arson investigators have about a 20-30% closure rate.  Arson is one of the toughest crimes to investigate and prosecute, and most agencies are loath to move forward to charges if they don’t have pretty rock-solid evidence.

Despite that reality, fire does sometimes help us out.  For example, fire can actually preserve latent prints left on shell casings.  Let’s just say, for illustration, that you’re one of the bad guys from “The Debt Collectors.”  You shoot a few rounds into, I don’t know, a couple drug trafficking Haitians you no longer trust, leave their bodies in the trunk of a stolen car, and torch the whole scene to eliminate evidence that directly ties you to the crime.  That fire you set is gonna do us a favor and, under the right conditions, help preserve your latent prints on the shell casings.  Gonna be pretty hard to justify that circumstance to a jury, right?

“Well, what happened was,” you might try to explain, “I loaded those bullets into a gun for someone I didn’t know, gave it to them not understanding they were gonna use it to commit murder, and I’m just an innocent victim here, slandered by forensic science!”

I’ll wager the jury doesn’t deliberate for very long on that one.

Also, as depicted in “The Debt Collectors,” human bodies are pretty hard to burn.  You really need a LOT of accelerant, a lot of time, and a lot of stand-off distance.  Even though we’re made of meat, too, there’s a whole lot of less-desirable stuff sitting inside us that makes a body-burn an absolutely miserable experience.  Without getting too deep into the gutter, I’ll summarize that we’re made of about 75-78% water.  That has to get hot enough for long enough to evaporate off.  Just like a pot of boiling water, the liquid in our bodies isn’t gonna get over 212-degrees.  That keeps the tissues at pretty much the same temperature, at least until the liquid boils off.  Then, all the dehydrated solid parts have to catch fire, incinerate, and reduce to ash.  The bones take a long time to burn up, and you won’t be a complete pile of ash for a few hours.  Yep, HOURS, and that’s assuming the fire stays consistent and hot enough to work as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Another forensic-nerdy point is the INcombustabilty of table salt.  Salt…won’t…burn.  Sodium chloride, which is essential for mammalian life and gets left behind in your DNA and latent prints every time to you touch anything, melts at 1473-degrees Fahrenheit and doesn’t boil off into a gas until it passes 2575-degrees Fahrenheit.  So, that bullet casing you touched while loading the gun to shoot the guy in the trunk before you burned it all and fled?  The fire will evaporate the moisture from your latent prints and seal the salt crystals to the metal, thereby preserving your prints for us.  And, that’s the reason you’ll get to have a conversation with detectives soon afterward.  Probably not a voluntary one, either.  (See weak-sauce alibi above)

Fire and water destroy much of our crime scenes, but, occasionally, they do us a solid and behind exactly what we need to find you.  I hope you enjoy “The Debt Collectors” as much as I (mostly) did writing it.  I genuinely appreciate the time and treasure you’re giving up to read my stories, and I sincerely strive to make them worth your while.

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