Autopsy Interpretations

 

Dr. Sue Norris has done autopsy work and she was kind enough to offer some comments on each of the following cases.

 

To begin, let me give you some of my background. My biggest concern is to assure that readers know I'm not a forensic pathologist but rather a (new) doctor with some training in forensic pathology.  My opinions are not that of a forensics expert!

 

- Education -

Began residency in Emergency Medicine at UT-Houston (to be completed 2006); resigned d/t health problems
 
D.O. Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine, 2003
 
B.S. in biology, Purdue University, 1997
 
- Experience (relevant to forensic medicine) -
Clinical rotation in forensic pathology at the Office of the Medical Examiner, Maricopa County, AZ, 2003
 
Clinical observation and assisting at the Office of the Medical Examiner, Maricopa County, AZ, weekly during the summer between 1st and 2nd year of med. school, 2000
 
Volunteer EMT/firefighter from 1991 to 1998
 
Anyone who would like to see my thoughts (and those of a friend of mine currently in pathology residency- Dr. Erin Loveland) on Ms. Jensen can refer to the discussion on ZodiacKiller.com.
 
My opinions are just that. Take them for what they're worth!
 
I will be happy to discuss my opinions and others' conclusions with regard to these autopsy reports. Anyone wishing to do so can email me at:  [email protected]

_________________________________________

 
- Marina Habe -
I found several inconsistencies which I could not resolve. In the summary the pathologist mentions vaginal dilation but in the report it states that there is no trauma to the vagina. In the summary the pathologist mentions cerebral edema and congestion but in the text of the report it says no cerebral edema/congestion. Unfortunately we don't know which statement is correct when conflicting information is given.
 
There are a few things that strike me about this case. First, this was obvious overkill. Someone was very upset with her. The number of violent acts committed against her is amazing (especially after I read about her abduction and the short time interval during which the killer(s) held her captive.) This leads me to believe that more than one person was involved. I feel the killer(s) knew Ms. Habe and had extreme anger/resentment towards her. I did not read about the abduction (involving at least 2 people) until after I had finished my review of the autopsy, so I came to this conclusion independently.
 
Second, she had very few defense wounds but no signs of bondage. To me this means one of two scenarios likely occurred. Either she was held down manually (though I doubt this - while not absolutely necessary, I would expect to see bruising in the pattern of hands/fingers on the victim's wrists) or she was too incapacitated to fight. Incapacitation could be due to drugging or semi-consciousness caused by head trauma, strangulation, or exsanguination (if the first stab/cut was one which caused major bleeding).
 
Third, I believe more than one single-edged, non-serrated knife was used. Many of the wounds to her upper chest are not deep while wounds to the lower chest and abdomen are. The neck wounds could easily be caused by the same small knife I believe was used on the upper chest. Depending on this pathologist's definition of "punctuate," these wounds could be caused by the small knife or another weapon altogether.
 
The scenario of multiple attackers with different knives struck me because some of the more superficial wounds were contused. Although no hilt mark is described per se, this indicates to me that those wounds were made using the full length of the knife (the contusion caused by the hilt, or handle, as it hits the skin). Additionally, the sternum was stabbed through and through (which takes a good deal of force -enough to drive the entire knife in!) yet the mediastinum was relatively unscathed and the heart was untouched. This further indicates to me that a small knife was used.
 
Compared to the wounds already mentioned, the liver laceration was very deep. It would take a very large knife to cause this injury. This leads me to conclude that at least two knives were used.
 
While not impossible, I find it unlikely that one person stabbed the victim with one knife at the neck/upper chest on the left, switched knifes, and resumed at the abdomen/lower chest on the right. I feel it is more likely that two individuals (one near the head on the left with a small knife and one at the waist on the right with a large knife with the victim supine) committed these acts.
 
Please note, I'm using the terms "large" and "small" to describe the knives relative to each other.
 

Back to Habe Autopsy Report

Back to Autopsy Files         Back to Pertinent Information

_________________________________________

 
- Rose Tashman -
I don't have a lot of insight to add to this one. I do believe she was garroted rather than manually strangled or having the panty-ligature pulled tight. I believe this to be the case for a few reasons. She had extensive facial petichiae (more than what I've seen with a "normal" strangulation), cerebral congestion, and an intact hyoid bone (this usually breaks with manual strangulation). The bruising pattern in the neck tissues indicates the material used did not slip or move and concentrated the pressure intensely in one location. This is more consistent with garroting than with manual or ligature-pulled-tight types of strangulation.
 
I would have strongly considered this to be a murder by a stranger. But because Ms. Tashman was beaten so severely I believe it is more likely that the murderer was someone she knew.
 

Back to Tashman Autopsy Report

Back to Autopsy Files         Back to Pertinent Information

_________________________________________

 
- James Sharp -
I find it interesting that there is evidence of only one "pattern" mark that appears to be from a motorcycle chain. I had a couple of thoughts about this: 1.) He may have been a strong fighter and ducked other attempted blows, or 2.) He may have struggled and was hit with less force than required to leave a pattern.
 
A psychologist might say he was stabbed in the eye because he "saw" something he wasn't supposed to and this was the killer's subconscious attempt to handle that. However, I believe the fact that he was stabbed in only one eye weakens that suggestion.
 
The ME mentions the irregular stab wound to the head may have been caused by a different weapon from the one which caused the other stab wounds. I think, more likely, it was caused by the same weapon and there was "slippage" (not uncommon when a blade comes into contact with a curved bone (such as the skull)) causing an irregular wound. However, one should keep in mind that the ME actually saw the wound, while I merely read about it.
 
The stab wounds to the back of the head are very intriguing. It seems to me that they were made either after Mr. Sharp was unconscious or they were made post-mortem. I find it highly unlikely that anyone could inflict these wounds on a moving victim. While I don't know why these wounds were made, I believe they are significant in some regard, either for ritualistic reasons or as a message of some sort.
 

Back to Sharp Autopsy Report

Back to Autopsy Files         Back to Pertinent Information

_________________________________________

 
- Doreen Gaul -
She appears to have been dragged but no mention is made about Mr. Sharp being dragged. It could be that Mr. Sharp had clothes which covered dragged surfaces and prevented abrasion. Or it could be that only Ms. Gaul was moved and Mr. Sharp was not. It is possible that Ms. Gaul was moved to hide her body or there may have been another motivation we don't know about.
 
The absence of defense wounds leads me to believe she was unconscious before anyone began stabbing her or she became unconscious very early in the stabbing.
 
I think she might have been unconscious when hit with (what appears to be) a motorcycle chain, but I can't say for sure. I would expect some marks on her hands (deflecting blows), but this is variable. For example, if she deflected the blows with the palmer vs. the dorsal surfaces of the hands they would be less likely to show evidence of having been hit. Another possibility is that she was conscious but her arms were restrained by another person.
 
I am puzzled by the "star-shaped" wound and accompanying deep compression fracture. I have not been able to determine any object that might have caused that. (But I'm quite bad at pattern injury recognition.) I searched the web, but couldn't find anything that jogged my mind, either.
 

Back to Gaul Autopsy Report

Back to Autopsy Files         Back to Pertinent Information

_________________________________________

 
- Nancy Bennellack -
In her job with the Public defender's office did she ever have contact with those being defended? It would be noteworthy if she ever did have contact with any defendants.
 
I'm not clear about the significance of the masking tape. It's not obvious to me why they thought it was from the suspect's fingers. That wouldn't be my first thought, but then I'm assuming there's information not in the report which caused them to reach this conclusion.
 
It seems to me that she fought (bruises on knuckles, elbows) and, like Ms. Bates, probably left some lasting impressions (physical, anyway) on her attacker.
 
The serrated knife seems a bit unusual to me. I've seen them used in domestic squabbles (fight over dinner with a steak knife close-by) but almost all homicides I've seen have been with a non-serrated blade. I believe this could have been a hunting knife.
 
I'm curious about the "triangular" stab wounds.  It's quite possible they were randomly formed from multiple stabs in multiple directions. But it's difficult to say without a visual.
 
Like many of the other victims, the face was slashed/stabbed significantly. I believe the assailant knew the victim and was quite angry.
 

Back to Bennellack Autopsy Report

Back to Autopsy Files         Back to Pertinent Information

_________________________________________

 
- Nikki Benedict -
This is another victim embalmed prior to autopsy! (Ms. Jensen was also!) This seems highly irregular to me and, per some of the older pathologists at a friend's residency, it WAS highly irregular back then as well. However, as this is the second case where this occurred, perhaps it was more common in California (vs. Texas, where my friend is in residency.) Another  possibility is that police didn't control the crime scenes or the bodies very well in either case so they were embalmed prematurely. It certainly makes death investigation trickier.
 
I don't know that this was a personal attack. It does not appear to be a "rage" killing. It appears to me that an attempt was either made to slit Ms. Benedict's throat or subdue/scare her by holding a knife to her throat. She appears to have fought back (dirt on her leg, abrasions, etc.)
 
It appears the killer had a very short knife, but had experience in killing as he knew exactly how to target the heart.  The angle from the xiphoid process superiorly, posteriorly, and to the left is the exact tract we take to extract fluid from the sac around the heart in pericardial tamponade (needle aspiration)! As the knife only reached the pericardium, and not the heart, it appears that it was fairly short, especially since the other wound demonstrated the same finding (and there was evidence of it going in all the way to the hilt/handle).
 
This murder appears quite different from the others, as the killer didn't prolong a struggle...the murder was quick and efficient. Also, the killer left before she was dead. That makes me think it was more of a "hit" than a personal attack or the work of a sadist (he didn't have the satisfaction of watching her die). Had his blade been 1/2-1" longer, she would have died almost instantly. The only other reason I can see the killer leaving the scene so quickly is if someone came close by and it spooked him. I don't believe he struggled with Ms. Benedict long because there is no mention of defense wounds on the victim.
 

Back to Benedict Autopsy Report

Back to Autopsy Files         Back to Pertinent Information

_________________________________________

 
- Pat Tan -
The first thing about Ms. Tan's report that strikes me is there are no glaring errors, inconsistencies, or unexplained comments in this report that I noticed.  This is different from most of the other autopsy reports I've reviewed on your site.  It appears to me the parties involved in this case did a fine job.
 
Suicide-by-hanging for females is less common than for males, but not unheard of.  I've only seen 3 cases involving females (strangely, they were all on the same day).
 
Ms. Tan appeared to be deeply depressed prior to her death (per her roommate), which, of course could lead one to commit suicide.  However, one certainly cannot rule out murder simply because the victim is depressed!
 
I don't know if the fact that Ms. Tan's feet were touching the ground is significant or not . . . in my limited experience, I have seen this before in cases of suicide.  I don't know about cases of homicide, as I've only seen strangulation  homicides and not hanging homicides. One could argue that, if a victim is hanged against her will, and her feet reach the ground, she could potentially get out of her predicament.  However, I don't know how well that argument holds up in practice; we'd need to find a person with more experience than I have to answer that question.
 
Initially, I was surprised by the terrain at the location of the hanging.  It would require more effort to "set-up" on a steep incline.  However, it would also be a lot easier to "step-off" than it would be on flat terrain.  The location would have similar advantages/disadvantages if this were a case of murder.  It would be difficult for the killer to "set it up," but easier to drag a dead or unconscious body downhill than over flat terrain.  All this being said, since I haven't actually been to the exact location or seen any photos of the exact area where Tan was found, my mental image of the scene might be significantly different from how it was.
 
The braided "noose" surprised me: this is a great way to make a strong noose that doesn't cut into the flesh as much as a single strand.  It's sturdier and more effective at "strangling."  However, it takes forethought and initiative to do this: two characteristics which are often lacking in a severely depressed person.  That being said, were this a noose from a "murder kit" carried by a serial killer, I'd expect all three strands to be made of the same material, rather than the haphazard pieces of cotton and electrical cord.  Honestly, though, I could go either way . . . my best guess is Ms. Tan simply understood physics (pressure as a function of force over area) and applied that understanding to her noose.
 
Two pieces of information seem to support the argument that Ms. Tan was murdered.  First, the "abrasion"  on the left wrist and "superficial tissue loss" on the dorsum of the left foot are consistent with being dragged, face down, with uneven weight distribution (ie. on a steep hill or with one side of the body supported more than the other as it's dragged.)  This could just be coincidental: wounds she sustained while hiking prior to her death.  I do wish I knew more about the "superficial tissue loss" on the left toes.  Since there was insect activity at this location, I don't know if the tissue loss was caused by an abrasion or by hungry larvae.
 
The other piece of information that is harder to explain is the multitude of leaves and twigs found in Tan's hair.  Even at my clumsiest off-trail hiking, I usually only come home with the slightest of forest flora tangled in my hair.  She either spent extensive time with her head on the ground, and then didn't bother to brush her hair off (possible) or she was dragged on the ground (I see the second scenario as more likely for this specific topic, but it doesn't fit with my overall impression that this was a suicide).
 
Originally, I thought the fact that the hyoid bone was intact was significant evidence that this was a voluntary suicidal hanging.  I recall fracture of the hyoid being associated with homicidal strangulation.  However, a quick review of the literature shows that, while this is correct, it's not anywhere near a definitive way to separate suicide from homicide.  This is especially murky in younger people.
 
To sum it up, I lean towards suicide, but I'm not sold on it being a suicide.  I can see why it was officially called a suicide, in the absence of any more evidence otherwise. But there are some unexplained pieces to this puzzle.
 

After reading Dr. Norris's fine report one is impressed (at certain junctures in her comments) how that the Tan case can go either way - staged murder or suicide!

 

It is of interest that, what he wrote in a card on the day Ms. Tan was found (04/20/70),  Zodiac's choice of words were, "I hope you have fun trying to FIGGURE OUT WHO I killed." (Emphasis ours.)

 

Back to Tan Autopsy Report

Back to Autopsy Files         Back to Pertinent Information

_________________________________________

 
- Paul Stine -
The first issue I'd like to address in the autopsy report relates to Mr. Stine's property. A victim's property is generally inventoried prior to autopsy as it was in this case. There is a discrepancy between the police report and the coroner's report. The police report states, "Crime lab's initial investigation showed that the victim was devoid of any U.S. Currency...." However , the coroner's office found $4.12 in change on Mr. Stine. I  imagine the coins were either overlooked by the crime lab or a typographical error occurred. It should be noted that there are other, less likely, reasons for this discrepancy that I will not delve into for the sake of brevity.
 
If we take the coroner's report to be correct this means that Zodiac took Stine's wallet but left quite a bit of change. From a "staged robbery" perspective this still makes sense since Zodiac fled on foot. Zodiac might not have wanted the extra weight of all that change. He might also have wanted to avoid the attention that jangling coins might draw.
 
The coroner's report states that seven keys were found in Mr. Stine's possession. However, the police report states that the ignition key was taken. I am at a loss to explain why Zodiac would take that specific key and not the others. I would weakly speculate that perhaps it was taken because it was more easily accessible (still in the ignition) or perhaps it was important for Zodiac to "link" himself with the cab rather than with Stine.
 
In the coroner's report a summary of Mr. Stine's body position at the crime scene is found. No mention is made of the passenger door being left open. (This information was not found in the police report either.)
 
As I (and other posters) have discussed on the message board at ZodiacKiller.com, the coroner's report refers to "dark marks on the deceased's dorsal surface (back of) of the left hand." While it can be speculated that these "dark marks" refer to gunpowder residue, I do not believe this to be the case. If this were the situation I would expect the coroner to indicate so in his report rather than using the more vague terminology we see. Similarly, I would expect him to identify the marks as bruising - if that were the case. Unfortunately, no other information is found in the report to suggest what the "dark marks" are.
 
The findings related to the gunshot wound are not surprising. The bullet entered at the right temple. This is where the anterior/superior (front and top) part or the ear is attached to the head. The bullet trajectory was to the victim's left and slightly anterior. The bullet came to rest in the muscle of the left temple. The injury to the brain and the fracturing of the skull were not unexpected given the weapon used and its proximity to Stine's head. More discussion of this issue, including the expert opinion of Bill Baker, can be found on the message board at ZodiacKiller.com.
 
The last issue I wish to discuss was a finding in the coroner's report that I cannot yet resolve. Mr. Stine's lungs were described as follows: "Both lungs are moderately increased in weight. There is congestion at the base and dependant portions. Multiple intraparenchymal hemorrhages are noted."  The blood in the lungs does NOT appear to have drained from the head wound. Were this the case the blood should be in the lung air space rather than the parenchyma (which is the lung tissue itself.) Additionally, the position of Stine's body (with the head approximately at the level of the chest while in Zodiac's lap and then below the level of the chest, on the floorboard after Zodiac left the scene) would not be conducive to passive blood flow from the head wound into the air space of he lungs.
 
There are a few possible reasons for this unexpected finding. First, some chronic illnesses can cause this situation. We have no indication that Mr. Stine suffered from any chronic illness associated with intraparenchymal hemorrhage. But I would not expect most investigators to ask about this. It is also possible that Mr. Stine was not aware he had an illness affecting his lungs in this manner, though I believe this is unlikely.
 
It is possible there was a typographical error in the autopsy report. However, I doubt this to be the case given the overall quality of the report.
 
While I have not seen this myself, in researching the topic I found brief mention of pulmonary intraparenchymal hemorrhage with strangulation. I do not believe Mr. Stine was strangled, however, as there are no other findings in the autopsy that indicate this to be the case.
 
Lastly, it is possible for blunt force trauma of the chest to cause this intraparenchymal bleeding. As both lungs were involved, this blunt force trauma would have to have occurred on both sides of Mr. Stine's chest. There was no mention of other finding that would support this conclusion (such as bruising of the skin or broken ribs) but it is possible for blunt force trauma to occur without these additional findings.
 
I hope to receive input from a pathologist on the intraparenchymal hemorrhage of the lung as I do not have the experience or the training to confidently state its likely cause.

 

Back to Stine Autopsy Report

Back to Autopsy Files         Back to Pertinent Information

_________________________________________

 

Top of page