Forensic Meteorology: What Does The Weather Have To Do With Crimes?

"Forensic meteorology" uses historic weather records, atmospheric data, eyewitness accounts, and reenactment simulations to solve crimes.

October 05, 2018

Crystal McDowell [Provided]

Crystal McDowell [Provided]

By: Catherine Townsend

Experts have been studying the relationship between temperature and criminal activity for decades. For instance, it's a well known fact that more people are murdered in America during warm months than cold ones.

A report by The New York Times found that on average, about twice as many people are shot in Northern cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit during hot weather than cold weather. But the temperature is only a small part of the story.

The weather can play a far larger role in covering up crimes — and sometimes, in catching criminals.

"Forensic meteorology" is using historic weather records, atmospheric data, eyewitness accounts, and reenactment simulations to determine the weather conditions at a specific time and location in the context of solving crimes.

Here are five examples of when extreme weather led to extreme behavior.

A Hurricane Homicide

In 2017, as Hurricane Harvey bore down on Baytown, Texas, a real estate agent and mother of two named Crystal McDowell (main photo, above) went missing. Her dead body was found in a marshy wooded area after the storm passed. Several days later, they found her flooded car at a Motel 6 near Interstate 10.

Her estranged husband, Steven McDowell, later tearfully admitted to strangling his wife while their children, ages 5 and 8, slept in their beds upstairs.

Investigators faced serious challenges during the search for Crystal due to the storm. Crystal's boyfriend told reporters that he believed that McDowell hoped that the chaos from the storm would work in his favor.

"I think he knew the storm was coming in, and this would help cover his tracks," Paul Hargrave told ABC 13. "I think I had a lot to do with his decision to do this and I can't help but feel responsible for that."

The Deadly Dentist

Glen Wolsieffer was a prominent dentist in Pennsylvania who was convicted of the murder of his wife, Betty, who was found savagely beaten to death. Glen told police that an intruder had attacked his wife, but the cops discovered many inconsistencies with the crime scene.

A ladder propped against the outside of the garage was facing backward. The garage roof was covered in dew, but no handprints or footprints were found.

During the trial, forensic meteorologists testified that the grass around the house would have been soaked with dew at the time of the murder, and that an intruder would have surely left wet footprints. This testimony helped narrow down the focus of the investigation.

For more on this case, watch "The Deadly Dentist" episode of Investigation Discovery's Handsome Devils on ID GO now!

Blood In The Snow

A meteorologist turned out to be the nail in the coffin for Michael Mosley, who was accused of bludgeoning two people to death in Troy, New York, in 2002. Mosley claimed that a cut on his hand did not happen during the killings. Instead, he said that he sustained the injury while snowboarding with his son.

But meteorologist Howard Altschule testified for the prosecution that at the time Mosley claimed to have been snowboarding, it was raining — with no snow.

He provided exhaustive detail including radar maps that allowed him to say precisely where and when rain was falling. The rain should have melted the snow, which would have meant that the slopes were too bare to allow snowboarding.

This helped discredit Mosley, who was convicted of the murders.

Murder In The French Quarter

The murder-suicide of Zack Bowen and Addie Hall, who were living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2006, made national headlines.

The young couple refused to evacuate their neighborhood as the storm came, and gave several interviews to media where they painted pictures of a romantic, simple lifestyle. They lived without electricity and spent their days feeding stray cats and mixing cocktails for random visitors.

But the reality was far darker: The couple reportedly had explosive arguments, and often fought about the fact that Hall believed that Bowen was cheating on her.

Then police say that he strangled her to death, cut her into pieces, and placed her head in a pot on a stove. Detectives found another pot with her hands and feet inside.

Before he could face justice, Bowen went to the Omni Royal New Orleans hotel, walked to an outside terrace, and jumped off.

"I scared myself not by the action of calmly strangling the woman I've loved for one and a half years … but by my entire lack of remorse," he wrote in the suicide note found in his pocket.

For more on this case, watch the "Hurricane Love" episode of Investigation Discovery's Handsome Devils on ID GO now!

The Serial Connection

In the case of Adnan Syed, whose story was the subject of season one of the podcast Serial, the weather has become a key clue.

Syed was convicted of killing his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Jay Wilds, testifying about his alleged involvement in the burial of the victim on January 13, 1999, said there was snow on the ground. He specifically pointed out that because of the moonlight reflecting off of the snow, he and Syed could see well in the dark woods.

But on episode 133 of the Truth & Justice podcast, host Bob Ruff and retired FBI profiler Jim Clemente discuss how by looking back at historical weather data, they can see that there was freezing rain and hail on that night, but not snow. In fact, it hadn't snowed for about a week.

[BOB RUFF]: " ... that snow that had come, it was a couple of inches about a week before. But on that day, the snow turned to rain. It rained for like 12 hours, was in the 40s, and the weather data says that there was less than an inch on the ground.... There was above freezing, two 50-60 degree days prior to this event occurring."
[JIM CLEMENTE]: "So the likelihood of there being snow all over the ground that is reflecting light so that they could see when they are going to bury this body is almost zero."

Another aspect of this case concerned with the controversial, alleged snow is that Syed's potential alibi witness, Asia McClain, told Serial host Sarah Keonig that she specifically remembered seeing Syed after school on January 13 at the Woodlawn Public Library. She said that she remembered that day because of the snow.

But Julie Snyder checked the weather in the area for Serialpodcast.com and found that "there was no significant ice, rain, or snow on January 13."

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