Author does scavenger hunt and writing contest at Fire Island Lighthouse


I often ask myself, why I cannot retire as other women in my position do. Play bridge or golf, do a little volunteering, go to Florida for the winter. Why have I chosen to spend my days chasing around the Internet finding ways to promote my Annie Tillery Mystery series? The second time I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I did a psychological whoa, and looked at my life. If my life were to end tomorrow, would I be satisfied with what I had accomplished? I never was one to be satisfied with just “being”. My life had to mean more to me than that.

I could see a whole world of possibilities out there. Based on how I’ve spent my life, it seemed natural to turn to the same population as my students, and to women in general. Having been part of the feminist movement that started in the sixties, I wanted to leave some inspiration to the young women who would follow me. I also wanted the women of my generation to see that the girls of my books reflected the hopes and dreams of my contemporaries, taking on the challenges traditionally thought of as belonging to males.

As a science teacher, I wanted to inspire young women to see science as interesting, and as something females would be good at. My heroine, Annie Tillery, is smart not nerdy, attractive not gorgeous, doesn’t use magic or necromancy to divine the world around her. She uses her brain, her sense of humor, and just pure guts.

At first, I just wanted to write the stories and put them in a loose-leaf binder for my grand-nieces and nephews, and possible grandchildren. Then I realized that these stories are my DNA. They have grown out of my life’s work as an educator, and my life experiences as a girl, and then a woman. It’s very feminine to share. That’s part of the DNA we share with other mammals. Baby elephants have mothers, and many aunties (other adult females) to watch over them. Baby whales, born under water are buoyed to the surface by the female whales attending their birth. And so, share I did. I can only hope that my efforts to get teachers to use my books and lesson plans will come to fruition. I hope my attempts to reach out to authors, with advice from the guests on my local access show, “The Writer’s Dream”; and my workshops will help someone along the way.

I can’t believe eighteen years have gone by. In 1994 I was diagnosed with breast cancer, stage 1. I was lucky. It was caught early. I’m the poster child for early detection. One lumpectomy and thirty radiation treatments later, I was able to get on with my life.
But, life did not go on as usual. Cancer is a diagnosis that puts a different lens in your rose-colored glasses. With some folks, it means, slow down and smell the roses. For me, it was speed up and get done every bloomin’ thing I ever wanted to do. I plunged into life like never before. And while I was living life in the fast-lane, the cancer was growing back. In late 2008 I was diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer in the same breast.
Another thing a cancer diagnosis does is to take you out of the main stream of life. It feels like you are suspended above the earth watching everyone living their stories while you are in limbo waiting, waiting for the verdict; chemo, surgery, radiation, six weeks to live, maybe two months.
Again, I was lucky. Because of the previous cancer, my wonderful doctors checked me every six months. Again, I am the poster child for early detection. I decided to have a double mastectomy, no radiation, no chemo. As far as they could tell the cancer had not spread.
This was three years ago. I am a lot older and much more aware of the fragility of life. Friends and family have had their own diagnoses. Some have died. Some I share a bond with that is like that shared by soldiers who’ve shared combat. And, we fight on.
I am so grateful for whatever time the early detection of my cancers has given me. Every day is a gift from God, a day to be used in the best way I know how. Thanks for reading my story. I have a great deal more to say about how to cope with cancer, and how that ugly negative thing has been the motivation to give back.

Linda Maria Frank

The human family tree.

The human family tree.

Who could forget that day, that 9/11 day in 2001 when roughly 3000 lives were snuffed out? The remains of so many loved ones could be counted in grams. So many families wanted some satisfaction, knowing that they had some small part of a victim to honor and bury.

Soon after the tragedy the call went out for relatives and friends to submit tooth brushes, hair from combs, banked sperm and egg samples, or any cellular material that might have belonged to their loved one who perished in the most horrendous terrorist attack in the history of New York City. This was the start of the long process to match the fragmentary remains of those victims with their known cellular samples.

The DNA detectives went to work. One of the processes they used for analysis was to type the mitochondrial DNA of victims’ samples. Mito. . .what, you ask? Maybe, if you were really paying attention in your high school biology class, you remember what mitochondria are. Or, you might remember them from Madeleine L’Engel’s lovely book, “A Wrinkle in Time”.

Mitochondria are tiny (of course) structures found in cells. Besides their function of converting sugar (glucose) to a usable form of energy (ATP), mitochondria have their own DNA. Most of the DNA that allows cells to divide and impart traits to the next generation is located in the nucleus of the cell. Mitochondrial DNA is also inherited through cell division, but inheritance of this DNA is special in that it it’s passed through the maternal line. This occurs due to the fact that the new individual (Miss Pratt’s bio class again) results from the union of a sperm cell and an egg cell. Sperm cells contain a nucleus, but no other cell parts, just a bag of DNA with a tail. Egg cells contain lots of material surrounding the nucleus, which contains mitochondria.

Mitochondrial DNA is far simpler than nuclear DNA, occurring as a simple ring. There are fewer genes, and it is less complex to sort into the genetic variations that occur in the population. Here’s the really significant factor that makes mitochondrial DNA so useful. Unlike nuclear genetic material, which undergoes a good deal of shuffling during sexual reproduction, mitochondrial DNA remains intact from generation to generation, going from mother to child.

The only changes in these genes results from mutations, which occur at a regular rate and therefore can be a predictor of the age of genetic material. The more mutations there are the older the sample is. In1987 Wilson, Cann and Stoneking at the University of California proposed the theory of the Mitochondrial Eve. This theory said that all mitochondrial DNA can be traced to one ancestral woman, or Eve. By analyzing DNA samples from populations around the world, and counting the number of mutations, it was found that the oldest human populations came from Africa about 200,000 years ago.

Mitochondrial DNA

Mitochondrial DNA

What does the “Eve” have to do with solving forensic mysteries? The remains from the Twin Towers site analyzed at a special lab at the Fresh Kills on Staten Island could be identified, not just from hair and cellular material that may have been left behind by the victims, but also by correlating the DNA in the remains with their mother’s DNA.

The process of identifying the genetic variations, or in terms of DNA analysis, fragment length, is the same as what has been described in my article, “When Is a Fingerprint Not a Fingerprint?”, in last month’s newsletter. It is less complicated only because there are fewer genes to analyze and variation in these genes is usually stable from one generation to the next. Remember, mutations happen over time. Although there is usually more mitochondrial DNA in the remains, these processes are nevertheless lengthy and expensive.

As the DNA codes in genes are analyzed further, more “quirks” in their inheritance will be isolated and utilized for identification purposes. Thanks to mitochondrial DNA analysis, many victims of the tragedy of 9/11 have been identified, helping their families to put them to rest.

The following resources give good accounts, explanations and diagrams of the processes described above.

“Criminalistics, an Introduction to Forensic Science” Third Edition, Richard Saferstein, Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2007, ISBN 0-13-221655-8.

“DNA Technology, the Awesome Skill”, I. Edward Alcamo, Wm. Brown Publishers,1996,  ISBN 0-697-21248-3.






Who doesn’t like that thriller of a movie, “The Thomas Crown Affair”, where a famous painting is stolen from the Met in NYC, and later returned by the thief. But, did you ever wonder how in the world museums are able to authenticate art pieces? If you found a wonderful painting, in the Impressionist style, while cleaning out Aunt Sylvia’s attic, how would you go about determining the origin and authenticity of your find?

The answer lies in the field of forensic science. The same instruments used to identify automotive paint in cases of vehicular homicide, that wand they wave over you in the airport to detect explosives residue, and the X-rays used to scan luggage at that same airport, are used to determine the provenance of an art piece.

Provenance, a French word, meaning the place or source of origin, is what art historians and curators give to an object d’arte when they are through analyzing it. As you can imagine, the more science has developed analysis techniques, the longer the list of tests that an art work is subjected to. Let’s start with the canvas itself. Obviously the material that the canvas is made of can be helpful. If the threads in the canvas are synthetic, we know this is not a Rembrandt.

The paint and other media the artist used is one of the best indicators of authenticity. Before Grumbacher started mass producing and selling art supplies, artists made their own primers, paints and preservatives. Many of these recipes were guarded secrets. Many were also highly toxic. If you remember the book or movie, “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco, it was the monk’s ink that done him in.

Paint can be analyzed by using a separation technique known as gas chromatography. This very delicate instrument will create a palette of colors that go into making up that particular paint. The kind and amount of individual pigments in the paint are like a fingerprint. This technique is also used to identify the make of an auto used in a crime, from its paint profile, using chromatography.

Another more sensitive method of analysis is Neutron Activation Analysis. This technique can detect the isotopes of elements found in the paint. An isotope of an element is a form of that element that differs in the number of neutrons in its atoms. Paint has elements like chrome for chromium yellow, or cadmium for cadmium red, or cobalt for cobalt blue. Each of those elements has isotopes depending upon the source of the element. So if Titian developed his famous red color from a particular cadmium source, the number and kind of isotopes would differ from cadmium from a different cadmium ore from another location. Thus, the analysis yields a profile of the isotopes that is another kind of fingerprint.

A new view using science to see behind the paint.

A new view using science to see behind the paint.

Another way to analyze the painting is to subject it to infrared radiation. The elements in the paints absorb infrared at different frequencies, and the resulting reflectogram shows if there are paintings underneath the one we see, and can often tell how the artist altered the painting as he progressed to the completed product. Artists often had to be frugal, and painted over existing canvases. A simple X-ray like the one used to detect a broken leg, can reveal layers of paintings on a canvas.

The obvious detection of modern materials like acrylics in the paint will make it clear we are not dealing with a work produced before the development of such materials.

Handwriting analysis comes to play if the artist signed the painting. Handwriting analysis is a well-developed art, but so is forgery. Rembrandt was so sought after by the wealthy Dutch that he was known to start a portrait, and have it completed by one of his apprentices, only to sign it when it was finished. We will never know.

Art historians usually put the finishing touches on the analysis of a painting. Brush stroke and technique are as individual to artists as their fingerprints. Art historians become experts at detecting these “styles”. In the final analysis, unless the scientific tests we’ve mentioned prove otherwise, it is the historian who gives their imprimatur to the work.

To find out some interesting facts about famous art forgeries visit: http://www.livescience.com/19518-famous-art-forgers.html


To view some interesting activities related to the scientific analysis of art works, visit: www.annietillery.com, click on lesson plans for “Girl with Pencil, Drawing”.





Every high school chemistry student, studying the incredible nature of nitrogen bonds, has heard the story of Alfred Nobel and his creation of dynamite. As the Industrial Revolution chugged along, the need for faster and more powerful methods of construction became increasingly important.

The two know explosives at the time were black power (gun powder), a relatively low grade explosive, and nitroglycerine, powerful, unstable, and deadly dangerous to use. The key ingredient in these two is the nitrogen bonds in the chemical ingredients. When the bonds between nitrogen atoms and the atoms of other elements are broken, tremendous energy is released.

Nitroglycerine contains these nitrogen bonds, but in a very unstable form. Jiggle a bottle of the oily liquid, or raise its temperature just a few degrees and Ka-Boom. In its original form, it was too dangerous to use. The potential for nitroglycerine to be used for construction purposes during the enormous building boom of the 1800’s and early 1900’s spurred the Swedish chemist, Alfred Nobel, to try to stabilize nitro, so that it could be transported, stored and used safely.

First he invented a blasting cap in 1862, in order to detonate the stuff from a distance. Previously, nitroglycerine could only be detonated with a spark or percussion at close range. A blasting cap contains a small amount of chemicals which, when stimulated with a fuse produce a shock wave of energy that sets off the nitro.

However, you were still dealing with the transport of nitro from factory to storage facility to construction site. The quest to stabilize went on. It is a little known fact that the Nobel family suffered greatly from this quest. Alfred’s brother, Emil, was killed in their factory’s explosion. Nobel, himself, suffered horrible headaches from his exposure to nitroglycerine. Those of you familiar with the nitro patch worn by folks suffering from some cardiac conditions are aware of this side effect.

Like many great discoveries an accident led to Nobel’s final safe preparation of the compound known as dynamite. As time and trials went on the transportation of nitroglycerine was done by surrounding the bottles of the liquid immersed in crates of sand. A wagon transporting the stuff had a mishap, and the nitro did not explode. A light bulb went off for Nobel. He then experimented with varying amounts of liquid nitro with sand packed in a tube. Once stabilized with the right mixture, the nitro could be detonated with a fuse or a blasting cap. Picture the Wiley J. Coyote or Yosemite Sam cartoons where someone is holding the tube of dynamite with the sparkling fuse dangling from the end. In real life the fuse is a bit longer. DYNAMITE was born! It was originally known as “Nobel’s Blasting Powder”.

Success had been achieved in 1867 and was the tool of choice for builders of railroad tunnels, canals and other massive construction projects. When dynamite became a weapon in the attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II in Russia, Nobel, who had become enormously wealthy as a result of dynamite, created the famous Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and of course, the Peace Prize.

However, explosives get most of their press, not from damn construction like the Hoover Damn, but from destruction of people and places, in acts of terrorism such as the one described above. More recently consider the tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the biggest act of mass murder in U.S. history involving explosives. 168 people including 19 children died in Oklahoma City that day. The Twin Towers attack in 2001 did not involve actual explosives, but the inflammable nature of jet fuel introduced into the buildings by a plane crash.

The explosive of choice by Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the crime, was ammonium nitrate, NH3NO3. Remember those energetic nitrogen bonds? Once you create the chemical reaction to release that power, you can send any material in the blast site moving out in all directions at speeds greater than 1000 meters per second. A meter is a little more than three feet. If a bomb created by a terrorist, like a pipe bomb, contains nails or tacks, think of those objects traveling at that speed and hitting soft flesh.

Nitroglycerine in explosive mixtures has been replaced with ammonium nitrate, commercially available in fertilizers. It’s mixed with fuel oil, and this mixture is referred to as ANFO. In the correct packaging ANFO can be detonated by a fuse or blasting cap, or most commonly today, a blasting cap electronically set off by a cell phone signal such as the bomb used at the Boston Marathon in 2013.

The purchase of large quantities of fertilizer and diesel fuel is a red flag for law enforcement and anti-terrorism task forces. These substances are easily available. It’s one of the tip-offs that help to prevent terrorist attacks. Tune in next time to learn how a crime scene involving the use of explosives is processed and analyzed, and how we can tell the difference between an arson scene and one involving a bomb or explosive. This was the puzzle confronting the NTSB and FBI in the crash of TWA 800.

Some notable cases to be explored are the 1993 Twin Tower bombing, the London transit system bombing in 2005, the Atocha Railroad Station bombing in Madrid, the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi,  the crashes of TWA 800 and PanAm 103.



Criminalistics by Richard Saferstein








When fingerprints don't come from ridges on your fingers.

When fingerprints don’t come from ridges on your fingers.

It was 1989, and I was teaching forensic science in Seaford H.S. There was a murder of a thirteen year old girl in a neighboring community. The victim’s body was found stuffed in a sleeping bag in her neighbor’s basement, ready for disposal. A young man, living in the house, was accused of the crime, and the high profile trial ensued.

It was one of the first trials on Long Island to present DNA evidence, attempting to prove beyond the proverbial shadow of a doubt, that the defendant was guilty. Expert witnesses were called to explain what the technology of DNA analysis was. The presentation was so complex, and the defense attorney so adept at clouding this testimony, the jury ignored the DNA evidence, and convicted the defendant on the weight of the bite mark evidence and a partial palm print. Palm prints are accepted as being as reliable as individual fingerprints. This evidence is visual and easy to grasp.

Since then the term DNA has become part of the popular vocabulary of the day, one TV commercial even suggesting that you can transfer your DNA to your Smart Phone, the ultimate personalization.

There are many misconceptions about DNA, and even more about the “analysis” of DNA used in criminal investigations. I would like to share, and hopefully, simplify what I’ve learned about this topic from my more than twenty years teaching at Seaford H.S. and Hofstra U.

Let me dispense with the misconceptions.  First, the term “DNA Fingerprint” is meant to suggest that evidence derived from DNA is as reliable as that of a true fingerprint left by a human hand. Second, the analysis techniques do not take material from fingers.

DNA is a specific chemical compound located in most body cells. It enables the biochemical instructions for making new cells and their functioning proteins to be passed to those new cells. DNA has two functions, coding the important chemicals, and having the capacity for storing lots of information. If you think about this, you will realize that the code must contain instructions for both; what makes for a functioning human, or what makes us the same, and then, what makes us all individual and different from each other.

In forensic science, evidence in a criminal investigation is best if you can move its status from representing a class of individuals, to belonging to a specific individual. This means that in DNA analysis, we are looking for that part of the CODE that makes us unique.

The state of the current technology allows us to find “markers” in the code. These “markers” don’t code for specific proteins, but vary in frequency from one individual to another. Sounds like a winning technology, right? Well, almost.

This current technology employs two important components. The first isolates the specific marker, allowing us to link the DNA to a group. This isn’t any better than finding a defendant to have type O+ blood. To make the analysis significant requires us to find several markers for the defendant. Like the ABO blood groups, these markers have statistical probability in the human population. By using the laws of statistics which link the statistical occurrence of each marker mathematically, we can narrow the probability of our suspect’s “marker profile” belonging to anyone else. It is even possible to boil the probability down to one in seven billion, which is the human population. One in seven billion is the probability for human fingerprints. The term “DNA fingerprint” comes from this statistical analysis.

Another simpler form of DNA analysis, called PCR, determines a person’s “DNA type” in a complex protein profile. It does not have the same statistical probability as the previously discussed form of analysis. Because of this, it is only used to eliminate a suspect, not to convict.

The prevailing wisdom is that nothing supersedes a fingerprint as individualizing evidence. As you can see, we have one human, one finger, one fingerprint. Studies have not found two individuals with the same fingerprint. With DNA analysis, sometimes called “DNA fingerprinting” we have one human, one marker, one group of humans, then statistical analysis.

In subsequent articles I would like to further clarify the various types of DNA analysis.

I invite your questions.

Scott Petersen's two victims, his wife and unborn child.

Scott Peterson’s two victims, his wife and unborn child.

One of the most notorious cases of a privately owned boat used in the commission of a crime was the Laci Peterson murder trial. Scott Peterson, Laci’s husband, was found guilty of the murder of Laci and her unborn son. It was surmised that he killed Laci, loaded her on his boat, and “went fishing” on Christmas Eve, dumping her weighted body in San Francisco Bay. Human remains washed up on shore, head and hands missing, but a torso, and a fetus washing up nearby, were recovered. DNA testing of Laci’s parents, the fetus, the torso and Scott proved that the fetus belonged to the torso. The torso was Lacy Peterson, and the fetus’s father was Scott Peterson.

Although the boat was impounded, dusted for prints, combed for hairs and fibers, and scanned for DNA, the Crime Scene Unit found only one piece of evidence of significance. It was one of Laci’s hairs in a pair of pliers. Laci’s biological and physical materials had every probability of being on the boat.

The police built a case based on where Scott Peterson said he was fishing, coupled with the tide and current information of that part of San Francisco Bay. Based on that analysis, it was shown to be highly likely that a body dumped from that boat would wash up exactly where the Peterson remains were retrieved.

If there had been no DNA testing, what would the remains of the two corpses, one a fetus, one a female told forensic anthropologists and the medical examiner? Remember there were no hands for fingerprints, and no head for dental records.

The factors that influence what “remains” when a corpse has found its way to a marine grave, whether by accident or foul play are: geographical location, climate zone, depth, access to scavengers, season, and tidal conditions submitting the corpse to abrasive and erosive forces. It is important to note that marine environments are like land environments. Each is its own unique ecological community as to physical and chemical factors like acidity (pH) and mineral content, and the flora and fauna that exist there.

The corpse begins to disarticulate (fall apart) by first losing hands and feet, then limbs. The skull, because it is held on to the shoulders by the ligaments and tendons of the neck, and the fragile cervical vertebrae, will be lost as soon as decomposition of soft tissue occurs. If there is tide and current movement, the skull and extremities can be found at some distance from the torso, which remains intact the longest, especially the pelvic area. This proved important in the recovery of the Peterson remains. The fetus probably remained in Laci’s pelvic area until shortly before the remains were found, explaining why they were found in close proximity.

In a watery environment bodies float after initial submersion. This is due to the immediate production of decomposition gases resulting from the attack on soft tissue by bacteria of decay. As the body deteriorates, the gases are released and it sinks. If the body is weighted by attaching cement blocks or other weights with wires or nylon line, both of which do not rot, the body never floats.

Temperature is always a factor in the decomposition process. This is why we refrigerate organic materials. Warmer waters caused by seasonal changes, tides and currents, effluents from factories or sewage and power plants, and of course distance between the Equator and the Poles will influence rate of decomposition of soft tissue.

The post mortem interval or how long the body has been in the water cannot be determined by liver mortis (settling of the blood in the body due to gravity), rigor mortis (muscle rigidity), or algor mortis (body temperature). Other means need to be investigated.

As is the case in skeletal remains found on land, the progression of various species of organisms that consume the soft tissue can be used to determine the time the corpse has been in the marine environment. Both, the life cycles from egg to adult, and the succession of organisms, prove helpful. Succession occurs when one species’ activities produce a favorable niche for the next species that will use materials in that corpse. The remains of the organisms in the succession can tell how long the body has been in the water. The presence of the remains of certain marine organisms on the corpse or its clothing may also indicate where it first rested on the marine floor.

Remains later proven to belong to Laci and Connor, are recovered.

Remains later proven to belong to Laci and Connor, are recovered.

Knowledge of the habits of invertebrate species like crabs and other scavengers, and also of vertebrates like fish will aid in assessing the soft tissue damage to the corpse. The presence of organisms that metabolize calcium can also influence damage to bones, since these creatures will leach the calcium from bones. The bones obviously are the last to go, and the marrow inside the intact bones is an important source of DNA to the forensic anthropologist and the medical examiner.

The Laci Peterson case is remarkable from the standpoint of the prosecution’s case, because the physical evidence actually linking Scott Peterson to his wife’s and son’s remains does not exist. There was no blood on him, the home or any clothing of his that was recovered. No blood or tissue on the boat, except that one hair. The remains had no hands or fingernails, or enough soft tissue or clothing to show defensive wounds or material linked to Scott. A few of Laci’s ribs were broken, and it was speculated that she was strangled at home, and brought to the boat post mortem. The presence of biological material from Laci on the boat would not be conclusively significant. She had every opportunity to be on the boat. They were man and wife.

So, the case was built on circumstantial evidence. The items found in Scott’s truck, boat and the garage included cement, buckets, some tools and wire. He admitted to going fishing, and where. A study of tides and currents in the region showed that a body dropped in the water at the fishing site would “likely” wash up where Laci and Connor’s remains were found.

Even though Scott’s current girlfriend wore a wire to trap him into confessing, he never admitted to the actual killings. His actions subsequent to the disappearance of Laci were highly suspect. He attempted to flee, possibly to Mexico, with money, credit cards, and camping gear. He altered his appearance, bleaching his hair and growing facial hair.

With the absence of fingers for fingerprints, and a skull for dental records, DNA tests were performed, showing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the torso was Laci, and the fetus was Laci’s and Scott’s child. Laci’s remains were identified using DNA from her parents.

The prosecution’s case was built on motive, opportunity, a timeline, and the probability of events in the marine environment occurring as they did to provide the remains of Peterson’s two victims. Scott never admitted to the murder of his wife and unborn child, and the disposal of the bodies in San Francisco Bay. Maybe someday he’ll write a book, similar to O.J.Simpson’s “If I Did It”.

The Forensics of Fire

The Forensics of Fire

Arson is defined as the malicious burning of property. It’s a crime used to destroy property for revenge (the Happy Land fire), to cover another crime, to collect insurance money, or for the psychopathic pleasure derived by some individuals.

Determining whether a fire is arson requires knowledge of how fire behaves, and what the chemistry of fire requires, and produces.

Since fire marshals are schooled in the patterns fires of different origins produce, the determination of arson is usually the result of a routine and proscribed examination by that individual. Once that determination is made, the forensic scientist uses the many tools of chemical analysis to identify the by-product of a suspicious fire.

In both my books, “The Madonna Ghost” and “Girl with Pencil, Drawing”, arson is employed to hide another crime, the attempted murder of  Detective Jill Tillery in “The Madonna Ghost”, and the attempted murders of Annie Tillery and Francesca Gabrielli in “Girl . . .” In both cases, the intended victims knew too much.

To the chagrin of the arsonists, most of the fires they start are put out by the Fire Department, leaving a wealth of evidence. These fires often are started by using an accelerant like gasoline, a substance that burns hot and fast. That kind of  fire leaves a pattern of soot or burned material from the “point of origin” that is a tell-tale sign of the crime of arson.

The accelerant also leaves its chemical signature. When burning occurs, the fuel or material that is burned doesn’t completely disappear. It leaves a by-product of hydrocarbon chemical residue.

The fire marshal, who usually appears on the scene within a few hours, uses a portable hydrocarbon detector to verify the presence of an accelerant. It’s called a “sniffer”.

When arson is suspected, chunks of debris are collected by the crime scene personnel in a sealed metal container that looks like a one-gallon paint can. The chemical residue on the debris is volatile which enables it to evaporate. That is the reason for the sealed container. I might add, that is also the reason for haste in arson crimes.

A syringe is plunged into the container, the vapor from the debris is extracted, and subjected to chemical analysis by gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy. This analysis is considered to have the highest level of accuracy among the many tools of chemical analysis. This technique determines which  accelerant was used. Other favorites of the fire starters are kerosene, paint thinner, and cleaning fluid, all hydrocarbons, all highly flammable.

If gasoline is used, the arson investigator is aided by the presence of additives to the product by the manufacturers. Knowing the brand of gasoline can link as suspect to a purchase of the product through eye witness accounts at a gas station, or sales receipts in the possession of the suspect.

A more patient, less passionate arsonist may set the fire by using a smoldering cigarette or a faulty electrical connection. In “Girl with Pencil, Drawing” the arsonist uses candles and a gas oven. Ingenious, but of course, it gave the victims time to save themselves.

Serial arsonists, like serial killers, leave a signature in the way they carry out the crime, the M.O. or modus operandi. For further information regarding the crime of arson, and specific arson cases, visit these websites.



For more information regarding the forensic investigation of arson, and explosives: “Criminalistics, an Introduction to Forensic Science” Third Edition, Richard Saferstein, Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2007, ISBN 0-13-221655-8.


FC 6X9 RGB - ouija board R1

Annie seems skeptical of the power of the Ouija Board

The books you’ve read that feature characters you’ve fallen in love with, or at least like a lot, let you into that character’s head. Even better, is if the author lets you into that character’s heart. That is what I have attempted in my teen mystery books. Annie Tillery may as well be attached to the magic brain machine that exposes all that happens in her facile teen mind.

Whatever the genre or plot, the reader wants to know what the main characters think and feel. What’s the best way to do that? THIS WAS THE GREATEST CHALLENGE TO ME WHEN I FIRST STARTED TO WRITE.

The author can use first person for the main character (who becomes the POV character), and is able to tell you, first hand what’s on the character’s mind and can let you know about sweaty palms, palpitating hearts and thrumming blood vessels.

But, what about all the other characters? Now the author must give clues to their feelings and give voice to what they are thinking. You can’t really say, “Jason was nervous telling his story,” if your POV character is someone else. How do they know what Jason was feeling. This error is called “head-hopping”.  The author can engage the reader’s interest in what’s going on in Jason’s head in a more authentic way by saying something like this.  Jason wiped his palms on his jeans as he let out his breath in a long sigh. His neck seemed to disappear as his shoulders tensed up. He started his version of what happened, his voice coming out in a hoarse croak.

We can just feel Jason’s case of nerves.

Another approach to knowing your characters’ thoughts is to have each character play out their parts in your story in first person. This requires the author to identify each character as the POV changes, even if it’s just in the chapter heading.

Telling the story in third person ( the author is the narrator) involves showing the character’s emotions, and not head-hopping.

What is your favorite book and your favorite character. Can you share how the author lets you become intimate with that character’s thoughts and feelings.


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