Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death in Miniature


Burned Cabin
Burned Cabin

In "Burned Cabin," the model shows a meticulously built cabin after a destructive fire had incinerated it. In this 1943 "incident," Lee's description indicates that two men had resided there, an uncle and nephew; the uncle was dead in the bed and the nephew gave a statement to the police that he'd woken up and run from the burning building.  The fact that he was fully dressed made his story suspicious.

To achieve a sense of authenticity, this model had been built and then burned with a blowtorch to replicate an actual crime.  While no one mentions it, Lee was likely aware of the reputation of Edward O. Heinrich, a criminology professor from the University of California at Berkley, who was renowned for his uncanny ability to read seemingly invisible clues.  He was often called into cases on the West Coast that defied solution, and one involved a burned building that turned out to be other than what it seemed.

Edward O. Heinrich
Edward O. Heinrich

In 1925, an incinerated set of human remains was found in the laboratory of Charles Schwartz after an explosion, and Schwartz had turned up missing.  Heinrich used an X-ray to indicate that the victim had been bludgeoned to death rather than killed by the explosion, so he suggested it was a staged scene with an unknown victim.  However, the corpse was missing a molar that matched dental records for Schwartz, so the police were ready to conclude that the corpse was Schwartz's.  But Heinrich was not deterred.  He asked for photographs of Schwartz, but the man's widow reported that someone had entered her home and stolen them all.  Still, she had left one at a photo studio, so she retrieved it and delivered it to Heinrich.  He compared it to the corpse and noted that the single intact earlobe was the wrong shape.  In addition, the missing molar from the jaw had been forcibly yanked out, and quite recently.  The eyes, too, had been gouged out, and chemical tests proved that the fingertips had been burned with acid. 

The police re-opened the case and learned that Schwartz was a long-time confidence man, living off his wife's money and falsely posing as something he was not.  He had befriended a missionary who resembled him, killed the man, put his body in the laboratory that he then exploded, pulled out the tooth, and fled.  Investigators tried to lure him out with rumors of a large life insurance settlement, but rather than be caught he shot himself.

In the Lee scenario, it could be that the nephew killed the uncle, set the fire and tried to stage the death to appear the result of the fire.  But it would take a shrewd and observant investigator to look for the right clues.  That's just what she had in mind, and to make sure that more officers were able to do this, she supported formal seminars for training.


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