Murder by Electrocution in a Utility Room - Possible?

Wade Steffey, a student at Purdue University went missing in January. A couple of weeks ago, his body was found in the utility room of a dormitory, Owen Hall, which is next to the one he lived in.

The last place anyone spotted him was roughly 50 yards from the utility room door, and he was seen trying to get into Owen Hall. His last two cell phone calls were to girls living in Owen, where he’d left his jacket earlier that evening. Neither of them answered when he called.

None of the investigators thought to check the utility room (beyond peeking in the door) because (a) it’s supposed to be locked, and (b) walking around in there is too dangerous unless the electricity to the whole building is shut off.

The inside door was locked but the exterior door was not, at the time his body was found.

So finally, in March, a “pinging” noise - the sound of his body conducting electricity (or malfunctioning equipment, depending on which reporter’s writing the story) - finally caught someone’s attention. A utility worker sent to investigate the sound discovered his corpse.

Authorities have postulated that he tripped in the dark utility room, and that as he fell his hand came into contact with a transformer carrying 2400 volts. Zapped him instantly.

The light switch is on the far side of the utility room, near the interior entrance. It’s possible he took off his shoe and used it to prop the exterior door open. His shoe was found outside that door sometime ago, but they didn’t realize it was his.

This seems like one of those investigations that won’t be listed on anyone’s resume.

Sad story, he was a bright kid who had a full-ride academic scholarship. Half the town’s been out looking for him.

Now some of them don’t want to believe that his demise could have come from such a simple accident.

I always thought that electricity conducted through human bodies extremely well, to the point where touching someone who is being electrocuted is fatal. So the idea that someone would “plant” a body in a utility room and fake an electrocution seems exceedingly farfetched.

Wouldn’t the person who placed his hand in contact with the transformer be electrocuted as well?

They also think it’s bizarre that his cell phone continued to work (it was found in his pocket, I believe) even as he was conducting electricity.

Just thought I’d ask people here what they thought.

His phone may have been still usable, but I really doubt the battery stayed charged for two months.

What I still don’t understand is the freakishly dangerous nature of this room. I’ve been in electrical rooms in buildings ranging from 100-year old apartment buildings, to modern schools and a phone company switching office or two. None of them had open, exposed voltage *anywhere * - wiring is all insulated or in overhead busways, connections are inside equipment and behind panels and a person could stumble around blindly and not get shocked. They might bump into switches and kill power, but not themselves.

Does Purdue not understand “insulation”?

Speaking of insulation, yes, a person can “work hot” on 2400 volts if they know what they’re doing and have the appropriate protective gear. While the idea of using the electrical room to cover up a murder is a bizarre idea, it wouldn’t be completely impossible.

Why do they say his cell phone continued to work after he was conduting electricity? Are they saying he phoned his two friends in the middle of being fatally electrocuted?

I’ve been in quite a few electrical rooms as well. The idea that someone could trip and end up getting fried is a bit baffling. You would have to take off a panel cover or similar in order to get into contact with anything. Most transformers are vented open air, but they typically have grids or are constructed so you couldn’t possible get your hand into one.

Sure you could probably murder someone in a utility room by electrocuting them. Open up a panel to the point main buses are exposed and give them a swift kick in the ass into it and your not at very much risk.

That wouldn’t be unusual for the typical cell phone addict.

“Hey Monica! Check out this voltage! zzzZZZZZZZZZZZTT

Sorry - and here I tried so carefully to tell a coherent tale – his phone was giving off a signal that was read by a tower, for about 7 days after his disappearance. Which means it was still working after he was zapped.

My dad was a lineman his whole life, and knew quite a few people who got popped on transmission and distribution lines. In this situation, let’s postulate that the victim touched something hot while standing on the ground. The current would enter his hand and exit his foot. In daddy’s experience, there would be pretty severe burns in those two spots, but likely nowhere else. It went in; it came out.

Electricity is kind of funny. A gentleman he worked with had an accident that blew off a few of his fingers (thumb, pointer, and middle fingers of his left hand.) Oddly enough, his wedding band on the left ring finger, didn’t burn him at all. The current, apparently, wasn’t concerned with that finger…just the ones that were in direct contact with the (energized and improperly grounded) truck. Likewise, his necklace didn’t burn him. Unless the jewelry or apparatus is directly within the electrical shunt, it could very well survive intact.

Touching the guy being popped would be a Very Bad Thing; indeed, being in close proximity would, as well. Though air is a very effective insulator, it’s not uncommon at all for an arc to develop between people standing too close to each other. Happens quite a bit in lightning strikes, but I saw it happen once when a guy was putting up a billboard graphic and let his metal pole come into contact with the highline; his buddy was a couple of feet away and the juice arced to him, too. Threw them both off the platform. Both survived, though I’m not sure whether or not it had anything to do with the amperage being “split” between them. Even if it was truly split in half, it was way, way more than enough to still be fatal. I think they lucked into being right underneath a cutout, which tripped immediately. That was the day I decided that following in my father’s footsteps wasn’t for me.

Anyway, it’s not too far fetched that the cell phone would survive and continue to transmit.

Not true. There could be internal burns, as well.

Yes, I should’ve been more clear about that. I meant that, when looking at the body, he’d see damage where the current entered, and damage where it exited. The rest of the body was (usually) pristine, externally.

Interesting – when you say “the body”, are you saying your father viewed them post-mortem? Was “getting popped” typically fatal?

Reports described the point where Steffey touched the transformer (with his hand, apparently) as the most dangerous spot in the whole room. Odd that he managed to zero in on it.

There was a graphic in the paper at one point, but I can’t find it now. It made the transformer look something like our gas water heater, and the spot where he touched it seemed to be about the size of our inflow valve, towards the top.

My ex was an electricial. He worked in many high tension vaults. He said that high voltage is more apt to knock a person away than grab them, like 110 will. That’s not to say it will always knock one away. Plenty of people die from high voltage contact.

As for electrical burns, BlakeTyner is correct.
I’ve seen patients with a quarter sized hole in a shoulder and a foot, with no other injury.
Internal burns are fairly rare, in my experience. (6 years Burn ICU) Cardiac arrest is very common, but that isn’t because the heart was burned, it was shocked, similar to defibrillation. Defib, is only used to stop erratic, disorganized rhythms. It stops the electrical activity, and we wait for, (and hope) the heart’s intrinsic electricial system kicks in.

My dad was pretty high on the management chain, as Division Superintendent, and he’d often arrive at the scene before the ambulance. In those situations, the other guys on the crew would be administering first aid, and generally had the victim’s work shirt either opened or off, while they did the ABC’s.

Some people made it, some didn’t. Like I say, electricity is funny. There were probably more fatalities than not, but he did visit a lot of his guys in hospitals. Even though he loved his job, it was easy to see that people getting hurt really weighed him down. He was always a stickler for safety, and, sad as it is to say, most of the guys who took amps had disregarded a safety rule.

I didn’t stay in the industry long enough to really understand the layout of utility rooms or substations, so I’m affraid I’m no help when it comes to that aspect. I’ll echo the sentiment above, though, and say I find it quite odd that there would be a transformer like that in a utility room. Not saying it couldn’t happen, but man…that’s a lawsuit-in-waiting.

What really strikes me about your post, though, is the shoe. When I first read it, I thought maybe the current threw it off. I’ve heard stories where that happened, second-hand. Even if that’s not what did occur, it’s so haunting, so humanizing to the story. A dead kid’s empty shoe. Very sad.

Sorry for the slight hijack.

No apologies necessary, I adore a good hijack! My Dad was in construction management for 35 years and was often the “Safety Officer” (or whatever the title is) on job sites. He’s seen some things. And it is, usually (but not always), someone who didn’t do what they were supposed to.

About the lawsuit, yes, that’s the other thing everyone’s speculating about. There was no “Danger - Keep Out” sign on the door. The lock’s been sent off to see if it failed or what, but it sounds like it wasn’t even locked. Clearly he wasn’t supposed to BE IN there…but you’re saying just having a transformer in a room like that is unusual? The building’s at least 50 years old, maybe they “grandfathered in” a situation that, today, would NOT be up to code?

They DID have to shut off the power to the whole building in order to remove his body. ::shudder::

picunurse, that’s interesting - so he probably had a heart attack before anything else killed him.

Sorry if I’m being macabre here. It’s just…such a weird story. Like I said, we’ve ALL been on the lookout for this kid, every time I drove past a drainage ditch, I’d try to peer in and see if I could spot something.