Duncan MacPherson's Death: Forensics
"A credible and compelling presentation of conclusions that are hard to deny as the truth of this matter."
-Lynne D. Herold, Ph.D., Biological Sciences, Forensic Scientist
WARNING: Some of the images on this page are shocking. I did not make the decision to publish them lightly, but only after careful deliberation with the MacPhersons. Given that their multiple requests for an official investigation have been dismissed by the Austrian authorities, they feel it is now appropriate to present the evidence of what happened to their son to the public.
Warning to book lovers: What follows is a plot spoiler. If you like books, I recommend Cold a Long Time--a thematically rich story with an extraordinary cast of characters and many surprising twists. Afterwards you can return to this page to study its photographic evidence. If you are only interested in the facts of Duncan's case, read on.
Glacier Ice Flow or Contact with Machinery?
Speaking about the condition of Duncan MacPherson's body for a 2006 Canadian television documentary, Dr. Walter Rabl of the Innsbruck Institute of Forensic Medicine stated:
I saw such damages on glacier corpses. Yes. During the movement in the ice, the glacier breaks the body. But the injuries itself, I could not examine exactly. We saw the clothed body, but we did not unclothe it. .... We never, ever did an autopsy; we just had to do the identification [of the body].
In other words, Dr. Rabl assumed that Duncan's injuries had been caused by ice movement, but he had not (for some reason) been able to confirm this assumption by looking closely at the injuries. Fortunately, Dr. Rabl took photographs of the corpse, and the MacPherson family ultimately obtained copies of them.
As I recount in Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery, I showed these photographs, as well as one radiograph, to a number of forensic experts, a ski accident investigator, and a prominent glaciologist. I also read extensively about the physics of glaciers and the strange phenomenon of glacier corpses.
Depending on the section of the glacier into which a body falls, it may be subjected to significant forces from the flowing ice. In the upper region of the glacier--the so called accumulation zone--the body will be directed into deeper layers of ice and subjected to compressive stress that may crush the cranium and ribcage. In the lower region of the glacier--the so-called ablation zone--the body will be subjected to tensile stress that may dismember it. As with all dismemberment from natural forces, it tends to occur at the joints, which are held together with ligaments that weaken with decomposition. Pieces of the body, separated at the joints, may be ultimately be found at the bottom of the glacier at different times and in different spots.
Duncan's body did not go into a deep crevasse; it was neither crushed nor dismembered at its joints. Three of his limbs display sharp, linear fractures along the bone shafts, with extensive avulsion of muscle, tendon, and skin. Moreover, all three of the amputated limbs were found with the torso. As the glaciologist David Evan's pointed out, this is an obvious indication that they were not fractured by glacier sheer stress, which would have displaced the fractured limbs on either side of the sheer plane. It is also notable that the snowboard found immediately adjacent to Duncan's body in the vestige of a shallow crevasse was not broken by glacier sheer stress, but by the action of heavy machinery.
Upon examining the radiographs and photographs of Duncan's body, several forensic and medical experts, including the renowned forensic anthropologist Myriam Nafte and the criminalist Lynne Herold have agreed that his limbs bear the characteristic injury patterns caused by machinery.
Above: Close-up of the only radiograph submitted to the MacPhersons that shows any (a small section) of the left leg. The ends of the diagonal line indicate where the femur fractured just above the knee joint. The top, horizontal arrows indicate where Dr. Rabl removed a section of the femur for a DNA sample. The bottom, vertical arrows indicate the multiple fractures of the tibia--"like his leg went into a blender," as the Saskatoon radiologist Dr. Burbridge put it.
Above: Side view of the left leg. The verticle arrows indicate where the leg was cut all the way through. The upper right horizontal arrows indicate the degloving of flesh around the top of the detached knee. The skin and subcutaneous tissue have been peeled downward, towards the lower leg.
Above: Artist's rendering of the detached left knee.
Above: Duncan's left foot has been severed and the tendons (white strands) have been pulled out. The arrow indicates a deep gouge on the left side of the heel. Just behind and to the right of the foot is Duncan's right hand with missing fingers. The vertical arrow indicates where his thumb was cut off: Note the white tendon strand that has been pulled out. Top horizontal arrow indicates large mass of tendons that have likewise been pulled out. These injuries are consistent with something like an auger that has grabbed and pulled on the limb as well as cutting it. Finally, note the dark color of the injured surfaces, indicating that the injuries occurred long before the body was extracted from the ice.
Dr. Rabl took the above photograph shortly after Duncan's remains arrived at the Innsbruck Institute of Forensic Medicine on the morning of July 22, 2003, still fully frozen from cold storage at the funeral home. The plastic sack contains pieces of Duncan's limbs, including his entirely detached left knee, his left foot, and his right hand. Each piece has been sharply separated along the bone shafts, and not at the joints. Note the white tendon strands that have been pulled out. Also note the deep abrasions, gouges, and clean cuts that are not consistent with random, accidental ice pick strikes during extraction. Finally, note how the pieces appear to be adhering together in a compact assembly, as though they were frozen in this position. It is likely that they were gathered up and bundled together before they went into the crevasse in 1989, and not when they were recovered from the ice in 2003.
Above: Right Arm. The bottom arrow indicates where the forearm was severed a few inches above the wrist. The severed lower limb is lying upside down on the gurney. Second from bottom arrow indicates tendons that were pulled out. I discussed these images with a distinguished orthopedic surgeon named Sohrab Gollogly, who also has extensive experience performing trauma surgery. Dr. Gollogly has seen the same injury pattern on a boy whose arm was pulled into a meat grinder. The third from the bottom arrow indicates where the fingers were cut off. The top arrow indicates the completely undamaged upper arm. The relatively weak shoulder joint is also intact, indicating that little or no force was applied to it in the ice. The tear pattern on the shirt sleeve is consistent with the bottom of the sleeve getting caught in machinery and violently pulled.
Above: Severed left hand. Note the sharp, linear quality of the cut. The arrow indicates where the forearm was also cleanly severed a few centimeters above the wrist.
Above: Side view of the left hand and forearm. Arrow indicates the fracture of the radius and ulna. The fractured surface is the same color as the bone shaft, indicating that the fracture occurred long before the body was extracted from the ice.
The Condition of Duncan's Snowboard
On July 28, 2003, Bob MacPherson pointed out to Dr. Rabl that the snowboard appeared to have been damaged by a machine, and he asked if Rabl knew what had caused the damage. Rabl replied that he would inquire, and (with the MacPhersons in his office) he called the Stubai Glacier slope maintenance to inquire how the workers had gone about recovering it. It strikes me as strange that Rabl did not inquire about the snowboard damage earlier, given that the snowboard arrived with Duncan's body at his institute on July 22, 2003.
Above: The snowboard and left boot liner as they were presented in the transport coffin to the Innsbruck Institute of Forensic Medicine on the morning of July 22, 2003. The red arrow indicates what appears to be a bloodstain on the left boot liner. The black arrows indicate where the plastic laminate has been ripped away from the underlying plywood. Note how the wood and paint are deeply weathered, indicating that these materials were exposed to ice and water long before the snowboard was extracted from the ice just three days earlier.
According to Dr. Rabl, Stubai Glacier slope maintenance informed him that they'd recovered Duncan's body as carefully as possible using picks, but had found it necessary to use a groomer in order to dig out the snowboard. As Rabl recounted in an Aug. 5, 2003 email to Bob, "First they pulled on the snowboard and thereby broke it to pieces" and then "ran over it with the Ratrak [groomer]." Bob immediately found this suspicious. There were no points on the board for attaching a winch cable or recovery strap, and none of the equipment on a groomer was suitable for excavating objects from ice. As I relate in my book, I consulted a ski accident investigator who entirely agreed with Bob. As he pointed out, the damage to the snowboard has a uniform pattern. The angles of the cuts are identical to the angles of the two breaks. In other words, the board had not been "pulled on, broken into pieces, and then run over"--it had simply gone through a machine.
Above: Close-up of damage to left side of the snowboard. The arrows indicate where the board was cut three times at the same angle. The crescent-shaped cuts decrease in depth from left to right. Measured from the left side of each cut, a distance of six inches (15.25 centimeters) separates each cut.
Above: Crescent-shaped cuts on the snowboard resemble a crescent-shaped cut on Duncan's knee, just above the fractured tibia.
Above: Snowboard shortly after the MacPhersons returned to Saskatoon with it in August of 2003. The white arrow indicates red paint residue on the plywood that was left by the instrument that sheered off the plastic desk and scraped the wood.
Left: Row of gouges on the back of Duncan's left thigh, a few inches above where the left leg was amputed just above the knee. Above right: Calling card that was found in Duncan's wallet, which he apparently was carrying in the back left pocket of his denim shorts. The wallet was punched all the way through by a sharp instrument, and the calling card neatly recorded the exact size of the instrument. The card is juxtaposed with a gouge on the thick plastic binding strap that was still attached to the snowboardboard found with Duncan's body. Bottom right: Closeup of gouge on the back of Duncan's left thigh. Note the strong resemblance of these tool marks.
Above: Duncan's left ski boot liner. The damage corresponds to Duncan's severed left foot. Note also the evenly-spaced nicks along the top. Its insole has been removed, and a white, powdery residue on the cloth indicates that it washed and disinfected at the Institute of Forensic Medicine. The dark red stain that is visible in the photo taken at the institute on July 22, 2003 was no longer visible on the liner after it was handed over to the MacPhersons.
Above: Red paint particles that have lodged between the rubber and foam layers of the toe area of the left boot liner. The top, rubber layer is coated with a glue to which the paint flakes are adhering just above where the material was punched by an instrument. The color matches the color (red with an orange tint) of the residue on the damaged surface of the snowboard. NOTE: These are DEFINITELY particles of paint, and NOT particles of red fabric from the liner.
QUESTION: What kind of machine destroyed three of Duncan's limbs, his snowboard, and his left boot liner?
Above: Duncan's long distance calling card and a grooming tiller tine. His wallet, which was presumably found in the left pocket of the denim shorts he wore underneath his sweatpants, was punched all the way through by a sharp object of approximately the same size and shape as a grooming tiller tine.
Above: Though not all grooming tillers are identical, many are equipped with tines that are spaced three inches apart in a staggered formation on the cylinder. Those that are fixed in the same row (see white arrows) are six inches apart. The cuts on Duncan's snowboard are six inches apart. Both forearms and his lower left leg are segmentally fractured (chopped) into three to six inch pieces. Though the tines on this Pistenbully tiller are painted yellow, Pistenbully tillers manufactured in the eighties were painted RED.
While groomer accidents are fairly common, in most cases, the victim either collides with or is run over by the tractor, which drives in front of the tiller. Duncan's case was remarkable in that three of his limbs went into the tiller, even though his body was not first run over by the tractor. Had he been run over by the tractor, he would have also sustained rib, pelvic, or cranial fractures, and these parts of his skeleton were unscathed. Another perplexing aspect of his accident was the fact that he wasn't wearing his left ski boot--only the boot liner--at the time his left leg went into the tiller.
In my effort to discover what had happened to Duncan, I contacted a highly experienced ski accident investigator named Richard Penniman, who had served as an expert witness in the case of Austin Miles. In my book I recount how Penniman, Bob MacPherson, and I developed a plausible hypothesis of how Duncan's accident had come about.
When did Duncan's limbs and snowboard go into the grooming tiller?
Three forensic experts to whom I showed photos of Duncan's body independently stated that the limb fractures had occurred long before Duncan's body was extracted from the ice, as the fractured surfaces were the same aged color as the rest of the bones. Even Dr. Rabl, who proposed the alternative hypothesis that Duncan's limbs were damaged by ice flow, stated the following in his Feb. 13, 2004 email to Lynda:
In my opinion the main damages of the body of Duncan were not produced during the recovery of the corpse in 2003, because the fractured surfaces of the bones were dark brown and grey colored--fresh fractures would have been much lighter.
Moreover, according to Dr. Gollogly, it is unlikely that the tendons in Duncan’s arms and left ankle would have avulsed as they did if they had been frozen. Generally speaking, it is doubtful that any of the degloving injuries could have happened to frozen tissue. Duncan’s dislocated right elbow is rotated 180 degrees but is still held together by the ligaments. Had the connective tissue been frozen, the elbow joint would have likely snapped in two from the tremendous force that was imparted to it.
The slope maintenance workers told Dr. Rabl that they had destroyed the board while digging it out with a groomer on July 18, 2003, but this is simply not credible. First of all, as they well knew, and as numerous dealers and servicemen have told me, a grooming tiller is not suitable for excavating objects from ice. It is expressly designed for grooming snow, not for digging into ice. Parking the groomer over ice and engaging the tiller would do little more than scrape the surface and would likely damage the expensive machine.
The most obvious indication that the snowboard went through the tiller long before it was extracted from the ice on July 18, 2003 is the condition of the metal buckles on its binding straps. The undamaged parts of the buckles are still coated with white paint and have little to no rust. However, some of the buckles have been struck by something hard and sharp, which deformed the metal and knocked away the paint. Deep rust on the damaged areas indicates that the damage occurred long before the board was recovered.
Above: Compare the undamaged binding buckle on left with damaged buckle on right. Note the deep rust on the right buckle at the point where the metal was struck and the paint knocked away.
Above: Section of the snowboard near the point at which it was broken in half and where its bottom, plastic laminate was ripped away: The coat of paint, which was sealed underneath the plastic sheet prior to the board’s destruction, is severely weathered, indicating that it was exposed to ice and water long before it was recovered on July 18, 2003.
THE ULTIMATE QUESTION: Given that three of Duncan's limbs and his snowboard went into a grooming tiller, how did his body, amputated forearms, amputated left leg, broken snowboard, shredded clothing, and ski boots all end up together in a crevasse?
For awhile I considered the hypothesis that his body had been run over by a tiller in the summer of 2003, just prior to someone noticing it on the surface of the slope. However, a number of points argue against this hypothesis, starting with the old age of the limb injuries and the damage to the snowboard.
The ski slope on the Schaufelferner was closed during the summer of 2003, not only for lack of snow, but also for the construction of a new lift. By the time Duncan’s body emerged on the surface, the slope had not been groomed for several weeks. In aerial photos of the discovery site, vehicle tracks are visible all over the slope. This indicates that, although the workers were using the vehicles for transportation, they were not engaging the grooming tillers, which would have smoothed over the tracks.
After going into a crevasse, Duncan’s body was never within the top, three-inch layer of snow, but always in the underlying ice. Every summer this underlying ice did not start to melt until the covering layer of snow was gone, at which point there was no reason to groom. Moreover, Duncan’s undamaged torso, right leg and left ski boot were positioned closer to the surface than his amputated left arm and destroyed left leg. In this situation, a passing groomer could not have destroyed his forearms and left leg without also completely destroying his torso and right leg. That both of his hands were severed strongly suggests that he threw his hands out to defend himself from the oncoming machine--a common defensive reflex.
It also important to understand that Duncan’s limbs, clothing, and snowboard were not grazed by the tiller passing over them; they went into the machine. If the three inch tiller tines passed over Duncan’s left leg as it lay underneath a layer of snow less than three inches thick, they might have gouged the limb, but they would not have chopped and ground it to pieces. The groomer driver could not have unwittingly damaged the limbs because pieces of clothing and limbs would have been ripped away from the body and either tangled in the machine or scattered on the slope. The snowboard (made of very strong plywood) running through the tiller would have made a tremendous amount of noise and vibration as it was broken completely in half.
Finally, the spectacular injuries on Duncan's lower left leg indicate that the limb got stuck in the machine between the casing and the rotating shaft (cutter bar). The the row of gouges along the back of his left thigh probably mark the uppermost part of the leg that entered the casing. His wallet in his back left pocket approximately aligned with this row of gouges. It is worth noting that Austin Miles's leg jammed between the cutter bar and casing in a similar manner. His terribly damaged limb was so firmly lodged in the machine that the steel casing had to be cut away in order to free it. Duncan's much larger leg would have lodged even more firmly in the machine and sustained even greater damage. Stuck in this position, it would have been difficult to free the limb, and it almost certainly required doing additional violence to the leg presumably after Duncan had died. The piece of cable wrapped around his lower left leg was probably used in an attempt to free the amputated limb from the machine.
THE ANSWER TO THE ULTIMATE QUESTION: After Duncan's limbs and snowboard went into a grooming tiller, someone placed his body, amputated limbs, and snowboarding equipment in a shallow crevasse and then filled the crevasse with snow. If it weren't for the record snow and ice melt in the summer of 2003, his body would have likely emerged at the bottom of the glacier decades later. There is simply no other conceivable explanation for the condition of his body and snowboard, and for the situation in which these were found. All signs indicate that the driver of the groomer, or perhaps his superviser, perceived that the dreadful accident should have been prevented, and that the risk of catastrophic liability and bad publicity was simply too great. And so the decision was made to conceal the fatal accident instead of reporting it.
Author's Note: This article is a supplement to Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery, by John Leake. All rights reserved.