Real Crime Blog

What Happens When a Dead Body Is Dissolved in Lye?

A policeman carries evidence, wrapped in canvas, into the court at Horsham, Surrey in England for the 1949 case of 'The Acid Bath Murders' involving John George Haigh. Photo by Don Price/Getty Images

In the aftermath of a murder, the victim’s body is a trove of evidence. Whether it’s taking body temperature to determine time of death, or checking for fingerprints to determine the murderer’s identity, investigators trying to solve the crime puzzle benefit greatly from an uncompromised body.

For that reason, criminals will seek to dispose of their victims. And there may be no more gruesome means of doing so than dissolving the body in a vat of corrosive chemicals. 

In 2012, David Valencia and Jose Olivera Beritan—members of the Palillos (“Toothpicks”) Mexican organized-crime group—were convicted of two and three counts of first-degree murder, respectively. They lured victims to a San Diego residence under the auspices of a drug deal, then strangled them and dissolved their bodies in 55-gallon drums of lye, while they barbecued meat in the backyard to hide the smell from neighbors. Both men were sentenced to life imprisonment. 

In November 2016, Stefano Brizzi attempted a “Breaking Bad”-inspired disposal of a man he killed in his London apartment, using acid in his bathtub to dissolve his victim’s flesh. After receiving a life sentence for that murder, Brizzi killed himself in February 2017.  

But while the criminal application of chemically-induced decomposition captures the imagination, it’s also a legal means of body disposal. Alkaline hydrolosis—or “biocremation,” as it euphemistically known in the mortuary world—is legal in more than a dozen states. 

Samantha Sieber, vice president of Bio-Response Solutions—a company that makes alkaline hydrolysis machines for human disposal—spoke with A&E Real Crime about the process and how it’s different than the way killers try to get rid of bodies.

What is alkaline hydrolysis?
Basically, it’s the way that water behaves when it’s in an alkaline condition (having a pH greater than 7). Alkaline hydrolysis is an alternative to flame cremation… it uses 95 percent water and 5 percent alkali. In the most ideal condition there’s also heat and a nice circulation of water to control this process. But it’s not the alkali, it’s actually the water that performs the decomposition.

How do your machines work?
The deceased is placed into a stainless-steel vessel. The alkali is added—it’s potassium hydroxide. The system fills with water [and] heats the solution between 200 and 302 degrees Fahrenheit.

Some kind of mechanism is needed to create a gentle flow of water, similar to a creek or a stream. A recirculating pump, or a physical stirrer, like a mixer. It would take a lot more time to let the body sit. It basically circulates that solution until complete decomposition is reached.

A complete process takes 285 gallons.

You call it biocremation. On a molecular level, is what you’re doing really comparable to cremation?
No, they’re completely different reactions. Flame cremation is oxidative. With flame cremation, everything is vaporized. It’s going somewhere.

Then what happens to a body that’s dissolved in one of your machines?
We’re made up of proteins, fat and 65 percent water. When exposed to an extremely alkaline solution—and this is pH 14—water molecules disassociate into hydrogen and hydroxide molecules.

Proteins are broken down into their smallest building blocks: amino acids. Carbohydrates are clipped. Our DNA and RNA—they are completely hydrolyzed. They’re clipped to the most basic building blocks.

All pathogens are destroyed. Fats are turned into soap.

There’s no identifiable DNA left behind?
No. There’s no DNA and there’s no RNA. Everything that’s dissolved into the water is broken down as far as it can be broken down.

What happens to the skeleton?
There are remains resembling the skeleton, composed of calcium phosphate.

What about the liquid solution that’s left behind? What does that consist of when all is said and done?
It has the viscosity of water, and it looks like a light roast coffee. The solution at the end is 96 percent water and 4 percent other things: amino acid, sugars, nutrients and soap.

How long does  complete decomposition take?
Depends on a lot of factors, primarily temperature: six to eight hours at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and 14 to 18 hours at 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

What’s stopping more criminals from doing this?
I work in getting states approved for this. The two questions that always come up: What if criminals get ahold of this, and what’s going to keep somebody from doing this in a bathtub or a drum? This technology always draws people’s minds to the mob.

The heat, the circulation, the amount of chemical and the amount of water… all of these things have to be artfully controlled to bring this to completion.

You could do it in a drum if the drum was going to disappear for four years and not be reopened. Performing this process in a 55-gallon drum works about as well as cremating a body on a campfire.

When alkaline hydrolysis units are installed, it requires (1) a license from the state or provincial funeral board, (2) review and approval from the city zoning and planning commission, (3) a municipal review and permit from city and wastewater engineers through their pretreatment program, (4) a review and pass from the state environmental agency, (5) inspection from building and plumbing inspectors once installed, (6) an on-site visit from the chemical-supply company to inspect the facility and (7) a visit from the fire marshall to inspect the floor plan. Additionally, the equipment for human disposition ranges from $170,000 to $450,000.

[If criminals get access to lye] it’s no different than if they get their hands on a shovel, gasoline, blow torches, concrete, a woodchipper, strong acid (which is sold at home-improvement stores), or a boat and cinder blocks. Criminals have access to rivers, lakes, woods, landfills, construction sites, etc. There’s no shortage of ideas, good and bad, to dispose of a body illegally.

What about if someone just gets their hands on lye? Is that hard for people to do legally?
Anyone can buy lye. It’s not something that’s sold at Lowe’s or Menards, but you can buy it online or through a local chemical supplier. It is not a controlled substance, it’s used in tons of industries as a pH adjuster.

Every soap and detergent in your house was made using lye. Anyone selling homemade bars of soap at the farmer’s market or on Etsy has used lye to make that soap, probably from lye ordered online in small quantities. It’s used for the peeling of fruit and vegetables; it’s used to make traditional German pretzels. It’s used in corn syrup and vegetable oil processing. It’s used to make biodiesel fuels, paper, beauty products, shaving cream, it’s used in the textile industry to dye garments. It’s used in pharmaceutical production, and medicine compounding.  It’s used in pool chemicals, and at wastewater plants to balance acidic pH.

Businesses that use our equipment [and therefore a large amount of the chemical] buy from a chemical supplier. To buy from a chemical supplier, they take a week to begin account setup, they find out what you want and what you are using it for, they complete reference checks, perform a site visit to confirm the reasons for use and ensure safety measures are in place, and the fire marshall visits to create a record of the chemical storage area…all prior to allowing you to order.

How much does biocremation cost? Is it more affordable than regular cremation?
It’s between $500 to $1,000 more for alkaline hydrolysis than for traditional cremation. The equipment for alkaline hydrolysis is a lot more expensive.

This industry is something…we’re kind of outsiders.

—Adam Janos

Related Features:

How Is Time of Death Determined for a Crime-Scene Victim? Hint: It Usually Involves Maggots

What’s It Really Like to Be a Crime-Scene Investigator?

Why It’s OK to Leave Dead Bodies in the Woods, and Other Strategies for Not Messing Up a Crime Scene

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