David Carradine: U.S. Investigation Begins

Lawrence Kobilinsky
Chairman, Department of Forensic Sciences and Professor of Forensic Science, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Monday, June 8, 2009; 2:00 PM

Police in Thailand said Monday that they would welcome the FBI's assistance in investigating the death of American actor David Carradine, but only as observers in the high-profile case. Carradine's naked body was discovered last Thursday morning in his luxury suite at Bangkok's Swissotel Nai Lert Park Hotel. Police initially suspected his death was a suicide, but have since said it may have been accidental suffocation or heart failure after revealing he was found with a rope tied around his wrist, neck and genitals.

Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor and chairman of the Department of Forensic Sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, was online Monday, June 8, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss how to differentiate between accident and suicide as manner of death, what can be determined by performing an autopsy and the issue of autoerotic asphyxiation.

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Lawrence Kobilinsky: Larry Kobilinsky here. I am a forensic scientist and I am here today to discuss the unfortunate demise of David Carradine.

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Life Imitating Art?: This scenario happened on an episode of "Six Feet Under." There was no doubt that the deceased was a result of autoerotic asphyxiation. How common is this?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: First, we must be careful about making assumptions as to cause and manner of death. The body has not as yet been autopsied so this information has yet to be established. The answer to the question is that there are approximately 1000 deaths in the United States due to autoerotic asphyxiation, most of these are young males.

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Baltimore, Md.: Can you explain how exactly the he tied the ropes?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: We do not know exactly how the ropes were tied. This information would be critical in a determination of manner of death. The scene surrounding the body would also be critical. The body will be autopsied to learn about the medical cause of death, however, the scene of the death is very relevant here as well.

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Jefferson City, Mo.: Are you familiar with Kevin Gilbert? A fantastic musician who pulled Sheryl Crow out of obscurity and made her first album what it was. Real musical genius who also "accidentally killed himself" by autoerotic asphyxiation.

The third paragraph in this: More Than 'The Piano Player'

sums it up best.

Does every person who engages in this activity eventually screw something up and accidentally kill themselves or do they "outgrow" it? Obviously Carradine didn't.

washingtonpost.com: More Than `The Piano Player' (San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 15, 1996)

Lawrence Kobilinsky: Remember that is has not yet been determined as to how Mr. Carradine die. It is unknown how often a person dies when exhibiting this behavior. We do know however, that it, too often, leads to accidental death. The numbers of failures are known but we do not know how many "success" stories there are.

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Boyce, La.: So, under the circumstance and pending an autopsy, would auto-erotic asphyxiation be a good guess?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: Based on what we know thus far, autoerotic asphyxiation would be a "good guess" to explain the death of this great actor. But this is a medico-legal matter and the conclusion must be based not on assumptions or appearances, but good medical and scientific analysis.

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Catonsville, Md.: Are the reports of there being leaked photos of the crime seen accurate?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: Unfortunately, a photo of the body hanging in the closet was published in a Thai newspaper "The Thai Rath." Police departments would never (should never) release crime scene photos to the press. I am assuming that somebody make a quick buck at the expense of Mr. Carradine and his family.

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D.C.: Isn't the real interesting thing here that his hands were bound above his head? Is this common? Does it mean someone else was involved.

Lawrence Kobilinsky: You raise a good point about his hands being tied. One of the first questions that must be answered is whether or not he had been along in that room. Thus far, the evidence indicates that he was in the room alone. Videotape evidence shows that there was nobody else in the area at the approx. time of his death (exact timing still unknown).

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Bethesda, Md.: Can you explain this 'behavior' in more detail suitable to the Washington Post? I have no idea what this auto-erotic thing is.

Lawrence Kobilinsky: Auto-erotic asphyxiation results in accidental death when the individual practicing this "technique" loses consciousness while attempting to partially asphyxiate himself to heighten his/her sensitivity while experiencing orgasm. It is said that oxygen depletion heightens one's sensitivity. Unfortunately, those who die have no sensitivity at all.

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Jefferson City, Mo.: Are you familiar with Kevin Gilbert? A fantastic musician who pulled Sheryl Crow out of obscurity and made her first album what it was. Real musical genius who also "accidentally killed himself" by autoerotic asphyxiation.

The third para in this: More Than `The Piano Player'

sums it up best.

Does every person who engages in this activity eventually screw something up and accidentally kill themselves or do they "outgrow" it? Obviously Carradine didn't.

Lawrence Kobilinsky: It is my understanding that Kevin Gilbert succumbed to this phenomenon (erotic asphyxiation). He died in the mid 1990's.

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Fairfax, Va.: I understand the family has hired a forensic scientist/pathologist (like you?) to work on the case, Dr. Michael Baden. What do you think the first thing will be that he'll do with the body?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: Dr. Baden who is now on his way to Texas and then onto California will treat this like any other case, namely to observe the body from top to bottom from left to right and from front to back. He will then conduct the autopsy. I am sure that he will be looking for signs of asphyxiation and he will try to determine time of death although that becomes more difficult. He has some information already since he knows when the body was found and he has some idea of the time Mr. Carradine was last seen. He will look for petechiae in the whites of the eyes and examine the bones and cartilage of the neck. He must verify that death was due to strangulation and establish that the rope in question was the direct mechanism of his death.

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Annapolis, Md.: Do we have any reason not to believe the Thai investigators?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: I know of no reason why anybody should question the Thai police investigators. The question is Did they do the crime scene correctly, did they document everything. Did they take samples for toxicology, did they complete their investigation and track down all information the could help establish manner of death (i.e. was Mr. Carradine depressed? Was he a potential suicide case? Were there any drugs involved? Was there anybody else that might have assisted him in his activities? Can we rule out homicide?

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Washington, D.C.: How difficult would it be to stage this sort of thing? As sensational as it is, it almost precludes any consideration of some other possible motive. It's kind of like the Pelican Brief, where everyone believes that the Supreme Court justices were killed for the pro-choice views, but in fact it was all about money.

Lawrence Kobilinsky: Crime scenes can often be staged and only experienced investigators (who are by their nature very cynical)can sort through the staging and realize what actually took place. In this scenario, we need to rule out a homicide made to look like a suicide or accident. This is really a job that the Medical Examiner must establish but only after obtaining all information from investigating police.

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Washington, D.C.: If it is determined that he died of strangulation, what other facts need to be discovered to label it death by auto-erotic stimulation?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: Many people die of strangulation in this country (as well as in Thailand I bet) but there is a sexual aspect to this type of death. One may find pornography, toys, or other sexual paraphernalia near the body. The body is usually nude but can have various restraints (leather, etc) all meant to heighten the feeling of climaxing. In cases such as these, there is usually evidence on or near the body that points to auto erotic behavior. There are documented case of "older" males that succumb to this type of death although most of the time, the victim is a young male.

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Baltimore, Md.: Can you confirm whether the FBI is starting an investigation? Is this because of Carradine's celebrity or because of the potential fowl-play?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: The FBI may be involved because Mr. Carradine was an American citizen who died in another country and there is much interest in him because of his celebrity. There is no indication that there was foul play and more likely than not that this was an accidental death.

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Anonymous: Wouldn't the scene have been obviously not a suicide? Was it a matter of good taste that the Thai officials presented it that way? Do you think there will be a definitive answer to this case?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: The scene would most probably have evidence of great interest to police investigators. Suicide would be accompanied by a note, for example, explaining why the person took his life. Pornography in the area might support the idea of auto erotic asphyxiation as the cause of death. The Thai officials should have said nothing until the cause and manner of death were established to a degree of medical certainty. I think that this case will be resolved after Michael Baden completes the autopsy and writes his report.

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Washington, D.C.: How common is auto-erotic stimulation death with older people? I've read about it with young boys/men but not so much about older people. Please comment.

Lawrence Kobilinsky: My understanding is that very few deaths of this type occur in "older men." Most cases are in teenagers and people in their mid-20's. Similarly most victims are male. There is no doubt that cases of men in their 70's exist and have been documented in scientific journals.

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Raleigh, N.C.: So is this like Michael Hutchens of INXS?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: I know very little about the death of Michael Hutchence. The official cause of death was suicide and not accident. This is one of those cases where there are more questions than answers.

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Seattle, Wash.: I've heard reports that his hands were tied. Do you know if this is true? Is this consistent with auto-erotic asphyxiation? With suicide?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: Having the victims hands tied is not unusual. Our current understanding is that the rope was around his neck and body. I am not sure if the same rope had been used to tie his hands. Some initial reports said the hands were tied behind his back but later reports indicated that his hands were tied in front. In any case, hand-tying happens especially when there is a "helper" at the scene who can "step in" and prevent death. Every case is unique

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Rockville, Md.: Based on everything you know now, do you think David Carradine's death was accidental or suicide? Are there many cases of people committing suicide naked?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: From what we know thus far - and clearly - there is much that we do not know, the death was accidental. Suicides are sometimes done with clothing and make-up (women) and sometimes without clothing. I do not know if there are any statistics on the issue of suicide while naked. There appears to be a strong sexual component in this case and it supports the notion that there was auto erotic activity taking place.

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Washington: Why were the Thai police so quick to rule out the possibility that Carradine was murdered, even before an investigation was done?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: Police are police regardless of whether they live in Thailand or in America. They are generally suspicious of deaths outside of hospitals and in this case, came to the conclusion that there was no evidence of homicide. The crime scene looked as if the death was accidental. They should not have come to any conclusions prior to a complete autopsy including the toxicology report. "Quickness" is not a virtue when a person dies and the family wants to know what happened.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. Kobilinsky: We read occasional stories of men (I think always men) dying in similar circumstances to Mr. Carradine. Can you comment as to how prevalent this form of auto-eroticism is, based on the number of deaths which do occur?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: To the best of my knowledge this is a rare kind of death. The statistics indicate that less than 1000 deaths occur annually in the U.S. that are clearly attributed to auto erotic asphyxiation. We must remember that this determination has not been made officially by a Board certified forensic pathologist.

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Panama City, Panama: We keep repeating autoerotic asphyxiation but it has not been ruled out the presence of anther person in the room, have they?

Lawrence Kobilinsky: The Thai police have ruled out another person in the room. What we do not know for sure is if they are correct. A crime scene team would have gathered evidence (fingerprints, DNA evidence) to show that he was alone - or not. The public wants quick answers and the police would like to close the case out by declaring it to have been accidental. This may or may not be correct. We must wait for the autopsy report

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Chicago, Ill.: There have been a lot of confusing and conflicting reports about whether it was suicide or accident and whether or not somebody else was present or may have tampered with the body/evidence before the police were called. But from the description of the way he was found it seems unlikely that he could have tied himself up like that(hands above his head), or been able to perform any kind of sex act on himself in that position and even if it was an accident at some point somebody else would have had to be involved, either in tying him up or with the actual sexual act itself. I would imagine anyone involved was most-likely a paid sex-worker, one would not be hard to find in Bangkok, but I wonder how hard it would be to find this person and prove they did anything 'criminal' without any witnesses to the actual act itself.

Lawrence Kobilinsky: Real life is not like CSI on TV. There are often questions that are unanswered. There are, as you point out, many conflicting and confusing reports. We really do not know if there was anybody else in the room with him at the time of his death. If there was, it still would not mean that his death was a homicide. It could still have been accidental. As for tying himself up, one finds all kinds of unusual presentations in cases such as these. In fact, I think that he very well could have tied himself up and rigged a "noose." We will have to wait for Dr. Baden's findings which may take some time since he will need the toxicology report before deciding on cause of death.

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Arlington, Va.: Thai newspapers publish crime scene photos on a regular basis. Much different standards than we have here.

Lawrence Kobilinsky: Standards of decency will vary from Country to Country, from state to state, from county to county, etc. In any case, I strongly believe that a person should have the right to privacy while alive and the family should have the right to privacy (to a certain extent) after death.

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washingtonpost.com: This concludes today's discussion with Lawrence Kobilinsky. Thank you for joining in.

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