Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Cause of Death - Dr Cynric Temple-Camp (Harper Collins New Zealand) $39.99

Strange and shocking stories of death and murder in provincial New Zealand.  You won't believe these stories happened in New Zealand... Forensic and coronial pathologist Dr Cynric Temple-Camp lifts the lid on some of the most fascinating cases he's worked on during his 30-year career as a pathologist, moving from Zimbabwe to Palmerston North.  Temple-Camp gives us all the gritty details from his 30 year career a handful of obscure and well known, high profile cases including attending Mark Lundy's Privy Council hearing.

Always expect the unexpected from the dead, says Temple-Camp.  Usually, pathologists don’t talk to or meet the families of patients, so getting clearance from them to write about their loved ones’ deaths was a challenge both professionally and emotionally, he says. Work on a sudden death takes a "little debit against their emotional energy" and burnouts in the industry are par for the course, he says “I don’t believe anybody is immune to this sort of sorrow.”

However, meeting the families turned out to be one of the best things about writing the book.  Some of the deaths date back 30 years so many people were shocked to hear from him.  “So many of them said ‘We never knew the story, and thank you for telling us the story and thank you for looking after my loved one… and telling their story, letting them speak.”
This is what makes Temple-Camp's book more than just another cold hard facts account.  The interviews with families give a more rounded view of the cases and also let in some of the emotional values.  It is always hard when you've lost a loved one in tragic circumstances but perhaps we can empathise more when we know the full story.  It can also give some intresting spins on our own assumptions.

Photo: Stuff.co.nz
Take the case of the mysterious discovery of the naked body of a woman, found prone against a fence near an airport control.  On initial analysis it appeared that she'd been severely beaten.  Dutifully, Temple-Camp told the police that the man responsible was a psychopath who would likely kill again.  The police had interrogated the woman’s husband for three days, before the true cause of her death emerged.  Apparently she was mauled by a bull.  “This lady kept cows. She had a bull that she’d raised herself – I think it was a cross Ayrshire Friesian bull. This bull was known to be quite antagonistic to people. And it had jumped the fence and caught her.”  The woman had a theory that should you be attacked by a bull, you could distract them by throwing a piece of clothing to the ground and making a getaway.  “This is what she’d done, and her clothes were strewn right across the paddock – but the bull caught her at the fence.”

Then there's the baffling case of a recluse found lying on his bed with what initially appeared to be a bullet wound between his eyes.  Again, on further investigation the truth came out differently to what was expected... When he looked through a magnifying glass at the woulnd Temple-Camp could see bone intact underneath and little teeth marks around the edge of the wound. The man had lived in the same house all his life, surrounded by rubbish and serious squalor.  “Every bit of rubbish he had was just thrown around him, every tin of food he’d eaten, the empty can was thrown to one side, and the house was just full of trash… And all through the trash you could hear the rats moving and heaving, rattling the cans. And it was quite clear what had happened here – this man had died, as it turned out, from a heart attack, lying on his bed and the rat had come and eaten the hole between his eyes. It just mimicked a bullet wound completely.”

But most intriguing was the case of death by spontaneous combustion.  He tells of a man was discovered burnt to death in his car without any damage to the inside of the car, other than smoke damage.  It was later discovered that he had drunk a bottle of spirits then passed out while smoking a cigarette.  Spontaneous combustion usually occurs when a heavily intoxicated person smokes a cigarette or gets too close to high heat.  “Their clothing starts to smoulder and it melts the fat underneath. And the clothing then sinks into the fat like a candle wick, and they burn like a candle. In the same way, you can put a candle in the middle of your house and it will not set fire to the house, the heat is all concentrated… This leads to the whole body being burnt away.”

Photo: Stuff.co.nz
He also documents his 'eureka moment', the one that sealed Mark Lundy's fate, revealing the moment he discovered the crucial evidence that would see Mark Lundy convicted twice of the brutal murder of his wife Christine and daughter Amber.

He describes a glass slide given to him by the Detective Senior Sergeant Ross Grantham from the Criminal Investigation Branch. "I took the slide and looked at it carefully. Beneath the coverslip was a light smear of stained material.  "What's this all about?' I asked, having learned from long experience that there would be a strange, complex and tragic tale behind the specimen, if it was typical of something the CIB brought me."It's something that forensics rubbed onto the slide from a murder suspect's shirt. They think they can see something cellular on the slide, but they're not sure exactly what it is. Can you and your pathologists have a look and see what you think?"

Temple-Camp " It took me quarter of an hour to go over the slide at high microscopic magnification.

"Well?" said Ross. "What do you think it is?"

"This looks like brain to me."
He stared unblinkingly back at me. "Why?"

"It just looks like brain." Ross looked at me sceptically. "What makes you say that?"

Thinking  carefully, he explains "When a pathologist makes a diagnosis, mostly we recognise what we see instantly. It gets called the 'Aunt Minnie' sign." "Who the hell's Aunt Minnie?" "It goes like this. How do you know that an old lady in front of you is your Aunt Minnie? Well, it's usually because you just know. You've seen her hundreds of times before and you know what she looks like and who she is. You don't have to go through the whole scientific rigmarole you'd go through if you didn't recognise her – you know, examine her facial profile, measure her height or count her moles or whatever. Some pathologists call this using the 'lizard part' of your brain, the ancient dinosaur bit that runs on automatic without any intelligent thought. Some psychiatrists call the process 'gestalt', whatever the hell that is. In the end, I think it means the same thing."

He goes on ... "I've done an Aunt Minnie on it, but I've also crosschecked." We moved to sit at the multi-headed microscope in the lab. There were three pathologists present, as well as two registrars, and they all had a look at the slide. We all reached the same conclusion. "We don't have to rely on Aunt Minnie," I told Ross. "We can see cells, including a cellular, tubular structure, which is a small blood vessel. That tells us we're looking at deep tissue, deeper than the surface of the skin."

"What about spit?" asked Ross. "Or snot from the nose? Could it be from that?"

"No," I said. "You'll never find blood vessels in spit, snot, urine or any other body fluids. They have to come from deep tissue. And the cells are all oval with what we call spindle-shaped nuclei. The nuclei are bland in appearance, which means they've had much of their cellular material stripped away. But the background between these cells has a subtle, fibrillary look. It doesn't really fit with anything other than brain tissue. I mean, it's not muscle or thyroid gland or pancreas or spleen or liver. I could go on and on. It's a long list, but I really don't think that this tissue can be anything other than brain."

And that piece of evidence, along with information about axes, car petrol quntities and motive became the final prosecuting evidence."

This book is fascinating, and relevant.  A great read, with some elements of compassion towards the victims families.  Well worth the time.  But not for the faint-hearted.

Temple-Camp is donating royalties from his book to the Palmerston North Rescue Helicopter as a way of honouring both the living and the dead.

https://www.rescue.org.nz/

https://www.crimestoppers-nz.org

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lundy_murders




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