The following is an expanded version of Item 5 on my “Top 10 Unique Things I’ve Done? list:

One evening I was called to a residence where a man apparently shot his wife and child before turning the gun on himself. Witnesses at the house next door were in the garage when the wife returned home. The wife entered the house and within a few moments witnesses reportedly heard shouting followed by two loud noises. A neighbor called 911 after approaching the front door of the house and seeing the husband and wife lying on the floor of the foyer. When police arrived at the scene, they found a 12 gauge shotgun positioned under the man. They also found the body of a 3 year-old face down on a child’s sleeping bag in the floor of the living room with an obvious head wound.

As is usually the case, my role at the scene was to examine the bodies and make sure that my observations were consistent with what investigating officers believed had occurred. Initially investigators believed that all three people were killed by the same gun, so it was my duty to make sure that there were no fatal wounds other than the obvious close contact shotgun wounds. If I had found a semiautomatic or revolver wound with no such weapon in the house, then the officers would have had to rethink the scope of their investigation.

In this particular instance, the investigators were especially interested in any details I could provide that would indicate whether or not the child had been shot before the mother returned home.

If I were a television character, I would have had some sort of infrared camera with the ability to provide accurate body temperatures. Using it, I would have been able to determine that the child’s body temperature had cooled to 95 degrees while the mother’s was still at 98 degrees. I would have used those readings to state conclusively that the man shot the child two hours before he shot the mother. In reality, the location of the child and the mother made their body temperatures virtually irrelevant. The child was located on a carpeted, inner part of the house that was several degrees warmer than the tiled foyer where the mother was located. A child’s smaller body mass also means that the rate of cooling differs from a full grown adult.

After the scene was properly documented, I collected as many skull fragments as I could locate. I was able to offer a few observations, but nothing to help establish sequence. The majority of the fragments were spread over a 360-degree area leading me to believe that the father was standing over the child aiming straight down. The devastation to the cranial vault was so severe that even after some reassembly I could only assume the shotgun was fired at close range based on there being no pellet damage to the neck or back area. I found a few pellets among the tissue that was still present at the head area of the child. Most of the pellets were later recovered from the sleeping bag and carpet under the bag.

Ultimately, investigators relied on eyewitness accounts to help piece together the sequence of events. Based on the two loud sounds that the neighbors heard, they concluded the first shot would have likely occurred before the mother got home. Presumably the house would have still been closed before the mother arrived and the child was shot at a more central location in the house, so the shot would have been more muffled if it was heard at all.

As much as I would have liked to provide physical evidence as to which had been shot first, anything I could have offered would have been a gross misrepresentation of my abilities. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose it didn’t really matter who was shot first. In hindsight it mattered because ultimately a report detailing the most likely sequence of events would be generated. It would certainly matter to family members who would have an interest in what happened.

Looking back, I suspect that the investigators were primarily concerned about whether the mother had watched her child die or vice versa because they were trying to make sense of the whole event—as though understanding exactly what happened was a tangible alternative to understanding why it happened.


3 Responses to “”

  1. May 16, 2005 at 5:39 pm

    It must be so freeing to be able to look at a situation like this analytically without entangling emotions and overactive imagination replaying the entire scene. I always seem to put myself in the scenario and involuntarily go through all the horror and emotions that must have been involved (from the sickening desperation of the father to the sheer terror of the child to the unspeakable grief and agony of the last minutes of the mother). It is very exhausting and depressing.

  2. May 17, 2005 at 2:53 pm

    well said dotbar
    As I read I too find myself watching it all happen in my head like a tv show. The stories about kids really sting.

  3. May 20, 2005 at 8:40 pm

    This is my first time stoppin’ by, just wanted to comment and say “hi” – sounds like you have a very interesting job – I find this kind of stuff facsinating. I always wanted to be either an ER trauma surgeon, or a paramedic, or of course one of those cool CSI people. How in the hell I wound up working in the legal field, I have no clue. But I’m fascinated with medicine, I guess it doesn’t much matter whether they’re alive or already dead. I watch those Autopsy shows on HBO all the time – and where most people go throw up, I’m asking for more! lol

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