Diatoms in no joke when it comes to defining the type of drowning. There are more than 9 significant how they help in solving the crime.
But I’m not going to talk about how they’re examined or how they help forensics here; instead, I’m going to talk about real-life cases that have been solved with diatoms.
1. Two Young Boy At Connecticut Pond— Reel Danger
The first case in history that Solves using Diatoms. It is one of the famous cases with 340k views in the Forensic Files series (Season 7, Episode 3).
In 1991, two young boys were held and beaten with a baseball bat by a group of teenagers while fishing in the Stenger’s pond, in Waterford, Connecticut. Surprisingly, one of the victims frees himself, rescues his colleague, and summons help.
With the rapid investigation, three of the suspects were apprehended named Brian Davis, Christopher Green, and Jason (juvenile). Furthermore, the victims’ and suspects’ clothing and encrusted sneakers were seized and forwarded to the limnological laboratory of Connecticut College, New London, along with a reference sample of pond sediments.
Scaled chrysophytes (golden algae) and Eunotia (diatoms were the two most commonly identified genes. The findings were employed to calculate the degree of similarity between the reference samples and clothing. It positively matched.
2. Tracing DB Cooper Money
Most famous skyjacking. Adventurous. Thrilling. This was exactly like a live-action money heist filming that happened on November 24th, 1971. Plus, this is the case of the hijacking of the United States which remains unsolved even after three decades.
No physical evidence was retrieved until after 9 years. On February 10th, 1980, three bundles of $20 totaling roughly $6,000 with serial numbers matching the Cooper ransom. Bills were discovered on the Columbia River near Portland, about 30 km away (Tena bar North) from the reported jump zone over Ariel Washington. Once bills were discovered, FBI Investigators went on the hunt to discover when money was buried.
It was the first time diatom analysis seemed promising. And diatom species, such as Asterionella Formosa, provide more reliable data due to their seasonal variation and could establish a time frame when the bills were immersed in water.
Information that is extracted from DB Copper’s $20 bills were:
- Money was immersed before burial.
- Contains mixed diatom colonies that were compared with the reference sample of the November Columbia river sample.
- Diatoms from summer colonies, indicated money was not directly buried dry. And immersion happened months after the late November hijacking.
3. Dexter Show— Bay Harbor Butcher
Many of you are familiar with one of the most well-known shows, DEXTER. The plot revolves around Dexter Morgan, who worked as a forensic blood spatter analyst as a cover-up. His real interest was in punishing the offenders who fulfilled his “code of killing”. He kills and dumps their bodies in an oceanic trench.
Everything was going swimmingly until, in Season 2, dumped bodies were discovered. As Dexter was doing a good job of cleaning up his trails, he was sure that he hadn’t left any traces.
But the major breakthrough was made by Masuka— a forensic examiner and his colleague, at Miami Station.
- Dexter: Hey, so I hear you found some algae that might help crack the big case.
- Masuka: You heard right.
- Dexter: What kind of algae?
- Masuka (with a mischievous simile): Diatoms……Eukaryotic algae.
So, Dexter decides to burn the lab where the body remains were kept safe. And he did just that. But Dexter hadn’t considered the rocks he used to place with the bodies to drown them. He used to collect them from the marina where he keeps his boats.
Later, diatoms and pollutant (zinc) analysis narrowed down the investigation to three freshwater marinas. This show becomes more interesting then. But it is better and seems more thrilling to watch by yourself. So give it a shot.
4. Greenland Mummies
One of the most preserved arctic sets of mummies was discovered in 1972 in the caves of Qilakitsoq, western Greenland. There were a total of eight mummified women about 500 years old of Thule Culture.
Remarkably, Qilakitsoq mummies differ from Egyptian ones, as “no preservative” chemicals were used. This is all possible because of the perfect natural balance of humidity, acidity, winds, and shade with almost constant frost.
About a decade later, in 1982, Niels Foged— a pioneer of research related to arctic diatoms— was obliged to test the Qilakitsoq mummies for diatoms in order to define drowning. After analyzing the lung tissues, he concluded the cause of death was not drowning.
And, according to the study, which was conducted by the National Museum of Denmark (as well as other pioneering work X-ray tomography (CT) scans), the majority of them die as a result of natural illnesses such as heart attacks.
5. Unidentified Woman At Estuary
One of the cases investigated by Ludes et al. 1999 was the unidentified woman’s body found at the estuary of a river. Suspecting drowning, a diatom test was performed, and it hit positive.
Now, it was clear the drowning cause died. Moreover, the analysis also points out that diatoms originated from freshwater, not from the sea. So, the very next question was. “Where did she drown? What’s the drowning site?”
Within a week, the body matches the profile of a woman living ~60km upstream from the place where the body was found. Samples were taken from the nearby river beds and the result proves that she drowned near her home, and the river stream made the body flow for 60 km.
6. Questioning The Motherhood
A boy’s body was floating in a pond and after post-mortem examination defines the cause of death as vasovagal syncope (body fainting because of overreaction to certain triggers) due to cold water immersion. The case was closed.
After a time, the case was reopened suspecting of being murdered by his mother in the bathtub and dumped in the pond.
Horton et.al. conducted a comparative study from the 12 samples taken from the pond and nearby sediments. Their analysis statistically defines the boy as drowned in the pond, not in a bathtub.
7. Controversy of FV Gaul— British Fishing Vessel
During the cold war, on February 10, 1974, a British Fishing Vessel— Gaul, was reported missing with its 36 crew members and was never found. The possible sunk site is somewhere in the seawater of the Arctic, north of Norway. The reason for the sink was held to be bad weather and violent current during storms.
When, about four months, a lifebuoy from Gaul was recovered from the sea, it was brought for diatom analysis. But surprisingly, diatom analysis tells a different story.
According to the report, “lifebuoy doesn’t have deep-water marine diatoms but fresh ones.” It sparked a prolonged controversy that the sinking of FV Gaul was not an accident.
All of this came to an end in 1997, when the wreck of the Gaul was discovered in the high seas. And, the 2004 Request For Information (RFI) report ruled out any possibility of collision with other ships or being involved in any espionage work. So, the source of diatoms was due to contamination.
8. Diatoms Are The Evils
Diatoms as a toxic substance were not reported until they fired 107 patients to the hospital. It was seen in 1987, in Prince Edward Island, Canada. Most of them have acute human poisoning from the consumption of blue mussels. Unfortunately, 3 men down in that indecent.
The main culprit was diatoms species named Pseudo Nitzschia Pungens f. multi-series that produces causative toxic named domoic acid (DA). The more detailed report was reviewed by Hallegraeff, in 1995.
- Reel Danger Case Study: Forensic Files, Evidence, Culprits, And Diatoms
- 9+ Significance of Diatoms in Forensic Science
- Forensic Analysis of Diatoms in Drowning: Extraction and Procedure
- Draughtsman Appearance: Colonies Structure & Morphology
- Doll’s Eye Reflex: Principle, Cause, Procedure
- Marine Accident Repor on the Underwater Survey… [Source]
- Diatom analysis in victim’s tissues as an indicator of the site of drowning [PubMed]
- Continuous river monitoring of the diatoms in the diagnosis of drowning [PubMed]
- Diagnostic of Drowning in Forensic Medicine [Researchgate]
- Diatoms constrain forensic burial timelines: case study with DB Cooper money [Nature.com]
- Diatoms in human tissues, Greenland ab. 1460 A.D. [Source]
- The mummy find from Qilakitsoq in northwest Greenland [Springer]
FR Author Group at ForensicReader is a team of Forensic experts and scholars having B.Sc, M.Sc, or Doctorate( Ph.D.) degrees in Forensic Science. We published on topics on fingerprints, questioned documents, forensic medicine, toxicology, physical evidence, and related case studies. Know More.