Perspective from a Forensic Post-Mortem Toxicologist
Among the puzzles at the center of the Robert Wone murder mystery are medical questions of what chemical agents might have been used with or without Mr. Wone’s consent to render him in a condition the coroner termed, “…alive but incapacitated.”
In response to a recent post, a reader offered this comment and, relevant here, question. His/her comment is worth repeating
I would not say that I know Joe and Victor well, but I have known them for many years in various capacities (professional, neighbor, and bar acquaintances). They are kind, soft-spoken, and friendly. My over-riding concern is this key principle: innocent until proven guilty. Personally, I find it much more convincing that Wone was murdered by an intruder than that either of these two guys was complicit in any way.
My co-editors and I have heard sentiments like these before and always welcome them. We begin from a presumption of innocence of the accused. In the coming days I hope to address intruder theory v. the time line. And, to the best of our knowledge, none of us ever knew or have even met any of the defendants before – although Washington being the small town that it is, one never truly knows. Anonymous goes on to ask:
the toxicology reports are all negative. I cannot believe that there is a drug that could have been injected into the victim that would not show some traces in his blood. Where is that evidence? I see the blog entry from David claiming that ghb would not show up, but (a) he asserts that ghb would have been given orally (so why are there needle marks?), (b) I frankly do not believe it would not show up in the toxicology report (can someone point to scientific evidence of this?) ,and (c) how much would have been given to render the victim unconscious so quickly?
Good questions all. In fact there’s been lots of back and forth, on this and other sites, with claims of what could be injected, what can’t be tested, etc. Not being a physician (just a lowly journalist) I turned to someone with experience in this area.
Dr. R. B.* has over 40 years of experience in post-mortem toxicology, having served a combined 23 years as chief medical examiner’s toxicologist in two mid-Atlantic states. Dr. B. is a guy who has seen his share of tragedy and trauma, and recently shared his thoughts on the case. (btw: the quotes are real, taken from audio recording during our interview.)
“There’s no single slate of tests you run,” Dr. B began; “…it all depends on what you know and what you suspect.” In Robert Wone’s case the coroner, Dr. Lois Goslinoski, admits in the original affidavit: “…there are various incapacitating or paralytic drugs for which no tests were run as there was not early indication – in light of the statements that Price, Zaborsky and War gave to the police – that Mr. Wone may have been injected with any such drugs while at the Swann Street residence.”
The question of drugs not showing traces that could be found rests heavily on what the coroner suspects at the time. “If a body comes in from a car crash, catastrophic trauma, I’m likely to test for alcohol, PCP and the like. But if it’s a suspicious death, no obvious cause, I’m going to run a whole different assay.”
Dr. Goslinoski details the specific agents tested; without running the full list (look it up if you like, page 6) Dr. B says it’s clear a standard but “…not nearly exhaustive…” slate of tests.
Would GHB show up, as David and Anonymous ask? “Yes, if you’re looking for it at the right time,” says Dr. B. However, the better question is what tests that weren’t run. “Anyone with any medical knowledge can find dozens of things that can kill you; it’s not a question of what was used. It’s all about what you’re looking for.”
Pesticides. Digitalis. Tricyclic antidepressants. Chlorinated hydrocarbons. Just four of the depressing list of agents Dr. B. rattled off that can be used to kill, slow or incapacitate a victim. Would you find them in an autopsy? Depends: only if you’re looking. What determines what to look for? The moment, the body, the police report; all the hundred things that come in at the moment a body comes in on the examing table.
Can a victim be re-tested? “Depends,” says Dr. B. again. “Sometimes the remains (the viscera of a body) are bagged up and stored within the chest before burial. Sometimes they’re just burned, leaving nothing but a shell. Sometimes exhumation works. You can do it, but better to test samples. It all depends on how big the office is and how much work there is.”
Were samples of tissue/fluid of Mr. Wone kept by the D.C. Medical Examiners office kept? Unknown. Is the office over-worked? Not for me to say. But we can report the office, headed by still-interim Chief Medical Examiner Marielydie Y. Pierre-Louis has a total staff of 87 – only 6 of which are medical officers.
Were samples (tissues, fluids, etc. stored in formaldehyde) of Mr. Wone kept by the DC Medical Examier? Unknown at this point. A key point which needs answering. What was the condition of Mr. Wone’s remains at burial, assuming no samples were kept? Again, unclear. What paralytic agents might turn up if Mr. Wone’s remains were exhumed? Depends.
One last focus. there has been lots of discussion of ketamine** here and elsewhere. “The needle punctures are curious…” says Dr. B, emphasizing a common theme. He goes on to say that large-scale medical examiners would likely have taken samples of the injection sites for testing. From the coroner’s report, that doesn’t seem to have happened.
Ketamine – KHole. Many have asked if K could have been the substance injected at those 6 mysterious needle puncture sites. The answer is, without doubt, yes. While often snorted, ketamine can be injected. However, most advocates say IM (intra-muscular) injections are strongly recommended over IV (intraveneous) for the simple reason of time and effect.
“No prizes for guessing that intravenously injected Ketamine kicks in straight away, is a shit load more powerful, and ends a lot faster (after just 10 minutes) suggests this New Zealand poster. His/her comments echoed throughout the web: ketamine injected directly into the blood system (as Mr. Wone’s puncture wounds would indicate) would render someone virtually incapacitated within seconds. Literally: within seconds – before the needle could be removed, perhaps.
So. Could something (ketamine or another paralytic agent) have been injected into Robert Wone as to render him helpless within moments? Yes. Could that agent have escaped detection without a heads-up by the well-intentioned coroner? Yes. Could Mr. Wone have died as an indirect result of injections of some unknown agent, rendering him unable to fight back against the three stab wounds? Undoubtedly.
It’s not a matter of what’s possible. In this case, as in all murder cases, it’s a matter of what you ask and when you ask it.
* The M.E. I spoke with talked on condition of attribution only. I will entertain all direct communication with me regarding this source, and his/her willingness to go on the record.
**The topic of ketamine has a particular pungence for me. Today in the mail I opened a bill from our vet’s office: a bill for the euthansaia of our beloved greyhound Scout. She was sent into her eternal sleep December 20th; the bill clearly indicates that ketamine was administered to put her
at ease and relax her before her catheterization and eventual euthanasia. I am not in any way happy to entertain idle chatter about ketamine on this site, but am willing to explore the sober possibilities.
– Posted by Doug