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Things That Go BOOM!

Lieutenant Chris Knurr took on the scary (nearly as scary as disarming bombs!)task of teaching a roomful of writers about things that go boom.
Here is the brave individual! Chris Knurr Bomb Squad WPA
I’m not real sure that he should have told us about Macgyver bombs, though. Those are things of which nightmares are made. These little explosive devices are also called acid bombs or bottle bombs. And, they are one of the scariest bombs out there. Why? Not because they are the most destructive–not even close. What’s so scary is that these highly unstable and unpredictable bombs can be made from readily available supplies found in many homes! Chris showed us a short video clip of one young man who put the chemicals for the bomb in a plastic bottle and then shook the bottle. The bomb exploded in his hand. Though these are not even close to the most destructive explosives, they can still maim and kill.

Sometimes, I get so wrapped up in thinking about the explosives used to create bombs–things like dynamite and C-4–that I, like many others, are unaware of the danger present in those small or long, thin devices called detonators. Chris passed a non-el or shock tube around so that everyone in the room was holding it and then he set it off. It was startling with a small zap, but if it had been part of a bomb it would have been used to initiate a detonator or blasting cap.(please note: things in bold are corrections made to original post per information from Lieutenant Knurr. Thank you, Lieutenant Knurr, for passing along these clarifications! You rock!)

Det cord is a high explosive wrapped in a plastic coating, needing a detonator or blasting cap to initiate it. When it is set off by a blasting cap, it sends a detonating wave to other blasting caps or explosive charges. This cord is commonly used to connect explosives together.

After that fairly benign demo of a shock tube, he passed around inert blasting caps—little metal tubes not more than a couple of inches long and smaller in diameter than my little finger. Though they look harmless, they are small, sensitive primary explosive–woe be to those who forget this part of the description–devices used to detonate a larger, more powerful and less sensitive secondary explosive such as TNT, dynamite or plastic explosives.

One man did forget the description of blasting caps. Chris showed us a photo of what was left of the man’s face after he bit down on a live blasting cap. We could just about make out his eyes above the ruin of his face. Nose, lips, mouth, cheeks, and chin were gone. Blood was streaming down the red mass that had been his face. It was nothing short of a miracle that the man survived.

Since I am writing a thriller where homemade explosives play a significant part, I was especially interested in the part of the lecture dealing with ANFO, or bombs made from ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. Several thousand pounds of a slightly different formulation of this type of explosive–ANNM which is ammonium nitrate with nitro methane fuel–was packed in the vehicle that Timothy McVeigh parked in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19,1995. He lit a two minute fuse and when the explosion occurred it killed 168 people, including 19 children and injured another 684 others.

Two of the most popular, homemade high explosives currently seem to be TATP and HMTD, both hydrogen peroxide based. Chemicals to make these bombs are fairly common. Unfortunately for law enforcement, the labs producing these high explosives may appear to be meth labs since TATP is a white crystal and HMTD is a white powder. These explosives are unstable.

Chris’ lecture covered many other types of explosives as well as such topics as what defines the ‘explosive train’, but those things would require a lot longer post and much more skill to explain than I have to make it as understandable as Chris did for us. (Just because I could understand it, doesn’t mean I can explain it! Chris is a talented teacher and an accomplished expert in all things that go BOOM!)

There were some things that really snagged my attention, though.

  1. I had no idea that a suitcase full of firecrackers, if set on fire, could blow up a full size car!
  2. Car bombs in a downtown area is a bomb squad’s nightmare.
  3. It is way too easy to buy the ingredients to create a bomb! Scary!
  4. There are 2700 civilian bomb techs trained by the FBI.
  5. A “dirty bomb” is not one that needs a bath; it is an explosive that has radioactive material on it.
  6. Grenades, and high explosives, create pressure waves/shock waves that go through a body. This, in turn, creates fluid waves (we are mostly water) that shred the inside of the body. This is what kills.
  7. The bomb suit—Explosive Ordnance Disposal suit (EOD)–weighs over 80 pounds and someone has to wear it! It is hard to move in it and is very hot! (I tried on the helmet and the coat part. Do you remember what it felt like when you were a little kid and your mom bundled you up for cold weather and you could barely move? Yup, a lot like that.)The helmet weighs about 8 to 10 pouunds. The bomb suit, in order to maximize dexterity and mobility, has no gloves. This leaves hands and forearms exposed to danger.
    Aya bomb coat WPA
    (This photo is used courtesy of Tom Middleton)

EOD technicians wear the suit during reconnaissance, when trying to ‘render safe’, or disruption procedures on potential or confirmed explosive devices. These suits protect the wearer from fragmentation, blast overpressure, thermal and tertiary effects should the device explode. An interesting note: technicians back away from explosive devices not because they are “afraid” of the bomb, but because most of the protection resides in the front plate of the suit.
Tom in bomb suit WPA
Tom Middleton models the EOD suit next to the robot used by the bomb squad.

Though I have only been able to grasp a mere fraction of the information he conveyed, Chris gave me something more valuable even than knowledge of explosives; he gave me a better understanding of the dangers faced from international and homegrown terrorists who have easy access to the information and ingredients to create explosive devices; and he gave me a better understanding of the pressures the people of a bomb squad face as they work to protect the public.

Aya Bomb Squad helmet WPA

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#2016WPA A World of Mayhem and Murder

WPA—a world of murder, arson, guns and explosives! A place where at the next corner you’ll be faced with a man lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood; his brains oozing out of his eye socket, bits of brain matter flung across the floor.

This was the world in which I immersed myself for four days.

Writer’s Police Academy utilized the facilities of the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College where real cops, EMS, and fire fighters train. The first night of WPA, we were treated to a chance to interrogate police officers about the equipment they use—everything from guns, rifles, battering rams, (let me tell you—that battering ram was heavvvvy!) SWAT shields and vehicles. They went through the procedure for forced entry by SWAT.

Throughout our classes at WPA, our instructors were cops, fire fighters, arson investigators, ballistics experts, and emergency medical experts. John Flannery taught my first class, Blood Spatter, (spatter; not splatter!)
John Flannery WPA

Dry book learning was not on the menu at WPA. A homicide scene greeted us as we walked into John’s class. A bullet hole in the window, blood spatter on the wall behind the couch, the body of a male—late twenties—lying in a pool of blood, brain matter coming out of one eye socket, the skull and clumps scattered on the floor.
WPA Blood Spatter Victim

We were the officers investigating the homicide. What clues did we see? Who did we suspect was the assailant? Why was there a bloody handprint on the bookcase? Did the victim make it after being shot through the eye? Didn’t people immediately die from such a gunshot wound? Did the jar with marijuana have anything to do with the murder? Why was there a revolver close to the victim and a shell casing from a 9 mm off to one side? Did either have anything to do with the murder?

Those were the obvious clues as we first encountered the scene. Other clues slowly came to our attention under John’s careful guidance, as did the possible meaning of each clue as it pertained to the crime. Blood spatter behind the couch linked to the bloody handprint on the bookcase. The victim had been shot through the eye as seen by the blood spatter behind the couch. (No brains oozing out yet) Holding his bleeding head, he had staggered across the room, placing his bloody hand on the bookcase to stay upright, then eventually falling to the floor where we then saw his body. He was not dead at this point—contrary to what a person might think knowing about the grievous head wound.

Blood spatter WPA
Someone had entered or had been present in the apartment when the victim fell. That person had then proceeded to kill the victim. This person’s presence became clear from the blood spatter on the ceiling above the victim’s body and the spatter on the wall to the right of the victim’s body. The spatter on the ceiling created four dotted lines of blood. This pattern was also seen on the wall to the right. We learned that this was cast off blood—blood flung from the instrument itself– blood streaks made when a blunt instrument is drawn back to hit the victim again.

The assailant had used a blunt instrument to beat the victim once he had fallen to the floor. The beating was the cause of death, even though the head shot may have killed him eventually. What kind of instrument was used to beat the victim? Was it still in the apartment?

A pool cue was used to beat the victim. The blood had been carelessly wiped off, leaving a pale pink stain at the pointed end of the stick. The felt tip was responsible for the blood droplets on the floor, the droplets that were fairly round with just a faint tail. This let us know that the assailant, after beating the victim to death, had walked away from the body with the end of the cue pointed down toward the floor. The diameter and shape of the blood droplets told us that.
Blood droplets from weapon being carried

A bloody footprint indicated that someone, perhaps the assailant, had stepped in the victim’s blood. The shoe print had a pointed toe, was small—like maybe a size five or six—and had a definite heel which was square—like a woman’s pump.
WPA Shoe print in blood

After examination it was revealed that the victim had shot through the window at someone or something outside of his apartment. This accounted for the bullet hole in the window and the revolver close to the victim.

We still had the 9 mm shell casing which indicated that a 9 mm had been used inside of the apartment to shoot the victim. His assailant had then, after the victim fell, proceeded to viciously beat him in the face and head with the pointed end of the pool cue. This beating resulted in the brain oozing out of the eye socket and the caved-in look of the right side of the victim’s head. Further investigation revealed a woman’s driver’s license tossed or fallen in the trash can in the living room where the victim lay. The beating was vicious and had continued far beyond just immobilizing or killing the victim warranted. It demonstrated that this crime had been committed with passion; it was personal. We concluded that we should look at the victim’s girlfriend, wife, lover, and exes.

Though this murder had been a scenario set up by John, he also showed and explained real crime scene photos which were horrendous. The first crime scene photo was of a woman in a cabin. The woman’s body had been found crumpled between the wall and the bed. From blood stains on the bed it was obvious the woman had been resting or sleeping when the attack began. She next fell or rolled out of bed in an attempt to elude her attacker. She was standing when the attacker hit her with a sharp instrument in the head. Blood smeared down the wall as she crumpled to the floor.

The assailant continued his attack after the woman was on the floor. One of the wounds was a hacked open thigh which left the muscles gaping with blood pooled in the wound. The pooled blood indicated that the wound had been made perimortem. The heart had stopped pumping before the blood drained over the edge of the deep wound. The assailant had also removed the woman’s left hand—post mortem fortunately for the victim–and it was found next to the wall. The viciousness of the attack indicated that it had been personal.

This led the investigation to the woman’s estranged husband. The estranged husband had followed the woman to the cabin, waited until their children had gone down to the beach, and then entered and attacked the sleeping woman. The severed hand was the hand with the wedding band still on it.

Unfortunately, the couple’s young children found their mother when they returned from the beach.

In the second set of crime scene photos, a mother and her child had been killed in their home; their throats slit. John was sensitive to the fact that the death of the infant might be troubling to some people. He announced that in the coming photos that an infant had been killed and if anyone wanted to leave for this part, it was perfectly all right and they could return after this particular crime scene had been examined. A few people who had small children at home did leave for this part of our session.

John then walked the class through the crime scene photos, explaining what the blood on the woman’s arms meant—she had grabbed at her slit throat in a vain attempt to save her own life. Next we explored the baby’s photos. On the side of the child’s face, there was blood—which went with the slit throat—but there was also a clean space called a void where no blood had run. This indicated that the child had been sleeping with his head turned to the right side when his throat had been slit, but at some time after that—perimortem which means at or close to the time of death–the child had turned his head until his face pointed upward. The void occurred because when the blood was running, the turn of the head placed a small part of that cheek against some object that the blood ran around—the bed was most obviously the object. The child, before dying, had turned his head to where his face looked up and then he died.

The assailant, who turned out to be the estranged husband and father, claimed that though he confessed to the crimes that his sentence should be mitigated because he killed his wife and son with humane means that resulted in instant death and that they did not suffer—ie: a slit throat.

The woman’s bloody arms and the void on the child’s cheek proved that both victims had struggled after their throats were slit and therefore had not died instantly.

The Blood Spatter class was packed with information and this short blog post cannot give it justice. Suffice it to say that I learned a ton of stuff! John was one of the best instructors I have ever encountered. If you want to read about John’s extensive credentials go to http://www.writerspoliceacademy.com/john-flannery/

Sisters in Crime was one of the sponsors for the #WritersPoliceAcademy. To learn more about #SistersInCrime go to http://www.sistersincrime.org/

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