Some people remember others by their name. I remember people by the way they died. To me each case is a story about that person. Once I have investigated their death, I have an intimate relationship with them. I remember past cases by the images of the scene, not by their names or where they lived, or the date they died. When I think of those cases everything comes back to me: the smell, the colors, and rooms—heavy with the energy and emotion of a life.
In this case, Iris communicated with me—not in words or movement—but in patterns at the scene, in her bedroom and on her body. An arm with the hand sticking up in the air told me the body had been repositioned. The sooting and stippling on the two gunshot wounds to the face told me this was a crime of passion, and not a random act.
The marks on the skin made at close range are telling. The sooting is the dirt from the burnt gunpowder coming out of the barrel of the weapon. Stippling is the collection of little red dots that encircle the gunshot wound. The red dots are the result of partially spent grains of gunpowder burning the skin of the victim. The sooting and small dots on the skin told me the most about her story.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “they were getting close”? This death was about a relationship. She was shot twice in the face and at close range —that’s getting close. One doesn’t inflict pain and then dispatch someone in such an intimate way if they are simply entering a random house for burglary. This death cried out intimacy and passion. It was the snapping of the cord of two people who knew each other on very personal terms.
Nothing, not even death, happens in a vacuum. It was four days before Christmas. Most people were shopping on that particular Friday and streets were jammed. I had received a call from the Harrisburg police and headed out towards the crime scene as the car radio blared “Joy To The World.”
I met with the identification detective who led me to the lower level of the house, which was the kitchen. A burnt smell filled the air. On the stove was a large amount of potato biscuits and cornbread that had been cooking and in the oven, which had been turned off. There was also what could best be described as a cremated chicken. A holiday meal had been interrupted, mid-preparation.
I started to look around, and discerned blood transfer patterns on the refrigerator. We photographed them and calculated their height from the floor. This could tell us the body position and often an approximation of the height of the person making the transfers. There were a few areas in which it seemed that someone had been walking through some of the blood droplets on the floor. A bleeding person had been moving around the room— first at the refrigerator, then at the center of the sink and finally a more diminished droplet pattern leading of the stairs and into the living room area. The droplets were fewer going up the stairs, indicating that the victim had possibly been attempting to stop the flow of blood.
When I reached the top of the landing I remember thinking that the house was in good condition from a housekeeping standpoint. People who clean and care for where they live and sleep are people who want or seek order within their own lives. On this floor the story of a young girl’s life and tragic death unfolded.
I turned to my right and entered a bedroom area just off the living room was her body. She was supine on a carpeted floor, with one hand pointing in the air. I knew that this was a post mortem artifact or rigor mortis, when the body stiffens after death. I knew that she had been at one time prone and then rolled over several hours later. She was already communicating with me. Blood patterns around her also gave evidence of her movements.
We processed the room and found the clothing that she must have worn downstairs when the altercation began. That clothes were off her body and that the body had been moved told us the story would have many twists and turns.
I started to examine her and immediately saw two small caliber, very close range gunshot wounds. One shot was to the right cheek and went through the mouth into the left side of the jaw. The second wound was to the mouth and had taken out her central incisors or the front teeth. This shot destroyed her brain stem and was the lethal blow. There was blood and soot on the lower lip. Her face had multiple bruising on both her cheeks and around the eyes. I could see these wounds were the result of blunt and brutal trauma rather than artifact of the two gunshots. I also found defensive wounds on her arms and bruising. There were fractures on her hands. This had been a terrible combat. She had fought hard for her life.
The two close up gunshot wounds to the face called out to me. These wounds were close. These wounds were personal. They were the final act of someone’s rage against someone they knew intimately.
I discussed with the detective my thought that this was a crime of passion by someone who had a close relationship with her. I saw items around her room that told me this was a woman trying to change her life for the better. There were textbooks from a nursing program and the house was clean, organized and well kept. She was trying to improve her life, and possibly change some of the people she had associated with; it was all part of her struggle that day. The body was removed and one day later we cataloged in fastidious detail each hit, each scratch, each fracture, all mapping a tremendous struggle by this young woman.
I drove home from the lab that day thinking about what I saw. It was the story of a broken relationship. I felt I knew this person when I left the scene that day. I received her secrets, and pieced together elements of her life and her efforts, communicating them to others, so they could bring an evil man to justice.
I still see her face and most likely always will. Iris is an example of how wounds of the heart can appear as wounds on the body through love, loss and rage. Now she speaks to many.
The case is closed, but there is always another story. . .