Saturday, December 19, 2015

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Enclosed Spaces: ISDP December 2015

Given our tendency to revel in the lugubrious, we got quite excited a couple of days ago when we spotted this headline in Newsweek: “Using the Human Microbiome to Predict Time of Death.” Could it be that science had finally made the link between increasingly toxic farts and imminent demise? Is it possible to gas oneself to death?

Alas, it turns out that author Sena Christian doesn’t have a firm grasp on the English language. The title should have been “Using the Human Microbiome to Retrodict Time of Death,” as the story is about researchers attempting to refine time of death estimates by analyzing the microbes present on and in a corpse. Despite our disappointment, the new study reported by Newsweek (“Microbial community assembly and metabolic function during mammalian corpse decomposition”) has lots to recommend it to ISDP fans.

This month’s curated assemblage of the olfactory macabre includes two new nominees for the 2015 Norman Bates Award™ but, as we shall reveal, there were nearly three!

Tammy Conner

Tammy Conner of Jacksonville, Florida, earned her NBA nomination by allegedly killing her married boyfriend back in June. Conner is reported to have shot the man and left his body in the enclosed porch of her house. She sealed the house windows with plastic sheets and placed some air fresheners and cleaning products near the body. According to a video report aired by CBS Channel 47 ActionNewJax, cell phone records place Conner was at the house for some days after the crime was committed. That’s good enough for the Nominations Committee to put her on this year’s list!

Next up is 45-year-old Leon Edward Collier of Little River, South Carolina.
Horry County police officers responded to a third-person call of a suicidal man at 4250 Pinehurst Circle around 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. The caller reported that the man at the residence was threatening to harm himself and making comments that he “may have hurt his girlfriend,” according to a police report.
After forcibly gaining entry to the house, police officers smelled a foul odor. This led them to a closet where they found the decomposing body of Mr. Collier’s girlfriend hidden under various items. We give the Horry County police officers credit for following their noses, and we give Mr. Collier a nomination for the 2015 Norman Bates Award.

We thought we were in Norman Bates Award territory for a third time when we found this headline: “Suburban Man Hid Roommate’s Body in Suitcase.” But when his girlfriend/roommate died of a drug overdose, the suburbanite in question, 23-year-old Alexander Acevedo of Midlothian, Illinois, hid the suitcase containing her body in the storage area of his apartment building. ISDP fans will already have predicted the consequences [Valid use of “predict”!—Ed.]:
Assistant States Attorney Jordan Matthis said a resident of the building in the 14500 block of Keystone Avenue flagged down a police officer Thursday after she smelled a foul odor coming from the building’s storage area.
By moving the suitcase out of the apartment, Mr. Acevedo got himself charged with “concealment of a death” and also took himself out of the running for the Norman Bates Award. (Why? Because competition rules require the nominee to have lived in close proximity with a dead body.) Photos and crime scene details are available from the indispensable Daily Mail.

Always Trust Your Nose™

There’s a romance to being on the road, and nothing testifies to the great American tradition of vehicular self-sufficiency better than the RV. And nothing speaks better to trusting and caring for the needs of the motoring public than Walmart’s policy of allowing RVs to overnight in its parking lots. An inevitable result is that Walmart, through no fault of its own, features in the occasional ISDP incident. A new example from Florida:
An elderly man was found dead Monday inside a camper in a parking lot near the Hallandale Beach Walmart after someone on a lunch break reported a foul odor to police, according to Hallandale Beach police spokeswoman Sonia Quinones.
Quinones said the man had gotten lunch and went back to his car to eat when he smelled something from two parking spots away.
Always Trust Your Nose™, Part Deux

Warehouse staff at a heating company in England discover that two crates supposed to contain boilers are crawling with maggots and emitting a foul smell. They find a decomposing body inside each crate. What prompted the discovery?
“People had been complaining about a foul smell for about a week but it got worse so some staff went to investigate.
About a week? How bad does it usually smell at Ferroli Ltd.?

None are so blind as those who fail to smell . . .
Paramedics were called about 2 p.m. after a gardener noticed an unresponsive man in the back seat of a black Cadillac SRX, which was parked along the curb of Ferris Road, said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Jauch.
The unresponsive man in question, who had been reported missing, was dead, evidently as the result of a gunshot wound. Accounts do not mention that the gardener noticed a smell, therefore this cannot qualify as an ISDP incident. However, the body had been there for at least two days. The previous day it had been ticketed by a parking officer for the El Monte Police Department, who evidently didn’t notice an odor (or the body for that matter). And then there is this:
A neighbor was quoted in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune as saying she walks a route that passes that intersection daily and noticed the Cadillac on Dec. 2 [two days previous] about noon. The resident said she recalled a foul odor when she passed by the car but wasn’t sure if it came from the vehicle or the storm drain next to it.
Storm drain, dead body, whatever.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

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Monday, November 16, 2015

My Friend Annie: A Thanksgiving Reflection on Jonestown

It was a long time ago, but I remember the moment vividly. We were lying in our sleeping bags, three or four of us, on a wooden tent platform in the Sierra Nevada. The night sky was dense with bright stars. The conversation turned cosmic: we were, after all, teenagers, and it was the summer of 1971. We talked about what we wanted to do with our lives. Annie was emphatic—she wanted to dedicate her life to helping other people. It was a fine sentiment but it struck me as strangely self-erasing. I was focused on finding out what I wanted to be and what I would achieve. The idea that someone would set all that aside and submerge her self to help others was simply beyond me.

Soon enough Bob Brooks, the U.C. Davis wresting coach and camp director, trudged past and told us to knock it off and get to sleep. Tomorrow was the first day of camp and we would all be on deck as counselors. It was the annual Foster Children’s Camp, sponsored by the Davis Methodist Church. We worked all year to make it happen. In March, the Davis Enterprise ran a photo of a bunch of us at the spaghetti dinner fundraiser. Here it is.

I’m in the back in glasses, sleeves rolled up, holding a handful of cash. Annie is seated at the head of the table, her long hair parted in the middle. She was a year ahead of me in high school. She was tall, thin, and pretty and had a dry sense of humor. Everyone liked her.

Annie and I had been acquaintances since her family moved to Davis in 1966. Her father, John Moore, had been pastor of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Methodist Church and came to Davis to be the campus minister. Our family attended Davis Methodist Church. My father was a philosophy professor at U.C.D. and often played the organ at services. He had an interest in comparative religion and would later teach some of the first religious studies courses on campus.

Davis was on the forefront of 1960’s liberalism. Our church took up a collection to send our pastor, Rev. Phil Walker, to the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Rev. Moore fit right in—taking part in anti-Viet Nam war protests and providing moral support as Cal Aggie students burned their draft cards.

I recall our family, along with others, being invited to the Moore’s house for Thanksgiving in 1966. It was an unremarkable event. Annie’s older sister Carolyn was there along with her boyfriend, who struck me as a bit odd and standoffish. For some reason, I remember one detail in particular: when most of the guys moved to the den to watch football on TV, he didn’t join us. The ten-year-old me found that weird.

By 1972, our Foster Children’s Camp days were over. High school ended, I headed to Berkeley for college and found my calling in science. Annie got a nursing degree. I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school at Penn. My Davis friends told me Annie had joined a religious commune. That didn’t seem strange—after all, she wanted to help people.

News of the November 18, 1978 Jonestown massacre hit me like a brick. I soon realized that the creepy boyfriend on that distant Thanksgiving was Larry Layton, who took part in the deadly ambush of Congressman Leo Ryan’s party at the Port Kaituma airport. I searched the New York Times for mention of Annie and found it: she was dead with all the rest. Unlike the rest, she died in Jim Jones’ cabin of a gunshot to the head. She did not drink the Kool-Aid. Nor did Jones.

For a time, I struggled to make sense of her role in that evil place of death. I told myself she was too smart, too caring, to have joined in mass murder. She must have resisted, perhaps tried to stop Jones with a gun in the last moments.

And then the circumstances of her death made the papers. On the table, next to her body, was a notebook filled with her final thoughts as the carnage took place around her. Was it a plea for help? A diatribe against the sick bastard who took out 900 people and left them to rot in the jungle?

No. It was an earnest tribute to Jim Jones, “the most honest, loving, caring concerned person whom I ever met and knew.” Jonestown was a “paradise,” “the most peaceful, loving community that ever existed.”

“What a beautiful place this was.”

I look at the newspaper clippings and high school yearbook photos and wonder how this smart, goodhearted girl ended up in Jonestown with her head blown off. How did she go from the sincere, amorphous ideals of that Sierra summer to arranging cyanide-laced drinks and lethal injections for the people she claimed to care about?

The standard answer, I suppose, is that she came under the sway of a cult leader. That may be true, but it is also true that the evil inherent in Jim Jones was apparent all along, well before the final days in Jonestown. By his own account, Annie’s father had been uneasy about Jones from early on when his older daughter Carolyn became involved with the Peoples Temple. But it’s also clear that he and his wife were hamstrung by their devotion to the liberal pieties, shared by Jones, of reducing poverty, improving race relations, and ending the war. When they visited their daughters in Guyana before the massacre, John Moore saw things that made him uneasy but he also approvingly noted the “no smoking” signs in the encampment.

Jones rose quickly in San Francisco’s political arena because his views were in synch with the emerging liberal establishment that found him useful. With the Peoples Temple congregation at his beck and call, Jones could deliver crowds for events and door-to-door campaigning, and San Francisco Democrat pols like Willie Brown, George Moscone, and John Burton were happy to take advantage.

No one stopped to question the assumptions of the day: that human nature can be shaped by decree, that a utopia can be ours for the asking. And so while Jim Jones led his flock in a mad dance toward death, the earnest, well-meaning, forward-thinking people of the Bay Area looked on approvingly, and my friend Annie knowingly and deliberately took part in mass murder.

I have visited her grave in Davis. I felt sad about the waste of a promising life. But I feel worse about the delusions of the 60s that wrecked so many lives and that continue to wreak havoc today.

Friday, November 13, 2015

As It Was in the Beginning: ISDP November 2015

When we launched ISDP on a Friday the thirteenth back in the misty dawn of Internet time, little did we suspect that it would become the most insanely popular feature of FirstNerve. We continue to disgorge a new collection of these lugubrious stories on the thirteenth of each month, and every so often it lands on another Friday. It just feels so right, does it not?

Cold weather sort of puts the kibosh on ISDP incidents. It snowed here yesterday, so we expected to pull a relatively small batch of reeking items from the depths of the rusty drum where we keep incoming data. And yet we dredged up a full serving of material. Enjoy!

Charles Cole

We have another nominee for the 2015 Norman Bates Award™, the second one this year from upstate New York. Forty-eight-year-old Charles Cole allegedly strangled his mother to death, lived with her body in a motel in Pleasant Valley, New York, for seven weeks, and then drove it to South Carolina where he dumped it in a secluded area off of I-95.
“I find it hard to imagine,” state police Capt. John Ryan said, “the circumstances that would lead a son to strangle his mother, but also to live with the body in a motel room and then travel several states away and dump her like trash.”
Preaching to the choir, Capt. Ryan.

Curiously, the motel staff, who were in the room frequently, claim not to have noticed any malodor. Cole’s wife Ronalda, age 40, has been charged with tampering with physical evidence for her alleged role in helping transport her mother-in-law’s body. She will of course receive her own invitation to the Norman Bates Awards gala and ceremony early next year.

The bodies of a woman and her granddaughter are found in a home in Casa de Oro near San Diego, but is this a bona fide ISDP incident? Reports are conflicting. This report is ambiguous; it sounds like a stench from the house caused neighbors to flag down a police car. However, another report suggests that the concerned friends who discovered the pair smelled a “foul odor” only after opening the door. You know the drill—odor must lead to the discovery, so this one sounds like a near miss. Hmmm . . . In any case, it now appears to have been a murder-suicide.

In Long Beach, Mississippi, police follow up on a missing persons report.
When officers arrived to follow-up on the man they said they caught a whiff of a strong odor coming from the man’s backyard.
That’s where they found the 87-year-old resident’s body in a garbage container. Why are we bothering you with what appears to be another case of “close but no cigar”? Because 63-year-old Christy Lee Zarrella, who had been befriended the deceased and was living with him in the house, has been charged with desecration of a corpse: she allegedly removed the pacemaker from his body.

Stay tuned—this could get weird: it might even result in another Norman Bates Award nomination.

“Mobile home park manager” turns out to be one of those high risk of ISDP occupations. In Joliet, Illinois, the park manager tried to contact a resident after smelling a foul odor coming from a mobile home. Getting no response, he went inside and found the body of the 60-year-old resident, who had been stabbed multiple times.

In St. Louis, Missouri:
Two men working for an asbestos abatement crew were clearing out drywall from the back of a home when they noticed a foul odor. They discovered the body underneath three pieces of drywall.
The body was that of a 22-year-old Army veteran. His was the 159th homicide of the year in St. Louis.

Two men fishing the Brazos River in Waller County, Texas, smelled a foul odor coming from a black trash bag near the river. Sheriff’s deputies found a dismembered body inside the bag.

Meanwhile, in southwest Houston, a “group of juveniles” walking along the 7100 block of Jetty Lane followed their noses to the source of a foul odor. They discovered the skeletal remains of a woman.

Residents in Newark, New Jersey, call the police about a foul odor. In a neighbor’s garage down the block officers find the body of a 50-year-old woman who had been reported missing 10 days earlier. The body wrapped in a blanket and the head was separated from the body.

In the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville, residents call the police about a foul odor near a wooded area. On investigating, officers found the body of a 28-year-old woman in a nearby dumpster behind an oil change service shop. They have arrested the woman’s 42-year-old husband, who works at the shop.

From the October 12 police log in Sausalito, California:
600 block of Sausalito Boulevard. A woman was concerned the bad odor coming from her front yard was a dead body and wanted police to check it out. Officers checked her yard and found no dead bodies but suspected the foul odor was coming from a neighbor’s chicken manure or possibly a dead animal under someone’s home.
Call us paranoid, but we wouldn't consider this case closed just yet.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Departure to Tokyo: The Shores of the Past

The jet took off to the west out of Los Angeles but then turned and followed the coast northward. This was a mild surprise as I hadn't given much thought to the route; my last couple of flights to Tokyo were from JFK. Soon we were passing Santa Barbara, the recent scene of my older daughter's commencement from UCSB. In the clear sky of early afternoon the ridges of the parched coastal mountains were sharp, the ravines deep and in shadow.

As we continued along the coast our altitude was low enough for me to recognize landmark after landmark. Having driven it so many times, the Pacific Coast Highway is ribbon of memories. From the big window of the 787 I looked down into the forested hills of Big Sur and recalled the pre-dawn drive back from Esalen with a Chevy Impala full of friends reeking of sulfur after hours in the hot springs. Further on, the Monterey Peninsula and the guano-covered rocks off Point Pinos. A glorious summer spent at Stanford's Marine Biology Lab in Pacific Grove. As we float past, zeppelin-like, I see the fairways of the public golf course where your putt was likely to be disrupted by the blare of the fog horn.

The big, shallow curve of Monterey Bay was next. On the northern end I see the Santa Cruz pier near the amusement park: summer after summer with the kids, the vertigo inducing rides, the corn dogs, grabbing brass rings on the merry-go-round, and of course the bumper cars. I see Highway 17 winding up and over the hills and try, in vain, to spot P----'s old place on the summit, the one with the view of the entire bay.

By now, all of southern San Francisco Bay is laid out beneath me, the abstract red sections of the salt ponds and Mount Diablo in the distance. From up here the full extent of the sheltered bay is magnificent. I see why sailors loved it, despite the dry, austere hills around it that even the Indians found unforgiving. To me, this familiar grouping of hills and water, freeways and bridges, islands and vistas, is dense with memory and emotion. The great intellectual intensity of Berkeley that exists alongside its pretensions and idiocies. I still feel the pull but now it is my younger daughter's turn; she is making her own path through Cal.

From up here, the enormous green rectangle of Golden Gate Park dominates the tip of the San Francisco peninsula; grids of neighborhood streets to the north and south of it, clusters of silver/gray buildings on the hills to the east. How many hours spent wandering the hidden glens and meadows of the park. And still vivid, the awe-struck moment in April, 1971, when the anti-war parade turned into the Polo Fields, filled with more people than I've ever seen in one place. The loud irrelevance of Big Brother and the Holding Company without Janis. And now the regret that I, and so many others, were so wrong about so many things.

On to the Marin headlands and Mount Tamalpais. There is Stinson Beach and, a couple of minutes later, two bright, irregular lines of white surf along the ruler-straight line of coast running northeast from Point Reyes. We climb and bank west but I can make out the edge of Bodega Bay under a light mist. A fluffy cloud bank adheres to the ocean's edge near Jenner and the mouth of the Russian River. The coastline here is less familiar to me and becomes indistinct in the haze. The far northern reaches, home to cold rolling waves and great piles of driftwood, are the last thing I see as we arc out over the Pacific. To starboard we are edge-on to a thick slab of murky cloudbank. Beneath us the deep blue waters are spittle-flecked with icy white caps. Soon the high slab thickens and descends. A cloud carpet slides beneath us. We are nowhere and anywhere.

On to Japan.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Late Harvest: Pre-Halloween ISDP Edition

It’s been busy here in the drafty shack that serves as FirstNerve Manor on the high plains of Colorado. Mostly we’ve been sampling local IPAs and watching the sales figures surge for our I Smell Dead People T-shirt, which seems to have hit a nerve with Bride of Chucky fans. [And no, Brad Dourif, we’re not going to send you one gratis. Pony up, you cheap f**k! Jennifer Tilly we’ll comp, but that’s a different story.]

With the thirteenth of the month at hand, it’s time to uncork the latest batch of lugubrious ISDP incidents. You know what we’re talking about: those stories that begin with a foul odor and end at the same grim state of corporeal decay. [It never gets old!—Ed.] This pre-Halloween edition is chock-full as the lingering summer heat keeps the relevant bacteria working overtime.

Our first incident combines two great themes of I Smell Dead People. One is the legendary “Body Under the Bed” scenario that inspired our morbid fascination with the entire genre in the first place: in its purest form, a motel guest complains of a bad-smelling room, and the manager discovers a corpse stashed beneath the bed. The second theme is the focus of our insanely popular Norman Bates Award™, given to a person who lives in close quarters with a deceased person, even as said person exhibits the florid and putrescent signs of bodily decay.

So meet Alfred Guerrero, the latest Norman Bates Award™ Nominee and the man who personalized the body-in-the-motel-room routine. A “funky smell” emanating from a room at the Mission Motel in Ontario, California led someone to call the police to investigate. Officers detained long-term motel resident Alfred Guerrero after finding a decomposing body in his room. The remains appear to be those of an acquaintance of his. Guerrero was released without charges after being questioned.

Mixed Doubles

Whitney Gray
Brandon Griswold

A Nashville, Tennessee, couple bludgeons their roommates (another couple) to death, stuffs the bodies into a utility closet, and continues to live in the apartment. The mother of the male victim, who had reported him missing, went to the apartment in search of him. When she “smelled the odor of decomposition” leaking past the door, she called police who discovered the crime scene. Brandon Griswold (20) and his girlfriend Whitney Gray (21) confessed to the murders and were arrested. They are this year’s first dual nominees for the Norman Bates Award™.

Since we’re talking theme and variations, we venture abroad to include an unusual hybrid item from the town of Heerhugowaard in the Netherlands. A local woman let a homeless lady store some personal belongings in her shed. A year later, while rummaging in the shed, the owner notices a foul odor. Searching for the source, she discovered the body of a child, wrapped in plastic. While this qualifies as an ISDP incident, we also wonder whether it might not be something new, a case of Norman Bates by Proxy Syndrome.

Mary Kersting

Finally, 60-year-old Mary Kersting of Gloversville, New York, has pleaded guilty to grand larceny and improper disposal of a body. When her 93-year-old mother died in October, 2013, Kersting kept her body in the apartment below hers while she cashed the old lady’s benefits checks. A police welfare check in December, 2014, discovered the year-old body. Kersting faces six months in jail, but she is also in the running for the 2015 Norman Bates Award™. Congratulations!

Out West

In West Jordan, Utah, a couple of young skateboarders smelled “an extremely foul odor” and successfully followed their noses to the source. They found the badly decomposed body of a 28-year-old man in a utility area near the public library. Evidence suggests his death was the result of a drug overdose.

Someone walking past a camper parked between two abandoned houses in Texarkana, Texas, smelled a “foul odor” coming from it and called police, who found a decomposed male body inside. The body was later identified as that of a 47-year-old homeless man.

Rugged Individualism

A 64-year-old man in Humboldt County, California, is the victim of an attempted home invasion. He fights back with a Gurka knife and the wounded assailant flees with the help of another perp. Two weeks later someone calls the county sheriffs to report a foul odor and deputies discover the decomposed remains of a 32-year-old Sacramento man who may have been the wounded attacker.

It’s not quite “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” but “Texas Woman’s Body Found in Oklahoma Trunk” isn’t bad. A Oklahoma DPS trooper stopped to check out an abandoned car on I-44 near Randlett, in Cotton County. Smelling a foul odor, he opened the trunk where he discovered the body of a 61-year-old woman from Amarillo, Texas. Without impugning the trooper’s olfactory acuity in the least, we are not able to award this incident true ISDP status, as the search was initiated before the officer noticed the smell.

Southern California

Just off the 405 in the North Hills area of Los Angeles neighbors smell a foul odor coming from an apartment and call the police. LAPD finds the decomposing remains of a 23-year-old man who appears to have died from a gunshot to the head.

Neighbors called police about a foul smell coming from parked car in a residential area of San Bernardino, California. Police found a decomposing body in the trunk. The body was later identified as that of the 28-year-old owner of the car, who had been reported missing a few days earlier.

A body discovered in the Angeles National Forest, just north of Glendora, may be that of a man who was digging for gold when torrential rains caused mud slides and fallen trees. He had been missing for about a week, and acquaintances who were searching for him were tracking a “foul odor” when they discovered the remains.

Always Trust Your Nose™

Tenants at a business complex in Santa Fe, New Mexico had been complaining for weeks about a “rancid odor.” One of the properties owners (in what we presume was a search for the source of the stink) lifted the lid on a cistern and discovered a body that police say had been in the water for about two weeks. A lock on the cistern lid appears to have been broken but it is not yet known how the person died.

Last month we referred an incident to the Rules Committee for clarification. In Queens, New York, the body of a 28-year-old woman with stab wounds was found in the trunk of her father’s Nissan. Her boyfriend is still being sought by police in connection with her murder. From accounts at press time, it wasn’t clear whether the car was reported because of a smell, or because police were searching for it. Now we have an answer:
The driver of an NYPD tow truck discovered the Nissan during a rotation tow operation on September 10, police sources said. The victim’s family listed the car as missing when they filed a Missing Persons Report on September 9. A license plate reader in the tow truck spotted the car and the driver alerted the NYPD Missing Persons Unit. Investigators who arrived at the scene were overcome by a foul odor coming from the trunk of the car, police said.
Well, that settles it. Discovery preceded odor, therefore no ISDP.

Breaking News from the World of Science

We’re not sure whether to file this under “No shit, Sherlock” or under “Good to know, Ken.”
The smell of death: evidence that putrescine elicits threat management mechanisms.
Judging from our years of reporting on the topic, we think that the “implicit cognition” mechanisms triggered by the smell of putrescine can be easily overridden by contextual cues (“A dead body? Really? I thought someone was cooking cabbage.”)

Case in point: a woman in Naples, Florida, thought the foul odor in her ceiling might be a dead mouse. She spent $800 on cleaning supplies in an unsuccessful effort to get rid of the smell. Then her apartment manager informed her that her upstairs neighbor had died “quite some time ago.”

Department of Updates

One year ago we reported on an instance of ISDP in Brownsville, Texas, in which a woman and child were found dead. Last month Donald Edward Pierce pleaded guilty to murdering his wife and son and was sentenced to life without parole.

Also last month we posted an ISDP incident in Calaveras County, California, in which a motorist driving through a sparsely populated area noticed a foul odor and called the sheriffs who found a man’s body lying off the road. Soon after, a 71-year-old local woman was arrested in connection with the case and charged with suspicion of murder. [You mean 17-year-old local woman?—Ed.] [No: seventy-one.] Another body was found in the area earlier this year. Stay tuned.

We close with resolution to an ISDP Cold Case File. An 18-year-old man from Woodland Park, Colorado went missing seven years ago. His remains were found two months ago when a local cabin was demolished: he evidently had attempted to enter the cabin via the chimney, gotten stuck, and died. The cabin’s owner told a newspaper that he seldom used the cabin because of its “foul odor.”

A sad story, but a surprisingly common one, as long-time ISDP readers know. For hours of entertainment just type “chimney” into the search box at the top of the page.

Thursday, October 8, 2015


Took my new I Smell Dead People T-shirt on tour yesterday in Fort Collins. The cashier at Whole Foods took one look and knew her nose-ring was suddenly yesterday’s style.


Get yours in time for the office Halloween party.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Alleged Limitations of Olfactory Language

That smells can be difficult to name is a commonplace observation. Almost as commonplace as the observation that there exist many specialized vocabularies for smell, such as those used by perfumers, wine tasters, brewers, coffee roasters, tobacconists, potheads, etc., etc. In this battle of off-setting banalities, those who downplay our ability to verbalize odors are often ceded the victory, in keeping with the pessimistic Greco-Freudian view that the human sense of smell is a poor thing, rendered vestigial from lack of use, and substantially inferior to that of other animals.

A more optimistic view is that humans are quite competitive in terms of odor sensitivity (often exceeding that paragon of scent detection, the dog) and that a remarkable amount of information regarding other people (emotional, physiological, and health status, for example) is received and processed via the nose. This positive outlook has been gaining support steadily in recent years but science journalists and assistant beauty editors have been slow to recognize the trend. This is not surprising; they are, after all, science journalists and assistant beauty editors. What is surprising is that a pair of credible scientists have now thrown in with the nasal nay-sayers and offered a theoretical account of why humans must necessarily suck at naming smells.

That might seem a rather rude way to characterize a paper decorously titled “The muted sense: neurocognitive limitations of olfactory language,” but I think it captures the essence of what Jonas Olofsson and Jay Gottfried are attempting to do.

Olofsson and Gottfried begin with three papers from the 1970s that find when you bring people into a psychology lab and have them sniff odors absent any contextual information (visual, auditory, or otherwise), they have a hard time coming up with the correct name. Provide them multiple-choice odor names and they generally choose the correct one. For good measure, Olofsson and Gottfried also reference studies showing that under similar laboratory conditions people suck at picking out individual components from a bouquet of scents.

Atop these rudimentary observations, O&G construct a “biologically informed framework for olfactory lexical processing.” Being neuro-imaging specialists, they sketch connections between piriform cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and all the other neuroanatomical waystations on the route from nostril to naming. You will enjoy the discussion if this sort of thing appeals to you:
Importantly, odors are already integrated with lexical representations at the third synapse from receptor neuron input. This could put olfaction at a disadvantage compared with the visual system, where multiple subcortical and cortical sites create object representations before lexical–semantic integration by integrating features at different spatial scales.
My concern here is not with O&G’s theoretical edifice, but with their presumption that the difficulty in generating a verbal tag for a context-free odor is somehow fundamental to our understanding of human olfaction, and with their view that this phenomenon benefits from a convoluted account drawing upon “recent behavioral and neuroimaging data.”

Take the laboratory task upon which their entire argument is based: could there be anything more remote from the universal, everyday experience of smell than being confronted with a sniff-bottle and asked to name its contents by smell alone? What real world setting does this resemble? The answer is none.

Smells always occur in a context, and it is only within this context that we try to make sense of them. At the fish market, for example, we sniff to see whether the fish is fresh. Whether we can summon up the name “trimethylamine” is irrelevant. Smells may confirm our visual expectations (“it seems to have rained here recently”) or draw our attention to something that warrants exploration (“what’s burning?”) all without resort to specific lexical representations.

Tagging a smell with a specific lexical term requires high-level abstraction. In contrast, odor identification and description are broader abilities that are exercised more often and with greater functional impact. When olfactory naming happens in real life it also happens in a natural context and the language processing is tuned to an appropriate (and useful) level of generalization. Here’s a non-laboratory example of olfactory language in action:
“Umm. Is someone grilling dinner?”
“Yeah, it smells like hamburgers.”
To me, that is an example of rapid, precise, and biologically useful neurocognitive olfactory processing. But in Olofsson and Gottfried’s model it simply doesn’t exist.

In my view, the O&G model is an elaborate neurocognitive account of a laboratory artifact. It has little bearing on the broader role of olfaction in human behavior and communication. Does this sound extreme? Then ask yourself: does the near-universal inability to name the musical key of a song imply that “people are poor at describing sounds?”

The study discussed here is “The muted sense: neurocognitive limitations of olfactory language,” by Jonas K. Olofsson & Jay A. Gottfried, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19:314-321, 2015.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Summer's Bounty: An ISDP Cornucopia

We were stuffing pages from an old copy of the Guardian into our wet boots the other evening when we noticed a piece by our pal, the winsome Katie Puckrik: “Bottling the smell of dead people won’t capture their essence.” Our first reaction was, “the hell it won’t.” But then we realized she was talking about Olfactory Links, a French enterprise based on the idea of “olfactory comfort” or capturing the scent of a departed loved one. Katie riffs on the idea in her characteristic style. For example, the company’s method is “a high-tech variation of boiling dad down to a reduction sauce.”

A million people write about fragrance. What sets Katie apart is the thoughtfulness and vividness she brings to it:
family smell associations are both more nuanced and more abstract than anything produced by an enfleurage of my parents’ senior-style velour tracksuits. I don’t know that I’d find their literal smell more comforting than that of cut grass (Dad mowing the lawn), or of leather ballet slippers (Mom driving me to dance class), or even of the lung-shrivelling damp that crept up from the cellar as their house aged along with them.
Katie is firing up her Katie Puckrik Smells blog again and it’s worth stopping by. We will as soon as we hack into our neighbor’s WiFi.

Meanwhile, it appears that we may need to open an ISDP news bureau in Japan to cover the rising epidemic of what are called “solitary deaths”
(孤立死 or koritsu-shi).
According to data made public by the Tokyo coroner’s office, in 2013, the latest year for which figures are available, some 2,733 people over the age of 65 were found dead while living alone in Tokyo’s 23 wards. The figures showed a continuous increase over the previous decade. The office also had data on the average number of days that had passed from the dead person’s last human contact. Compared with six days for women, the average for men was double.
Underlying the phenomenon is Japan’s population structure—fewer young people to look after an increasing proportion of elderly—and perhaps changing cultural norms, in which a preoccupation with social media takes precedence over family obligations. On the bright side, Japan Today notes that the increase in koritsu-shi has created a commercial niche for specialized clean-up crews.
Finally, blogger Maki notes how use of the related terms koritsu-shi and kodoku-shi reflect recent changes in language and in the Japanese attitude towards deaths that take place in social isolation.

This month’s ISDP summary is swollen to grotesque proportions by the heat of August. We begin with an item from Brooklyn that should have been included in last month’s edition.
Police found a man’s decomposing body inside a Brownsville apartment, authorities said. The grim discovery was made Saturday night after neighbors reported a foul odor coming from inside an apartment at the Chester Street home near Dumont Street, cops said.
Upstate in Batavia, New York, a body found in Kibbe Park turned out to be that of a missing 49-year-old man. His body was discovered “after workers at the park noticed a foul odor, and then discovered him in Tonawanda Creek.”

More news from Philadelphia, the city that let ghoulish butcher M.D. Kermit Gosnell thrive for years: A “terrible stench” leads neighbors to discover corpses from a funeral home stored in a garage. The funeral home director, Janet Powell Daley, had an expired business license and an expired license as a funeral director. She had not responded to citations regarding either one.

A decomposed body was found in the back set of a car parked next to a supermarket in West Covina, California “after someone noticed a foul odor coming from the car and peered inside.” The body was that of an Uber driver, a 36-year-old woman from Irvine.

In Youngstown, Ohio, police found the decomposed body of a man in a wooded area behind a home, after a citizen reported “a foul odor coming from a vacant home.”

In Blairsville, Georgia, neighbors of Randy Ray Siggers on Highway 325 “reported a foul odor coming from his residence.” His body was found inside.

The headline from Forest Lake, Minnesota: “Foul odor in Forest Lake apartment leads police to body; man held.” The body was that of a woman; the man was her boyfriend. Officers were called by the landlord who “reported a foul smell coming from the south end of the building.”

In San Antonio, Texas, police found a body inside a vacant home after a neighbor called about a foul odor. It appears the victim had been kidnapped several days earlier.

Lingering After Effects

In Topeka, Kansas, a woman complains that “she can’t escape a foul odor coming from a neighbor’s home.”
Kim Boyd says the odor’s been around ever since a decomposing body was removed from the house next door to her in the 1200 block of SW 25th. (. . .) Boyd says the smell is so bad, her son won’t go outside and play.
Sounds like a job for Taiichi Yoshida's cleanup crew.

There are none so anosmic as those who will not smell . . .

In San Antonio, Texas, police received a late-night call about a foul odor coming from a vacant house. They found a decomposed body in a bathtub on the second floor.
Roger Aguilar, who works as at church across the street, heard about the disturbing discovery and drove by the area. He said he has noticed a lot of activity around the house in the past, but didn’t notice anything unusual lately. “I never smelled anything. I never noticed anything,” Aguilar said. “We always see traffic in and out of there, people coming out, so we don’t know who’s the actual person that lives there.”
Doth he protest too much? Police say the body had been there for a week. They are treating it as a homicide.

At the Penn Plaza Apartment in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, a man’s decomposed body was found in his unit.
“The man lay inside his apartment for seven or eight days, by the door, and where was security at? Why didn’t security officials walk the halls and report any foul odor to management?” said resident Gayle Williams.
In Brockton, Massachusetts, the body of a 24-year-old homicide victim was found in the backyard of an abandoned home on Boylston Street.
Susan Russo, who lives on nearby Winona Street, told the Enterprise she started smelling a foul odor on Wednesday.
“I started smelling it Wednesday but it was also trash night so I thought it was just trash,” Russo, 54, said. “My neighbor, it smelled really bad in her yard and as you walked into her yard and the next yard it smelled disgusting.”
Later, Ms. Russo complained to The Patriot Ledger that she was troubled by the discovery.
Susan Russo didn’t get much sleep after finding out that the foul odor she had been smelling in her neighborhood this week was coming from the body of a man in a nearby backyard.
“I just couldn’t sleep knowing that. It’s really bothersome. This is a decent neighborhood and it’s really bothersome that they found a body here,” Russo, 54, said Friday.
Talk about bothersome. Who is this “they” that found a body? You smelled it first, lady.

In contrast to these dispiriting reports, here’s a reminder that concerned citizens can and do rise to the occasion. In California, Calaveras County Sheriff’s deputies responded to reports of a foul odor and “located the remains of an adult male off the roadway.” The remains were found “off Winton Road near Lily Gap Road in a sparsely populated area several miles east of West Point, between Highways 4 and 88. A person driving through the area reported the foul smell to the Sheriff’s Office.

Annals of Marketing

The FOX Connecticut TV channel manages to needlessly piss off at least two potential advertisers:
WEST HARTFORD – Police are investigating the discovery of a dead body in a car outside the Red Robin restaurant near Best Buy at the Corbin’s Corner shopping center. A call came in to police at about 4 p.m. Sunday from a shopper who reported a foul odor and possible body.
Down in Putnam County, Florida, the body of a young woman was found in a cemetery. According to an initial story, it was discovered by a local pastor.
“I noticed a foul odor,” said the Rev. Christopher Coleman. Coleman said he was preparing a grave for an upcoming service Thursday morning at the remote Gethsemane Cemetery.
In a subsequent story, Rev. Coleman is identified as the owner of Coleman Mortuary. Would it be to cynical to suggest that he gave reporters his commercial bona fides after he realized the PR opportunity provided by the new coverage? Yeah, probably.

Minutes of the Rules Committee

Long-time readers know that to qualify as an ISDP incident, the stench of decay must lead to the discovery of human remains; odor noticed in the course of investigating a welfare check or a missing person complaint does not qualify, and we don’t bother posting such cases. So this case from Lake Worth, Florida presents a difficult case for the Rules Committee.
While Palm Beach County Sheriff’s detectives were handing out missing person fliers today on South L Street, they smelled a “foul odor” that led them to human remains, PBSO reported. After noticing the stench in Lake Worth south of Lake Avenue, the deputies investigated and found what the medical examiner’s office later confirmed were human remains.
We don’t yet know that the discovered remains were those of the person in the flyer. If they were not, it’s clearly an ISDP incident. If they were, we’re still inclined to credit the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s detectives for olfactory alertness and follow-through.

Postscript: It turns out the remains did, in fact, belong to the missing person.

On the other hand, this case from Butler County, Missouri is an easy call. A sheriff’s deputy on patrol spotted an abandoned car in a ditch. As he approached the vehicle “he immediately detected a foul odor.” On inspecting the car, he found the decomposed body of a 48-year-old murder victim in the trunk. That’s good police work but it doesn’t qualify as ISDP.

Here’s a final one for the Rules Committee: “Boyfriend suspected in death of woman found in trunk of her father’s car” The details, provided by the New York Post, are ambiguous:
The vehicle was found at the corner of Murray Street and 22nd Street around 8:30 p.m., emanating a foul odor, cops said.
Did a citizen report a foul smell coming from the car (ISDP)? Or did police find the car because they were looking for a make, model and license plate (not ISDP)? Committee decision: withhold judgment pending clarification.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

F. Scott Fitzgerald: An Olfactory Archaeology

A wonderful literary use of smell to illuminate the thick layers of human detritus that accumulate with time in a New York apartment building. Climbing up the scented stairway is like descending through the layers of an archaeological dig.
Then he would trudge homeward, enter the dark hallway, and climb three rickety flights of stairs covered by an ancient carpet of long obliterated design. The hall had an ancient smell—of the vegetables of 1880, of the furniture polish in vogue when “Adam-and-Eve” Bryan ran against William McKinley, of portières an ounce heavier with dust, from worn-out shoes, and lint from dresses turned long since into patch-work quilts. This smell would pursue him up the stairs, revivified and made poignant at each landing by the aura of contemporary cooking, then, as he began the next flight, diminishing into the odor of the dead routine of dead generations.

Eventually would occur the door of his room, which slipped open with indecent willingness and closed with almost a sniff upon his “Hello, dear! Got a treat for you to-night.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Oh Russet Witch!”
From Tales of the Jazz Age (1922)

Friday, August 14, 2015

ISDP: In the Heat of the Summer

It’s peak summer—the zucchini are plump and the corn is ripening. So too are the remains of certain unfortunate souls who expired this past month; only the grim olfactory residuum of decomposition allowed them to be found. Here in the ISDP nerve center at FirstNerve Manor we have been collecting reports from all across the nation—we were so busy we missed our traditional 13th of the month deadline last night, something that happens only once in a blue moon. So without further ado, here is our latest compendium of the most grotesque smell in the world.

An Ordinary Evening in New Haven

Two severed legs were found near the State Street train station in New Haven, Connecticut. Then things got weird:
After the discovery of the severed legs, someone noticed a foul smell and upon searching two severed arms without hands in a garbage bag were found under the bridge.
“It’s a little creepy,” local resident Marge Vallee told WTNH-TV.
We’re inclined to agree.

Olfactory Irony Alert

In DeBary, Florida, a man notices a foul odor coming from a residence on Jasmine Drive, and alerts the town rescue unit which discovers the bodies of an elderly couple who had been having trouble with their air conditioner. But you know the rules, people! Since the man had been checking the house at the request of the couple’s daughter, this fails the basic requirement of ISDP: discovery of the decedents via the smell of decomposition.

The helpful neighbor did provide these words of wisdom to News13:
“I don't know if you've ever smelled death before, but once you smell it, you never forget,” Bartlett said.
Other People’s Money

Speaking of rules, this incident from Pahrump, Nevada, also fails to qualify as bona fide ISDP: the family of an elderly woman asked the Nye County Sheriff’s Department to look in on her, as they hadn’t heard from her for some days and they noticed unusual activity in her bank account. Longtime ISDP readers will not be shocked to learn that deputies noticed “an extremely foul odor” at the house, and entered it only to find the lady’s decomposed remains. The stepson of the deceased, one Robert Marygold, “arrived home” while officers where still on the scene and admitted to shooting his stepmother dead a few days earlier, then using her debit card at a casino. It is unclear from reports whether Mr. Marygold was, in fact, living with his stepmother at the time of the murder. If so, he may be eligible for a Norman Bates Award™ nomination.

Maryland, My Maryland

Based on the lede, you’d think you know where this story is headed:
On July 21, 2015, Deputy Lawrence responded to the 21000 block of Great Mills Lane in Lexington Park, after witnesses reported a foul odor coming from the vacant residence.
But SURPRISE! Deputies found a man and a woman (of “no fixed address”) asleep in the basement. The couple was charged with burglary. The source of the telltale foul odor remains unexplained.


In Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a guy stabs his girlfriend to death and stashes her body in a closet in the apartment. After a few weeks the stench triggers odor complaints. The guy blames it on a toilet problem and is told he’ll have to vacate while the place is fumigated. He attempts to dispose of the remains that night but bungles the job and is arrested. Congratulations to Hasan Gooden-Reid on his nomination for the 2015 Norman Bates Award™.

Car 54 Where Are You?

Couple of deputies make a routine traffic stop in Polk County, Florida. They pull the violator into a Walgreen’s parking lot, and while there notice a foul odor leaking from another car in the lot. In the driver’s seat they discover the body of a 52-year-old suicide victim.

In Butler, Pennsylvania, a pizza shop employee noticed a foul odor behind the business and discovered the body of a 29-year-old local man lying in the grass.

In Norcross, Georgia, a landscaper mowing the lawn at a rental property noticed a foul odor coming from the house. He flagged down a police officer who entered the house and found two bodies: an apparent brother-sister murder-suicide.

In Pueblo, Colorado, someone strolling near the Pueblo Mall “smelled a foul odor” and discovered a dead body near Fountain Creek. Authorities believe it is that of a homeless man and they do not suspect foul play.

Technically speaking, this incident in Pacific Palisades involves neither smell or the discovery of a dead body. But since it bears a superficial similarity to many previous cases of DBs found in cars, it caught our interest. Plus there are some headlines that were impossible to ignore:
Mystery Man Found Decomposing In Car Had More Than 1,200 Guns, Cash, Underwater Car
Dead LA gun stash owner described as alien hybrid, govt. spy
And then there are the names, right out of a Carl Hiaasen novel: the deceased was Jeffrey Alan Lash. His longtime fiancée was Catherine Nebron, and her employee Dawn VadBunker. Nebron and VadBunker believed Lash to be a CIA and/or FBI spy and possible human-alien hybrid. When he collapsed and died they left his body in his car—he had told them people from the government would retrieve his remains—and went on a ten-day-long trip. They say they were surprised to find his body there upon their return. So they had an attorney contact police. Bottom line: no smell, no discovery of remains, and, perhaps even more disappointingly, no Norman Bates Award™ nomination. But Mr. Lash was clearly a glorious, major league weirdo. RIP.

Turning to other vehicular events, we find this item from Escondido, California. Police were called to an apartment complex to check on reports of a foul odor. Inside a van they found the body of a 46-year-old man. His death does not appear to be suspicious.

The Nostrils of Texas are Upon You

In Houston, Texas, male remains were discovered at 53 East Parker Road. The circumstances were classic:
“A neighbor to the east of the residence smelled a foul odor coming from the above address and went to investigate. Upon walking up the driveway, the neighbor found the victim in a heavy stage of decomposition.”
Up in San Antonio, police found a decomposed body in a grassy area on the West Side of town. It had evidently been gnawed on by animals. According to KSAT ABC-12, “neighbors in the area reported smelling a foul odor for weeks.” Apparently they couldn’t be bothered to call police or take a look themselves.

Dead People Make People

The headline from “Florida Woman Killed Her Father and Her Daughter So She Could Be with Her Boyfriend: Cops.”
The investigation started when 25-year-old Cheyanne Jessie called police on Saturday morning to report that her father and 6-year-old daughter had vanished. When police arrived at Jessie’s home, they say, they smelled a foul odor. Jessie allegedly attributed the smell to a dead raccoon.
[Dead raccoon? Not bad!—Ed.]

According to People, police think Ms. Jessie left the bodies in the house for days until the smell forced her to move them to a storage shed 200 feet away. That period of co-residency means Cheyanne Jessie is nominated for the 2015 Norman Bates Award™. Congratulations!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Stepping in It: How Journalists Perpetuate the Myth that Dogs' Sense of Smell is Superior to Our Own

We’ve been hearing a lot about dog noses recently and how they are far more sensitive than ours. Liz Bestic kicked things off with a July 1 story in New Scientist called “The cancer sniffers: Dogs could be the best tool for diagnosis.” She covers some studies showing that dogs are able to sniff out specimens from patients with various types of cancer. An infographic accompanying her story states
“A dog’s sense of smell is between 1000 and 100,000 times more sensitive than that of humans.”
Next up was Rachel Pannett, the Sydney-based Deputy Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal in Australia and New Zealand. Her story appeared on the front page of the July 16, 2015 edition: “Forget drugs, these dogs sniff out a different kind of evil weed: Australia tries using spaniels to hunt for invasive plants called orange hawkweed, a.k.a ‘Grim the Collier’.” Pannett’s story includes this line:
A dog’s nose can be over 10,000 times more sensitive than humans, according to academic studies.
Zounds! Those are some impressive numbers. No wonder those dogs can sniff out cancer—their sense of smell is soooo much more sensitive than ours.

But wait. What’s that beeping sound in the distance? Why, it’s the alarm on the FirstNerve Bogosity Meter (hooked up to the battery of a rusty Ford F150 behind the tool shed). It seems there might be something dodgy about these doggy claims.

First off, let’s assume for the sake of argument that all the experimental results are correct and dogs can reliably sniff out a variety of human cancers. What does that prove about the relative sensitivity of dog noses and human noses? The answer is: nothing at all. Relative sensitivity is logically irrelevant to these results. But for some reason, journalists feel compelled to assert that dogs have more sensitive noses than we do. A competitive sniff-off between dogs and humans would address the point directly. It would be nice if a Deputy Bureau Chief or a “health journalist” asked cancer study researchers whether they had, you know, let human panelists evaluate the scent samples the same way the dogs did. Wouldn’t it be interesting if a bunch of orderlies, interns, and maintenance people could sniff out cancer? (Bestic mentions that doctors since Hippocrates have used smell as a diagnostic tool. She doesn’t explain why 21st century physicians have suddenly ceded the game to dogs.)

Hey! Will someone please turn down the alarm on the Bogosity Meter? It’s getting on my nerves.

The next fishy thing about these stories is the beautiful, quote-tastic simplicity of the numbers: dogs are 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 thousand times more sensitive than humans. Not 27,000 times more sensitive. Not 1,450 times. But more sensitive by nice fat powers of ten.

Bestic and Pannett are merely the latest journalists to run with these numbers. Here is Mary Bates, PhD, writing on the Animal Minds blog at in 2012 (“Cancer-detecting canines sniff out a diagnosis”):
Canines’ sense of smell is generally 10,000 -100,000 times superior to that of humans.
Stefan Lovgren (“Dogs smell cancer in patients’ breath, study shows,” National Geographic News, 2006) and Peter Tyson (“Dogs’ dazzling sense of smell,” scienceNOW blog at, 2012) use the same comparisons.

So where are journalists getting these numbers? Unlike their colleagues, Lovgren and Tyson attribute them to a specific person. Here’s Lovgren:
According to James Walker, director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University in Tallahassee, canines’ sense of smell is generally 10,000 to 100,000 times superior to that of humans.
And here’s Tyson:
Dogs’ sense of smell overpowers our own by orders of magnitude—it’s 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute, scientists say. “Let’s suppose they’re just 10,000 times better,” says James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, who, with several colleagues, came up with that jaw-dropping estimate during a rigorously designed, oft-cited study.”
Now we’re getting somewhere—the 10,000 to 100,000 claim was made by a smell scientist. [Full disclosure: I met Jim Walker numerous times at the AChemS meetings long ago.] Walker and his colleagues were once active in designing new ways to measure olfactory sensitivity. In 2003, they published a paper in Chemical Senses called “Human odor detectability: new methodology used to determine threshold and variation.” Using their new technique, they estimated a value for human sensitivity to amyl acetate, a chemical that smells like bananas and is something of a standard odor in studies on olfactory thresholds. So far, so good.

In 2006, Walker and colleagues published “Naturalistic quantification of canine olfactory sensitivity” in Applied Animal Behaviour Science. They tested two dogs (a Rottweiler and Standard Schnauzer) for sensitivity to amyl acetate. The threshold value they found was lower than that reported previously by other dog researchers, presumably reflecting the more precise experimental methods used.

In discussing the results, the researchers wrote
Our recent investigation of human odor detectability (Walker et al., 2003) yielded thresholds approximately 10,000- to 100,000-fold higher than those we report here for the dog.
Again, so far, so good. But note: the “10,000- to 100,000-fold higher” statement applies only to amyl acetate (i.e., one specific chemical) and only to two studies (i.e., those coauthored by Walker). Yet Lovgren and Tyson quote Walker with the clear implication that dogs are 10,000 to 100,000 time more sensitive to smells in general. Either Walker did not mention these limitations when he was interviewed by them, or he mentioned the caveat and they chose to ignore it. In any case, journalists are now on notice that they should be cautious in how they quote Walker and/or his 10K/100K claims of canine smell superiority.

Still, there exists a strong presumption that dogs have a sense of smell that is more sensitive than ours in general, i.e., for the vast majority of odors. Surely there are other studies on other odor chemicals that support the claim, no? Enter Matthias Laska, a professor at Linköping University in Sweden. Laska is far and away the current authority of olfactory sensitivity in mammals—he has conducted smell experiments with mice, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, pigtail macaques, elephants, and fur seals. At this year’s AChemS meeting in April, Laska gave a talk titled “Busting a myth: humans are not generally less sensitive to odors than nonhuman mammals.” (Abstract here.) I attended his presentation and found it compelling.

Laska put together a data base of all published odor thresholds for humans and nonhuman mammals (17 species tested across a total of 138 odors). This let him compare the relative performance of humans and other species on a chemical-by-chemical basis.
I found that human subjects have lower olfactory detection thresholds, that is, a higher sensitivity with the majority of odorants tested so far compared to most of the nonhuman mammal species tested so far. This includes species traditionally considered to have a highly developed sense of smell such as mice, hedgehogs, shrews, pigs and rabbits. Humans outperform rats with 31 of the 41 odorants tested with both species. Humans even outperform the dog, often considered as the undisputed super-nose of the animal kingdom, with 5 of the 15 odorants tested with both species. Based on these comparisons, and contrary to traditional textbook wisdom, humans are not generally inferior in their olfactory sensitivity compared to nonhuman mammals.
So according to the most recent, most comprehensive review of the topic, humans outperform dogs on 5 of the 15 odorants tested. Does that sound like total, across-the-board, doggy nose superiority to you? No, not really.

After the recent flurry of dog superiority claims, I checked in with Laska by email. He confirms that the canine odor threshold for amyl acetate (-5.94 log ppm) reported in Walker’s 2006 study is the lowest on record. However, he points out that the lowest reported human threshold for amyl acetate in his database is -7.02 log ppm. In other words, when it comes to amyl acetate humans are more sensitive than dogs.

Let me repeat that: According to all the available scientific evidence, humans are more sensitive to amyl acetate than are dogs.

Where does this leave us? With three take-home messages:

#1: James Walker’s narrow claim that dogs are 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive to amyl acetate than humans is simply incorrect. The fact is that humans, not dogs, are more sensitive to amyl acetate.

#2: The broader, and much-cited claim that dogs are 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive to smells in general is unsubstantiated. The fact is that dogs outperform humans on some but not all of the smells tested to date.

#3: The media ought to take a healthily skeptical approach to claims about the incredible superiority of the canine sense of smell. Some of us have expressed reservations about this before, and have noted that undue deference to the dog nose leads to some dubious outcomes in the criminal justice system. Even assuming that all the studies to date are valid and replicable, the practicality and cost-benefit ratio of cancer detection with sniffer dogs is not that impressive.

P.S. Don’t even bother coming back at me with the claim by one Dr. Lawrence Myers. “Dr. Myers has been quoted as saying dogs can smell a million times better than humans. He says that was a speculative (but possible) number he used in an interview to illustrate a narrow point. The reporter picked up the figure as science and quoted it out of proper context.”

P.P.S. Und danke schön, German dog fans, but don’t bother digging up this old bone from 1953: “The olfactory sensitivity of the dog is 1,000,000 to 100,000,000 times better than humans.” [My translation.] It’s a hand-waving, one-line summary of results, now superseded, that dates back to the dawn of olfactory psychophysics.

The studies discussed here are “Human odor detectability: new methodology used to determine threshold and variation,” by James C. Walker, Sandra B. Hall, Dianne B. Walker, Martin S. Kendal-Reed, Alison F. Hood & Xu-Feng Niu. Chemical Senses 28, 817–826, 2003; “Naturalistic quantification of canine olfactory sensitivity,” by Dianne Beidler Walker, James Cornelius Walker, Peter James Cavnar, Jennifer Leigh Taylor, Duane Howard Pickel, Sandra Biddle Hall & Joseph Carlos Suarez. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 97, 241–254, 2006; and “Über die Riechschärfe des Hundes für Fettsäuren,” by Walter Neuhaus. Zeitschrift für vergleichende Physiologie 35, 527-552, 1953.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

ISDP July 2015: Abandoned Structures and Squatters Edition

It seems like only yesterday, yet is has been a full month since we last gathered the late-breaking accounts of recently deceased individuals whose remains were discovered through their putrescent emanations. Time flies when you are constantly on the move, as we are here in our newly adopted home state of Colorado.

Our June edition was posted from a dilapidated farm building on the eastern plains where we had holed up following our successful #escapefromNJ. But due to some unpleasantness with the Weld County Sheriff’s Department and a notice of illegal occupancy from some dick who thinks that just because his family has owned this property since 1910 it entitles him to shove us and our belongings to the shoulder of a state highway, we had to seek new accommodations.

Well, we were quite successful. Our new digs are next to a stand of shady cottonwoods, out on the Pawnee National Grasslands.

It looks like no one has occupied the structure since about 1948, when the last owner succumbed to a severe case of jake leg. Being on Federal lands and all, we figure it will require a lot more lawyering to evict us anytime soon. Besides, we have a certificate from the Elizabeth Warren Institute of Genealogy showing that we are 1/64th Pawnee. Booyah.

From WBFO 88.7 FM in Buffalo, New York, “Buffalo’s NPR News Station”:
The body of a dismembered woman was found Tuesday night in a house in Niagara Falls. 
[Wait! NPR does dismemberments? Since when?—Ed.] 
The grisly discovery was made around 10:30 p.m. at a vacant home at 1129 Willow Avenue after a 911 call from a neighbor who reported a foul odor. The head, arms, and feet were removed from the deceased woman.
The victim, who police were able to identify, was a 46-year-old local woman. The case has disturbing similarities to the 2012 dismemberment of another local woman.

Then there is this case from Frederiksted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
dispatchers received a call of a foul odor emanating from the area of Prince and King Cross Streets, north of the Anglican Church in Frederiksted.
The area turned out to be a building that had collapsed several days before. When authorities cleared away the rubble, they found the body of 56-year-old man who had been squatting in the structure before it caved in.

The body of a 40-year-old man who had been reported missing days earlier was found in an abandoned house in East Wichita, Kansas. However, police were already checking the home when they noticed the foul odor and discovered the body. So, as per many precedents of the Rules Committee, there is no ISDP here. Move along, please.

Car Culture

Workers at a car dealership in Woodland, California, called police to complain about a foul odor coming from the back lot. Officers discovered the body of man in the back of an SUV that was for sale. They are treating the case as a homicide pending a coroner’s report.

The deceased was later identified as a 35-year-old Woodland resident.

Tonya Slaton

The body of Quincy Jamar Davis, missing since 2004 when he disappeared as a seventh-grader, has been found inside a black plastic bag in the trunk of his mother’s car. Forty-four year old Tonya Slaton was pulled over by police in Richmond, Virginia, for driving with expired license plates. During a search of the car, a trooper noticed an odor coming from the bag and opened it, only to find the child’s remains. Astute readers will note that the search was underway before the odor was detected, which means this cannot qualify as a legit ISDP incident. (Our by-laws require that the stench of decay be the factor that leads to the discovery of the deceased.) However, Ms. Slaton’s mobile storage of her son’s remains, and presumably her continuing to drive around town with them in the trunk for over a decade, most definitely earns her a nomination for the 2015 Norman Bates Award™.

Loyal readers will recall our coverage earlier this year of Holden Clark, the 15-year-old from Corpus Christi, Texas. The young man is accused of killing his mother and stuffing her remains into a trash can in the kitchen. He then proceeded to hang around the house which earned him a nod for this year’s Norman Bates Award™. Just to bring you up to date, Clark’s attorney recently asked the court the release him from the Juvenile Detention Center because he had, you know, followed all the rules there for the last six months. For some reason, Judge Tim McCoy denied the lad’s request.

This headline from the Pensacola News Journal—“Man lives months with mom’s corpse on couch”—is enough by itself to earn 60-year-old Michael Eugene Sticken a nomination for the 2015 Norman Bates Award™. Sticken had been living with his mother in Pace, Florida, but since January had deflected attempts by family members to call or visit 81-year-old Joyce Willis. A Santa Rosa County sheriff’s deputy was asked to make a welfare check on the old lady.

Michael Eugene Sticken
When the deputy arrived at the residence he immediately noticed a foul odor. Upon entering the house, he found two couches pushed together with blankets piled on top. Under the blankets, the deputy found a female who was so badly decomposed as to be unrecognizable.
The Medical Examiner estimates that Ms. Willis died one to four months previously.

Sticken, who had been withdrawing his mother’s monthly social security payments from their joint bank account, was charged with grand theft and failure to report a death.

Young People Today

A 15-year-old girl who “smelled a foul odor” followed her nose to discover a dead body near the Stone Mountain apartment complex in DeKalb County, Georgia.

In Ormand Beach, Florida,
A woman told police that she found a man’s body wrapped in plastic shortly before 10 a.m. Friday after she smelled a foul odor inside the home in the Hunter’s Ridge subdivision near State Road 40.
She also saw Garrett Schroeder, 22, walking away from the home. Police obtained an arrest warrant for him. Three days later, Schroeder was found dead, an apparent suicide.

The plastic-wrapped body discovered by the woman who smelled it, turns out to be that of Christian Schroeder, Garrett’s father.
Schroeder had been arrested in 2014 on charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon after he allegedly attacked his mother with a hammer. Authorities believe the suspect had a rocky past with both his mother and father.

Apartment Complexes
City of Batavia: 400 Towers residents complain about handling of neighbor's death. 
Lori Kilanowski had tried to get help for a fellow resident who was found dead June 12 at 400 Towers, she says. 
“I said somebody died up there,” she said Wednesday at the East Main Street complex.
And she was right. Always Trust Your Nose™. Management denies that it failed to act expeditiously.

In Rochester, Minnesota,
Police say a 35-year-old woman was found [dead] around 4 p.m. Monday in her apartment after neighbors complained of a foul odor.
And finally, from Dallas, Georgia
Holmes’ body was found in a wooded area last Friday, July 3, by a local resident who was investigating a foul odor. The body was badly decomposed, police said.
Well, th-th-that’s all, folks! See you next month for what promises to be a bumper crop of ISDP as we head into the hottest month of the year.