CHICAGO — Contrary to claims made by informants within the Sicilian Mafia, sulfuric acid will not dissolve a corpse in minutes, a new study finds. The research, reported February 23 at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, was part of a wider effort to test claims about the mafia’s “lupara bianca,” or “white shotgun” murders, wherein the subject is known to be dead but a body is never found.
Experiments conducted on partial pig carcasses, a widely accepted stand-in for human bodies, showed that it takes days to melt flesh in sulfuric acid. Adding water to the acid speeds up the process, dissolving muscle and cartilage within 12 hours and turning bone to dust within two days, suggesting that the technique could render a corpse completely unrecognizable.
“But it is impossible that they completely destroyed a corpse with acid,” said study coauthor Massimo Grillo of the University of Palermo in Italy.
Police found tanks of acid in a Palermo hideout known as the “chamber of death,” where crime boss Filippo Marchese purportedly dissolved victims after torturing them in the early 1980s, said Filippo Cascino, another study coauthor at the University of Palermo.
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Informants had described the disposal method, the researchers say, with statements like, “We put the people in acid. In 15, 20 minutes they were no more — they became a liquid.”
The research suggests that the members of the crime clan were not as good at telling time as they were at ritual murder.
But “they are smarter than some Georgia criminals,” said Michael Heninger, an associate medical examiner in Fulton County, where Atlanta is located. “People think they will destroy a body, but they’ll do things that preserve it. These guys are more experienced,” he said of the Palermo killings.
It isn’t obvious whether the new research will translate into something usable for future investigations. “We constantly see cases that are weird,” says Heninger. “I’m never going to see this exact case, but when you do see something weird like this, it gets you thinking about how you would figure it out.”