Last week, a Swiss investigation found evidence to support the idea that Yasser Arafat was poisoned with polonium-210 — a radioactive element that's safe to carry around in a container, but causes unstoppable death if swallowed. NPR sat down with Deborah Blum, a science writer who specializes in the chemistry of poisonings, to talk about what makes polonium-210 a particularly handy way to off somebody and why it's so hard to bring a polonium poisoner to justice. — Maggie
What users who attempt to connect to the Silk Road marketplace see now (HT: Adrian Chen)
Looks like the government shutdown didn't stop federal agents from shutting down the most popular "deep web" illegal drug market. In San Francisco, federal prosecutors have indicted Ross William Ulbricht, who is said to be the founder of Silk Road. The internet marketplace allowed users around the world to buy and sell drugs like heroin, cocaine, and meth.
The government announced that it seized about 26,000 Bitcoins worth roughly USD$3.6 million, making this the largest Bitcoin bust in history. There were nearly 13,000 listings for controlled substances on the Silk Road site as of Sept. 23, 2013, according to the FBI, and the marketplace did roughly USD$1.2 billion in sales, yielding some $80 million in commissions.
According to the complaint, the service was also used to negotiate murder-for-hire: "not long ago, I had a clean hit done for $80k," the site's founder is alleged to have messaged an associate.
Ulbricht, 29, is also known as "Dread Pirate Roberts."
Dan Herbeck of The Buffalo News has a story about how researchers are using historic archives and forensic data to solve (maybe) a nearly 100-year-old string of murders in upstate New York. The killings might have been the work of a previously unidentified serial killer. — Maggie
Murder ballads are the true crime novels of the 16th-19th centuries. Lyrics telling the story of a murder were written, printed on broadsheets, and sold within days of the crime. Paul Slade is a UK journalist with a fascination for the history of murder ballads in the US and Europe. He maintains this great resource on the topic. Above, enjoy classic murder ballad "The Knoxville Girl" as sung by the Wilburn Brothers in 1959. While "The Knoxville Girl" is an Appalachian ballad, its roots can be traced back to 17th century England. Here's Slade on his love for Murder Ballads:
Cheerfully vulgar, reveling in gore, and always with an eye on the main chance, these songs were tabloid newspapers set to music, carrying news of all the latest 'orrible murders to an insatiable public.
People get stabbed, bludgeoned or shot in every verse, but the songs telling their tale never die
Then there's the fact that murder ballads never stop mutating, morphing to suit local place names as they cross and re-cross the Atlantic, and changing with the times as they move down the decades to fascinate each generation's biggest musical stars. Victims are bludgeoned, stabbed or shot in every verse and killers are often hanged, but the songs themselves never die.
Over the past few years, multiple people have died in Thailand from what appears to be exposure to some kind of poison. Most of these people have been tourists. And most of them have been young women. The deaths have happened in clusters. Five or so on the island vacation hotspot of Kho Phi Phi. Another group of six at Chiang Mai's Downtown Inn.
Lots of possible explanations have been suggested — ranging from serial killers, to hallucinogenic beach drinks, to overuse of banned insecticides in hotel rooms. But, so far, none of the specific poisons proposed as the culprit totally makes sense in relation to the deaths. And, to make things worse, it seems like Thai authorities are doing their best to make it difficult to actually investigate what has happened in individual cases, and figure out whether the cases are linked or not. At this point, it's hard to even know whether all the people who have died exhibited the same symptoms.
Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who has done a lot of reporting on poisons and true crime has been following this story and just published another piece on the still-unfolding mess.
Your daughter died.
Your daughter died thousands of miles from home. In a hotel where no one came to help. In a hospital where she struggled to keep breathing and just couldn’t. In a room where her heart – and somehow you still don’t really believe this – just stuttered to a stop. In a country, where authorities have failed for months, years even, to tell you how or why your daughter died.
Your daughter, you’ve come to realize, died in a pattern that links too many other young women, a chain of suspected poisonings over the last few years. Jill St. Onge, 27, of Seattle, Washington, and Julie Bergheim, 22, of Drammen, Norway, who both died in May 2009 on the southern island of Koh Phi Phi. Sherifa Khalid, 24, of Kuwait, who died 12 hours she spent a day on the same island in July of the same year.
Nanny Yoselyn Ortega (50) is accused of attacking Lulu (6) and Leo Krim (2), shown in the family photo at left; then trying to kill herself.
The details of how the mother (38) encountered her children are in the NYT story, CNN, and the tabloids. A third child was with Mrs. Krim when the attack happened at their home, and did not witness it.
From posts on the family blog[update: which is now offline] the nanny appears to have worked with the family for more than a year.
The Krim family visited Ms. Ortega's home and family in the Dominican Republic with her on a 9-day vacation this February.
The family LiveJournal contains thousands of photographs of the children, whose lives were chronicled there in loving detail by their mom. Marina Krim published an entry about her son just three hours before the attack.
The story is familiar to us today: Somebody, usually a young man, walks into a public place, kills a bunch of people seemingly at random, and (usually) ends the murder spree with a suicide-by-cop.
But this story—at least, in Western culture—is startlingly new, relatively speaking. In fact, Paul Mullen, a forensic psychologist, says we can pin a date and place on the first time it happened. On September 4, 1913, in the German towns of Degerloch and Mühlhausen an der Enz, Ernst August Wagner killed his wife, his children, and at least nine strangers. He shot more than 20 people and set several fires during his killing spree. He ended up spending the rest of his life in an insane asylum.
But when we try to pin killings like these on mental illness, Mullen says, we're not quite hitting the right point. The people who go on killing sprees are mad, sure. But that's not the same thing as diagnosable, objective, physical mental illness. Only about 10% of the people ever arrested for crimes like this had actual mental illnesses. In fact, Mullen thinks these killings have more to do with culture than brain chemistry. His argument is interesting. And it might sound a little similar to the old "angry music made him do it!" trope. But what Mullen is talking about is different than that. Science journalist David Dobbs tries to explain the distinction:
I’m not saying the movies made Holmes crazy or psychopathic or some such. But the movies are a enormous, constant, heavily influential part of an American culture that fetishizes violence and glamorizes, to the point of ten-year wars, a militarized, let-it-rain approach to conflict resolution. And culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction — just as it does other traits. This is why, say, relatively ‘simple’ schizophrenia — not the paranoid sort — takes very different forms in Western and some Eastern cultures. On an even simpler level, this is why competitive athleticism is more likely to express itself as football (the real kind) in Britain but as basketball in the U.S. Culture shapes the expression of behavioral traits.
This is an interesting argument and an interesting thing to think about.
The Baltimore Sun reports about the online life of Kinyua, an electrical engineering major at Morgan State University and long-time member of its ROTC program. He was "always in his own little world, preaching everywhere he went and talking about how he was writing a book," said one acquaintance.
Trayvon Martin, 17 (above), was shot to death on February 26 while walking to his dad's girlfriend's house from a convenience store just north of Orlando, Florida. He was unarmed, wearing a hoodie, and carrying some Skittles and iced tea he purchased at the mini-mart.
George Zimmerman, 28 (inset), is the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Trayvon. Zimmerman told police he shot the young man in self-defense. As more information about the incident emerges, this explanation sounds increasingly less plausible.
The case has sparked widespread interest and outrage online, in part because Zimmerman remains free, and Trayvon was an innocent kid doing nothing wrong, who cried out for help as he was attacked. His only threat, it seems, was being a black male.
A roundup of links for further reading and following, as the case evolves: