"We're Not Gonna Fall for a Banana in the Tailpipe"
If you are anything like me, you had two initial reactions upon learning about the rag in the tailpipe: 1) it was incredibly suspicious; and 2) it conjured a vague picture in your mind of Eddie Murphy and a banana (later recalling Beverly Hills Cop.) If you are James Renner, you had a different reaction to the rag in the tailpipe, which is the subject of the first segment of Part 2 in my re-examination of his “Five Clues That Make No Sense in this Case.” Here is the snippet pulled from Renner’s “Five Clues” post, which summarizes his theory about the rag:
I am not attempting to wrap my head around how he manages to tie in some nebulous intimation about Fred Murray’s honesty or character. Instead I’m going to jump right into a critique of the implicit and explicit logical claims in the statement above. I conclude by briefly introducing an alternative explanation for the rag in the tailpipe, which will be detailed in the next post (segment 2 of Part 2).
Claim #1: Stuffing a Rag in the Tailpipe of a Car will Cause it to Stall:
We know the bananas worked for Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. And Renner’s statement implies he certainly believes it to be true. But is it actually possible to stall a car by stuffing objects in its tailpipe? In order to get a clear answer, two questions need to be addressed.
First, is it possible to stall a car by “plugging” the exhaust? Yes, theoretically it is possible. By “plugging the exhaust,” I mean to disable in a way that prevents any emissions from escaping the vehicle, in other words, causing them to become “trapped.” If emissions get trapped in the cylinders, then no fuel or oxygen can get in. Without fuel and oxygen, the engine shuts down – likely within seconds, not minutes.
As a comparison, in order for humans to breathe, carbon dioxide needs to be exhaled before fresh oxygen can be inhaled. If either of the two functions shut down, they both shut down. Plugging the exhaust is like preventing a person from exhaling, in effect choking or suffocating them.
Second, will stuffing a rag in the tailpipe plug the exhaust? No, it is extremely unlikely. In order to plug the exhaust, a force more powerful than the engine would need to be exerted from the outside. Otherwise the pressure that builds up from the engine would cause the rag to become expelled out of the tailpipe like a spitball through a straw. For the rag to have “choked” the exhaust, something like a broomstick would need to have been held in the tailpipe while the engine was running, which does not seem possible in this case (see note 1).
For the record, I am not an expert on mechanics. Fortunately we don’t need to take my word for it because there is a trusted authority to defer to. MythBusters Season 2, Episode 7 examines precisely this question. The segment below demonstrates whether Eddie Murphy’s plot to “disable the unit” (stall the vehicle) by plugging bananas in its tailpipe would actually work in real life or whether it was just a myth. The verdict? “Totally busted.” And in less than 90 seconds. I'll let the video speak for itself. Except to say, "we’re not going to fall for a banana in the tailpipe.”
Claim #2) The “only logical explanation [for the rag] is that someone wanted Maura’s car to stall.”
For the sake of argument, let’s assume whomever Renner believes put the rag in the tailpipe has not seen Season 2 of MythBusters. Given what we know about the rag, what would have to be true in order for someone to have stuffed it in the tailpipe at some point during Maura’s journey from Amherst, MA to Haverhill, NH?
The only thing we seem to know for sure (or can at least confidently assume given Fred’s statements reiterated by John Smith in Podcast #20) is that the rag came from the trunk of Maura’s Saturn. According to John Smith, it was an old hospital rag that had been in the trunk since before Fred gave the car to Maura.
Forget motive for a second. Who would have had the means to do this? Renner suggests a tandem driver. I concede that is possible. In fact, it could explain the red truck. The problem is there is absolutely no evidence to support this idea.
What about an opportunistic abductor? Based on the amount of fuel in the Saturn’s tank, Maura had to have stopped for gas somewhere within an estimated fifty mile radius (see note 2). That means there may have been a window of time the car was unattended, for instance, if Maura had gone inside to pay the gas attendant.
But then we still have to believe that the opportunistic abductor broke into the trunk, found the rag, and stuffed it in the tailpipe. Then against all odds, the rag 1) was not expelled when the engine was started; and 2) Maura just so happened to crash anyway. Finally, we have to believe that when the abductor grabbed Maura on Route 112, they chose to leave behind the one piece of incriminating evidence (the rag) when it seems they could have easily grabbed it. I personally find this scenario unlikely.
This is not to say Maura was not abducted. That is a very real possibility. But given the evidence available, it’s hard to imagine how the rag in the tailpipe is part of that scenario.
Renner boldly claims that an attempt to stall Maura’s car is the “only logical explanation.” This is despite a number of details that challenge not only the possibility, but the plausibility of such an assertion. For one, we have no proof Maura’s car ever even stalled. Second, it is highly unlikely the rag would be sufficient to plug the exhaust and cause the car to stall. Third, Renner provides no evidence to support a logical means by which the rag gets from the trunk of the car and into the tailpipe without Maura knowing or witnessing this occur. Given all this, and unless I am missing something (please correct me if I am), what Renner has presented here as a ‘clue,’ is really nothing more than a wild guess. And not a particularly well-reasoned one.
So How Did the Rag End Up in the Tailpipe?
Given that the rag came from the trunk of the Saturn, it seems like Maura would have been the most likely person to have put it there. I will come back to location later, but for now, forget about where the rag was found. What is the most common use for a rag? Hint: it is not to stall a car (nor is it as a tool to commit suicide, but again, more on that in a future post). Most often, rags are used to wipe surfaces and/or clean up messes/spills/etc. Were there any messes or spills in or around the Saturn? As a matter of fact there were. From the evidence available, there were actually two potential 'spills' in and around the Saturn. The location(s) and description(s) of the red liquid found in and around the vehicle, and a potential connection to the rag, will be the basis of an alternative explanation outlined in the next post (segment 2 of part 2).
1) Another implausible theory about the rag is that it was utilized to commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. This would be impossible without either 1) a constant force or pressure being exerted on the exhaust (i.e. by a broomstick or mud); or 2) without continuously running a car engine in an enclosed area (i.e. a garage). I intend to detail this in a future post that assesses the suicide theory in general.
2) The Saturn had a 12.8 gallon fuel tank. Given the angle of the photo, it's possible the needle was a little lower than it appears. If we conservatively estimate that the thank was 3/4 full, and that Maura started with a full tank from wherever she stopped, then she would have burned up 3.2 gallons at the absolute most, but likely far less. The fuel economy of that year and model Saturn was 29 mpg/city and 40 mpg/highway. Conservatively assuming (again) that all of the miles were highway (which we know they were not), that would mean the radius 128 miles. At the very least this means she did not fuel up before leaving Amherst, because from Amherst to the WBC is a 152 mile journey.