Duct tape has a benign beginning. Vesta Stoudt, who worked in a WWII ordinance factory, noticed flimsy closures on the ammunition boxes and recommended a stronger cloth tape. This led to the development of a polyethylene coated fabric strip by Johnson & Johnson. Designed to be torn by hand, no scissors needed, it is easy to apply and remove. The plastic coating makes it waterproof while the fabric lining makes it flexible and durable. It is now indispensable in gyms, garages, and homes – 101 uses. Unfortunately, some of them are malignant.
When I arrived at the small detached bungalow, there were two cop cars in the driveway along with the official coroner’s vehicle. Lights were on in all of the rooms and bled a yellow hue onto the dark street. Yet there were no crime scene markers, gawking neighbors, or flashing lights to indicate the need for my expertise as a forensic pathologist.
The chief of police was standing at the kitchen counter, surveying the contents of a handbag. He was thumbing through a wallet and discarding cards into the pile. In his ungloved hand, he held a driver’s license.
Bobby, the deputy coroner, was standing in a bedroom doorway, like a tough bouncer at a nightclub. Beyond him, the legs of an elderly woman hung off the bed with her feet on the floor. She was lying along the short axis of the mattress, as if she had sat down on its edge and collapsed backwards. A pillow obscured her face.
Pointing at Bobby, the chief said, “I don’t know why he bothered to call you out.” Then waving his hand over the purse, he added, “Look at all these pills.” There were five medication bottles of varying sizes. To me, that didn’t seem like a lot for an 82-year-old woman.
“Well, I’m here now, might as well take a look,” I said. Being a woman, it had taken years for local law enforcement to acknowledge my authority at death scenes. Some never did. Bobby had it even harder as the only black forensic investigator.
After putting on gloves, I moved the pillow aside. The woman’s face was purple. There were dot hemorrhages in the whites of her eyes. Her mouth had a tear in the frenulum, that delicate tissue that extends from the upper lip to the gum. Her arms lay at her sides. Silver colored duct tape was wrapped tightly around her left wrist with a thick gathering on one side creating a pocket. The right wrist had a sticky residue on the skin around its circumference. The medical details told the story – her forearms had been bound together, and she had been smothered to death.
“She’s been asphyxiated,” I said, “There are injuries in her mouth and tell-tale signs in her eyes, but I’ll be able to tell you more after the autopsy.”
“Excuse me?” the chief said, “What are you talking about? There’s no forced entry to the house, no signs of a struggle. She even has five dollars in her purse. Besides, her next door neighbor didn’t hear anything all night. C’mon Doc, don’t go off on a wild goose chase.” My face reddened but I let him continue speaking.
His theory involved a stroke or a heart attack with the pillow accompanying her prostration. This, according to him, had caused self-suffocation. Listening with increasing incredulity, I glanced at Bobby and mouthed “WTF?” The chief was arrogant, and a bit lazy, and certainly found my forensic methods time-consuming. But was his rancor enough to blind him to the obvious clues in this case? Or did he just want it open and shut? After all, there were no suspects, so this might end up an unsolved homicide.
In an unsteady voice I asked, “What about the duct tape?” This gave him pause, but then he smiled as a flash of inspiration hit him.
“Maybe that’s where she kept her pill bottle.” I was speechless.
At the morgue, Bobby and I worked meticulously on Bernice – documenting her injuries, the skin rubbed raw on both wrists where she struggled against her bindings. We carefully recovered the duct tape, preserving the irregular edges of evidence. It was clear that someone had tied her up and snuffed out her life with a pillow. The police refused to investigate concluding that the death was due to natural causes.
Three months later the ex-girlfriend of Bernice’s part-time handyman, came to the police station. She had a ring from the elderly woman, a gift from her old beau. They were no longer in a relationship and she had begun to feel guilty over this possession. Ultimately, the FBI would reunite the separated fragments of the duct tape through microscopic analysis of the interstices of the torn ends. The one removed from the dead woman’s wrist matched exactly with the roll of tape recovered from the suspect’s home. He was found guilty of murder and went to prison, wrapping up the case.
The relationship with me and the police was never as neatly reconciled.