Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Murder Scene Fires Can't Destroy All Clues

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Murder Scene Fires Can't Destroy All Clues

Article excerpt

Fires like the ones set after three Bergen County slayings dating back to 2010 may not be the ultimate evidence cleanser for killers trying to cover up the crime.

Investigators have been able to recover evidence from crime scenes despite fire damage -- debunking a common misconception that any links to a crime scene can be erased through fire.

"A lot of times the general public has this perception that when there's a fire, everything incinerates and nothing is left," said Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "In many cases there is evidence left behind."

Years ago, fires may have been a fairly good way to destroy evidence. But the establishment of guidelines in the 1990s on how to properly investigate fires has resulted in improved evidence preservation and collection methods. The guidelines also moved fire investigations from the realm of educated guesses to a scientific approach, said James F. McMullen, a forensic fire expert and former chief fire marshal for California.

"People used to make a lot of mistakes and the [guide] has corrected that," said John Lentini, a Florida-based fire investigation consultant, who is known for his involvement in the case of a Texas man convicted and executed for the arson deaths of his three children in a 1991 house fire. Lentini, however, concluded that fire was accidental.

While trace evidence like fingerprints and footprints may not survive a fire, DNA typically does because it can withstand high temperatures, said Lawrence Kobilinsky, a professor of forensic science and chairman of the Department of Sciences at John Jay.

And in murder cases, fires rarely destroy all evidence -- much less hide the true cause of death.

"It doesn't work in murder because you've got the body there," said Lentini. "The medical examiner can usually tell if the person was alive at the time of the fire and stabbed or shot or restrained."

Regardless of how badly burned a body is, there is "always a way" for pathologists to determine causes of death, said Nicholas J. Palumbo, owner of Monmouth County-based Palumbo Investigations, which specializes in fire and forensic investigations and consultations.

Some criminals mistakenly believe bodies will be incinerated to ash, McMullen said. But they are charred, he explained, which leaves enough evidence to determine how victims died.

Victims' lungs are examined for signs of smoke, and carbon monoxide levels are tested, said McMullen. Carbon monoxide levels detected in the bloodstream would indicate a victim was still breathing when the fire began, said Corbett, also a former assistant fire chief in Waldwick.

Carbon monoxide was found in the body of Barbara Vernieri, the 70- year-old real estate broker killed in her East Rutherford home last week. …

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