Why do killers burn their victims?

2009-03-06 00:00

The murder of Sandesh Poorun (27), whose charred body was found on the side of the road; the brutal murder of Professor Samuel Zondi (71), who was tortured and burned in his flat in Alexandra Road; Willie Klopper, who sustained 100% burns and died 13 hours after robbers had set him alight, making off with only his wallet and cellphone; estate agent Lynn Hume, whose body was burnt beyond recognition on the passenger seat of her own car — these are but a few examples of these grisly killings.

Weekend Witness asked investigators, a criminologist, a clinical psychologist and a district surgeon what drives perpetrators to commit such heinous crimes.

The response was unanimous: these are crimes of hatred, and torching the victim or the crime scene is the easiest way to eliminate evidence.

But a body burnt beyond recognition can still be identified and the cause of death ascertained, say forensic experts. They explain that it is very difficult for the perpetrator to conceal evidence unless he is exceptionally knowledgeable in forensics and in destroying evidence, and carefully chooses the scene.

“Most criminals want to cover up their crime and get away very quickly. They are nervous and they don’t think things through properly, causing them to make silly mistakes that connect them to the crime,” said chief medical officer Gantcho Gantchev.

Dr Vanitha Chetty, a senior lecturer in Criminology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said: “What comes to mind when a series of killings occur in the same way is that they could be ‘copy cat’ killings.

“The most obvious reason is to destroy any forensic evidence, but we have also seen in past years an increased tendency to commit violent and aggressive crimes.”

She said it has become common in South Africa for robbers to torture their victims before making off with their goods.

Such a sadistic killing is done for a number of reasons. It can be described as an act of hatred, revenge or jealousy, as most victims know their perpetrators. Psychologists describe such perpetrators as having “low self-esteem; enjoying the sense of power it gives them to have their victims at their mercy and control”.

“It gives them a great sense of satisfaction and pleasure,” said Chetty.

Though criminologists can never say exactly what drives a killer to commit the crime, they do say that the killer’s environmental factors, social consciousness and psychological history “come together and result in that final act”.

“It is very difficult to say that A equals B. If it were that easy, there would be a dramatic reduction in crime,” said Chetty.

“If you look at some criminals, they are the most unsuspecting, baby-faced, sweet people, and once they are exposed, everybody is shocked.”

Chetty drew on a series of well-known cases where women poured boiling water over their husbands while they were sleeping because their husbands were unfaithful or because they were victims of their abuse.

“Women tend to look for ingenious ways of killing and normally the actual killers are male. This is because a woman does not have the physical strength of a man. She would hire someone to do the job or kill the victim in his sleep.”

Detective Inspector Swami Pillay highlighted the most obvious reason perpetrators have for burning their victims: “To make identification of the victim difficult.”

He said that identifying a body that has been burnt beyond recognition can take as long as four months, if ever, to identify.

Bone and dental matter is extracted from the victim and matched to the DNA of a relative.

Unless family members come forward, however, it can be difficult to identify bodies. With nothing but bones to go on, often burnt bodies are left in the morgue without ever being identified.

“In the Poorun case, the father notified the police that his son had a broken rib. We were also able to salvage some of his clothing items, which were later identified by the family,” said Pillay.

Paraffin and petrol are frequently used to set victims alight, sometimes with curtains, mattresses and other flammable materials. “It really depends on what is available to them at the time,” said Pillay.

District surgeons who perform postmortems can usually establish whether the person was burned alive or killed by some other means before being burned.

Tissues and blood are extracted from the corpse and sent to a toxicologist, who tests for the presence of carbon monoxide. A high percentage of carbon monoxide indicates that the victim was burnt alive because he had to have been breathing for the fumes to enter his bloodstream.

Fractures found on the corpse also reveal how the victim died before he was set alight.

“When a body is burnt, the bones automatically sustain fractures. We look for fractures that are different to burn fractures and then compare those fractures to ones that match fractures that you would sustain from a knobkerrie, stone, brick, knife, bullet, from being bumped by a car …” said Gantchev.

He said stones and knobkerries are most commonly used in killings because they are cheap and easy to dispose of.

Similarly, fractures sustained in a struggle between a victim and perpetrator can help determine whether the victim was attacked before he or she was burned.

The hyoid bone will break if the killer strangles the victim, but not if the person hangs himself.

That way forensics can determine whether the person committed suicide or was killed.

One man staged his death to make it seem as though he had been murdered. He hanged himself over a bonfire. The experts weren’t fooled, however, said Gantchev.

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