About thirty years ago when I was still working as head of department in a burns unit (medical illustration) I was asked if I'd come in about 6am to see a patient who'd turned up in the middle of the night with about 15% burns. Well, there was nothing unusual in that and I'd become used to working odd hours. I pitched up, interviewed the patient, took the piccies and then stopped to chat for a bit. It's scary when you're a patient so I'd often stop and do that.
It only became unusual when the bloke was arrested a couple of days later. Apparently he'd manged to burn himself during the commission of a rather nasty murder. It's been my experience that murderers are not too bright so setting fire to yourself while trying to dispose of a corpse is about par for the course.
Problems arose though when the police wanted copies of his case note photographs. They had a chitty to make copies of the pictures (quite legal) but, they wanted to make the prints themselves. I pointed out that my statement would finish with the words "Prints produced directly from unretouched negatives which I have in my possession.". I wasn't going to swear to something that might not be true so I dug my heels in and refused to give them the negatives.
Eventually we arrived at a compromise. The police could print the pictures at the murder squad headquarters and I'd be there to supervise so I could safely swear in court. MSH was about an hour and a half drive away and my car was acting up a bit so my mate Paul gave me a lift. It was a day out on expenses, sounds good. I also got paid for my time and for the services of my trusty assistant and driver. Better and better.
While I was up there I got to chatting with the detective chief inspector in charge of the case and the pathologist who'd be doing the post mortem on the victim the next day. They weren't too happy as the only photographer they had who was comfortable with post mortems was on holiday and the usual scene of crime snappers tended to pass out or throw up during posts. The pathologist, finding that I was familiar with the procedure asked me if I'd care to come back the next day for quite a generous stipend (and expenses) to assist. Not being one to turn down money I was happy to come back.
The victim had been burnt (as I'd mentioned) and people's brains tend to expand under those circumstances so it was sort of bursting out through his somewhat fractured skull. After the major bones were out of the way the pathologist wanted some pictures of the brain in situ. I asked him if that was because of the little bits of bone embedded in the brain which to my mind showed that the victim had been hit over the head before he'd been set on fire. It'd make a difference to how I took the pictures you see. It turned out that was the case and the pathologist was quite pleased that I'd spotted it.
So pleased in fact that he took to asking me to assist at some future posts over the next few months (again with his generous stipend). He was even more pleased to find out that some years before I'd been a private investigator which he seemed to have confused with a private detective (a completely different thing). He had the cracking wheeze that if I photographed the scene of suspicious deaths with a view to what might be relevent to a PM that it'd be of help to him in determining cause of death. Then I could also do the PM wih him afterwards. When he told me how much he'd pay me on a case to case basis I jumped at the chance.
So how it worked was like this. I didn't get involved in outright murders, they're open and shut and even the woodentops (police) can handle that sort of thing. If however, cause of death was suspicious and a PM was needed then I'd sometimes get a 'phone call. Not often, maybe half a dozen times a year. It was a 'nice little earner' as they say.
That's why I got a 'phone call to drag me out of bed at one o'clock on a spring night.
There'd been a spate of auto-erotic strangulations in a town near mine. Three of them in the last two months. Well, now there was four of them and the detective in charge thought this was a bit odd. More odd than the other three anyway.
When I arrived at the scene it was in a clump of trees in the middle of a decidely muddy field. Lots of woodentops standing around looking a bit ill and wondering why they couldn't move the body until this strange bloke in the funny clothes and odd car had seen it. Only the detective in charge knew why I was there and that was the way I liked it. (I'd helped put a few people away by now and more than one of them had been dragged off swearing undying vengeance against me. It seemed best to be circumspect).
I took my fancy investigators case (alright, my box of cameras) and trudged off across the muddy field. It'd been raining on and off for days and it showed. Cold, wet and windy, middle of the night. Just the scene for a grisly death.
And grisly it was.
It was a young man who'd apparently tied a rope around his neck and fastened the other end to a tree branch. He'd stood on a fallen tree trunk and quite possibly slipped while doing whatever it is auto-erotic strangulists do. He'd been there for a few days and the vertebrae in his neck had separated so that his neck was a couple of feet long and his feet rested on the ground. He was naked from the waist down apart from his shoes and socks.
I could see why the detective in charge was suspicious. This was the scenario we were supposed to believe. The deceased (let's call him Fred for simplicities sake) had gone off to the pub four nights previously carrying about twenty feet of rope. Maybe he habitually did that sort of thing? It seemed slightly odd though. On the way home and feeling a bit 'frisky' he decided to trudge across a muddy field (it was raining on the night he disappeared), drop his pants, hang himself up by the neck and then 'play with himself' in the pouring rain instead of going home to his girlfriend.............. How ugly could this girl be?
Here's a few discordant notes:
It was raining on the night that he supposedly did the deed and yet he threw his clothes on the wet ground instead of hanging them on a tree branch out of the rain.
He had his shoes on. Did he pull off his pants without removing his shoes? That's not easy. Why put his shoes back on though? Surely that'd make it harder to stand on his tree trunk.
And finally, look at the whole scenario. It was freezing cold, throwing it down with rain and he's got his girlfriend waiting for him back in his warm house. And yet here he is, swinging from a rope with his pants in the mud.
Here's a couple of alternative scenarios:
His girlfriend and her (posited) new lover suffocated Fred with a pillow and set it up to look like AES. There had been three cases in the last few months and maybe that put the idea in their minds?
He had some mates who were having a joke with him on the way home from the pub and it all went horribly wrong when Fred slipped off the tree trunk while they were all having a laugh.
Drug overdose and somebody as yet unspecified wanted to conceal it?
Something else that we hadn't thought of?
I photographed the body, made notes. Photographed the clothes and the general scene. I took particular care to photograph every inch of the tree trunk he'd been supposedly standing on. If he had been standing on it his shoes would have made marks on the moss growing there. I took off one of his shoes and photographed the sole in case there were traces of moss and had one of the scene of crime blokes bag it for later. I had him bag the sock too. If it was damp it'd show that Fred had taken his shoes off on the wet ground and then put it back on. If it was dry then more than likely somebody'd pulled his pants off for him.
Then I left him there for the medics to take down and I went home to bed.
We had the PM two days later. He'd died from strangulation and his socks were wet. It was recorded as death by misadventure. My photographs of the positioning of the rope in situ and the bruising around his neck were the determining factors.