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Good News

Posted on April 17, 2018 at 11:45 AM

On behalf of the Executive Board of Directors of Kolibri Forensics, I have the great pleasure of sharing some fantastic news. We received our 501c3 determination letter rom the Internal Revenue Service this morning. It's officially official. We are a full-fledged nonprofit (pun intended since Kolibri is the German word for 'hummingbird') and all donations are now tax deductible to the fullest extent permissible by law. 

Thank you all for your patience, kindness and understanding as we worked towards this over the past couple of years.  

Sincerely and excitedly,

Stephen L. Richey
Executive Director 

The "Smiley Face Murders" Hypothesis

Posted on February 21, 2018 at 11:50 PM

Nearly ubiquitous in western culture, the smiley face symbol has been given a more sinister implication by a couple of detectives who seek to connect seemingly disparate cases into one of the most prolific cases of serial murder in history. To be quite frank, it is also the most asinine theory I have heard in modern forensics. We are talking about Ancient Aliens level departures from reality and vacuous attempts at creating links that make some of the conspiracy hypotheses surrounding the Kennedy assassination seem simple and well supported.


Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, retired NYPD detectives, put forth the idea in 2008 trying to tie roughly 40-45 deaths across eleven states. Starting in 1997 and ranging from New York to Minnesota. The “victim profile” consists of athletic, good university students who are mostly popular white males. The name of the alleged killer is drawn from the supposed discovery of graffiti depicting a smiley face at the alleged “dump sites” for as many as 22 cases where the bodies were placed into the water. There has also been occasional discovery of the word “sinsiniwa”.


The “profile” of the alleged victims has led Gannon to state that perhaps the “perpetrator” is possibly ugly, clumsy or lacking intelligence with envy being a motive. This is almost as fanciful a claim as saying that Jack the Ripper had to be a surgeon because he was good with a knife. Don’t get me started on that one! It is a huge pet peeve of mine.


I literally snorted soda out my nose when I first read that Gannon had the nerve to not only cook up a series of murders than were not murders but to try to propose a “profile” of the killer or killers. I sent that to an ex-girlfriend of mine who is qualified as a forensic psychologist and she had pretty much the same reaction (a solid 30 seconds of snorting and laughing) before pointing out that a person with such motivations would be much more inclined to display and mutilate their victims to show that he was in fact more “powerful” than his victims. People dumping bodies into rivers after actual homicides are trying to get rid of evidence or hide their crime. That is not the action of someone seeking to overcome insecurity or whatever else Gannon postulates.


Gannon has repeatedly failed to provide any evidence to back up his claims. This is not even a theory. A theory must be testable and verifiable through evidence. This is, at best, a hypothesis and not a very plausible one at that.


Nearly all of the supposed cases have happened in the northern states in winter. The proponents point to a supposed lack of a similar pattern of alcohol related drownings in the south or during the summer has been pointed out as “suspicious”. First of all….let’s look at the actual statistics on drowning. Drowning the cause of 1.38 deaths per 100,000 people when you average it across the nation using the WISQARS injury database from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I looked into the statistics between 2001 and 2016.

Here is the basic breakdown:

67,193 deaths

83.5% accidental

9.4% suicide

6% undetermined manner

1.2% homicides


Regarding those homicidal drownings, the vast majority are in children under the age of nine and even more concentrated in those under the age of five.  When you compare it to accidental drownings it shows the dichotomy. Accidental drownings reach their lowest frequency in school age children (10-14 years old) before spiking in the 14-29 year ranges. 


The rates of accidental and alcohol-related drownings are HIGHER in the south (especially Arkansas, Alabama, Lousiana, Mississippi and Florida).  All of the mentioned states have higher rates of alcohol-related drowning than the supposed northern hunting grounds of the alleged killer(s) in the cases we are talking about.

The statistics reported in Injury Prevention by Driscoll, Harrison and Steenkamp (Review of the role of alcohol in drowning associated with recreational aquatic activity. Inj Prev 2004; 10:107-113) show that 30-70% of drowning deaths in the US have alcohol in their systems. They point out that a person with a blood alcohol level (BAL) of 0.10 g/dL (for reference: 0.08 g/dL is considered legally intoxicated for the purposes of driving in the US) increases your odds of dying from drowning roughly ten times. The population attributable risk- what amounts to the percentage of deaths that can be directly blamed on being intoxicated- is 10 to 30%.


As for state specific variation, Browne et al (Browne M, Lewis-Michl E, Stark A. Unintentional drownings among New York State residents, 1988–1994. Public Health Rep 2003;118:448–58.) reported on New York and found that 49% of drownings while swimming among persons had some degree of alcohol in their system. A quantitative BAL (a specified amount present; as opposed to qualitative “no alcohol present” versus “alcohol present” findings) was reported in 52% of cases with 40% having more that 0.05 g/dL and 35% having more than 0.10 g/dL.


California (Wintemute G, Kraus J, Teret S, et al. The epidemiology of drowning in adulthood: implications for prevention. Am J Prev Med 1988;4:343–8): Among persons over 20 years old “wading, swimming or diving”, 63% were intoxicated with 55% >0.05 g/dL and 40% >0.10 g/dL



Maryland (Dietz and Baker; Dietz P, Baker S. Drowning. Epidemiology and prevention. Am J Public Health 1974;64:303–12.): Persons >15 years old “swimming”. 79% positive for alcohol, 64% >0.10 g/dL and 50% >0.15 g/dL


North Carolina (Patetta and Biddinger; Characteristics of drowning deaths in North Carolina. Public Health Rep 1988;103:406–11.): Persons over 15 years “swimming and wading” 87% were positive for alcohol. 20% were over 0.10 g/dL.


So much for the “lack of alcohol related drownings” in the south. Once again, Gannon and his supporters are playing fast and loose with the truth in order to make something out of nothing.

A lot of folks who talk about this case seem not to understand HOW people drown. Even in crowded settings, most people do not flail or splash or scream like you see on television. As an EMS provider I worked a case where this happened in a crowded pool. No one realised the child was under the water until someone literally stepped on him. One of the first things taught to lifeguards is that the common perception of a drowning scenario is the exception rather than the rule. In bitterly cold water, it is even more so.

Cold water immersion effects are not what most people suspect. For one, you have what is referred to as a bimodal distribution of the deaths. You have two broad groups of people: those who drown within a minute or so of entering the water and those who survive longer. Why this is has a lot to do with some superficially complex aspects of how the human body has evolved. Give me a second to set the stage a bit and I will explain what I mean.


Another more basic explanation for why no one heard anything is that it is unlikely that many people would be down by the water at night to hear someone cry for help if they did. The lack of frequent traffic actually is the basis for what I believe is a likely scenario in many of these cases. The intoxicated student is stumbling about trying to find his way to wherever he is going. The alcohol, as it does, makes them have to urinate. With a mind clouded by booze and a very full bladder the victim approaches the river or pond. They fall in and the weight of their shoes and now saturated winter clothes pull them under and cause them to drown despite their attempts to stay afloat.

That is if the mammalian diving reflex did not render them unconscious due to a precipitous drop in heart rate, left ventricular contractility- how hard the chamber of the heart pumping blood to the brain and other vital organs is squeezing) and therefore cardiac output. Heart rate in beats per minute times stroke volume- the amount in milliliters of blood being pumped with each contraction- equals cardiac output which is measured in liters per minute.


Basically, your heart slows down and your blood pressure plummets. In a cruel twist of physiological fate, the reflex is most pronounced in persons whose face is suddenly cooled (such as by immersion in cold water) while holding their breath.Holding one’s breath increases intrathoracic pressure and puts pressure on the vagus nerve which is responsible for decreasing the heart rate among a bunch of other effects. One of those is increasing the heart’s tendency to produce aberrant beats- referred to as ectopy. If severe enough or falling at exactly the wrong millisecond in the cardiac cycle, these can induce sudden cardiac arrest. The instinctive response to take a big breath and hold it may, in some instances, make things worse.


Slightly off topic but an increase in pressure in the chest or abdomen is why people sometimes pass out while on the toilet. This is probably one of the things that contributed to the incident that gave us the colloquial expression “pulling an Elvis”. We actually use this- it’s called a vagal maneuver- in clinical medicine to slow treat abnormally fast heart rates.  You can also apply cold packs to someone's face. If you want the full Norwegian fjord cliff diving experience, you can also dunk their face into a basin of ice water.....which I have seen done exactly once in clinical practice and that was a doc doing it to himself.


As if that were not enough, there is a second reflex that makes cold water immersion hazardous. This is the cold shock response. This causes a sudden and involuntary inhalation. A sudden fall into the water or through ice triggers the person to take a big deep breath right at the worst possible moment: while they are submerged. This rapidly leads to drowning in many cases because the reflex lasts for up to a minute so you are involuntarily hyperventilating. 

The exertion of trying to swim- especially fully dressed in winter attire- is 
exhausting in cold water. Even wearing a wetsuit or drysuit you are going to have much reduced ability to function compared to warmer water. You’re going to have much higher demands for oxygen exactly at the time your heart is slowing down and your body- to try to stave off hypothermia and compensate for the drop in cardiac output- is clamping down all of your blood vessels supplying your skin and muscles. Cramps set in.

Immersion in freezing water- something I have experienced on multiple occasions over the years- can be downright brutal but thankfully I guess the silver lining is that the sensation of intense cold is usually gone within a couple of minutes as your skin goes numb. 

Since we are discussing the physiology of cold water exposure, allow me to dispel another common myth that makes the rounds often in association with the various documentaries or movies about the sinking of the Titanic. That is that if you are in cold water or fall through the ice that you will die of hypothermia within 10 to 15 minutes. If you survive the first minute of immersion, most people will survive for between thirty minutes to an hour. Gordon Giesbrecht aka “Professor Popsicle” who is probably the world’s leading expert on hypothermia likes to use the 1 minute, 10 minute, 1 hour, 2 hour rule to explain survival times in very cold (32 degrees F or 0 degrees C) water.


1 minute to get your breathing under control and get your head straight.

10 minutes of meaningful movement: basically to get yourself out of the water or get hold of something to keep yourself afloat

1 hour before you lose consciousness.

2 hours to be rescued with a reasonable chance of survival assuming your head remains above water after you lose consciousness.


This bimodal distribution with initial survival may explain why drowning victims are sometimes found facing upwards as opposed to face down which is considered to be more normal due to the impulse to swim.

Alleged victim Chris Jenkins’ family likes to point out that he was allegedly found “with his arms folded across his chest” and floating on his back. The news reports when he was recovered point out that he was found tangled in a “mass of debris” and it took two to three hours to extricate him from it due to the current and his entanglement. Even if he had been in such an odd position when he entered the water (which is unlikely), FOUR MONTHS worth of currents would have long since changed that.


However, a person who initially survives cold water immersion would likely try to roll onto their back as it keeps their mouth and nose out of the water. In a current, once a person is no longer able to swim, they would likely wind up floating “backwards” with their arms and legs trailing behind. That is just a bit of hypothetical spitballing there based on hydrodynamics. If a person were found quickly (once again, Jenkins was NOT) it could conceivably appear like their arms are “crossed” behind them. Whatever position he was in after he entered the water will never be known because he was not quickly found and other factors changed that orientation.


Either they are relying upon a picture taken of him in a body bag- which would not represent the position he was originally found in any more than his position in a casket would- if such an image exists or this is fanciful thinking due to the confounding effects of extreme grief associated with the loss of a child. There are no shortage of examples of cases where grieving parents have led people down a fanciful and convoluted trail that little resembles the actual facts of the case. Given that I previously covered the case, the example that jumps to mind is that of the Sodder children who died in an accidental house fire secondary to shoddy wiring.



There is another physiological quirk that could potentially explain why someone would fall into a body of water. There is a condition called micturition syncope. It’s a five dollar phrase for a fifty cent event. Micturition is simply the technical term for urination. Now you too can impress your friends with a vocabulary that causes people to go “Huh?”. Syncope is fainting. Micturition syncope is responsible for about 1 in 50 cases of fainting. It usually happens in men and is caused by that harbinger of drowning doom I mentioned previously, the vagus nerve.

If someone strains to urinate faster- for example because...well….I can’t speak for any other guys but having my wedding tackle exposed to the wind and cold on a winter night for any longer than necessary isn’t high on my list of enjoyable activities- it increases the pressure in the abdomen and can stimulate the vagus nerve. Down goes the heart rate, down goes cardiac output and out go the lights. Standing on a sloping riverbank….gravity works.



Some, like Vance Holmes- who on his website flails wildly and demonstrates little understanding of forensics or taphonomy (the processes that influence and result in various aspects of decomposition, destruction and/or deposition of remains)- have pointed out that they cannot understand why it takes months for these bodies to be found. By comparison, Vance actually might be the only person involved in this case that make Gannon look like he knows what he is talking about.


This is easy to explain by understanding the processes that make a body float and how cold water slows these down. Bodies don’t usually float immediately after death. In warm weather, a day or two (or hours if the water is warm and shallow) and the body rises to the surface as it the bacteria that once were kept in check by the gastrointestinal mucosae and the immune system run amok in a microorganism version of the French Revolution. The peasants are now the rulers. Bacterial decomposition produces various gases as byproducts of metabolism. For those of you with a bent towards the science of this, I am talking about stuff like methane, carbon dioxide and so forth. Much like the difference between an empty balloon and a full one, the body rises to the surface.


If you have a body that is immersed in ice water- or otherwise refrigerated or frozen- decomposition effectively grinds to a pace that makes the death row appeals process in California look like a top fuel drag race. Cold temperatures slow down metabolic processes for almost every living thing. Slower metabolism, slower decomposition. Slower decomposition, lower gas production. Less gas, less buoyancy. See where this is going? Once things warm up, the body tends to decompose faster and you get a body that floats.


Holmes also likes to claim that it is unusual that the bodies aren’t found immediately and in the “spot where they fell in” (NOTE: trying to figure out where someone entered the water is usually a crapshoot unless it is witnessed or they dropped identifying personal effects) but rather miles downstream in the river I can explain that- and I really cannot believe I have to do so- with one word: current.

Some persons have claimed that the victims were drugged (with GHB or something similar), abducting the victim and driving them around in a panel van while torturing them. Finally they are killed and then slipped into the water. Holmes likes to point out that he finds it unusual for college students to “oddly drink large amounts of booze, very quickly”.

Apparently he does not know the phrase binge drinking and goes on to claim that the “student seems to seems to require a motivator through the scenario -- feeding him drinks or guiding him along, or hiding him, or placing him in the water when no one is looking”. I’m going to guess he didn’t attend many parties in high school and at university. His demonstrated tendency to jump to wild conclusions and make himself sound like some sort of conspiracy nut probably didn’t help that.


As for the GHB and other sedatives, those would show up in a toxicology screen that would be performed on any healthy young man found dead in water. Guess what has not been found.



Another point that people make a lot about autopsy findings that someone “didn’t have water in their lungs”. The absence of large amounts of water in the lungs is not an indication that drowning did not happen. Conversely, there are things that can give you wet heavy lungs (in this case referred to as pulmonary edema) without environmental drowning. Congestive heart failure, drug overdoses, etc. This is why it is foolish to latch onto a single observation in a case and make a conclusion based solely upon that.  This supposed lack of “water in the lungs” was pointed at in the Chris Jenkins’ but it is important to remember that he was in the water for four months before he was recovered.  There likely would have been some decompositional changes that masked any significant amoung of water in the airways or alveoli.

He was not recovered frozen in the ice (as some reports suggest) but simply in association with the ice that normally was present on the river. Once again….bodies don’t normally float at the surface and even in the brutal cold of an upper Midwestern winter, you might only get ice a couple of feet thick on a river or large creek. The ice also is not as fixed in place as people think. You’ll get buckling, folding and cracking due to the wind, the current and so forth. A body submerged in a flowing current is going to be carried along until it either hangs up in something, comes ashore or ends up in some hydrologic feature that holds it in place (an eddy for example). The body of Jenkins was simply carried along underwater until it snagged on the brush and ice at the shoreline. Once again, nothing unexpected or unusual to someone paying attention and/or familiar with aquatic forensics.

So I mentioned that you don’t always get frank findings of water in the lungs or airways. Let me review what you often see at autopsy from someone who drowned. Heavy “wet” (edematous in pathological parlance) lungs are exceedingly common. If someone was in really muddy water or very shallow water such in the surf at a beach, occasionally you will find sand or mud in the airways or in the stomach. People sometimes swallow water in the process and so a lot of water or sediment in the stomach can be supportive evidence of a drowning. It is also common to find water (or a muddy or bloody turbid fluid) in the sphenoid sinus which is located behind the eyes and below the brain.


A lot of you will have heard of “dry drowning”.   Laryngospasm or reflex cardiac arrest- remember the vagus nerve etc?- may result in death with minimal water aspiration. Laryngospasm is simply the reflexive closing of the vocal cords to keep things that don’t belong. For example: food, water, the occasional tooth or ‘grillz’ after a person comes out on the losing end of a bar fight out of the lungs. Technically, people can die with minimal water in the lungs as a result but it is more common as the body shuts down for the person to have their vocal cords relax and the last few breaths (more accurately called agonal gasps) result in at least some water being drawn in.


Not to harp on the Chris Jenkins case but in the litany of just hallucinatory flights of fancy that have been put forth, we have the family claiming he was tortured- without or without being drugged- but there were no signs of trauma consistent with an assault. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada.


Some have suggested that he was thrown off a bridge, either while he was still alive or after death. A prison inmate confessed to this but it does not stand up to the facts in the case at all. Some inmates just amuse themselves by leading cops and families on a wild goose chase. Others like the attention. Granted….if he were dropped off a bridge happened it would negate the other claim people make that he was found peacefully floating with his arms crossed. Piece of advice to families and amateur investigators trying to formulate a plausible scenario: pick a line of reasoning and stick with it.


A body falling a considerable distance- such as off a bridge- will often have fractures or soft tissue trauma like contusions. Long falls- more than two times a person’s standing height- can produce internal organ injuries even in a dead body dropped into what a lot of people think of as a “soft surface”. Due to its density, hitting water after a long fall is not a gentle event. There’s a reason why belly flops even from the side of a pool hurt. If you did it off a high board at a pool...I know someone who did it and broke several of his ribs. This is why the supposition that the victims were dropped off bridges or other similar elevated structures does not, pardon the phrase, hold much water.


Some of these cases have been found with their shoes still on including Chris Jenkins. While it is not uncommon for loosely fitting shoes to be pulled off by currents, one need only look at the “floating feet” cases in British Columbia- where shoes stayed on until the bodies decomposed to the point that the feet separate and floated free- to see that this is not always the case. Honestly, I am not sure what exactly people are trying to get at by pointing out that the shoes were still on the body.



Even with a person who is inebriated, it is hard to drown any healthy adult let alone someone fitting the common description of the alleged victims in these instances. Ever tried getting a drunk friend into a car when he isn’t ready to leave a party? Same sort of uncooperative struggle, only much more frantic and aggressive, applies to trying to push an grown man underwater. Trying to drown someone or even force such a person into the water against their will is going to be difficult to impossible especially if the person is clumsy or unathletic as was suggested by Gannon.

There is also a case that is often included in the "smiley face" series where it appears that the victim walked out onto the ice before falling through, perhaps not realising in a drunken stupor where he was, leaving a clear set of footprints in the otherwise pristine snow covering the the ice. Unless the alleged killer has the exact same kind of shoes in the same size as the victim, walked perfectly in his footsteps and walked backwards off the ice after killing the victim…..see where I am going here?


The difficulties in physically controlling another adult explains why homicidal drowning only accounts for 0.2% of murders in the US. Of these cases, they usually involve parents drowning their own children as Andrea Yates did. Side note on the Yates case: postpartum psychosis or not, I still think she knew the risks of getting pregnant again and ignored them; her, her husband and her preacher all should have had a date with the pointy end of a needle in Huntsville.


A few cases of a husband drowning his husband in the bathtub often with the aid of medications like antihistamines or benzodiazepines exist. According to the FBI data, there were 907 homicidal drownings in TWENTY ONE YEARS nearly half involving children under the age of 8.


If you look at the age range that corresponds with most undergraduates- 18-24 years old- there were only 117 homicidal drownings over 21 years. That constitutes three hundredths of one percent of murders among that population. 0.03%.


The graffiti- both when and when not present- actually argues AGAINST the idea it provided the name for. The graffiti, in the minority of cases where it is present, varies in form and design. Many of those supposedly painted by the alleged killers, the photos purported as “evidence” show faded or worn out paint. In some cases, the graffiti was only found months afterwards. It is possible to forensically determine the age of the paint- at least when it was manufactured- but that is pretty imprecise and honestly does not add much to the case.


Even the definition of the “scene” seems to be played fast and loose with Gannon and a lot of others. Some of these supposedly linked are quite far from the scene where the body entered the water. This brings up another point. I work with a LOT of cases that involve persons or objects- such as crashed airplanes- going into fact my masters thesis is likely to be on something related to that. Unless someone witnesses a body entering the water, there is video footage or you find evidence such as personal effects, clothing etc at a site that are able to be linked to a persons, you can only use a very general starting point if you can define one at all because there is no “point last seen”.


The absence of it at many crime scenes means that the killer or killers, if they exist, are failing to remember to use their “signature”. LaCrosse, Wisconsin PD- which investigated eight of the cases thanks to a riverfront location and a university that is known for its love of drinking- stated that there were no smiley faces found as graffiti in association with the supposed victims in their jurisdiction. Given how ritualistic many serial killers tend to be, this is a strike against these being serial homicides. Quite simply these cases are all lacking in what is known in law enforcement and profiling parlance as “linkage”.


To explain this lack of consistency the proponents of this hypothesis tried to indicate that this is the result of multiple artisans. Here we agree: they are the work of multiple different offenders but the crime in question is vandalism and not homicide. Even the originators began to distance themselves from the smiley face when they were unable to deflect the observation that the smiley faces are not evidence. They then began trying to convey that the smiley faces are not central to the case- think about that for a second- and represent only 1/13th of the quote “linked symbols”


While we’re on the subject of other graffiti allegedly associated with these deaths, “sinsiniwa” was mentioned earlier and needs some explaining. It is simply the word for “rattlesnake” or “home of the young eagle” depending upon the dialect or language. It is a common word in various parts of the country including Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Washington state. It is the name of no fewer than three streets, a river, businesses, schools and places. There is even a Dominican order bearing the name: Sinsinawa Dominican Congregation of the Most Holy Rosary of the Order of Preachers. As with most words originating from non-European languages there are various ways to transliterate it, that is multiple spellings.


Because some of these incidents happened on the same night in different states, the detective duo behind this cockamamy idea have publicly suggested that some “well-structured” organization of killers. The idea of the cabal of killers working together does not work in practicality. Serial killing is generally not a team sport. There have been a few isolated cases of three or four killers working together but, oddly enough, they largely involve female serial murderers (the Lainz Angels of Death and the Liverpool Black Widows being two notable examples) targeting the infirmed or their own families. The fact that NONE of these cases have ANY evidence they are connected nor ANY evidence that they are homicides negates the idea of a well-structured organization carrying out the crimes. If you cannot come up with a well-structured argument that there were crimes to begin with….


Some amateurish sleuths- which is a distinct subset separate from amateur sleuths- including Vance Holmes, have pointed out that many of these deaths fall along interstate highways. This has been pointed as an indication of a traveling killer or killers. It more plausibly results from the fact that most universities are in cities with decent populations which tend to be in proximity to interstates. Holmes on his website tries to implicate the Catholic clergy at St. John’s University in another case where the victim is still listed as missing. That’s right….he tries to link it to the clergy abuse scandal.


Now, I pointed out that none of the cases were attributable to homicide. What I mean is none of the “found in a river and apparently drowned with no signs of trauma and nothing other than a lot of alcohol on board” cases are homicides. In a feeble attempt to actually put a murder in the series, there was one lumped in that is so different from the rest that it is akin to entering a budgie into the toy breed competition at the American Kennel Club dog show.



This yet again unrelated case involves the death of one Patrick McNeil, age 20. He was last seen drinking in the with some friends at the Dapper Dog bar in February of 1997. His corpse was found in the East River about two months later and twelve miles away. Much is made of the fact that he was found floating face up “which is extremely rare for drowning victims”. As I pointed out, it is unusual but it is not unheard of. However, a little further information on the case shows why this doesn’t matter.


An autopsy revealed ligature marks around his neck. His groin —skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re easily nauseated—was notable for the presence of fly larvae. He died in the winter in New York. The presence of fly larvae strongly argues that he had to be somewhere warm for a period of time post mortem. Perhaps it was a couple of would depend upon the temperature and the stage of the larvae not to mention the species in question.


In other words, McNeill was dead long before he ever hit the water.  He was NOT a drowning victim. The fact that he was found face up doesn’t mean **** with regards to determining his manner of death. But the conspiracy nuts go on with it and the finding that: “And although he’d been missing for two months when his body was found, the absence of what’s known as ‘skin slippage’ under his feet indicated he’d been in the water for less than a day”.


First of all, “skin slippage” and what you see with water exposure of less than a day- changes called “washerwoman’s hands” or “pruning” just like a living person gets from being in a pool or bath for a few minutes- are two distinct things. Washerwoman’s hands happens very quickly after immersion or other exposure to a wet environment as it is a result of water being osmotically drawn into the cells and interstitial space between them. We see it in bodies that have laid with their hands or unshod feet in snow. We see it- to much lesser degrees- in bodies that have lain for a while in wet grass.


Skin slippage is a later finding in the decomposition process. It happens both on land and in water. On land, in temperate conditions, it normally takes around four or five days to a week. In broad and general terms, it takes longer in cold conditions and less time is warmer conditions or in water. Bodies that have been frozen and then thawed can also exhibit rapid onset of skin slippage possibly due to the freezing process helping to disrupt the connection between the epidermis and dermis allowing the skin to slough off. Usually the first skin to slip is that of the hands and feet. The classic form of this is often referred to as a “gloves and socks” or “gloves and stockings” pattern although it is common for the “gloves” or “stockings” to come off in multiple pieces. .


It can actually kind of help the identification process a bit. The slipped skin from a victim’s finger can been placed over the gloved finger of a member of the identification team. This allows the skin to be “rolled” for a fingerprint just like you would with a live person which is, in my opinion, a heck of a lot easier to do than trying to print the intact hand on a body.




Even under the best of circumstances, you cannot get a “time of death” (more properly called a postmortem interval estimation….a fancy way of saying "How long has this person been dead?") much more defined than a couple of days in a “fresh” body once it has cooled down and rigor has passed (rigor mortis isn't permanent by the way).

The longer a person has been dead, the broader the estimate of postmortem interval has to be. Without seeing the autopsy photos (or at least a very detailed description of the state of the body neither of which have been publicly released to my knowledge), the temperature of the water, etc….there’s no definite way to apply a scientifically defensible assessment. It actually isn’t even, as I said before, specific to prolonged immersion. It is a common decompositional change.


If forced to give a statement- and I stress this is in very general terms and I would NOT swear to this in court based on the evidence I have at this moment- my conclusions would be as follows: I would argue that he was killed the night he went missing, left lying around for a couple of days then stuffed in a freezer and then finally dumped in the river a couple of days before he was found. That would explain the lack of decompositional changes, the larvae and the postmortem interval. Settling which came first- the freezer or the fly eggs- would require knowing the condition of the larvae. Fresh versus frozen so to speak...


Despite its glimmering sheen of absurdity clinging to this farce, some folks who should know better support the “Smiley Face” theory. Probably the most well known is allegedly forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht. Wecht is a very bright man bordering on brilliant- and some political and legal troubles aside- I have a lot of respect for him….up to a point.

The problem with his throwing his support behind this case is that he has a habit of supporting various tenuous ideas for reasons that remain unclear. He is a staunch supporter of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy hypotheses despite the fact that autopsy data- which should be his area of expertise- is the best argument for the single shooter, lone wolf conclusion in that case.


I say that he is allegedly supportive of the smiley face hypothesis because I have not been able to find independent verification of his supposed statement: “the statistics are so stacked against this number of men, young men, Caucasian males, found in bodies of water in that cluster of states, within that period of time” that it’s basically mathematically impossible for these to be random accidents. Even if he did say it- and given his conspiratorial beliefs in other cases lacking evidence leading to such conclusions-I don’t outright discount this…it does not mean he is correct. In fact, what he supposedly points to is actually completely possible “mathematically” unless one is prone to credulity.


I have the first round of beers says that if I drew similar general criteria up using common demographics, common scene types, common methods of deaths and a specific time of year, I could produce a similar list with a fair amount of online research. It does not mean there is a serial killer. It means that certain things tend to happen in certain places to certain types of people at certain times of year.

Professor Lee Gilbertson, a “nationally acclaimed criminologist” from Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University, supposedly “originally dismissed the theory as an ‘urban legend’. After scrutinizing the evidence, though, he unabashedly declared that the Smiley Face Killers were a real ‘nationwide organization that revels in killing young men’". Despite being “nationally acclaimed, I have never heard of him and despite asking other forensics folks about him, I have not found anyone who has either other than in relation to this case and sometimes being used as a “talking head” commenting on cable news and a few odd Youtube videos.


His only criminology certifications- aside from a masters degree (his doctorate is in sociology)- come from a “pay to play” “certification” organization focusing on….oddly enough, teaching people to recognise gang, cults and “satanic” crimes. There’s that expression about “If you see yourself as a hammer, all you see around you are nails” and it seems apt here. He’s been conditioned to see patterns where they may or may not exist (the “satanic” crimes thing is another blog post unto itself because of how ridiculous the beliefs among certain groups about its frequency and traits are).

In 2008, the FBI issued a press release claiming that “we have not developed any evidence to support links between these tragic deaths or any evidence substantiating the theory that these deaths are the work of a serial killer or killers. The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings.”

As for the “white males” argument that Wecht supposedly used…..I turn to the words of Eugene Kane of

“I’ve been warned in the past not to talk about a secret killer of white men in Wisconsin who prey on drunken, college-age males in order to find a way to drown them in the river….I’m still intrigued why black males who drink a lot don’t end up in the river and why that particular racial angle seldom gets discussed.”

Here’s the thing that Kane misses in his reporting: drowning in natural bodies of water among college aged African Americans is nearly identical to white people according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in 2014 (see “Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Fatal Unintentional Drowning Among Persons Aged ≤29 Years — United States, 1999–2010” ).

There may simply be a cultural explanation for this- African college students at least in my experience tend to have tighter social circles where people don’t wander off into night to fall into a river. Or it could simply be an unfortunate selection bias: the deaths of black males simply are not getting reported in the media to the point that people hear about them.

To look at another instance that disproves the “it’s only white men dying like this” argument, we shift our focus a little further west. A similar attempt has been made, this time by Native American activists to ascribe intoxicated men- some with blood alcohol levels that would kill anyone but a hardened alcoholic- drowning in the Rapid Creek in South Dakota to racist murderers who are protected by a police cover-up. The end result and selfish motivations are the same. You have people who see a chance to gain what they see as power, influence or make a little (or a lot of) money. Such an accusation- especially across racial lines- tends to say more about the tendency of most societies to blame their problems on “others” or a boogeyman stereotype that is attached to whichever group the culture finds most detestable.

There is no evidence of foul play there either. It is simply easier on the community, instead of addressing the rampant alcohol and drug abuse destroying good people and having to attack a multitude of issues that fall within their own control and outside of it, to blame it on others.


Granted, the way Native Americans have been treated in this country is has ranged from poor to crimes against humanity across the span of history. It is, however, important to point out that creating false stories of atrocities simply makes those outside of the community (who are not as in tune with the litany of social justice issues involved as an educated person should be) less prone to believe reports of the actual problems. It is the “cry wolf” scenario.


The facade of a credible “investigation” of these cases by Gannon, Duarte and their followers has been shattered. What amounts to little more than a sham has been exposed and a lot of misunderstandings, false attributions and a whole lot of bull**** has been scraped off the face of a lot of unfortunate deaths. Families have turned on Gannon with accusations of profiteering and glory hound behavior. Even the media, originally supportive, have slowly begun to join in.


The son of Bill Szostak drowned accidentally in Albany, NY. Szostak convinced it was a murder. This is likely because it is easier emotionally to blame an unknown killer than to face a harsher reality.  Regardless he’s pretty much had his fill Gannon and his peculiar habits:

"I feel Kevin is like a sponge—he latches onto the families, sucks the life out of them, and when he has nothing else to suck, he dumps them….Do I think he has revictimized families and done more harm than good? Yes, I do, and that’s a shame.

To be quite honest, I think that it is probably the most accurate assessment of Kevin Gannon I have come across although it is pretty insulting to the noble phylum Porifera to be used in such a comparison. It appears that, after getting what he can in terms of attention and profit for themselves from these cases, both Gannon and Duarte have gone in search of other cases to ”explore”. However, this case seems to refuse to die on the internet and in the media. It cropped up again after a Northwestern student was found floating “near” a tree with a smiley face supposedly painted on it in 2012.


The only link beyond the demographics of the victims is the heavy use of alcohol and reckless behaviour around water probably brought on by their intoxicated state. That is not meant to defame or insult the victims. Nothing is further from the intent of my words. Chasing a phantom killer or killers because it is somehow easier to cope with a phantom than accepting the frailty of human decision making and circumstance harkens back to the myths and legends of old. Things our ancestors could not readily explain or accept were attributed to the machinations of fanciful but fickle or cruel gods, angels, devils and demons. What once spurned religious fervor now spawns internet conspiracies and quixotic questions for the “truth”.


The supposition that there are a murderer or murderers behind these drownings is simply ludicrous. It is cold hearted bordering on sadistic to subject family members who are trying to cope with the loss of a son or brother to this sort of attempt to garner attention for oneself and maybe line one’s own pockets in the process.


May the families find peace and may the information above help to quash some of the harmful, disrespectful and sometimes predatory rumor mongering that surrounds cases ascribed to the imaginary “Smiley Face Killer(s)”.


SKELECAST BLOG: Debunking the Dyatlov Pass Incident

Posted on January 26, 2018 at 6:05 AM

CASE 3: The Dyatlov Pass Incident

The quiet solitude of the mountains is matched by few environments on the planet and the harsh and unforgiving beauty they offer in wintertime is the reward of the stalwart and hardy folks who enjoy winter mountaineering and ski-hiking. Many people would look at anyone suggesting such a trip as though they had sprouted a second head. When one is raised in areas around mountains however, such activities are the purview of people in your own community and thus seem less ludicrous.

The stereotype of Russians as generally rough and ready folks able to tolerate the rigours of their native land does not spring from nothing. The hardiness that allowed Zhukov’s army to halt and then crush the Wehrmacht and SS columns in and around Stalingrad despite the most effective weapon in the Soviet arsenal- “General Winter”- giving no quarter to either side is legendary. That same spirit and determination manifests itself in outdoor activities even in the darkest times of a Russian winter. The case of the Dyatlov expedition and its fate involves several bright, talented and driven young Russians who exemplified exactly the stereotypes and were the personification of the beating heart of the Russian nation’s love for its landscape.

The nine ski-hikers struck out in the northern Ural Mountains in late January 1959. The expedition and, later the area, came to be named after the group’s leader, Igor Dyatlov. All were experienced in the mountains and most were students at Ural Polytechnic Institute which is now Ural Federal University.

The victims were:

Igor Dyatlov, age 23

Yuri Doroshenko, age 21

Lyudmila Dubinina, age 20

Yuri Krivonischenko, age 23

Alexander Kolevatov, age 24

Zinaida Kolmogorova, age 22

Rustem Slobodin, age 23

Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolles, age 23

Semyon Alexander Zolotaryov, age 38

A tenth member of the team, Yuri Yudin, age 21 left the expedition several days before the events in question due to becoming ill. He survived to the age of 75 dying in April 2013.

The goal of the expedition was to reach a mountain about six miles (10 kilometres) north of the place where the victims would meet their end. To hike this in January or February is considered to be among the most difficult treks possible being rated as a “Category III” in the standards of the day. All of the group- aside from Yuri Yudin- were fit, healthy and experienced. All were experienced and certified hikers and had ski tour experience. They were due to be upgraded to the top level of certification available in the Soviet Union upon the completion of the fateful trip. It is important to remember that even highly trained and experienced persons make silly, stupid or careless mistakes. Overconfidence may have played a role in setting the stage but we have all experienced this to one degree or another so I advise listeners not to judge too harshly.

Our intrepid team established a camp on the eastern slopes of Kholat Syakhl some time on the first of February. That night would be their last and would make the area the subject of speculation and fear for years to come. The name of the mountain, which is a Russian transliteration/ loan word from the local Mansi language, and the original name of the pass- simply means “lack of animals” or “lack of prey” indicating that it was not a good place to hunt. Kholat translates as either “meagre”, “scarce” or “dead” with most people reporting on this case latching onto the latter definition since it helps impart a sense of mystery and of something sinister. It is worth pointing out that the word is commonly used by the Mansi to describe places it is the name of no less than three other terrain features.

The desire to rely upon the power of certain words is also behind the other common Russian name for the mountain Myortvaya gora- death mountain- although it is unclear if this term was in use before the incident or as a result of it. The fact that there is another common name- the formal name for the location- argues that it is likely a post-incident sobriquet meant to garner attention.

During the night, something caused the group to tear or slash their way out of the tents and to flee the campsite while inadequately dressed amid a heavy snowfall and temperatures below zero Fahrenheit.

When the group failed to return from the trip by February 12 as planned and send a telegram to their sports club to let them know everyone was safe, a search was commenced and the campsite was located along with the frozen remains of five of the expedition members. There was no immediate deployment of search forces under the presumption that a few days of delay was not unheard of when people went trekking under similar conditions. The families rallied and demanded a search which commenced on the 20th of February.

The search initially consisted of volunteers including students and teachers from the the university most of the missing attended. The use of volunteers in a search is not uncommon so it is important to not read too much into it. If you go missing in the United States for example, the lead organisation for inland search and rescue is the Civil Air Patrol, the volunteer auxiliary of the United States Air Force. Of which I am a member by the way for the sake of full disclosure. Likewise, the vast majority of other search and rescue teams are composed of volunteers.

In the Dyatlov case, the Soviet army and police became involved as well. The involvement of law enforcement is pretty much the norm everywhere in missing persons cases as most listeners are aware of from other podcasts. The involvement of the military is less common in the US- aside from Air Force Pararescue

…..and the US Coast Guard- but is common in many countries it is simply how it is done. From what I have read and from talking to Russian colleagues, this sort of military involvement was the norm in the Soviet era because the Army was a ready source of large numbers of well-equipped and trained personnel.

The team searching Kholat Syakhl found the abandoned campsite on the 26th of February. The student who found the tent described it as “half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty.” I presume he is referring to the absence of persons because he went on to say “all the group’s belongings and shoes had been left behind”. Investigators later determined that the tent had been cut from the inside.

Eight or nine sets of footprints were found tracking towards the a nearby treeline on the opposite side of the pass. This was roughly nine-tenths of a mile (1.5 kilometres) from the campsite. After about 1500-1600 feet (500 meters) the tracks became difficult to impossible to follow due to the intervening snowfall had covered them. Upon reaching the treeline, under a large tree that is described alternatively as a “cedar” or a “pine”, the remnants of a small fire were located. Two things to point out here: the discrepancy of the type of tree may stem more from a known colloquial use in that area to describe pine trees as “cedar” and not be the result of inaccurate documentation.

The second point is that the fact that these folks managed to get ANY fire going in the middle of a blizzard, let alone with only the items they might have had in their pockets, is testament to how well trained and experienced they were. My fish fur hat is off to them.

Around the site of the fire, the first two bodies were located. These were Krivonischenko and Doroshenko. They were located without their shoes, clad only in their underwear. This brings up a subject that needs to be discussed in the context of hypothermia and the physiology and psychology of it. The lack of clothing may be the result of the remaining persons stripping the bodies after death in hopes of gaining additional insulation. This is backed up by the fact that when located, Dubinina’s foot was found to be wrapped in part of Krivonishenko’s wool trousers. The other option- which might still have happened even with postmortem commandeering of clothing- is that these victims were subject to a seemingly bizarre behaviour called paradoxical undressing.

There are a few possible mechanisms to explain why people who are critically hypothermic commonly take off their clothes. One potential explanation holds that there is an inhibition of the nerve impulses that regulate vasoconstriction- the narrowing of blood vessels which in hypothermia is a way to conserve body heat- which results in vasodilation, flushing of the skin and a sense of overwhelming warmth. Ever felt your “ears burning” or overheated due to blushing? That is due to sudden vasodilation in the vessels of the face and scalp

An alternative is that the reflex vasoconstriction designed to counter environmental heat loss overwhelms the vasomotor centre- which is not a discrete brain structure by the way….it is actually a neuronal network within the medulla oblongata, a part of the brainstem, with common purpose- and causes a paralysis of its function. This triggers, again, a sense that the body temperature is higher than it actually is. Either way, the response in many people is to undress.

Personally, I go with the first of these two hypotheses as the more likely. The other functions of the vasomotor center are largely tied to maintaining and regulating blood pressure which is to a substantial degree the result of striking the proper balance between vasoconstriction and vasodilation. If you have something cause it to go offline, there is a good chance that it would precipitate a devastating drop in blood pressure which might render a person incapable of undressing. That said, it is possible that vasomotor centre suppression may play some role in the terminal events of hypothermia immediately before death...such a shutdown or impairment may actually be a candidate for what trips a person into cardiac arrest.

I should point out that paradoxical undressing does not happen solely in cases of hypothermia. It has been documented in cases where you have bleeding between the brain and the thin arachnoid membrane that covers it (hence “subarachnoid haemorrhage”). One such example was documented by Descloux et al in the April 2017 issue of the International Journal of Legal Medicine. The paper actually suggested another possible mechanism for paradoxical undressing which is dysregulation of the hypothalamus which plays a major role in regulating body temperature.

The tree below which Krivonischenko and Doroshenko were located was noted to have some damage to branches extending a few meters off the ground. It was posited that the broken and scuffed branches were the result of someone climbing to look for something- perhaps trying to establish a bearing back to camp. Given something I will get to in a few minutes, I personally think this might have been Slobodin.

A continued search yielded an additional three of the missing persons: Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin. The position and location of the bodies- between the tree and camp- suggested that they met their end in a hopeless bid to get back to the tent. The victims in this instance were not found clustered together but at various points over a span of about 1100 feet (330 meters) of the scene.

I am going to pause here with the discussion of the recovery as to keep the case discussion in line with how the case played out. The search had failed to turn up four of the expedition members. We will get to their cases shortly.

Autopsy findings

I really dislike not having access to the actual reports when doing these sorts of reviews. It makes assessments more difficult since you have to deal with other people’s versions of the findings which can vary. I am simply going to work from the descriptions of the injuries and the scene that are available and will revisit the case amending findings when and if any new evidence or copies of the autopsy protocol are made available to me.

Slobodin was found to have a small fracture- described by most sources as a “crack” which is probably a reference to an non-displaced linear fracture- in his skull although I have not been able to find information on the location of this. This was the only significant injury noted. Likewise, there is a lack of data on associated information which would help to narrow down the mechanism and timing of the injury. All of the reports I can locate simply state that it was not a fatal injury.

Why does it matter if it was not a fatal injury? Well, there are a couple of reasons but the most pertinent one is simply that it potentially helps to indicate a sequence of events. For example, if you have a fracture without haemorrhage associated with it argues for a postmortem injury. It is what is known as an “artifact” which can result from a body being dropped or banged into something…….say when being transported over rough terrain or in the back of a truck. The presence of haemorrhage argues for a perimortem injury- one happening at or close to the time of death- and this is where my earlier comment about the damaged tree comes full circle. If I were presented with this in a case, I would seriously question whether Slobodin fell out of the tree and hit his head in the process. The damage to the tree to me sounds more consistent with someone falling through it than with someone simply climbing it.

It is also interesting to note that you can get fractures of the skull in some cases involving refrigeration or freezing of a body (see Liang et al: Refrigeration induced skull base fracture: three autopsy cases. Romanian Journal of Legal Medicine 2010)

These five deaths were ruled to be the result of hypothermia. I think this is a good point to give some physiological background as to what hypothermia is in the medical sense. Simply being “cold” as a subjective measure does not cut it. To be clinically hypothermic, a person has to have a body temperature below 35 Celsius or 95 Fahrenheit. There is then a classification scheme for rating it. Mild is between 35-32 C, moderate falls within 32-28 C and severe is anything below 28 C which is about 82 degrees F.

Certain groups are at higher risk from hypothermia. Children are due to the higher body surface area to mass ratio. The elderly are subjected to an increased risk due to impaired vasoconstriction which can result from medications (such as for high blood pressure) or from atherosclerotic changes. They also tend in many cases to have lower body fat percentages and lower muscle mass which impairs heat retention and production respectively.

As an aside, it is possible to become hypothermic without environmental exposure to cold or cool temperatures. If a person is at elevated risk, is dressed in wet clothes, intoxicated, has concomitant serious medical conditions or exposure is extremely prolonged, you can see systemic hypothermia in settings as warm as 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Likewise, immersion in water that is seemingly “too warm” to “freeze” someone to death is another scenario where this can happen.

This can happen when you have a condition or injury that involves or affects the hypothalamus which is the part of the brain that regulates temperature. Certain hormonal disorders can produce hypothermia as a finding that, to a clinician who has his ears up, can clue them in as to the cause. The classic example is myxedema which is potentially fatal form of hypothyroidism. 

Death by hypothermia is what is referred to as a diagnosis of exclusion- basically you have someone found dead without any traumatic, toxicological or medical explanation in an environment conducive to systemic hypothermia- although there are some findings at autopsy that can point to it although there are often cases that have none of them. One researcher into hypothermia, Wischnewski famously summed up one of his papers with “The diagnosis of lethal systemic hypothermia can be made on the basis of this sign, providing no competing causes of death are present’’ thus reinforcing the nature of diagnosis by exclusion.

The first is an external finding which is known as either Keferstein or “frost” erythema. This is simply a reddening of the skin which is usually most pronounced over the extensor surfaces of large joints such as the hips, front of the knees and over the elbows. It also is common on the nose, ears, cheeks and other exposed skin. A pathologist I know refers to one form of this as “stoplight kneecaps” when it is present even though it is usually a duskier red colour rather than the bright red of a stop sign. The color can actually vary from brownish red to a purplish tinge. This is probably the most common and reliable finding and it is present in at least three quarters of hypothermia deaths.

Some cases have been noted where the blood is a brighter red than is normally seen at death- it is normally a deep red-black or red-purple colour due to lower oxygen levels- and this is in keeping with a physiological quirk. There are a number of things that change the affinity of haemoglobin for oxygen. Affinity is simply the tendency of haemoglobin to hold onto oxygen that is bound to it. There is a chart used in medicine and physiology that is known as the oxyhaemoglobin dissociation curve.

Just as carbon monoxide produces carboxyhaemoglobin when it binds with haemoglobin, you get oxyhaemoglobin when oxygen binds and deoxyhaemoglobin when there is no oxygen bound.

The easy way to remember this is to think of oxyhaemoglobin as the bright red “arterial” blood and deoxyhaemoglobin as the darker and less oxygen laden “venous” blood. However, I want to point out that there is oxyhaemoglobin in venous blood as under nearly all circumstances the cells do not strip away all of the oxygen from the red blood cells as they pass through the capillaries and this is where the brighter colour of the blood in some hypothermia deaths comes from. Be sure to take notes here….there will be a quiz afterwards.

As I said, there are a number of things that influence the affinity of haemoglobin for oxygen- for example, the pH of the blood and the level of carbon dioxide in the blood. Carbon dioxide is a large factor in the pH of it since when you put carbon dioxide into any water based solution you produce carbonic acid...yes, what they put in Coke and other soft drinks. There are a couple of cellular metabolites (2,3 DPG for those of you who the big one), carbon monoxide (which really just blocks oxygen binding), the presence of another abnormal form of haemoglobin (methaemoglobin) and changes in temperature.

Hypothermia produces what is called a “left shift” in the dissociation curve. This increases the affinity of haemoglobin for oxygen which means that there is generally- all other things being equal- going to be more oxygen in the blood which induces a more vermilion tinge to the blood even postmortem. The coloration, of course, requires one to rule out carbon monoxide exposure which is surprisingly common in tents because of people trying to cook inside during inclement weather.

Another finding that is sometimes associated with lethal hypothermia is what is known as Wischnewski spots. Oddly enough, these were first described by a Russian physician in 1895 which he reported being present in 91% of the hypothermia victims he had autopsied. Now….the definition of a Wischnewski spot has changed a bit. Originally, he described them as small- less than a centimetre or roughly a third of an inch- round or dot like haemorrhages on the gastric mucosa or more simply the lining of the stomach which are slightly raised above the surface. If you pick at them with your finger or the edge of a scalpel blade you can scrape them off leaving normal looking mucosa. Nowadays, we think of them more as some mix of raised, erosive or ulcerated lesions that are the result of the action of stomach acid on the areas of haemorrhage Wischnewski originally described. The moniker “leopard skin” has been applied to the finding since the normal mucosa (which can have a yellow gray pink color) becomes spotted. For an example of what this looks like, you can check out Bright, Winskog and Byard’s paper on the subject. (available here: )

No one is exactly sure why these spots happen but it could be due to faltering gastric perfusion at a microscopic level, amine release or something else entirely. The actual frequency in hypothermia varies from study to study from 0% to 90%. It is important to note also that they occur in victims of other issues as well. Deaths associated with alcohol and drug use, victims of electrical shock, lightning strike, burns and persons who were subjected to a protracted and/or painful deaths have all demonstrated the sign. Research has show that stress probably plays some role in the development of the spots.

We can also see haemorrhage into some areas of larger skeletal muscles- such as in the back or the things- as a finding. Some reports of focal, in other words microscopic, areas of degeneration of the myocardium which is the musculature of the heart exist in the forensic literature. Hemorrhagic changes of the pancreas can be seen sometimes. When I say “haemorrhage”, I don’t want anyone to get the idea that this is “bleeding” in the sense that most people think. It is not associated with “blood loss”.

Probably the most dramatic finding is bloody discoloration of synovial fluid in the knees and similar joints along with haemorrhages in the synovial membrane. This is one I have not seen personally at autopsy though.

Lacking access to translations of the actual autopsy reports, I cannot say which if any of these findings were present in the Dyatlov victims. This brings us to the pause in the case from the conclusion of the inquest for the first group of victims until the remainder of the bodies were located by continued searches.

The other four victims remained missing until early spring- the fourth of May specifically. According to some sources, the recovery of these victims “shifted the narrative” as to what happened. I find this to be a gullible and credulous statement. Let me explain why.

These bodies were found about 75 meters (250 feet) further into the woods beyond the tree where the first two victims were located. It was noted that they were more substantially dressed than the other victims. The location where they were found was in a ravine that contained four meters (about 13 feet) of snow. Different sources give different accounts of the recovery with some stating that they were recovered out of the snow and others stating that they were found at the bottom of the retreating and thawing snow pack. To me, the latter seems more plausible although it remains possible that the victims were located by probing with poles which is a common technique for finding avalanche victims. Three of these expedition members died of either blunt trauma or a combination of blunt trauma and hypothermia. The fourth died of hypothermia.

The idea that the “narrative” shifted hinges largely upon the nature of the injuries and how they could have been inflicted says more about the views of the person who is interested in the “narrative” fitting their idea of something specific happening. Saying the “narrative has shifted” is simply an attempt to say “SEE! Something more had to have happened!”.

At autopsy, Thibeaux-Brignolles was noted to have “major” skull damage and Dubinina and Zolotaryov were noted to have multiple fractures of the ribs and sternum. Dubinina was noted to have massive facial trauma. There is also the claim that the bodies had “no external wounds related to the bone fractures, as if they had been subjected to a high level of pressure”, quoting from the Wikipedia article on the incident. This has been used to argue that these were deaths due to a shock wave such as from an explosion. I hope anyone who argues that seriously has a field in need of fertilising because that is one big steaming pile of bovine faeces. 

There are two kind of fractures- closed and open (previously known as compound)- and the difference is the presence of a laceration or avulsion at the fracture site. The lack of pronounced contusions is explainable by two mechanisms which one or both of may have been involved. The first is that these persons fell off a freaking cliff. It’s entirely plausible that they died upon impact or very shortly thereafter. A flat impact chest and abdomen after a fall of several meters is more than sufficient to either transect the aorta or rupture one or more chambers of the heart either of which would interrupt circulation. There was simply little to no time for a contusion to develop since that requires blood flow.

The other is the fact that the victims were already hypothermic- remember the AIR TEMPERATURE was -25 to 30 C (-13 to -22 F) with high winds from the storm- so blood flow to their extremities would be massively reduced by vasoconstriction as their bodies desperately tried to maintain a survivable core temp.  Quite simply put, there may not have been enough blood going to their extremities to allow the development of contusions in the likely extremely short interval between the infliction of the injuries and the cessation of cardiac function (in other words, death). 

The injuries described for three of the victims- those who did not die of hypothermia straight away- are completely consistent with a fall of several meters. Thibeux-Brignolles likely stumbled or tripped as he went over the lip of the ravine resulting in a head low impact. The other two impacted in a flat attitude with at least Dubinina doing so face down. The “force required to cause such damage would have been extremely high” said one pathologist likening it to the level associated with a car crash. That is exactly the sort of force you get with long falls such as would be necessary to put them in a position to be recovered from under 4 meters of snow.

We’re talking a fall of between 13 and 15 feet probably which would take about nine-tenths of a second to complete. So picture taking a giant step off of the roof of a one story house and, at least in the case of Dubinina and Zolotaryov based upon what has been described of their injury pattern, belly flopping onto the driveway. That is the sort of impact that we are concerning ourselves with at a minimum. That assumes that the ravine they plummeted into was filled to the brim with snow at the time of recovery. It’s quite plausible if not likely that the drop was even more substantial. In that instance the impact would be even more violent since unless you have a drop of about 1500 feet or more- at which point you will reach terminal velocity- the force increases with each foot further you fall.

Doing some off the cuff maths here, I can explain why the pathologist described the forces in relation to a car crash. A fifteen foot fall results in an impact velocity of about 22 miles per hour. Twenty feet, twenty five miles per hour. A forty foot drop will give you the impact velocity of many car crash tests: thirty-five miles per hour. That is pointed out with the caveat that the forces on the body will be greater since you have a much shorter deceleration distance.

There are no “crumple zone” or airbags to attenuate the impact. Even falls of over fifty feet- readers are referred to Hugh de Haven’s “Mechanical analysis of survival in falls from heights of fifty to one hundred and fifty feet” (War Medicine 1942; 2:586–96; reprinted and available as open access from Injury Prevention at )- there is no Wile E. Coyote style impact mark. Normally only you get a three to six inch depression on even soft soil.  Even in the case of skydivers whose chutes fail to deploy properly it would be unusual to see an impact mark deeping than eight to twelve inches.

As de Haven points out in the first case he discusses in his paper- a 42 year old woman who attempted suicide by jumping out of a window 55 feet off the ground- the impact force in her case was about 140 G (force equivalent to 140 times that of gravity) for a couple hundredths of a second. Amazingly, this woman survived with no detectable injuries and in fact greeted the first person to reach her by raising up on an elbow and commenting: “Six stories and not hurt”.

So….continuing the back of a cocktail napkin calculating…. assuming 15 feet (4.55 meters) and a deceleration distance of two inches (5.08 centimetres) which seems likely given a solid surface like frozen soil or rock. Hitting an unyielding surface, most of that distance is going to come from the compression or fracture of structures like the ribs, etc. A free fall velocity in that scenario is going to be about 31.1 feet per second. Given that deceleration distance….you get something around 85-90 G. That’s the sort of deceleration loading we see in aircraft crashes.  For some reference, the regulations only require an airline seat to stay attached to the floor at about 26 G (which is well below the actual survivability threshold but that is a topic for another day). 

The “compelling natural force” in this case was gravity. It fits perfectly with no need for any outside involvement in the cause of death. The rather clunky wording- which may simply be a result of the way it was translated rather than the actual choice of words by the pathologists and other investigators- is simply a verbose way of saying how deaths due to long falls and so forth would be described. For example, to use the example of a case I am familiar with: “The cause of death in this case is determined to be blunt force trauma to the head, trunk and extremities secondary to massive impact and deceleration forces as a result of a fall onto a concrete sidewalk.” Now, with the Dyatlov Pass wording: “The cause of death in this case is determined to be blunt force trauma to the head, trunk and extremities secondary to compelling natural forces as a result of a fall onto a concrete sidewalk.” See how that works?

So….the “narrative” only shifts if you fail to understand injury patterns. Honestly, anyone using the word “narrative” to describe the explanation of a case like this is probably indicating more about their own biases than they are about the facts. Nothing changed for any investigator who does not have a problem with keeping from drooling on himself or who is not trying to position himself for a book deal. You find bodies at the bottom of a ravine with trauma consistent with a fall….the autopsy and investigation reveals no indication of foul play. Exactly how has the “narrative” shifted from “accidental deaths”? 

This brings us to the aspects of the case that are most interesting to me from a professional standpoint: the oft misinterpreted apparent soft tissue “trauma” to Dubinina which is simply the result of postmortem change and really should be described as “artifact”. In other words, nun mein lieber Kinder, repeat after me: decomposition and taphonomic change. She was found prone (lying face down but not necessarily with her face inaccessible) in a wet area sometimes described as being a stream draining the melting snowpack. Her hands were described as “macerated” which is simply a way of implying skin breakdown. This is a common enough finding in bodies from wet environments that it has its own name: washerwoman’s hands. By the way, chances are probably better than equal that all of the ravine victims had this to some degree.

The fact that her eyes and tongue were reportedly absent is not unusual. Scavengers- crows, ravens, other birds, small mammals like foxes and so forth- all will go after these areas. Absence of the lips is attributable either to decomposition or from scavenging. There is also the possibility- given the impact injuries to her skull and face- that her eyes were traumatically disrupted and her lips and other facial structures were lacerated or avulsed upon impact with decompositional and taphonomic change superimposed over that.

I would argue the scavenging scenario seems more likely but that is dependent largely upon how long the bodies were exposed and to what temperatures following the spring thaw prior to recovery  Human decomposition slows to a practical halt once you get down to the range of 34-36 F (a couple of degrees above zero Celsius) and even with an enzyme heavy, bacteria rich area like the human mouth I would be surprised if the decomposition was advanced that quickly in a couple of days. If the interval was longer, decomposition resumes with a speed that is temperature dependent (the faster the temp, the faster the destruction of tissue as a general rule) and thus this becomes a more plausible scenario. Likely there was some interplay between the two but there’s no way at this point to be 100% certain.

A conspiracy theorist who was a child at the time and alleges to have attended the funerals of the initial five victims. He stated that their skin had “deep brown tan”. These were all persons who spent large amounts of time outside. Combine that with the well known reflective effects of snow when it comes to UV light and I do not doubt that these bodies probably had dark tans- at least for the latitude they lived at- simply as a matter of course. This was likely enhanced simply due to drying- desiccation...windburn- commonly seen in mountaineers exposed to high arctic or alpine conditions and high winds. It would become more pronounced with prolonged exposure to cold and wind. Example:


Likewise, bleaching of hair and staining of fingernails is also reported. These are commonplace taphonomic- in other words postmortem- changes secondary to exposure to the elements. Anyone who has experienced their hair lightening in the summer due to ultraviolet light exposure is familiar with a mild form of this effect.

The investigation concluded that a “unknown compelling force” caused these deaths and trekking, skiing and hiking in the area was restricted for safety reasons for three years. This closure has been played up in the “horror/paranormal” community as signs of a government cover-up. It is nothing of the sort. Closures and restrictions of access are common on public lands even in countries that weren’t recently ruled by Joseph Stalin. If you have someone get killed in an area where camping or hiking permits are required, you may be out of luck if you want to get one. Ever seen a closed ski run? A closed hiking trail in a park? Same concept. It amuses and frustrates the hell out of me that people make something sinister out of the mundane just to make a story more sensational.

Several explanations for why the group fled their tent- and, in some cases, explain the injuries- have been hypothesised over the years including hypothermia, an avalanche, infrasound induced panic, military weapons testing or some combination of these. There are also the almost comically obligatory theories involving aliens and the Russian version of Sasquatch. Those are so ludicrous that I am not even going to bother reviewing them.

Infrasound Hypothesis

Contrary to what is often mentioned on websites discussing the case, I have not been able to find an independently verified report showing a conclusive case of “panic” induced by infrasound. Infrasound, simply sound that is at or below the normal human threshold of human hearing, is common in nature. Many animals produce it as do musical instruments and many different forms of machinery including fans. It is to a degree responsible for the ethereal or “spooky” feeling associated with many religious sites or locations of events mistaken for “hauntings” or other allegedly “paranormal” events. If you’ve felt a vibration that you couldn’t hear that’s infrasound. Not so scary now is it?

The supposed mechanism behind this “panic” that induced these experienced alpine hikers to flee their campsite, half dressed, in the middle of the sub zero mountain snow storm was something properly called a “Karman vortex street” although it commonly gets the word “wave” added in by people who want to make it sound like it is some huge and unstoppable force. What is it is simply the oscillation of airflow around a cylindrical or other blunt object. You get a “flapping motion” as the air on one side pushes the air on the other side and then it switches to the other side to prevent formation to balance things out.

Image courtesy of Cesareo de La Rosa Siqueira - via Wikipedia

It is a very common occurrence in nature and in man-made structures. Anyone who has said inside on a blustery night and listened to the wind make the power lines “sing” or “vibrate” or has heard a hum from a car antenna at certain speeds or others has experienced the effect that supposedly led a veteran team of outdoor enthusiasts to make a suicidal charge into a blizzard. It’s even been featured in one of the most famous folk tunes of the 20th century:

“The wind in the wires made a tattle tale sound

and a wave broke over the railing

and every man knew as the captain did too

that it was the 'Witch of November' come stealin’”.


Yes, I just went all “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on you to debunk this. I refuse to apologise for that but back to discussing aerodynamic quirks.

This is a sound that anyone who has spent time in the mountains or at sea- or gone to college in Michigan- is going to recognise instantly even if they might not understand the aerodynamic principle at play and not give a second thought to. Even when you scale it up to something produced by airflow around a mountain or an island….once again, not uncommon and still no cases of panic.


Image courtesy of NASA

So much for the hypothesis of a novelist would like to paint this as something mysterious and other worldly. By the way, the same person was an executive producer of the first season one of the best true crime series in the past decade in my opinion- The Killing Fields- so I would like to point out that we all make mistakes and people have to be careful to examine their own suppositions even more critically. He was forensically two strikes down after the Dyatlov Pass story and his attempt to cover the death of Kurt Cobain but he knocked it out of the park on the third pitch.

Moving on.

Air Mine Hypothesis

The air mine hypothesis is probably one of the more misunderstood aspects of this case. Many descriptions of this case- none of which are primary sources but rather vague mentions of “there are reports that…”- the military was using the area to test “parachute mines”.

Usually there is some mention of something to the effect of “produce similar damage to those experienced by the hikers, heavy internal damage but very little external trauma”. There is also an attempt to link reports- once again, no primary sources beyond the possibly word of a single investigator who only brought this up when media interest started to focus on him- of “glowing orbs” in the area to these tests. I found no documentation of him saying this on any site that was not affiliated with such quack fields as cryptozoology and paranormal “research”. There are several points come to mind about this hypothesis or rather gaping holes you could drive a Soviet T-34 tank through.

First of all, yes, the pressure wave of an explosion can produce damage to internal organs without significant external damage. By “significant external damage”, I mean open wounds on the skin like lacerations or avulsions. You still have findings that a pathologist- especially one in a militaristic dictatorship not even fifteen years after the end of the largest armed conflict this planet has ever witnessed- would recognise as the classic findings of blast over-pressure. There are three kinds of injuries that can result from an explosion commonly referred to as primary, secondary and tertiary mechanisms of trauma.

The easy way to remember them and the way I teach students to recall them is: primary is the “shock wave” or more accurately “blast over-pressure” (referred to by its acronym “BOP”;) or for the physics nerds out there delta-p (Δp); this is trauma resulting from the change in air pressure from the explosion. Secondary and tertiary effects are basically the reverse of each other. A secondary blast injury is what happens when you get hit by shrapnel or fragments of the device or other debris picked up and hurled by the air flow associated with the explosion. Remember that Ron White joke about hurricanes? “It ain’t THAT the wind is blowing, it’s WHAT the wind is blowing” that matters. A tertiary effect is where YOU get thrown against something and get injured as a result. There’s also probably a Yakov Smirnoff joke in there somewhere too….

However, in an open environment like the shoulder of a mountain 50 miles east of Nowhere-grad, that shock wave does propagate very readily. If you are a considerable distance (which would depend upon the size of ordnance) from it, you might get your eardrums burst but the real threat is going to be shrapnel and pieces of the weapon’s casing. These would cause very obvious. Blood trickling out of the ears, haemorrhages under the mucosae of the gastrointestinal tract, haemorrhages in the brain tissue in severe cases as well as contusion, haemorrhage or oedema- an accumulation of fluid- in the lungs. The latter is commonly referred to as blast lung because it is such a well-described and associated phenomenon. These primary effects are some of the things that most often kill people who initially survive an explosion. By the way, for those of you playing the home game along with us, external haemorrhage from secondary or tertiary trauma is another. These characteristic injuries which are absent here. The explosion hypothesis simply does not fit.

Just so you have some frame of reference here, there’s a rule in crudely gauging the degree of blast over-pressure involved in an event called the “2/4/10 rule”. 2 lbs per square inch (about 15 kPa) over atmospheric pressure), it will hurt a lot of people in the area, it might kill a few people, it knocks down brick walls and it demolishes wood frame structures. 4 psi (roughly 30 kPa), you hurt EVERYONE around it. Deaths are pretty common and about the only thing that is going to still be standing is reinforced concrete. 10 psi (about 70 kPa for anyone not reading this in the US, Myanmar or Liberia) and you get massive damage to internal organs. It can actually rupture the heart in some people. Externally, this is where you start seeing people who are blown into pieces or where there are limbs or heads torn off.

The other thing that a shock wave would have impacted is the snow pack on this mountainside. If there wasn’t an avalanche before, there sure as hell would have been if you let loose a large enough explosion to kill nine broadly spread out young people. Modern ski resort avalanche safety procedures use artillery rounds (yes, I said artillery rounds) and small explosive charges to trigger avalanches at times when it is safe to do so.

Not only is this quite possibly the most hella balls to the walls bad ass thing you can do with artillery that does not involve raining the several thousand degrees of hate that is white phosphorus upon terrorists....

....but is also a good example of why if the several magnitudes larger explosion necessary for this theory to work. you would have disrupted the appearance of every bit of snow in the area, probably buried the campsite and wiped away the tracks that helped to locate the bodies.

There also would have likely been branches and even bark stripped from the surrounding trees. Strike...uh...whatever number we’re up to. I’ve stopped counting at this point.

Another argument against this is that when you test a weapon for whatever purpose it is intended, you kind of want to observe it. You want sensors and data. You use an area you have tight control of so your enemies don’t get wind of what you’re working on. You don’t do it at night, in an area where the Soviet equivalent of the gang from Scooby Doo happens to be camping. If you do mess up and wipe out a group of civilians by mistake, you’re a totalitarian regime….why leave the bodies to be found by a search party? This was the height of the power of the KGB who knew more about making their own people vanish into thin air than anyone else in modern history. Another strike against the idea of military involvement.

The coup de grace to this idea is that the same people who claim that the air mines “produce similar damage to those experienced by the hikers, heavy internal damage but very little external trauma” also like to point out that there must be a cover-up because all the released medical documents supposedly contain no information about the presence or absence of trauma to the thoracic and abdominal organs. This may be simply the result of privacy laws. I work with autopsy data in some of my projects and some jurisdictions do not release anything but a basic description of injuries or heavily redact the report.

”Radioactive” clothing has been pointed to by some internet sources...I’ve never seen anything that I would swear to in court so I am not going to put any stock in these claims as they are typical paranormal or “ufology” type conspiracy crap. If this were the case, the ENTIRE site and everything on it would be radioactive. It would likely have been taken up by the trees which would be a testable source through bored samples. Show me some independent scientific test from a reputable dendochronology lab and we’ll revisit this. Until’s idle speculation and probably best viewed as dubious fodder with little to no basis in evidence.

So...why did they flee the tent? It could have been an argument or it might have involved booze. Many accidental hypothermia deaths involve death have alcohol involved and with the postmortem interval here, even if toxicological analysis was performed, it might be difficult to differentiate decomposition induced bacterial production of ethanol from that from ingestion given the state of analytical techniques available at the time. It is worth noting that the only alcohol reported to have been found on site was a small flask of “medicinal alcohol”.

It might have been a minor snow slide burying the tent mistaken by sleeping individuals as the harbinger of a much larger avalanche to come. If I had to put money on a triggering event, this would be it.

It might have been something else completely benign. It may have been that one of the team fled for whatever reason and his or her friends were lost in an ill-conceived rescue attempt.

It honestly doesn't really matter. What matters is that they DID. The end result is the same. The evidence points to no foul play without exception. It was simply a foolish and tragic decision likely made in a blink of the eye. All these years on, why nine good and bright young people did something that got themselves killed will likely never be known. All we can say is that the speculation as to cause has done nothing but disrespect the names of people who probably don’t deserve it. What should happen is simply to learn from them: NEVER make a rash decision in a situation where the environment around you can kill you in a matter of minutes. Plan your actions and act out your plan. Balance each other out if necessary. Checks and balances.

A popular Russian comedy, The Caucasian Prisoner, from preciously close to the time of the Dyatlov Pass tragedy involves a protagonist who is collecting stories and drinking toasts. One of them is: "And so when the flock of birds headed south for the winter, one small but proud bird said, I will fly straight to the sun! She flew higher and higher, but very soon she burned her wings and fell to the very bottom of a deep gorge. So let us drink to this: let not a single one of us ever break away from the collective, no matter how high he flies!"

That seems wise advice and the drunken protagonist’s response of starting to sob before explaining that “I’m so sorry for the bird!” has become a popular expression in Russian used to break the tension of a situation by some. When faced with danger or the potential loss of one of our own, we must stick together but we must not be rush in and risk losing more than we are reasonably able to save.

To each and every member of the Dyatlov expedition, let us raise our glasses in toast- but not to clink them as that is not the Russian custom when speaking of the departed- and say “Vechnaya pamyat”. Let him or her always be remembered.



The Mount Gambier Angel Flight Crash- What Went Wrong?

Posted on July 26, 2017 at 10:45 PM

When a plane crashes there are often far more questions than answers in the first days, weeks and months. Even after the initial reports are made available, unless you are well versed in aviation operations or investigation, it can be difficult to figure out what happened causing the crash. The 28 June crash at Mount Gambier, South Australia is one such case. The sad loss of three lives- including a young woman struggling to overcome her health issues and her mother- makes for an emotionally driven urge to quickly find those answers. A sensible conclusion to an investigation helps make the loss seem less raw.

Many people wonder why a pilot, such as Grant Gilbert in the Mount Gambier crash, would not make an emergency call before the crash. As someone who has experience in both flying light aircraft and dealing with the aftermath of incidents involving them, I can offer a simple explanation. The crash happened shortly after takeoff in very poor weather conditions reportedly so severe that they grounded regional airline flights from the airport. If the weather is bad enough that a well-equipped airliner with two pilots is unable to operate, then the workload for a lone pilot in a private aircraft is going to be extreme. You simply have more important things to do, especially if presented with an emergency than yell for help over a radio.

In the situation at hand, he was faced with the only person who could save the aircraft and his passengers was Mr. Gilbert himself. No one on the ground is going to be able to help. It is akin to traveling down the highway on a wet rainy day and starting to skid out of control. Do you dial 911 and ask for help or do you try your best to get the car back under control? The same applies to an aircraft.

As to what the cause of the crash was, the weather seems to be one of the two major factors. The other is the experience, training and currency of the pilot. Mr. Gilbert seems to have undertaken a flight in conditions that exceeded what would be prudent. I must stress that saying that is not a condemnation of a man who by all indications was a caring, considerate and loving human being. The road to disaster has often claimed similarly amazing people through a desire to push boundaries so as to not disappoint those we see ourselves serving or who are dependent upon us. It has been described as “fatally mission focused thinking”, “goal fixation”, “pressing”, “press-on-itis”, “get-there-itis” orget-home-itis”. I have lost a friend- someone I flew with and respected- in a similar crash of a medical helicopter.


The path he took on approach is very consistent with what one would expect from a pilot who is unfamiliar with instrument flight. It took at least three approaches before he was able to land. (Image courtesy of Australian Transport Safety Bureau

Instrument flying is used when you are unable to see the horizon outside of the aircraft and need to use electronics and other technology to keep the aircraft flying safely. Examples of these conditions- known as instrument conditions- include flight at night over unlit terrain, in clouds or where fog obscures the ground. It is a skill set that requires both proper training (and the resultant certification) and recency of experience. This is NOT like riding a bicycle. You can and will have your skills erode if you do not practice.


The risk in flying in instrument conditions is that one will lose the sense of orientation between the aircraft and the ground below. If you try to fly by looking outside in these conditions or try to use the instruments without sufficient proficiency, you can end up flying upside down or putting yourself into a fatal turn or spiral without realizing it. Such problems tend to arise very quickly. One simulator study at the University of Illinois using twenty student pilots resulted in all losing control of the aircraft as quickly as twenty seconds to as long as 480 seconds (eight minutes). The average was just about two seconds shy of three minutes- 178 seconds. This led to a rather chilling training video by that name. Ever wondered where the term for risky decision making is referred to as “flying by the seat of your pants” comes from? It is from this scenario and the frequency of bad outcomes associated with it.

The accident report data indicates the plane began to drift left of the runway heading immediately after takeoff. Twenty-five seconds after lifting off from the runway, the aircraft entered a turn to the left. Normally, if the weather permitted you would make a left turn at most airports to exit the traffic pattern around the runway. It is referred to as a crosswind departure.  This could explain the reason for the intial turn. It appears that after he climbed into the clouds, there was a lost of reference- spatial disorientation- during the turn. The aircraft climbed to 500 feet about 45 seconds from the runway and then began a slow descent over the next twenty seconds before beginning a rapid dive into the ground during the last five or so seconds of flight.  (Image courtesy of Australian Transport Safety Bureau)

The wreckage indicates that the aircraft impacted the ground upside down 30 degrees nose down. This is classic spatial disorientation which has been described both in human pilots and in birds. Humans are inherently visual creatures who evolved to operate under very limited degrees of acceleration. The forces involved in flight- in roll, pitch and yaw (a left or right skew about the vertical axis)- cause the balance mechanisms in the inner ears (the vestibular system), eyes and relative position sensing mechanisms (referred to as the proprioceptive system; this is the origin of the “seat of your pants” expression) to give conflicting signals. When you have adequate visual input, these override and suppress the signals from the other systems. Without them either from the instruments or from looking out of the windows, a large number of pilots- including ones qualified to fly on instruments- have been overcome and caused their aircraft to roll or dive out of control. 

The situation in South Australia lends itself to the notion that this is a repeat of the situations which brought down aircraft in the past including Flash Airlines Flight 604 off Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt in 2004. In that case, a very experienced airline captain failed to heed warnings that the aircraft was rolling right after an unusually steep climb preceding a prescribed left turn over the Red Sea at night. There are few mechanisms for spatial disorientation that could be playing a role in Mount Gambier crash. It is important to remember that more than one of these may be working together to lead to the ultimate tragic end of the flight.

The first is what is called “the leans” which is a form of somatogyral illusion. Somatogyral illusion is a fancy term for any situation where the semicircular canals of the inner ears give a false sense of rotation or turning. The leans occur when you have an abrupt change to level flight from a slow application of bank that had gone previously unnoticed. This would fit with the almost immediate drift to the left off of the runway heading. The pilot realizing the error levels the wings to correct it and induces the leans. It is an exceedingly common illusion. The effect is that you feel like you are rolling in the direction opposite the original bank. Assuming this is what happened here, you would expect the pilot who thinks he is now rolling to the right to try to level the wings by turning left which is what the radar data shows happened. Effectively, it causes a real problem where only a perceived one had existed.

The second is what is commonly referred to as a “graveyard spiral”. Unfortunately, this has become a moniker incorrectly used by pilots and reporters to describe all spatial disorientation cases. This is not the case and the term actually only refers to a specific set of circumstances. Those are where the aircraft returns to level flight after a prolonged turn. If a turn is sustained for long enough (roughly twenty to thirty seconds), the inner ear stops sensing the turn. When you roll the aircraft level out of the turn, the ear signals that the aircraft is now rolling to the right. This is an extremely powerful sensation and one that is hard to overcome. The urge is to “correct” the perceived roll by reentering the original turn to the left. This often causes the pilot to put more and more bank on the aircraft until one of two things happens.

The first is that the aircraft rolls and descends into the ground. This usually happens when the pilot realizes he is losing altitude and applies full power to the engine and pulls back on the controls. Normally these two actions would raise the nose and either stop the descent or cause the plane to climb. In steeply banked turn, the effect is to cause the descent to become more extreme and the turn to steepen further. It may end with the aircraft inverted at the time they strike the terrain below.

The second is that the aircraft is not flying fast enough to stay in the air at a steep bank which produces what is known as an accelerated stall. For example, in most aircraft, a 45 degree bank will increase the speed at which the wings are not generating sufficient lift to keep the plane flying by about 18 percent. A 60 degree bank increases it by 40 percent. The result is a rapid descent into the ground if there is not sufficient altitude to figure out and correct the problem. Excessive rudder input in these settings (an uncoordinated turn) can also cause the plane to spin towards the ground usually with fatal results.

The third possibility is the presence of the Coriolis illusion. The sensation is often nauseatingly strong and gives the false impression that the aircraft is pitching, rolling and yawing one way or the other at the same time. It is due to a sudden movement of the pilot’s head during a turn. One of the easiest ways to demonstrate this to someone outside of an aircraft is to put someone in an office chair that rotates. Have them place their chin against their chest and close their eyes. Spin them rapidly for several seconds and then have them lift their head and open their eyes. Many people will experience a dizzying spinning sensation which feels like they have started rotating in the opposite direction and they are falling over backwards. There is actually an aerospace physiology training tool called a Barany chair that relies upon this sort of procedure.

The final alternate explanation is failure of one (or more) of the flight instruments. This would mislead a pilot into a situation producing one of the above forms of spatial disorientation.

Regardless, the end result is the same. A good man died along with two women who still had so much to offer this world. The causes will be officially determined. Of this, I have no doubt because Australia has one of, if not the best, aviation safety investigatory body on the planet. Hopefully, something will be learned by the aviation community and especially those involved in charitable flying to reduce the number of recurrences.

The board and volunteers of Kolibri Forensics would like to take a moment and express our sincerest sympathies to the families and friends of Mr. Gilbert, Emily Redding and Tracy Redding who died in the crash. May they find peace and comfort in what must be a most difficult time. We are willing to answer any questions or concerns that may be raised by them or by others interested in this or any other case. Our reason for existence is to serve others in the face of grief, sorrow and uncertainty.

Stephen L. Richey is the executive director of Kolibri Forensics. He has a long standing interest in aviation history and a background in aircraft crash survivability research and forensic death investigations. In his spare time, he is a member of the Civil Air Patrol.  He can be reached at [email protected] 

The Myths of Amelia Earhart: Why Everyone is Looking in the Wrong Place

Posted on July 19, 2017 at 10:05 PM

No disappearance of an aircraft has generated more controversy and false ‘leads’ than that of the one piloted by Amelia Earhart in 1937. During a failed attempt at circumnavigating the world, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, never reached their scheduled refueling stop on Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. The mythos of Earhart- the media darling, the swashbuckling adventuress, the woman who broke down barriers- helped to spawn generations of stories, cons and conspiracy theories. Those unfounded confabulations pull more press than the conclusion that is driven by the evidence.

The most widely publicized idea is that put forth by a group known as The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). They have been peddling the same tired idea since the mid-1980s with exactly what she . Nothing more substantial than idle gossip, their entire hypothesis is that Earhart and Noonan wound up marooned on an atoll called Nikumaroro (at the time called Gardner Island). Decades of searches, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent and there has been not a single shred of evidence to support their speculation. The organization has a history of grand gestures in front of the press followed by either quiet retractions or corrections of the earlier announcements.

Led by a born showman (Zwick, 2012), TIGHAR has managed to hide behind the desire for closure on the death of a woman who has become an icon. It has also helped raise the profile of the aviation archaeology. Unfortunately, largely due to the longest running wild goose chase in the history of the field. However, even though it has distracted the public and diverted funding away from other cases that can and should be resolved, TIGHAR has helped largely keep some of the even more ridiculous hypotheses on the fringes. The most recent example being the rapidly discredited supposed picture of Noonan and Earhart in the custody of the Japanese.

To anyone who keeps to a burden of proof that remotely approaches a scientific standard, there is one option that stands out. It is the least attention grabbing but fits with what is known about Earhart’s character, degree of flying skill and the nature of flight across large expanses of water. The simple truth is that Earhart and Noonan missed Howland Island entirely. The plane ran out of fuel and either crashed or was ditched into the open waters of the Pacific before sinking thousands of feet to the bottom.

This explains the lack of evidence from decades of searches. This fits with Earhart being at best a marginal pilot whose name only became common knowledge through the media empire she married into. She was the epitome of the overconfident, under-qualified pilot whose ambitions led her to take risks that ultimately killed her and her navigator. It has happened numerous times since then in a variety of circumstances.


The truly sad part in the growth of the Earhart mythos is that-despite being best known for a colossal failure and being known almost entirely because her husband could order media coverage of her flying- she has become seen as some sort of role model for young women. She overshadowed other women pilots who actually broke barriers and set a more positive example for future generations. The vast majority of people when asked can tell you who she is.

How many can tell you about Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African-American or Native American descent to obtain a pilot license?

What about Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly alone from Britain to Australia and who died serving her country during World War II?

Or Helen Richey, who has a place on my own family tree, and was one of the first female flight instructors and the first woman to be hired as an airline pilot in the United States?


None of that, however, detracts from the point that chasing wild rumors and speculations- no matter how ingratiating or charming the mouthpiece may be- will not bring us any closer to closing the Earhart case. The answers lay somewhere in the deep cold waters of the Pacific no matter how much some may wish they lay elsewhere.


Stephen L. Richey is the executive director of Kolibri Forensics. He has a long standing interest in aviation history and a background in aircraft crash survivability research and forensic death investigations.


Zwick, Jesse (23 June 2012). "Up in the Air: Hillary Clinton, a lone explorer, and the search for Amelia Earhart.". The New Republic.

Our First Case

Posted on May 8, 2017 at 2:35 PM

Suppose for a second that you kiss your parents goodbye one evening, expecting to see them in a couple of days.  We have all done that.  It is one of those mundane aspects of life that we do time and again over the course of our lives without really giving it a second thought.  What would you if they vanished and you never really knew what happened?  It is a horrible situation to imagine oneself in but for far too many families, that is their reality.  What follows is a case involving two such families and our desire to help change that.

On a cold night in the 1980s, a small aircraft crashed into southern Lake Michigan while attempting to fly across in marginal weather. Of the four persons on board, only one was ever found and returned to his family for a proper burial. The rest, including his wife and another couple, remain missing all these years later.  In just the Great Lakes, there are at least 164 people missing from aircraft crashes alone

The details of this case reveal a reasonable search area within the limits of experienced divers and the technology- such as sidescan sonar and remotely operated vehicles- is readily available to finally close this case. A few days of searching could be all that is required for a dedicated team of qualified volunteers to find the aircraft and its occupants.

Kolibri Forensics, a startup organization working towards nonprofit status, is seeking to locate and return these missing to their families. Our team of divers, forensic specialists, an archaeologist and researchers has the skill set to complete this mission.  We are that team of qualified volunteers that cases like this so desperately need. 

We have spoken with representatives of the two families involved and we have their support. Likewise, after discussions with the local authorities, an agreement has been reached to permit the search. The only remaining barrier is the cost of bringing needed personnel and equipment to the area for the search and recovery.


If you can spare a few dollars towards the project we can make that happen. No matter how much or how little, all proceeds goes towards bringing the missing home. These were good, honest, hard working people who deserve to be returned to their families. If it were you or your loved ones, you would want someone to look for and return them.

Even if it is only ten dollars from each of our followers on Facebook and Twitter, that is over 70% of our goal Please show your compassion for your fellow man by giving towards the recovery the missing. Please help us bring them home this summer.


Any funds in addition to our goal will be used to fund similar missions in the future and/or purchase equipment and training to further expand our capabilities.  Donations in support of this mission can be made at: 

Note: Exact details of the case are being withheld to protect the suspected crash site from potential looting. We apologize for being intentionally vague but it is necessary out of respect for the victims and their families. Thank you for understanding.