Dismemberment: from Metamorphosis to Headless Corspe Pt.2

In Part 1, we discussed about ways and modes of dismemberment. This time we would look at the cases documented in forensic literatures, in hope of understand part of the theories and concepts.

Earlier this year, in late August, a headless corspe was found in Denmark. The headless torso was later identified as Swedish journalist, Miss Kim Wall. Wall was interviewing  inventor Peter Madsen on a story before her death.

So what a headless body can tell death investigators?

In 1999, an suspicious item was wrapped and dumped outside. Law enforcement arrived and discovered that inside the wrapped package, there was a torso and an arm belonged to the same individual, and the head and the lower body were gone. Regardless how the search was done, the law enforcement could not locate the unfound remains.

The discovered package was sent for autopsy. Autopsy found that the missing head was decapitated by using sharp force object from hyoid and the 3rd cervical vertebrae. While on the other hand, the lower body was disarticulated at the joint, especially there was no trace or cut mark on the acetabulofemoral joint (the hip joint). In other words, there were no cut marks other than the aforementioned marks on the neck.

May I recall that there is only one goal for postmortem dismemberment: to conceal identify of the victim , and/or hiding evidences and the body. From the above case, and the M.O. (modus operandi), it suggested there could be two perpetrators. The weapon used for dismemberment would be sharp objects like knife, saw, etc, they left marks on bones with different depth and length. Thus, for unexpereinced perpetrator they might leave false marks, or hesittaion marks on the bones when getting the first strikes. In other words, if using the joint and disarticulation method to seperating the body, meaning choices of tools are relatively limited. Professionals, like forensic anthropologists usually use scalpels when doing preparation for maceration.

Experts in this case use SEM-EDX and silicon to build a mold from the cut to understand what would the weapon used for decapitation. SEM-EDX technology had somehow enlarged the cut mark, and the silicon mold allowed the experets to observe and measure the depth and length of the cut thoroughly.

In sum of all the above analysis, investigors suggested that the perpetrators might be well-trained in anatomy. People like medical examiners, doctors, medical professionals, as well as butchers are the professions they would consider.

Back to Wall, on October 30th, Madsen confessed he dismembered Wall. Yet, he remained that the death of Wall was truely an accident. This went totally opposite to the coclusion to the experts made regarding absence of blunt force trauma and fratuces on the later-located skull. Medical examiner also found in total of 14 stab wounds on Wall’s body, 1 close to her genital and 1 on her chest.  Investigator dug deeper, and thought that Wall was not his first victim. They believed that Madsen had first dismembered a female Japanese tourist, dumped her head at the same spot as Wall’s.

Are these two cases linked? Madsen had not commented on these. Denmark police charges Madsen manslaughter, equavalent to murder in Denmark. He also volunitarily be remained in custody till trial on Nov 15. Hope the truth will reveal itself soon!



BBC News. 2017, October 07. Journalist Kim Wall’s head found in sea near Copenhagen. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41536552

Kennedy, M. 2017, October 30. Police: Danish Inventor Admits to Dismembering Journalist Kim Wall, NPR. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/10/30/560807160/police-danish-inventor-admits-to-dismembering-journalist-kim-wall

O’Neill, M. 2017, October 13. Did Kim Wall’s accused murderer first kill at 15? News.com.au. Retrieved from: http://www.news.com.au/world/europe/did-kim-walls-accused-murderer-first-kill-at-15/news-story/81e2780a0359ec9f7826c34a3829c7d8

Porta, D. et al. 2015. Dismemberment and disarticulation: A forensic anthropological approach. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, 38(2016) 50-57.


Dismemberment: from Metamorphosis to Headless Corspe Pt.1

In September, I was invited to the premiere of a horror short film entitled Metamorphosis, directed by a Hong Kong local young director Ms. Elanie Xia. Metamorphosis lasts for only short 15 minutes, yet it has successfully demonstrated the hidden dark side of a person. In the film, the main female character used one knife, dissected and dismembered two people into grounded meat (I’m not gonna say who though!). The psychological conditions and aspects are exactly the approach one should focus when trying to understand dismemberment.

Dismemberment, in general perception, is already conceived as a more cruel act then plain homicide. For, this term per se has already excluded the possibility of accidents as the manner of death . Echoing existing literature and perspective, dismemberment has briefly divided into four categories in total. And they are categorized according to motives and goal of the act.

Defensive mutilation is the most common type among all. The term “defensive” here does not refer to the concept of trying to protect oneself. RAther, it refers to the act that the perpetrator trying to avoid prosecution and thus mutilated the corpse. This act aims for easier hiding and transports the dead body. If the perpetrator mutilated the body impulsively, this act is categorized as “Offensive mutilation.” While “aggressive mutilation” refers to such act as the M.O. (Modus Operandi). Lastly, “Necromaniac mutilation” refers to the perpetrator hides the body or mutilated body parts for own sexual pleasure.

Regardless which aforementioned type of dismemberment, all the tools used are rather sharp (i.e. includes all sorts of saws and knives). These sharp tools would leave marks and traces on bones during the cutting process. These marks would allow experts to carry out tool mark analysis. By comparing the marks from the sample with the database, experts could narrow down the search for the tools or even murder weapons. Furthermore, experts would also be able to tell the direction of the cut from the wound. On top of all these, experts are trained to pay attention to traces of hesitation mark, or false start. These marks could suggest hints for the psychological condition of the perpetrator, for example, if this is a rather decisive cut? Any hesitation or trials before one complete cut? In general, hesitation mark’s starting point and force used would be rather different; it is shallower and in varies length. If a mutilated corpse is missing these, it might be beneficial to consider we are dealing with a rather experienced perpetrator or a well-planned crime.

Postmortem dismemberment or corpse mutilation only happens after a person died, mostly is used to hide all crime-related evidence and the body. In late August 2017, a headless woman corpse was found in Denmark. At first, it was only the torso without the limbs and a head. It was later proved that the body belonged to a Swedish journalist Kim Wall. She worked for a lot of well-known papers around the world, including the Guardian and the New York Times. The law enforcement learned that she was working on a story of an inventor, Peter Madsen regarding his crowdfunding and submarine invention. In the latest investigation, law enforcement state that they found a decapitation and woman torture video in a hard drive in Madsen’s office. Also, they were able to locate Wall’s head and part of the limbs from the nearby water.

Though the suspect was trying his best to hide this hideous crime, yet the dead are still telling us the story, just through the scientific channel.

Next, we will talk more and discuss in details of distinguishing dismemberment cases with help of existing case studies, including the Wall case.

BBC News. 2017, August 23. Kim Wall: Headless body identified as missing journalist. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41021223

BBC News. 2017, October 07. Journalist Kim Wall’s head found in sea near Copenhagen. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41536552

O’Neill, M. 2017, October 13. Did Kim Wall’s accused murderer first kill at 15? News.com.au. Retrieved from: http://www.news.com.au/world/europe/did-kim-walls-accused-murderer-first-kill-at-15/news-story/81e2780a0359ec9f7826c34a3829c7d8

Porta, D. et al. 2015. Dismemberment and disarticulation: A forensic anthropological approach. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, 38(2016) 50-57.

Xia, E.2016. Metamorphosis.

[Morbid Legend] Human Pillars: Chinese Urban Legend

In 2006, a construction sites for relocating some water pipe lines in Hong Kong led to a discovery of 8 skeletons (1 adult and 7 children, according to all local news reports). The locals, especially those from one generation older immediately thought this was linked to this spooky old belief.

Continue reading

[新聞專題] 公主道掘地發現七童骸骨


新聞:公主道掘地發現七童骸骨 (蘋果日報) 及 何文田掘出8副陳年骸骨 (明報)




這邊的問題很多:(1)無超過十歲?(2)死了十年以上?(3)為甚麼疊在一起?但這次,我想先簡述第一個問題:如何決定小孩子骸骨沒有超過十歲。 Continue reading

“The Body in the Concrete”- Concrete Casket 101.

So last time, I expressed my concern on how the Hong Kong Police and Firemen had mistreated the crucial trace evidence, namely the concrete casket. And I also opposed their methodology. Some of the readers thought that police should be more experienced on handling these cases than me, and also thought that the law enforcement units had made this judgment after chains of thorough thinking.

I supposed I am not in a good position to comment further on how their approach was when they were at the scene. After all, I was not at the crime scene in person. Also, readers state that that was indeed the raw differences between theories, archaeology and the reality. I am only wishing to use the following space to replied to three of the main questions raised by the readers. I have also cited the Los Angeles Medical Examiners case report, in hope of the M.E. would be able to shed some lights on the questions the readers made from their study and research.

Question 1: The size of the concrete casket is too huge! May be they are not scanned because the law enforcement was not able to transfer them for scanning?

If you ever watched any crime shows on TV (of course, Bones is a good example. Everyone will yell “back to the lab!”), you will see they are always able to transfer whichever evidence they found back to the lab before further analyzing. Reality, not so much. This is how Ground Penetrating Radar comes into play. In archaeology, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) is used to detect and reflect any buried artifacts, monuments, archaeological sites. It is especially handy when archaeologists are about to look for hidden burial sites and buried remains. GPR allows noninvasive examination, and very helpful for experts and scientists to learn about the structure of the hidden architectures and bodies. Furthermore, size of a GPR is only about the size of a vacuum. Some companies even invented the GSSI Mini, which is about the size of a laptop for carrying scientists to have easy access in the field. All GPR and GSSI Mini come with a monitor, and very easy to connect to the laptop. That said, it is easy to document digitally the detected images. One may use slightly more time on using the GPR before stepping or unfold the crime scene, yet save the team and resources from doing extra and additional steps and procedures in the later investigation. In this case, that would be the suspicious broken palm, posture of the body, etc.

Question 2: It was mandatory to crack the concrete casket open, as the body was decomposing already.

News and police report claimed that the concrete casket was dried by the time of discovery. Yet, concrete would not dry but only cure and hardened. The hardening and curing of concrete, in other words, does not come from the evaporation of water from the chemical composition of the concrete. Rather the water molecules have transformed, merged and bonded together with the concrete particles as part of their chemical structure. An experiment pointed out that the mass of concrete before hardening/ curing is about the same with after [1]. The only slight difference between the mass was from the evaporation of the water on the concrete surface that with no cover. Last time, I have also mentioned that concrete is relatively porous. When cement hardens, it means that the water molecules and air molecules have filled in all those pores. This type filling makes concrete looks strong but indeed not. That said, it is relatively soft inside, while the outside of the concrete looks hard.

And for the body that was covered by the concrete, the decomposition of it liquefies from inside to outside, and all the decomposition was triggered by the enzymes in muscles. During the hardening process of the concrete, since it is a exothermic reaction (i.e. it releases heat in the whole process), the interior of the concrete casket would reach 175F in the first few days, which results an acceleration in the decomposition rate. After curing, the concrete becomes a good insulator that blocked the air and heat to reach the body, and thus successfully decrease the rate of decomposition again.

During the stage of decomposition, body liquids (any liquid in the body, you name it :)) would leak out of the body. Normally, as in general when a body is exposed to air, atmospheric air would help evaporate liquids and water. However, when a body like the one in this case is being buried in a concrete casket, all the fluid is trapped in the casket, and at the end turned the soft tissues into a mush. At the end, fluids would leak outside the casket, or concrete casket. This is not only something visual but also would give a strong odor. Evenly so, it does not mean an invasive act should be taken to the casket. Keep in mind that bodies starts breaking down the moment the heart stopped beating.

Question 3: Readers think that using merely textbook archaeology, i.e. using brush in the act, has not thoroughly considered the scenario at scene.

To be honest, this is some attitude that forensic scientists should have and maintain all along. In the forensic field, a lot of the tools we use are indeed very creative. For instance, you would find ladles on the autopsy table to scoop out fluid (for example inflammatory fluids in lungs) during autopsy; also would find those big stock pots in decomp bodies autopsy room for forensic anthropologists to do maceration. All these kitchenware is used with one and foremost premise: will not affect the quality of the collected evidences, or would not contemning evidences.

Los Angeles Medical Examiner Office claimed that there were only 5 cases of concrete casket located, till 2008, in the past 18 years in a report. They also stated in the report that, though cement and concrete affected the calculation or estimation of accurate postmortem interval, at the sam time they welly preserved all trace evidences [2]. In these 5 recorded cases, medical examiners were taken things slow, and excavate the bodies layer by layer in order to estimate the cause of death and time of death. Among all, LA medical examiners also indicated the frequent application of metal detectors and radiography in order to pinpoint the posture of bodes, and location. Sledgehammer and chisel are only implemented in a very much later stage, or only when they are sure it would not damage the body.

Back to the discussion, should we use heavy tools like sledgehammer and chisel, or only brush? Both. The foremost premise here is to not damaging the evidence. Only use heavy tools when the remains inside are well-documented. Also, the methodology with chisel should be go horizontally instead of vertically in order to reveal the context of the casket and the body.

Sad but true, concrete casket or related research is not commonly seen and discussed in the academia. These caskets can only open when all the conditions and situations are well-documented. In delicate crime scene like this one, officials should prioritize the preservation of crime scene in front of investigation just yet.



[1] Lesson 5: So, You Think Concrete Dries Out? (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2016, from

Toms, C., Rogers, C. B., & Sathyavagiswaran, L. (2008).
Investigation of Homicides Interred in Concrete—The Los Angeles
Experience. J Forensic Sci Journal of Forensic Sciences, 53(1), 203-207.

“The Body in the Concrete”- Dig or Not Dig, This Is the Question.

On March 30, 2016, Hong Kong local media, Apple Daily reported about a homicide that with a concrete-made casket. The concrete was found in one apartment in one of the neighborhood in Hong Kong, Tsuen Wan. The concrete casket was 1m x 1m x 0.5m and covered with a wooden box, and was placed in the center of the living room. Other than the concrete-wood casket, there were a lot of air-fresheners placed in the living room too. Police and firemen arrived the scene, and found the strong odor is originated from the wooden box in the living room. They decided to crack the casket, and handled the body to the M.E. right out of the casket. From the angle of forensic anthropology, and forensic archaeology, I would like to point out that the methodology police and firemen used to handle the casket is not appropriate.

Recap: Forensic anthropology is the combination of osteology and physical anthropology that applied in the legal context. Usually, forensic anthroplogists would only deal with human remains in advanced decomposition, skeletonization, human bone fragments, burnt remains, or other remains that have difficult time to give a positive identification from soft tissues.

Back to the case, first and foremost, the concrete casket. Concrete is the cured cement. Cement is a relatively alkaline material and very porous in itself. Concrete casket is very effective in insulating the body from contacting the air, which in turn, slows down the reproductive rate of bacteria within the body, as well as decreases the probability for flies laying eggs on the body. For, soft tissues decomposition mostly because the bacteria within digested our body and the occurrences of maggots. These two teeny tiny organisms enjoy the decomposition feast the most! Also, because the concrete could insulate the contact between the air and the body, the decomposition rate in general is slower in the concrete casket than exposing it in the air. That said, if the correct evidence collection methodologies used, a lot of physical, biological and trace evidences would be too preserved in the concrete casket. Therefore, without examine the concrete casket and use chisel or sledgehammer to break the concrete would be one serious wrong move, and here are the three main reasons:

1. Cracking the concrete casket is an invasive act. Once the concrete is cracked and broken, no one could recover it back to the original context. A fluoroscopic examination should be done and evaluated before any invasive act. With today’s technology, it would be easy and efficient to scan the whole concrete block before cracking it open. That way would allow the M.E. and corresponding law enforcement agents have a better understanding with the posture, number of bodies, and position of remains. Also, some of the remains might liquidfy or oxidize once contacted with air because of some chemicals they exposed to before concealed in the concrete. Straightly cracking it open, simply ignored this possibility.

2. Another risk of cracking open the concrete casket directly would be: what if there are more than one body? Although according to the intel and the missing person report, there was only one missing individual, and also because of this, police mainly focuses on looking for this particular person. Yet, if there are really more than one set of remains, directly using a chisel or sledgehammer without scanning the concrete in advance, would possibly damage the remains inside. The concrete casket, like the apartment, is a crime scene. One of the main missions for forensic anthropologist to determine first and foremost, would be the minimum number of individuals, or MNI. Anything in and out of the concrete casket is part of the evidences. Local news report stated that the right hand is cracked and broken because of the cement. Little did we know, if it was broken because of the cracking of casket, and thus resulted this postmortem trauma.

3. Direct usage of sledgehammer and chisel is not recommended. In forensic archaeology, the most useful tools would be those of carpenters–brushes, or even tooth brush. Only after fully documented the conditions of the casket would consider to crack the concrete. And would not use any chisel when getting close to the remains. That way, we could make sure the context of the body is well-preserved and complete-documented. Though this way is slow (could not deny this), yet can protect the remains and preserve the maximum amount of evidences, from pollen to hair to adipocere (aka grave wax).

Though body disposal in concrete is not a common case, it is definitely not the first. When handling body disposal like the abovementioned case, it is very important to keep in mind that speed of cracking the case is the least concern, as you have this fragile and one-time crime scene needed to handle and evaluate in optimum condition.

Forensics Daily #9: Dead Wives Tales

Q: are the dead wives tales true at all? Meaning, our nails and hair do grow after we died ?

A: Yes and No. Yes, because it does look like it grows, like illusion. No, because it is NOT REALLY GROWING.. Both hair and nails look like they grow after the heart stopped working because of the skin surrounding them are dehydrated. They shrink, and thus make it appear to be longer. Funeral homes sometimes will moisturize the bodies when they are doing the prep to counteract this.

Other than the hair and nails, the chin also dries out, and pulling towards the back of a skull, thus looks like more prominent. So does the goosebump effect, because of the contraction around the hair muscle (remember we talked about in the last few q&a, after we died, our muscles are not able to relax, not unable to contract!).

These all biological responses give the sense of horror!

Forensics Daily#7: Signs of Biological Death

Q: Seriously, in general, what will happen to our body once our heart stopped?

A: The story goes: when the heart stopped beating, no pressure to chase the blood around, gravity causes the red blood cells sink through and settle in the dependent parts. This results a red/ purplish discoloration, which we called LIVOR MORTIS Then we have RIGOR MORTIS, which is the stiffening in the muscles. It is because the brain stopped working, and stopped RELAXING (Not Contracting) the muscles. As well as, cooling of the tissues or ALGOR MORTIS. The latter two usually kicked in as soon as 20mins after death to 3 hours; capillaries will be congealed in 4-5 hours and maximum livor mortis occurs within 6-12 hours (though size of the patches increase within first 3-6 hours)

Forensics Daily #5: Hanging

*sorry that I had been away for a week as I flew all the way to Cyprus for a field school. Now everything is settled, and back with the daily Q&A 🙂

Q: what are the signs of a victim from hanging?
A: osteologically speaking, the hyoid bone is broken. However, if you are looking at a fresh body- with soft tissues, should find the following symptoms:-
1. Arms and legs are angled outward.
2. May find the neck has stretched few inches.
3. Face downcast.

Also, if you are looking for the validity of the MO, may also look for the stand or footstep for getting up to the thing they hung with. If that was absent, and the above symptoms are not found, together with the livor mortis(pooling of blood due to gravity kicked in not long after death), then it is possibly just staged and faked as hanging.

Forensics Daily #4- On suicide

Q:any relevance on using your favoured hand (i.e. Left- handed more likely on using left hand) on committing suicide? Also can manner of suicide tells you about the person?
A: No and yes. For the first half, there are studies showed that hand preference DOES NOT count as the factor of using which hand to pull the trigger. So do not simply judge the entry wound from the side of hand holding the gun. As for the second part, there are some we called more feminine way of dying and more masculine way. Usually feminine ways are taking pills, cutting wrist, while masculine contains putting the short gun into the mouth and blow the head off! Yet this remains controversial as it is 60% chosen by men and 30% chosen by women.

Note: this does not mean that simply by judging the manner of death/ suicide will be able to categorize the deceased. It just gives the investigators some ideas on the victimology, and the psychological condition of the dead.

**And of course, this is not to encourage you to suicide. I always say if you have the courage to die then you def have the courage to live on!