Mar 292010

The following is a transcription of the sensational story written by Larry Howell that appeared on the front page of the Missoulian on May 2, 1985. This is the “official” version of events, which I’ve written about previously.

A 28 year old man firing a shotgun out the window of a third floor apartment in downtown Missoula kept dozens of police officers at bay for 4&1/2 hours Wednesday before negotiators talked him into surrendering.

No one was hit by the shotgun blasts, but one reportedly came within 3 feet of a scurrying motorcycle officer and at least one other was aimed at officers, authorities say.

The man, identified as John W. Munro surrendered at 8:16 p.m. ending a tense drama that began at 3:41 p.m. when 9-1-1 received a call that shots were being fired into the alley between the 100 blocks of Main and Front Streets.

Munro’s apartment in the Missoula Apartments looks east into that alley, toward the Glacier Building, where police sharpshooters set up with high-power rifles and scopes.

Police Capt. Don Millhouse said little is known about Munro, except that he told negotiators he had recently been released from a Veterans Administration hospital. Several evacuated residents of the Missoula Apartments said Munro was a loner who’d moved in a couple of weeks before.

Millhouse said one witness told authorities that after firing the first shots, Munro yelled “Are the cops coming? I want to go to the hospital.”

Several early news broadcasts reported that Munro was a Vietnam veteran. However, because of Munro’s age – he would have been 18 when U.S. troops evacuated Saigon- Millhouse said it didn’t seem possible for him to have been in Vietnam. Millhouse was unsure how many shots were fired, but estimated it at a dozen, including the two he said were directed at officers.

Motorcycle patrolman Brent Sells said that when he peeked around a corner in the alley Munro fired close enough that Sells felt the sting of flying gravel.

“It sure got my adrenaline going.” Sells said, adding that another officer told him that the blast hit 2-3 feet behind him. He added that Munro had blown out a window in a nearby building when he saw several officers behind it.

Officers from the police and sheriff’s office were involved in the standoff, and they sealed off the entire block. While a negotiating team talked to Munro over the phone, other officers were informed of his actions by the sharpshooters on the Glacier Building’s seventh floor.

The negotiating team included officers from both departments as well as two FBI agents who acted as advisers.

Police had first believed Munro might have some sticks of dynamite, but they turned out to be flares.

Munro also had an ax, and during the latter part of the siege he chopped a hole in his floor and dropped a lit flare onto the bed of the apartment below, starting a fire, Millhouse said.

While firefighters were dousing the fire, Millhouse said Munro fired one shot through the hole. He also fired into the hallway when he opened his door to get a portable phone supplied by negotiators.

Earlier Wednesday a man whose description fit that of Munro had visited two other downtown bars and a bank carrying either a shotgun or shotgun shells and a bottle of pills.

Millhouse said Munro had asked negotiators over the phone for a prescription drug. “He asked the negotiators once for a medicine a doctor had prescribed for him but we didn’t have that kind.”

Munro yelled out the window at one point that he wanted to see his doctor, a man named Jim Crawford whose office was supposedly at St. Patrick Hospital. There is no doctor by the name Jim Crawford listed in Missoula. A little later, Munro yelled “What’s the answer?”

Police Captain Scott Graham yelled back, “We’re working on it.”

Munro was taken to St. Patrick Hospital after his surrender, where he is under heavy guard.

A man identified as John Munro clutches a shotgun as he peers from a third-floor window Wednesday afternoon.

Munro’s window as it appeared in 2010. A higher resolution image can be found here.

Law enforcement officers anxiously watch for John Munro, 28, to reappear at the window.

Officers Bill Wicks, left, and Al Baker escort Munro from the apartments.

 Posted by on 03/29/2010 Growing Up In Montana Comments Off on Munro’s Missoula Mayhem
Mar 202010

In 2003 Mythbusters investigated a “myth” or event that allegedly occurred in 2001 aboard an airplane. Kudos to Mythbusters for at least giving us oblique references as to their source material for the “myth.” From the meager hints given on the TV, I was able to find this website, which can be translated into English using a variety of tools, including Google.

Google translates it as follows:

Woman was hungry for the SAS WC
An American woman on an SAS plane en route from Scandinavia to New York was sitting on the toilet for several hours, said TT. She tried to flush without getting up, but then formed a vacuum and she got stuck, write the Norwegian tabloid VG’s online edition. – It was impossible to get off her, “says Siv Meisingseth at SAS in Oslo to the newspaper. In New York, managed to dislodge the woman technician.
Published: 2002-01-21

Mythbusters set out to test the “myth” in classic fashion, using models instead of real human beings. Thankfully their test design was able to incorporate some really good TV-grade science in modeling a prosthetic butt from a real butt. Good science should always document each phase of the test procedure and Mythbusters was up to the task:

In any event, Mythbusters couldn’t duplicate the supposed suction event. Frankly I have no quarrel with their test design or conclusion, although it should be noted that some obese people have trouble simply standing up. It’s possible that the story may have become confabulated from “failure to stand up” to “being held down by the suction of a toilet.”

Strangely enough, this was not the first time such an incident had been reported. In 1992 Led Zeppelin’s tour manager Richard Cole wrote a book entitled Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored. ISBN 0-06-018323-3. On page 250 Cole recounts an episode involving John Bonham aboard their rented Boeing 720B:

“One afternoon, on a flight to Cincinnati for a concert at Riverfront Stadium, the Starship had been in the air only fifteen minutes when I heard banging and shouts coming from the bathroom.

“Get me out! Get me out!”

It was Bonzo. The bathroom door was locked. I hit it with a couple of Bruce Lee kicks. The door trembled, then it collapsed. There, before my eyes, sat Bonzo, perched on the can with his pants down, literally unable to move.

“Help me, damn it!”

As hard as he was trying, Bonzo couldn’t stand up. Apparently, a mechanic had not properly sealed the vent beneath the toilet, and air pressure was literally sucking him down, keeping his ass anchored to the seat.

I grabbed Bonham by the arms and pulled him free. “Oh, my God!” he gasped, feeling terribly shaken but not hurt. He pulled up his pants and didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed by what had happened. He was probably just happy to be alive. As he returned to the main cabin of the plane, he mumbled, “I’m never gonna trust a toilet seat again.”

If I’m interpreting Cole’s chronology correctly, this event would have occurred in 1973!

 Posted by on 03/20/2010 Science Comments Off on More Mythbusters Mayhem!
Mar 172010

Several years ago, I watched with great interest an episode of Mythbusters concerning the “myth” of electrocution by urinating on the third rail. According to Wikipedia this was part of the first season, episode three, original air date October 10, 2003. I watched with great interest because I believed that I had read about this very “myth” many years ago.

First off, we must consider that Mythbusters is not “real” science in the sense that it is peer-reviewed and published in scientific literature. It’s television, and on television there is often an appeal to the lowest common denominator. Thus as time went on, Mythbusters became less scientific and more sensational, with episodes dealing with farting, shitting, and lots and lots of explosions. Oh, yeah, and that hot chick with the really nice rack…

But let’s take a close look at this particular “myth.” First off, in real science, whether performed by amateurs or professionals, you list prior research. Mythbusters almost NEVER does this, and certainly didn’t in this episode. Yet the “myths” have to come from somewhere. It was telling that the third rail episode named the victim as “O’Malley,” the stereotypical drunken Irishman.

Mythbusters, and in particular Adam Savage, have been embraced by skeptics as well. Savage has given public presentations at JREF conferences, and is considered by many a celebrity skeptic. But is it a good idea for skepticism to embrace a TV program that engages in sloppy science? A fundamental problem in the whole concept of Mythbusters is in the name itself, which presupposes that the claims they are testing are myths. Yes, I understand that “Claim Testers” is simply not sexy enough for TV. Too cerebral! Not enough explosions! More tits!

Good science CANNOT presuppose that any claim, at least those that are not logically impossible, to be a “myth.”

But lets get back to the “myth” of the electrocution death of Joseph Patrick O’Malley, who was in fact a real person and not a myth at all! How did Mythbusters botch their test design and come to the wrong conclusion?

Pressure! Mythbusters correctly concluded that under the circumstances of their test design, an electrolyte stream’s laminar flow would break up into small droplets, and thus be unable to carry an electrical current from the third rail to O’Malley’s penis. The problem is that Mythbusters used a feed flow based on one trip to the toilet by Savage. Well, as any man knows who has had a hugely full bladder and no prostatic hypertrophy, a vastly more robust stream of urine can be produced than that seen on the Mythbusters test dummy. This is because of the simple reason that one can bear down on the bladder with one’s abdominal muscles! You have a simple case of grossly unrealistic test conditions.

But an even more egregious breach of scientific protocol was committed in this episode: Empirical reality trumps theory and test design.

In 1967 a book was published entitled Where Death Delights written by Marshall Houts about Milton H. Helpern who was the chief medical examiner of New York City at the time. Chapter 15 is entitled “Be Careful What You Do to the World,” and details the strange case of one Joseph Patrick O’Malley, who died of electrocution by urinating on the third rail of a Bronx subway.

On page 287 Houts writes:

“Dr. Helpern made his determination of ‘accidental death’ on the basis of three small burns. One burn was on the inside surface of the right thumb, on the inside surface of the right index finger, and the third covered a somewhat larger area on the head of the penis.”

On Page 289 Houts continues:

“The fate of this particular Joseph Patrick O’Malley also involved the third rail of the subway. This is the ‘hot’ rail through which 600-volt electric current passes to furnish the energy for the subway trains. It parallels the inside rail of each track and is embedded in cement so that it is covered on three sides. The fourth side is open, facing the train, so that the contact wheel of the subway train can run against this ‘hot’ third rail to pull in the electrical current to move the motors.”

“The burns on the head of the penis and on the thumb and forefinger were obvious electrical burns.”

“For one reason or another, this Joseph Patrick O’Malley elected to literally urinate on the world at this particular time. The stream of urine had come into contact with the 600 volts of the third rail. The current coursed up the stream to cause the burns on his body as the electricity entered it. In all probability, he was dead from electrocution before the train ever hit his body.”

What’s particularly galling about this episode is this statement by the show’s announcer at the very end of the episode: “In fact, there are no recorded cases of O’Malley, or anyone else, dying like this in the New York Subway.”


Remember, just because someone wants to wear the mantle of “scientist” or “skeptic” doesn’t mean that they are above scrutiny. Unfortunately this particular episode of Mythbusters was more like Monsterquest…

Where Death Delights, Marshall Houts, 1967. Library of Congress Number 67-21513

 Posted by on 03/17/2010 Science Comments Off on When Mythbusters Gets it Completely Wrong
Mar 092010

This evening I had the distinct honor of finally meeting Dr. Anton Wroblewski and his wonderful wife Bonnie. Here he is seen examining with a loupe a test cast I made some time ago. I think he found a “sweat pore”:

The obligatory dour pose:

Bigfootery is incomplete without vitriolic finger pointing:

 Posted by on 03/09/2010 Bigfoot Comments Off on The Men Who Killed Bigfoot