By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
A LOCAL pathologist yesterday said he was “dumfounded” at a suggestion from his South African counterpart that a woman found hanged in her Atlantis hotel room was embroiled in a “violent struggle” and sustained over 60 injuries before her death.
Dr Kiko Bridgewater said it was “quite fantastic” for Dr Linda Liebenberg to suggest that South Africa native Carla Van Eeden sustained some 64 injuries before being strangled to death, as the body he saw days after the incident bore no evidence of such a claim.
Instead, Dr Bridgewater said Ms Van Eeden’s “well-nourished” and “well developed” body was in “excellent condition” when he conducted the first of two autopsies on the young woman, adding to his “surprise” when he read Dr Liebenberg’s extensive report.
He maintained that Ms Van Eeden died from asphyxia due to hanging, and asserted that whatever Dr Liebenberg observed was likely the result of ‘postmortem artifact’ that “mimics” bruising, which he surmised tricked his colleague into believing Ms Van Eeden was assaulted.
Dr Bridgewater suggested that the aforementioned, coupled with Tardieu spots observed on Ms Van Eeden’s lower extremities, the likes of which he said could appear as bruising to the “untrained eye” and likely led Dr Liebenberg to an incorrect conclusion.
Ultimately though, Dr Bridgewater said the key difference between the autopsy he conducted on May 30, 2018, and the one Dr Liebenberg conducted a month later, was that he had a body that was “fresh”, while she had one that was “altered”.
He also shot down Dr Liebenberg’s suggestion of there being some sort of scuffle between Ms Van Eeden and some unknown assailant, as he said he saw no evidence of Ms Van Eeden scraping her neck in a bid to get the ligature off, or even her nails breaking in the process.
He said based on his findings, her pink acrylic nails were in “immaculate” condition, and that there was nothing found underneath her nails when checked.
“It’s hard to imagine someone is trying to kill you and you’re just not making any effort to protect yourself,” he said. “You would grab for your neck to try and pull off the ligature or to try and pull off that person’s hand or whatever they’re using.”
Dr Bridgewater’s testimony came during an inquest into Ms Van Eeden’s death in room 3583 at the Royal Towers at Atlantis in May 2018.
Ms Van Eeden was found hanging from a green and white cellphone lanyard around her neck, which was in turn hanging from a garment hook on the back of the bathroom door.
According to Dr Bridgewater, the lanyard was “double-looped” loosely around her neck.
Dr Linda Liebenberg, who conducted the second of two autopsies on Ms Van Eeden on June 29, 2018, previously asserted Ms Van Eeden’s alleged suicide was actually the result of ligature strangulation and a “subsequent staging of the body” to “create the impression” she was hanged.
Dr Liebenberg said the young woman also had “numerous” scratches, bruises and abrasions about her body, which were in keeping with a person who had been involved in a “violent struggle”.
Dr Liebenberg also said Ms Van Eeden had “drag mark abrasions” on “large parts” of the rear of her body, as well as an area of bruising to the back of her neck. She surmised that the bruise at the back of Ms Van Eeden’s neck was not consistent with an injury inflicted by hanging, and posited that it could have been inflicted by a “rabbit chop”, a swift, sharp blow to the nape of her neck.
Dr Liebenberg ultimately posited that Ms Van Eeden’s assailant had knocked her out, and once she was limp, utilised a “conveniently available” cellphone lanyard to stage the hanging with minimal difficulty.
Ultimately, Dr Liebenberg said she was “taken aback” and “puzzled” when she discovered that the various injuries she found on Ms Van Eeden’s body were not recorded in the first autopsy report compiled by Dr Bridgewater.
Taking the witness stand yesterday, however, Dr Bridgewater said he was “equally dumfounded” when he read Dr Liebenberg’s report, maintaining that the body he and his assistants observed was in “excellent condition” with no such scratches, abrasions or bruises.
He insisted that he noted no “significant” injuries to Ms Van Eeden’s body. He said he saw no petechiae hemorrhages—small ruptures of capillaries that can be seen in someone who has been strangled; no intramuscular neck haemorrhages; nor any bleeding into the strap muscles in her neck.
He also said Ms Van Eeden’s thyroid cartilage and hyoid bones—the latter of which he said “frequently” fractured in manual strangulations—were intact.
Dr Bridgewater said he specifically checked Ms Van Eeden’s genitalia to see if she was sexually assaulted, however, he said he saw no “tears” or “evidence of any sort of activity or abuse”.
However, he noted that there was a dried ligature furrow/groove and abrasion around her neck. He said the ligature was going upwards and backwards, the lower point being near the thyroid cartilage. He said the groove he saw was a “classic pattern” in someone who died by hanging.
However, Dr Bridgewater maintained that Ms Van Eeden’s “injuries” were the result of postmortem artifacts, which is essentially a change introduced to the body after death that is likely to lead to misinterpretation of medically significant antemortem (before death) findings.
Dr Bridgewater suggested that postmortem artifact could occur due to the handling of a body. And he said it is a “phenomenon” that “frequently does happen”.
For example, he said he has personally seen bodies fall to the ground, drop off shelves, gurneys, and outside on the pavement as funeral directors are transporting them. He also said the embalming process can also result in the “false appearance” of a bruise or bruises.
Dr Bridgewater also noted that while the body may be embalmed and/or refrigerated, such preservation techniques may slow down decomposition, but doesn’t stop it completely.
Thus, he posited that the marks on her back, for example, may have been caused by the funeral directors dragging her in their attempts to move her from spot to spot in their facility. He also explained that as opposed to the morgue where he works that has “nice smooth surfaces” to place bodies on, some funeral homes use 2x4 planks of wood to place bodies on.
As to the bruise to the back of Ms Van Eeden’s neck, Dr Bridgewater said its shape, which was “butterfly-like”, reminded him of the shape of the headrests used in the morgue and funeral homes.
Thus, he theorised that the “bruise” was merely discolouration due to the embalming fluid not reaching that particular area of her body. And that likelihood, Dr Bridgewater said, was very “plausible”.
The matter continues.