The Third Case: The Floating Bones
Time flew by and the internship for senior year had unexpectedly arrived. As the class representative, I and eight other brothers were brought to Nanjiang County Public Security Bureau, beginning a professional forensic science internship. Nanjiang County had many of our alumni, and we received their warm welcome. Even in 2002, Nanjiang County Public Security Bureau’s Forensic Center was second to none in the country. It truly made us interns flabbergasted. The entire Forensic Center covered a whole 25 acres. There was an office building, a dormitory building, four independent dissection rooms, and a cold storage room that could hold 98 cadavers. In addition, there were fish ponds, vegetable fields, and a shooting range. Such conditions for us who had not even formed a family yet.
The cold storage room to store cadavers was considered a scarier place. The cold and eerie hall had a neat row of freezers lined on both sides, arranged in ten groups of four. Because funeral homes come periodically to take the bodies, almost all 98 of these spots were full. The one guarding the cold storage room was an employed big brother. When we first arrived, he concernedly asked us if we were scared. My classmates all found it scary, only I— who had experience dissecting corpses on one hand and the class representative on the other— hardened my face and pretended to be disdainful, “Afraid? What’s so scary about it? Aren’t they just corpses?”
Nanjiang County Public Security Bureau’s workload was incomparable to a small place like my hometown. There were on average three abnormal cases of death and a body to dissect every day. Therefore, the half-year we spent in Nanjiang was very busy. All day long it was the canteen, dormitory, dissection room, and crime scene in a row.
We ran along these four points every day for almost a month without encountering a strange case. As interns, we found it infinitely boring.
On this day, it was my instructor Brother Biao’s turn to be on duty again. We had nothing to do and chatted in the duty room. Brother Biao’s appearance wasn’t as doughty as his name in the slightest. He was a thin, handsome, well-mannered man in his thirties. There were many legends about him. It is said that because he had many outstanding achievements and successively cracked several major cases, Nanjiang County Public Security Bureau awarded him with a house. Of course, this was just a rumor.
“Why aren’t there any suspenseful murder cases? It can’t allow us forensic doctors to show our mettle!” I held my head and cried.
“Crow’s mouth!” Brother Biao spoke in pure Nanjiang dialect, “You can’t say this kind of thing. The moment you say, it happens!”
“How could there be such evil…?” Before my words finished, the duty phone suddenly rang.
Brother Biao’s face darkened, “Look, look, it working? It working?”
“I don’t believe it! It’s either an abnormal death or an appointment for injury appraisal.” How could it be possible for such a thing to happen just from casually speaking about it?
Soon after Brother Biao finished taking the call, he helplessly looked at me, saying: “Crow’s mouth! Let’s go! To Hucheng River, a mutilated corpse!”
I slapped myself. Was this truly a magic spell? But I’m not a wizard!! Either that or there wasn’t a case, and the first case was a mutilated body? Even though I knew that I was going to be busy soon, an inexplicable excitement coursed through me at the time. Of course, I’m as afraid of big cases as Brother Biao now. Only new forensic investigators would look forward to them.
Soon, we hurried to the crime scene. Safety tape was put up on both sides of the river. Traffic police, police officers, region police, and criminal police cars were parked into a long line on the side of the road. There was once a mutilated corpse case at Nanjiang University that shook the entire country. Many years had passed, but it remained unsolved. That’s why when they heard that it was a mutilated corpse case, all the various departments grew nervous. A large crowd of onlookers were packed outside the safety tape. When we bypassed the safety tape and walked into the crime scene, a sense of solemnity arose in my heart, just like the first time I put on surgical gloves.
The one who discovered the mutilated corpse was a river cleaner. While he was working on a small boat, he suddenly found white flowery things floating and sinking in the water. While cursing the person who threw trash into the river, he rowed over. However, he didn’t expect to find that it was a small piece of a human chest when he scooped it up. He was so scared he almost fell into the water and quickly called the police.
Ten or so boats on the river carrying policemen were trying to fish up more corpse parts for clues. In a mutilated corpse case, the more pieces that were discovered, the more clues there were for cracking the case. However, the chances of fishing up more parts were very low. Brother Biao took us to take a closer look at the corpse that had already paled from the water. It could be seen that this was a woman’s right breast and pectoralis major muscle. The dissection was very clean, and the muscles and tissue had already paled. However, with kind of clues could there be from this soft lump?
Suddenly, the crowd began to grow noisy. Looks like a new situation had occurred. Sure enough, one of the boats had hooked up a plastic bag, opening it for inspection on the boat. Soon, the boat approached the shore we were standing on. A new discovery!
Seeing the objects inside the plastic bag, our excitement quickly fell to the bottom. The two corpse parts in the bag were the other breast and entire abdominal wall soft tissue. In a mutilated corpse case, the value of bones was much more than that of soft tissue. Seeing that the sky had darkened, the hope of salvaging bones was basically improbable. The next step had also reached a deadlock.
“Let’s go back to the center and examine it.” Watching the boats near the shore, Brother Biao understood that it was all they could do.
On the way back, I helplessly asked, “Brother Biao, are they not going to salvage anymore? What are we going to do next?”
“With such a large river, it’s impossible to drain it all. However, I think that they will send frogmen underwater tomorrow. Though with such a large area, hope is very slim!”
“What can we do in such a case?”
“Of course, the biggest concern is finding the corpse parts in a mutilated corpse case. If the identity of the corpse is found, the case would be half solved. Thus, the mutilated corpse also depends on our ability to find the conditions for finding the corpse, thereby narrowing the scope of the search.”
I nodded as if I understood, but my heart continued to pound. Just how do we narrow down the search with three body parts? Even though DNA technology was very mature now, our country didn’t have a large-scale DNA database. Thus, DNA could only be used as evidence, not as clues to the suspect or clues to the identity of the body. I knew this point, so I was at a complete loss as to what to do next. At this time, Brother Biao was similarly helpless.
Returning back to the center, we went through the formalities of storing a corpse. Even though there were only three parts, the procedure was the same as that of a whole body. The three parts had to be placed separately. Only after DNA identification had been completed and assured that they were part of the same person could they be put together in order to prevent confusing two or even three corpse mutilation cases together. We couldn’t arbitrarily decide that these three parts belonged to the same person. After completing the procedures, we extracted some soft tissue and sent it to the DNA lab, the identification carried out that very night. Then, we returned to the duty room and began to discuss our next step.
“Anyways, after the identification is complete, the next step is to see if the three parts can be pieced together. Then, we think of countermeasures.” Brother Biao pondered.
Looking at the brooding Brother Biao, I knew that it would be difficult finding the identity of the body. The conditions for finding the identity, including necessary qualifications, such as gender, age, height, weight, clothing, and some other characteristics like tattoos, scars, deformities, or birthmarks. Was it truly possible to ‘guess’ the identity of the body with just three parts?
The morning of the next day, I was awoken by Brother Biao: “It’s been determined to be part of the same person. Time to rise and piece together the puzzle.”
Piecing these three parts together sounded easy, but difficult to do. We spread the parts out on the dissection table and slowly studied along the direction of the cut. The results were very unexpected. These three parts actually came together into a whole; it could even be said to have come together seamlessly, forming a person’s complete chest and abdomen.
“The incision is so neat, it can’t be one of our colleagues, right?” Brother Biao muttered.
We stared stupidly at the pale white corpse parts, not knowing where to start. For the height and age, medical examiners already had a very mature method. Age could be inferred from teeth and the pubic symphysis (the joint where the two sides of the pelvis joined together). Experienced medical examiners could very accurately estimate the age from these two places, the margin of error no larger than two years. Height could also be calculated from the length of bones using the linear regression equation, plus or minus two cm. However, for a case where there was only soft tissue, Brother Biao was also helpless.
Suddenly, Brother Ping, the forensic examiner on duty ran over with a cry, “It’s terrible! Something happened again!”
The case hadn’t been settled yet when another case arrived?! Wasn’t this adding hail to snow? Brother Ping looked at our horrified eyes and burst into laughter, “Don’t be nervous, it’s just a traffic accident.”
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. “What’s the big fuss about a traffic accident?” Brother Biao dissatisfiedly asked.
“There was a lot this time, over ten.” Brother Ping wiped the sweat from his forehead.
It was a serious traffic accident with over ten deaths. The following work would also be more complicated, but for medical examiners, they only needed to carefully examine the bodies and rule out the possibility of homicide. After confirming the cause of death, their job was over. However, it would take at least 5 or 6 hours to examine over ten bodies, a very tedious task.
“Did you go see the scene?” Brother Biao asked.
Brother Ping replied, “I went. It was terrible, you’ll know when you see it. Our corpse transporting trucks couldn’t fit them all, so they were taken over by a bus.”
Brother Biao looked at the corpse parts on the table, then turned to me and said, “You’ve been here for over a month. The examination for this traffic accident and reception will be handled by you, alright? Anyways, there hasn’t been a breakthrough for the mutilated corpse case yet. But don’t worry, once there’s a breakthrough, you will continue to participate and learn.”
The reception work Brother Biao mentioned referred to receiving the families that came to the forensic center to claim the bodies because the cause of death for bodies in a traffic accident were easy to identify, unless they were rendered completely unrecognizable. As long as there was a whole body, and the face and clothes were preserved, the body was generally identified by the family of the deceased. I arrogantly thought that doing such trivial work was using a talented person in an insignificant position, but since it was my mentor’s order, I cheerfully agreed.
Bus 8 drove to the forensic center, stopping in the small square outside the dissection room. I was the “person-in-charge” this time and jumped on board as soon as the bus opened its doors.
The sight in front of petrified me. More than a dozen corpses were lined up inside, all dressed glamorously, maidens in their prime.
The driver of the bus was Xiao Li from the Forensic Center. Normal bus drivers probably didn’t have the strong psych to stay so long with over a dozen corpses.
The traffic accident was very simple. A group of etiquette students took a van to a five-star hotel in order to begin their internship. Unexpectedly, when the van passed by a reservoir, in order to avoid a dump truck, fell into the reservoir. The driver was lucky and escaped, but all 13 female students aged 18 or 19 drowned in the reservoir.
My classmate and I wore our gloves and lifted the corpses off the bus one by one, lining them up in the square outside the dissection room. The small square was filled with corpses. This kind of scene was truly astounding. The sudden deaths of so many young women plucked at our heartstrings and the air seemed to condense. In order to save time, my classmate and I quickly began to examine the bodies.
More than a dozen of the deceased was rushing to their internship and carried ID cards, making identification a lot easier. The autopsy was quickly concluded. Of the thirteen, other than the girl who was sitting in the passenger seat, whose head smashed into the body of the car and penetrated by the broken glass window. Other than the skull fracturing, no fatal injuries were found on the rest of the deceased. Combined with the obvious foaming at the nose and mouth, it could basically be concluded that they drowned.
Everyone buried their heads and conducted the autopsy without saying a word, the mood very gloomy. The poor children thus prematurely concluded their lives.
Brother Biao, who was continuing to examine the corpse parts in the dissection room, walked out at this time. Seeing the expression on his face, I knew that even the amazing him was helpless. Even though he had 10 years of experience as a medical examiner, he was still stunned at the sight of a dozen girls lined up neatly in the square. Forensic pathologists were just like this, constantly facing cruel deaths, always bearing strong psychological pressure.
Brother Biao stood for a while when his eyes suddenly revealed an excited light. I knew Brother Biao very well. When he had such an expression, it meant that he had discovered something new.
“Qin Ming, come here. I suddenly had a thought.”
I stopped my work and used my arm to wipe my sweat, asking, “What is it?”
“I’m asking you: we use the length of bones and the pubic bone to infer height and age. Is there science behind that?”
After medical examiners used these formulas to derive height and age for so many years, suddenly asking if there was scientific basis behind it was rather absurd.
“Of course there’s scientific basis. Without a basis, could we have used it for so many years?” I answered.
“Then you tell me, what is the science behind it?” Brother Biao seemed to be giving me exam questions.
“This…” I was stumped, but quickly found my line of reasoning, “The method we use can’t be said to be a natural science, but through the numerous collections of our predecessors, comparing the characteristics of these bones to the original owner’s height and age. They then used this data to formulate a regression equation. Because there was a large amount of supporting data, it will be very accurate. This… This is called statistically significant. Statistical significance could be considered scientific basis.” I finished in a single breath, satisfied with my answer.
“Well said.” Brother Biao praised, “We can’t infer height and age from soft tissue because no one studied it, collected materials, in order to calculate the formula, right?”
“Thinking of doing research now is already too late for this case though, isn’t it?”
“Who said it’s too late? We don’t need many materials.” Brother Biao pointed at the bodies in the square, “Perhaps they might be of help.”
I suddenly understood what Brother Biao meant. Use the 13 female corpses in front of them to find the pointer and coefficient, then apply similar pointers to the regression equation to form a conclusion.
“Then, what do we use as the pointer?”
“I thought it through. The two nipples and navel form a triangle with three sides and one height. We will use these lengths on these 13 female corpses and compare it to their height to calculate the coefficient. Then, we’ll multiply the coefficient by the four lengths and calculate an average. Thus, we’ll be able to calculate the height of the deceased. As for weight, we can measure the thickness of their fat in the chest, bottom, and sternum, calculating using the same method.”
This was a bold idea. It must be known that if medical examiners made an obvious mistake while determining the identity of the body, it would lead the entire case astray. Even though this method utilized the ‘statistical significance’ I mentioned before and had scientific basis, there were only 13 bodies and the sample size was too small, so the margin of error was high.
“Try everything in a desperate situation.” Brother Biao seemed to see through my thoughts.
With that said, we got to work. We first began to compare similar data and quickly calculated the average coefficients and then multiplied by the corpse data that was already measured earlier. Thus, we calculated that the average height of these bodies were 161.9 cm and 47 kg.
“But what about age?” That was really impossible to calculate.
At this time, Director Rong of the Forensic Center walked in, “How’s it going?”
Brother Biao briefly reported, saying, “We’re just lacking age now. This… truly helpless.”
Director Rong nodded approvingly, “There’s a method for age.” He walked to a corpse and pushed his glasses onto his head, carefully staring at the nipple of the deceased for two minutes: “She should be around 24 years old, no history of breastfeeding.”
Even now, I still had no idea what method Director Rong used to accurately estimate the age. It was probably related to experience.
Five minutes later, we found the conditions for identification, “Female, around 24 years old, no breastfeeding history; about 161 cm tall and 47 kg. There’s a sesame-sized red mole on her chest.”
Just when we were rejoicing for our conclusions, an earth-shattering cry came from the door.
The first group of relatives arrived. They were all natives of Nanjiang. I suddenly recalled my responsibilities: reception.
I brought the first group to the corpse storage area—two men and a middle-aged woman who was on the verge of collapse. When I dragged out a corpse bag from the freezer and unzipped it, the middle-aged woman promptly fainted and the two men beside her also cried. I hurriedly took off my gloves and supported the limp woman, “Don’t grieve, the dead are dead, but the living must go on!” In this way, we carried the woman to a police car and sent her to the hospital.
During the next few days, on one hand, we were using the data we found to search for all the missing women in the vicinity. On the other hand, I struggled to receive the deceased girls’ families. It wasn’t an exaggeration to say that it was a ‘struggle’. I also deeply understood why Brother Biao told me to receive them. As a medical examiner, you must have strong psychological qualities that is not only trained through on-site experience and autopsies, but tempered through social interactions. These few days, I saw through a great many scenes of despair. For the family members who learned of their children’s sudden death, some stood still, allowing their tears to flow freely; some fainted on the spot; some screamed and cried so loud it could shake the heavens; some pounced onto the deceased’s body and kissed their face… The poor hearts of those parents, my heart was broken seeing their sadness and despair.
After a few days of hard work, the search was beginning to show some results.
The search team found many clues, but the DNA laboratory ruled them out one by one. However, on this day, an old couple came to the station to report a case. They said their daughter was 24, no pregnancy, 163 cm, around 50 kg. These days, they couldn’t seem to contact her and called their son-in-law. He said that she went out to buy something and laid down their worries. However, seeing the police reports, the more they thought about it, the more fearful they grew, so they came to inquire.
The DNA results quickly came out, and it truly was this old couple’s daughter Lil’ Hong.
Seeing the results, I admired Brother Biao and Director Rong even more. It was a miracle to use three pieces of soft tissue to infer the deceased’s height, age, and weight. At the same time, I also deeply felt that to be a good medical examiner, you not only had to have solid theoretical knowledge but also be adept at using the surrounding conditions. Being able to flexibly use seemingly useless things in a case was what distinguished a good medical examiner from an average one.
The deceased’s husband was quickly arrested by the police and after several interrogations, this man insisted that Lil’ Hong went out to buy something and had yet to return. Even though the man’s mouth was tight, he was also very suspicious. First off, he didn’t report anything when he couldn’t reach his wife by phone and secondly, his profession was very unique—a butcher.
In addition, the most suspicious thing was that this butcher’s right hand’s pinky was gone, but its broken end was wrapped in gauze.
During the interrogation, we removed the gauze and found that the pinky was already stitched, the broken end relatively neat. From this point of view, it fit according to his story that he accidently cut off his finger while butchering meat.
“This severed finger has nothing to do with this case, right?” I asked.
Brother Biao shook his head, “I don’t think so. He is not left-handed, so if you’re used to holding the knife in your right hand, your left pinky should’ve been the one cut off. Secondly, the skin was already stitched. Even if the severed end wasn’t clean, it’s hard to tell from just the surface.
“X-ray!” After being educated by Brother Biao, I quickly thought of a way.
The x-ray came out quickly. The butcher’s pinky was only broken from the middle section, and the jagged surface on the fractured end could be clearly seen. In other words, the shape of the broken end couldn’t have been made by a butcher knife.
“Looking at the edge, it’s like it was bitten by teeth.” I guessed.
Unexpectedly, I earned Brother Biao’s approval this time, “It’s highly probable.”
The butcher’s suspicion rose and we decided to search his residence. “If Lil’ Hong went out to buy stuff like he said, the murder and dismemberment scene should be elsewhere. However, if Lil’ Hong was killed by this butcher, then the dismemberment scene is highly likely to be his own home. If he didn’t clean very well, then we may find some evidence there,” Brother Biao was confident.
The butcher’s house was a small bungalow with a detached house. The front was used to sell meat while there were two bedrooms in the middle. There were also several pig pens and a slaughter house in the yard, and behind was about a half-acre pond.
After simply looking through the place, we were all like deflated balls. Searching through such a large residence was simply looking for a needle in a haystack. What was even more depressing was that there was blood and soft tissue everywhere due to the slaughterhouse. How could they find human blood or meat in this mess of pig blood?
Brother Biao said, “The most likely place is this slaughterhouse. We also don’t have any shortcuts. Try your best to find some evidence and take it back to the lab to test.”
Following Brother Biao’s instructions, we carefully extracted the soft tissue and blood in the slaughterhouse, placing it in a bag. Two or three hours quickly passed, and the sun was shining high in the sky, yet we were still bent down searching for clues. Looking at the hundreds of samples we already collected, we thought to ourselves which year and month we would be able to finish examining these materials.
Smoking was absolutely forbidden at the scene. This was a rule of investigation sites. Brother Biao took off his gloves and walked to the pond outside the courtyard, taking a puff from a cigarette. Suddenly, his eyes lit up as he called me over.
“We only salvaged three pieces from the river, and there were no clues after searching more, right?” Brother Biao’s face was full of excitement.
“Yeah, I always found it weird. People might not notice something like internal organs, but the head and skeleton should still be able to be found.” I said.
“If you were the butcher, after throwing the soft tissue away, due to a lack of transportation, there’s no way you’d be able to discard of the bones. Then, what would you do?”
I thought about it and looked at the surroundings, suddenly understanding Brother Biao’s meaning, “Oh, oh, I’d throw it into this pond!”
“Yes! Because the skeleton wouldn’t expand or decay, its buoyancy wouldn’t change. Bones thrown in would sink to the bottom, never to resurface. That’s also why the butcher cut off the soft tissue and threw it away. He was afraid the corpse would float up after throwing it into the water!” Brother Biao was confident, “Come, let’s do a big project!”
Dialing 110, the center quickly mobilized three firetrucks and two fire squadrons. Their task was simple: to finish pumping the water away from the pond before dark!
Brother Biao and I squatted by the pond, watching the surface of the water slowly drain away. At four in the afternoon, the bottom was visible.
Fishing in a pond full of water wasn’t easy. However, in a waterless pond, it was more than easy. The dirty pond naturally had no fish, but once the water was drained away, a conspicuous thing wrapped in plastic was visible.
I, who had long put on rubber boots and a dissection suit, cried out in excitement and jumped into the pond, wading through the mud slowly to the conspicuous item.
Brother Biao extinguished his cigarette and walked along the shore to the closest spot before jumping down, chastising, “Stupid, do you only know how to walk in a straight line?”
The conspicuous item was really a corpse. When we lifted it up, we could faintly discern the human bones inside the plastic.
The butcher’s craftsmanship was hair-raising. The soft tissue on the corpse was already peeled off, and only the complete skeleton and some scattered internal organs were left.
“Looks like we’re going to need some cartilage to do a DNA test,” I said.
“Even if we confirm that the corpse is Lil’ Hong, how can we be sure that it was her husband that killed her and threw her into the pond?” Brother Biao asked.
“This… This… This is at his house, he probably can’t deny it, right?” I stumbled.
“What would the lawyer say to you? This can’t be used as conclusive evidence.” Brother Biao shook his head and began shifting through the scattered internal organs.
“Brother Biao, what are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for the stomach.”
“Why?” Before I could finish, Brother Biao had already found the stomach and gently held it in his hands.
“There’s a discovery!” Brother Biao frowned as he picked up his scalpel.
The stomach was cut open and looked practically empty, but a certain thing inside astounded us. We had truly solved the case!
–That conclusive evidence was a severed pinky.
The DNA results came quickly. The pinky indeed belonged to the butcher and bloodstains of the deceased was also discovered in the slaughterhouse. The evidence for the case was completed.
The evidence was also so ironclad that the butcher could only fess up.
It turned out that the butcher discovered that Lil’ Hong had several ambiguous relationships with some local ruffians. He negotiated many times, but not only did it not solve the problem, he was even beaten by a ruffian. One day, the butcher finally couldn’t bear it anymore and hit Lil’ Hong with a heavy hand. Unexpectedly, during the fight, Lil’ Hong bit off his finger and the butcher chopped off Lil’ Hong’s neck in a fit of anger. After killing her, the butcher grew afraid. He knew that if he threw the body into the pond, it would float up in a few days and be discovered. He wouldn’t be able to escape in that case. He thought about it and simply decided to use his butchering skills to neatly remove the soft tissue on Lil’ Hong’s body, put it in a bag, and throw it in a few separate places. Then, after wrapping the skeleton and internal organs he didn’t have time to take care of in plastic, he threw it into the pond. He stayed inside for a whole day, carefully cleaning the crime scene and dismemberment scene—their former home.
That night in the cafeteria, we raised our glasses of water and cheered. You can’t drink while on duty, so let this glass of clear water be celebration beer.
Gosh, I finally finished this chapter. Sorry for taking so long and thank you for the wait.