Helium and the Periodic Table of DEATH
We’ve all done it—sucked in helium (He) from birthday party balloons to sound like Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz (1). But helium and homicide? Hey, humans are nothing if not ingenious. I’ll illustrate with a relatively recent case that befuddled the police, at least, for a little while. Let’s start with the properties of He because they are essential for our story.
Helium is the second lightest and second most abundant element in the universe after Hydrogen. One of seven noble gases on the Periodic Table, it’s found as a common component of natural gas, but it doesn’t burn. Because it has a boiling point of approximately – 270° C (- 452° F) it is employed in cryogenics and to pressurize solid hydrogen rocket fuel tanks (2). It was also the first element used to inflate balloons because it is lighter than air. And this is where things start to get…ingenious.
Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, is a golf course community of about 50,000 people where they barely rack up one homicide a year. Yet on this late January day, one well-liked 71-year-old man who, according to his family and neighbors, had a zest for life and lived to play golf, lay dead on an off-the-beaten-path that led to Starbucks, with a gunshot wound through the heart. The police turned up nothing in the investigation—no footprints, no gun, no bullet casings, no suspects. As invasive as CCTV was at the community, no strangers were seen entering or leaving that off-the-beaten path where the victim was found. It was a puzzlement—apologies to Rogers and Hammerstein (3). Except…
There was a very curious email order on our victim’s phone for a weather balloon. The detectives then studied the phone’s Google Map history and found the victim had visited an industrial supply shop in town and purchased…a 40 cubic-foot helium tank. It looks like the guy tied a gun to the helium-filled weather balloon (already in place on the path), shot himself in the chest, and all the evidence floated away. Why did he do this? Best guess, to commit suicide in such a way that his life insurance would still go to his family (4).
The police did their research and came up with an earlier case of suicide by helium balloons on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, New Mexico. This time, the balloons were the birthday-party kind, but they and the gun got stuck in a cholla cactus about 30 feet away from the body (5). And the victims’ idea of using helium balloons to outsmart the police? It could potentially trace back to an episode of CSI: Las Vegas (6).
Again, the ingenuity of humans—and television show scriptwriters—is seriously amazing.