One of the things I try to find the time to do is to get outside and take photos. I love photography, but as with so many things, it’s difficult to find the time. I love the solace. The peace. The intense concentration on a specific image. It allows me to clear my head and think–to enjoy the world around me. In fact, I get many of my ideas for stories, characters, and yes, murder scenes and bad guys too.
Here are a few of my favorite photographs. Remember, it’s important to take a day of rest. I hope you enjoy. Thank you for stopping by.
Forensic toxicology is one of the many fields of science that populates the intriguing world of investigative forensics. The main purpose of forensic toxicology is to aid law enforcement in understanding the extent to which ingested substances contributed to a person’s impairment or death. Poison is the type of death not commonly heard about or routine in nature.
Combining biology with pharmacology, forensic toxicologists play vital roles in murder investigations in which the suspected cause of death is poison. To that end, here are two high-profile murder cases that were solved using the expertise of skilled forensic toxicologists.
Angel of Death
We hand over a lot of trust to those who work in the medical field. Vulnerable and sick, hospital patients assume that while under the care of nurses, they are in good hands. But, unfortunately for the people of a small Indiana community in the mid-1990s, their trust was misplaced.
Between 1993 and 1995, a nurse named Orville Lynn Majors was linked to 130 of the 147 deaths at the Intensive Care Unit of Vermillion County Hospital in rural Indiana. Of course, while acting as a nurse in an I.C.U. will certainly expose one to death, this nurse was no ordinary health care provider.
Dubbed the “Angel of Death,” Nurse Majors was convicted in 1999 for injecting six patients with heart-stopping, lethal doses of epinephrine and potassium chloride. Although he is not officially blamed for 130 deaths, there is a great deal of suspicion surrounding these deaths due to Majors’ exposure to these patients.
His serial killing spree lasted for a couple of years in the mid-1990s, and the only reason his actions were brought to light was due to a routine study conducted by the hospital. The results of the study revealed that by 1994, the intensive care unit had a death rate of 120, despite the number being only 31 during years’ prior.
Law enforcement was notified by the hospital of this spike in deaths. An investigation was opened, and 15 bodies were immediately exhumed for autopsies. Forensic toxicologists conducted tests, which revealed the lethal doses of the substances injected by Majors.
Prosecutors were able to definitively tie Majors to six deaths, even though the killer had been alone with many more of the patients who passed away. Experts believe Majors was responsible for the death of more people, but his skill in mixing poison cocktails allowed him to use the defense of ‘death by natural causes.’
Majors was sentenced to a staggering 360-year prison sentence but passed away in 2017 due to – ironically – heart issues.
In one of the most disturbing poison cases of the last century, Janie Lou Gibbs was responsible for the deaths of her husband, three sons and grandson. That’s right, she killed her own children and grandchild. And how did she do it? Rat poison and arsenic.
Born on Christmas in 1932, Gibbs was an active member of her local church, and a dedicated home daycare operator. Then, one day, something changed. After 18 years of marriage to her husband, Marvin, she decided one evening to kill him by putting rat poison in his dinner.
Gibbs’ plan did not immediately work. Marvin didn’t die, but instead was admitted to the local hospital after falling ill from what the doctors believed to be – naturally occurring liver issues. As the sweet wife she was, Gibbs decided to bring homemade soup to the hospital so that Marvin could enjoy a homecooked meal. The problem was, the soup was laced with arsenic. He soon died of “liver disease.”
In a surprising twist, Gibbs donated a significant amount of Marvin’s life insurance proceeds to her church. Less than a year later, this wife and mother from hell poisoned her youngest son, Marvin, Jr. Authorities chalked up his death to his unfortunate inheritance of his father’s liver disease. Gibbs escaped without any suspicion. And, she donated some of her son’s life insurance proceeds to her church – again.
Like a macabre broken record, Gibbs once again killed a year later. This time, she poisoned another one of her sons. His death, like the others before, was attributed to a natural cause. With only one living child remaining, the sadistic killer struck yet again. But, this time, Gibbs skipped a generation and killed her newborn grandson, Raymond.
Less than a month later, Gibbs poisoned her son, Robert, who was the father of the murdered baby. Finally, Gibbs’ “luck” had run out. A family physician grew suspicious after the back-to-back deaths of a healthy newborn and his equally healthy father. An autopsy was immediately conducted on Robert, who was found to have ingested a lethal amount of arsenic.
Forensic toxicologists worked with investigators in exhuming and testing the bodies of Gibbs’ other deceased family members. All five victims had their causes of death changed from natural to homicide by poison.
Gibbs was initially found mentally unfit to stand trial and was confined to a mental institution. Years later, she was successfully prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to five life terms. In her elder years, Gibbs was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and released to the custody of her sister. In 1999, the killer died of natural causes.
There’s something so disturbing about poison cases. Maybe it’s the deliberate premeditation. Or the slow painful death. Most likely it’s a combo of both. Are you aware of any poison cases as troubling as those above?
Criminology and criminalistics may sound similar, but they are very much distinct disciplines. While both fields operate within the world of criminal justice, criminology focuses on the sociological aspects of crime, whereas criminalistics centers on investigations through the use of hard science.
As a crime writer, I’ve been asked for years about what the difference is between the two fields. To that end, here’s a brief overview of the distinctions between criminology and criminalistics.
What is Criminology
Simply put, criminology is the study of criminal behavior. Specifically, it’s a sociological discipline that explores the nature, causes, consequences, and prevention of crime.
Criminologists operate as both an academic and detective, in that they must draw upon theories and hard data in conducting their work. People in this field often study social and criminal data in order to understand criminal motives while also determining the appropriate consequences for such behavior.
In order to operate in a just and productive manner, our criminal justice system requires the field of criminology. And that’s because top criminologists work closely with law enforcement and the courts to assist them with improving the overall efficiency and effectives of the system.
In order to provide credible and effective assistance, a criminologist needs to understand what motivates a criminal, how that crime affects society as a whole, the impact on the victim and the appropriate consequence for the crime.
What is Criminalistics
Although criminalistics is a subdivision of forensic science, the distinction is very technical, so for purposes of our discussion, those two terms are interchangeable. A professional who practices in criminalistics has a central role in the criminal justice system, in that they aid a criminal investigation by applying science to evidence within the parameters of the rules of criminal procedure.
In other words, forensic specialists collect, preserve and analyze evidence using scientific techniques. Some specialists collect and examine evidence at the scene of the crime, while other forensic experts only perform their work in a lab.
Many people in the field of criminalistics provide expert witness testimony at criminal trials by providing their scientific conclusions to the judge and jury. A skilled forensic scientist generally has the ability to perform complex scientific analysis while also simultaneously providing their conclusion by using common speech, so that a layperson can easily understand their findings.
Brief History of Criminology
The origins of criminology date back to early 19th Century Europe, where torture was the norm for eliciting confessions and testimonies. These early criminologists were part of the classical era, and they believed torture to be wrong. Classicists also opined that criminal behavior is the direct result of a person’s free will (as opposed to some intervening, supernatural force). As a result of these thoughts, early criminologists advocated for the elimination of torture, but did believe in a firm system of punishment for one’s criminal actions.
The next phase of criminology is known as neo-classical, and that era’s greatest contribution to the field was the notion that self-defense was not in itself a crime. Prior to this era, many criminal justice systems punished the victim who acted in self-defense, along with the initial aggressor.
In the 1920’s, criminology became associated with the study of sociology, which resulted in theorists looking at the relationship between free will and one’s environment. This type of thinking expanded focus from the individual to society in general. And how someone’s relative standing in, and relationship to, society can have an impact on that person’s criminal propensities.
Today, criminologists focus not only on how to deter crime, but on methods to prevent a person from ever becoming a criminal. The focus is also on how to rehabilitate as opposed to strictly punishing one who engages in criminal behavior.
Brief History of Criminalistics
The origins of criminalistics dates back to ancient Greece and Rome with the practice of autopsies. And the first known forensic science guide was published in China during the 13th Century.
Modern criminalistics is generally known to have begun in the mid-1800s. At that time, the pioneering scientist was an Austrian named Hans Gross. He and his contemporaries were responsible for the first well-documented examples of applying scientific principles to criminal investigations.
For the next hundred years, forensic scientists throughout Europe and North America made great strides in the field by developing innovative investigative techniques, including fingerprint analysis and anthropometry, which is the study of a person’s physical dimensions. Anthropometry was a crucial leap for forensics because it allowed investigators to build a physical profile of a corpse, which led to more victim identifications and solved crimes.
Modern forensic science incorporates biology, physics, mathematics, coding and chemistry. The science is then applied to the facts and data obtained during a criminal investigation. And because criminalistics has become so advanced, crimes that were once unsolvable are now being solved.
Criminology and criminalistics are both fascinating fields. Whether we are trying to determine how best to reduce crime in our culture, or are solving a decades-old murder, these disciplines are there to provide a roadmap. Which of these two fields would you rather pursue a career in?
I’m so excited to announce the latest Detective Katie Scott Thriller, THE FRAGILE ONES is now available for pre-order. I love this series and finding new cases and scary predicaments for Katie–and Cisco. I actually had goosebumps writing the last few chapters! This announcement is a day late–I apologize. There are some exciting things simmering right now and I’ll be announcing soon. Hold tight.
Would love to hear your feedback on the cover!
“Please Mommy, can Tessa and I go play on the swing by the creek?” the little girl begs, pushing a blonde curl from her eyes. “We’ll stay together, and we promise to be safe.” Hours later, their mother waits anxiously for her darling girls to arrive home with a list of reasons why they are late. But the front door never opens…
When the bodies of eleven and twelve-year-old sisters, Tessa and Megan, are found at the bottom of a ravine—dressed in matching pastel summer outfits, their small bodies broken from the fall—Detective Katie Scott is called to one of the most shocking and heartbreaking crime scenes of her career.
Carefully picking through the fragile remains, Katie makes the first of many disturbing discoveries: the girls were not biological sisters. The youngest, Megan, is a DNA match to a kidnapping case years before. The tiny number burnt into her skin the mark of a terrifying killer intent on keeping count of his collection.
Her PTSD from the army triggered, Katie is left reeling as she maps other missing children in the local area. Hasthis twisted soul found a way to stay nearby his victims? Could he be watching now as Katie hits one dead end after another?
A wild storm building, matching a fiber found during the autopsy to a nearby boatyard is the break Katie needs. But when another girl goes missing, just as lightning strikes and the power goes out, Katie only has her instincts, her team and her service dog to rely on. As time runs out for Katie to finds the stolen child alive, who will become the next number on this monster’s deadly list?
Fans of Lisa Regan, Rachel Caine and Melinda Leigh, you better buckle-up for the ride of your life! BEWARE – this gripping crime thriller is guaranteed to keep you up all night!
Everyone is talking about Jennifer Chase:
‘THERE WAS NO WAY I WAS PUTTING THIS BOOK DOWN!!!!!… I was literally holding my breath… I HAD TO KNOW!!!!! As for the explosive ending?WOW definitely not what or who I was expecting.’ Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
‘Hooked from the start. I couldn’t stop reading. I just needed to find out what happens next with Katie and the case. Katie is a total badass… I loved the story sooo much… awesome book. I recommend it to everyone.’ Mama Bear’s Book Shelf, 5 stars
‘Totally loved this creepy thriller!! The characters were amazing and drew me right in… This one cut deep on the emotional scale. I highly recommend this book.’ NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars
‘One hell of a scary and unpredictable rollercoaster ride with several twists and turns along the way. On more than one occasion I almost had to read through my fingers as I feared what was going to happen next. A brilliant, and highly recommended read.’ Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
‘This series just gets better and better… I envy you the binge read… I’m already looking forward to the next one!’ Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
‘Brilliant! Brilliant! Absolutely freaking brilliant!!… Fantastic and so real.’ Shalini’s Books & Reviews, 5 stars
‘Wow!!! What can I say about this page-turning, nail biting crime thriller!! It was absolutely fantastically written and had me completely hooked from the first page… filled with nail biting suspense… kept me hooked.’ BookWorm86, 5 stars
This past year, the oldest cold murder case in populous Orange County, California was finally solved. A unique aspect of this murder was that the identities of both the victim and killer were unknown for over 52 years.
The case traces its roots back to March 1968 in Huntington Beach, when three kids found the dead body of a young woman in a drainage ditch. The woman had no identification. And no one in the area had reported a missing person. The only pieces of evidence left at the scene were the clothes on the victim’s back and a cigarette that was located near her body.
Since no one stepped forward to identify her, the victim was laid to rest in a local unmarked grave.
Then, for the next five decades, the police continued their investigation, but had no leads until a break in 2001. At that time, law enforcement conducted a DNA analysis on the victim’s clothes. The police now had a genetic indicator that would later help them identify the woman.
But, despite this break, the case continued to be unsolved until another break occurred in 2010 after a partial DNA profile of the killer was obtained from the cigarette.
The DNA gathered from the cigarette matched DNA found in the victim’s rape kit. Then, almost a decade later police used investigative genetic genealogy to create the murderer’s family tree. As a result of the family tree, law enforcement found their killer – Johnny Chrisco, who died of cancer in 2015.
While the pursuit of the killer’s identity was ongoing, investigators were also busy trying to figure out the name of the victim. Police had entered DNA obtained from blood on the victim’s blouse into the national Combined DNA Index System and registered her fingerprints with both California and federal databases.
Eventually, investigators were able to cobble together a family tree, and with the help of a renowned genealogist, they were able to identify the victim as Anita Louise Piteau.
Anita’s remains were returned to the siblings that survived her, and a memorial service was held for Anita in Maine, her home state.
Justice for Baby Michael
In the dead of winter in 1999, a soldier was driving along a desolate North Carolina road when he saw a trash bag on the shoulder. Something about the bag did not sit right with him. So, he pulled over and inspected it. What the soldier discovered was utter horror; inside the bag was the dead body of a newborn baby.
The baby died of blunt force trauma, still had his umbilical cord attached and was less than 24 hours old. Because the baby presumably died without a name, the local Sheriff decided to call the child “Baby Michael” after the Patron Saint of Law Enforcement.
The case went unsolved for many years, despite law enforcement’s never-ending pursuit to find the killer. When it seemed like all hope was lost, detectives received the proper funding and the green light from their superiors to send Baby Michael’s DNA to a forensic genealogist.
Combining DNA analysis with traditional genealogy, the analysts were able to find familial DNA matches for Baby Michael. Utilizing this information, detectives investigated the family members in order to ascertain how these people were related to Baby Michael.
After months of conducting this type of investigation, law enforcement believed they found the mother – Deborah Riddle O’Conner. Once confronted, O’Conner admitted to killing her son, Baby Michael.
It took almost 21 years to achieve justice for Baby Michael, but it was finally attained when O’Conner was charged with murder and was granted no bail.
Mary Scott’s Murder Finally Solved
On a dark November night in 1969, two San Diego detectives went to the home of Mary Scott to let her family that know that Mary had been murdered. Rosalie Sanz was the younger sister of 23-year old Mary, and she has vivid memories of that horrible evening. Rosalie’s nightmare seemed to never end, as her big sister’s murder went unsolved for almost half a century.
Mary was a divorced single mother, who worked as a cocktail waitress and exotic dancer. One evening when Mary did not show up for work at the club, a colleague went to her apartment and found her dead. Mary had been raped, and the apartment was in disarray with the chain to the front door completely snapped in half.
Investigators pursued the case for years, but they were unable to find a single suspect. The case went cold, and eventually everyone in Mary’s life died from old age and natural causes. The only one who still remembers Mary is her sister Rosalie. One of Mary’s daughters is still alive but has been unreachable.
Rosalie had been reading about breakthroughs in DNA tech. So, she contacted an old friend, who had retired from the San Diego Police Department. The friend called in a few favors, and as a result, the San Diego Cold Case Unit and the District Attorney re-opened the case – 50 years after the murder.
Leveraging the recent success with genetic genealogy, detectives hired a national company that specializes in such work. Within a few months, the police found their suspect, John Jeffrey Sipos, a 75-year old who was currently living in Pennsylvania.
The killer was arrested and is being extradited to California for prosecution. Rosalie is grateful that justice for her sister was finally obtained.
The resolution of these cold cases through the use of genetic genealogy is an amazing achievement for both science and law enforcement. No longer can killers use the passage of time as a way to avoid justice. Are there any cold cases in your neck of the woods that have been resolved through the use of genetic genealogy?
Fabled by law-abiding Texans and feared by outlaws, the Texas Rangers are an elite law enforcement agency that has statewide investigative jurisdiction. Based in Austin, the Rangers have existed for almost 100 years after being founded by the original Texan himself – Stephen F. Austin.
Originally formed to patrol the Texas frontier and to guard early Texan settlers from hostile Native-American tribes, the Rangers, who were all volunteers, were reorganized after the state secured its independence from Mexico.
Thereafter, the volunteers were used to patrol the Texas-Mexico border, and to undertake special policing missions. Once a mission was accomplished, the volunteers were sent home until there was a new mission.
The group was officially disbanded by the US Government during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, but, however, once Texas was allowed to self-govern again, the Rangers were back in business. This time, the group was no longer comprised of volunteers, but rather, paid agents of the state.
Starting in 1935, the Rangers became an official law enforcement agency under the supervision of the Texas Department of Public Safety (Texas DPS).
Duties of the Texas Rangers
The Texas Rangers have led investigative responsibility on a statewide basis for the following: public corruption, border security operations, major crime investigations, officer involved shootings, and unsolved and serial crimes.
In addition to those duties, the Rangers assist in the following arenas.
Interagency Investigations and Suppression of Crime Assistance
Rangers assist local law enforcement in certain high-risk or high-profile situations on an as-needed basis. The assistance will either be requested by local authorities or assigned by the Texas DPS.
Generally, the need for Rangers arises when the local authorities are unable or unwilling to enforce the law due to extraordinary circumstances.
Organized Crime Unit
The Rangers coordinate with local, state, and federal agencies in gathering intelligence and suppressing organized crime, whether it be human trafficking, narcotics, or weapons.
With superior forensic capabilities, the Rangers provide training and assistance to other law enforcement groups. Some of the areas where the Rangers excel are hypnosis, facial reconstruction and skillful artists who aid victims in rendering realistic depictions of suspects and crime scenes.
Internal Investigations and Intra-agency Training
When called upon by the Director of the Texas DPS, Rangers investigate alleged misconduct of other Texas law enforcement personnel, including incidents involving officer shootings. The Rangers also investigate incidents involving injuries to Texas law enforcement officers.
Additionally, the Rangers provide technical and specialized investigation and forensic training to various local, state, and federal agencies.
Security for Elected Officials
When the Texas Governor is traveling throughout the state, or when outside dignitaries are visiting Texas, the Rangers provide security detail to ensure the officials are safe in performing their duties.
Other elected officials are also afforded special protection by the Rangers during public events.
Becoming a Texas Ranger
The Rangers are an elite force, which means it is a highly selective law enforcement agency that has stringent standards. In order to join their ranks, an applicant must have at least eight years of experience with a Texas DPS law enforcement agency. The applicant’s experience must have been primarily focused on the investigation of major crimes. This force is so selective, that experience in the Military Police does not suffice.
If an applicant meets the minimum standards, the would-be Ranger must be a top scorer on the entrance exam and be successful in the subsequent oral interview. A position with the Rangers is so highly sought after, that recruiting is rarely done. Usually, hundreds of women and men will apply for only a handful of open positions.
Rangers are generally highly experienced officers, so much so that the current average age of an officer is 44 years old.
Currently, the Texas Ranger Division has around 235 full time employees, which includes 166 commissioned Rangers.
In 2019, the Rangers conducted a total of 2,235 investigations, which resulted in 993 felony and 56 misdemeanor arrests. As a result of last year’s investigations, the Rangers secured 562 confessions and 537 convictions. Interestingly, the Rangers conducted 9 hypnosis sessions during their investigations into criminal activity.
With respect to punishment, the 537 convictions led to grand total of 8,531 years in prison, including 3 death sentences and 76 life sentences.
Notable Texas Rangers
John Coffee Hays
A Tennessee man by birth, John Coffee Hays ventured to Texas in 1837, shortly after the new nation gained its independence from Mexico. By 23 years old, Hays was a Ranger Captain, who gained fame during the Mexican War of 1846-1848. During the war, he defended United States supply and communication lines from attacks by Mexican guerillas.
Fighting alongside US army troops, this Texas Ranger earned a national reputation for valor. After his time as a Ranger, Hays moved to California, where he helped establish the city of Oakland.
Following his family friend Davy Crockett from Tennessee to Texas in 1835, Ben McCulloch joined Sam Houston’s army for the Battle of San Jacinto. Soon thereafter, McCulloch joined the Rangers and earned his stripes battling Comanches during the many skirmishes between Texans and local native tribes.
McCulloch quickly ascended in the ranks and was named John Coffee Hays’ first lieutenant. During the Mexican War, McCulloch was named the chief scout for General Zachary Taylor, who later became the 12th President of the US. McCulloch eventually headed west to California for the gold rush but returned to Texas shortly before the Civil War. He was killed in battle during the War.
John B. Jones
After serving with the Texas forces in the Civil War, John B. Jones was chosen to lead the newly formed Frontier Battalion. This new organization was comprised of six Ranger companies and was tasked with securing the frontier lands of Texas.
Under the guidance of Jones, the Rangers soon became a formidable state police force that helped bring peace to an otherwise chaotic period in Texas history, namely – the Reconstruction Era. One of Jones’ most famous accomplishments was when his group of Rangers thwarted a bank robbery by an infamous criminal named Sam Bass, who was killed during the ensuing gun battle. Jones was eventually named an adjutant General of the state of Texas.
The Texas Rangers are certainly a unique law enforcement agency, in that they have a storied history which has played a vital role in shaping the character of Texas. Do you know of law enforcement agencies in other states that have such an interesting past?