When investigators responded to an April 6 fire at a Wisconsin home, they were immediately stumped.
The house in Marathon County, northwest of Green Bay, was badly burned and its owners were nowhere to be found. But once the blaze was extinguished, officers found two bodies in the garage – those of Tanya Rodriguez, 44, and James Carolfi, 52.
Firefighters suspected foul play, and Marathon County sheriff’s deputies started looking for clues to solve what they thought was a homicide case. Then, pathologists conducting the couple’s autopsies proposed a theory that changed the course of the investigation: that Rodriguez and Carolfi had died after electrocution from fractal wood burning.
Chief Deputy Chad Billeb confirmed the findings during a Thursday news conference.
“Foul play has been ruled out, and the deaths are found to be accidental by nature and believed to be caused by electrocution from fractal wood burning,” he said.
Fractal wood burning pairs high-voltage electricity and a chemical solution to etch intricate designs into slabs of wood. The process creates what is referred to as Lichtenberg figures, a pattern discovered in 1777 by German physicist Georg Lichtenberg while he conducted static electricity experiments. The intricate design – often seen in the scars of people who’ve been struck by lightning – resembles tree branches, lightning bolts or ferns.
The results have turned fractal wood burning into a social media phenomenon. Hundreds of how-to videos exist on the Internet. On TikTok, #fractalburning and similar hashtags have garnered millions of views. Yet the aesthetically pleasing look of veins spreading across a piece of wood can come at a high cost – and in dozens of cases have turned fatal.
People trying the craft often pick apart microwaves or car batteries to remove the power supply, which is then connected through jumper cables to nails attached to a piece of wood slathered with a conductive solution of baking soda and water.
At least 33 people – ranging from rookies to experienced electricians – have died from fractal wood burning since 2016, according to the American Association of Woodturners. The group has banned references to the dangerous process at its events, as well as in its articles and publications.
“It only takes one small mistake and you are dead; not injured, dead,” the association wrote in a warning on its website. “Some of those who died were experienced at using the process and some were not. What is common to all of them: fractal burning killed them.”
The high voltage involved in the process pushes a flow of electricity that is “well more than enough to cause death,” said Lt. Steven DeNovi, an investigator with the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office. In the Wisconsin home, it appears to have also ignited a massive blaze.
Billeb, the chief deputy, said investigators had pored over dozens of videos about fractal burning once medical examiners posited it could have led to the couple’s death. After two weeks, the case was relabeled a “tragic accident,” he said.
Eventually, investigators concluded that Rodriguez and Carolfi were attempting the craft inside their garage that Wednesday morning. A disassembled microwave had served as the power supply.
The couple was electrocuted to death, and a fire burned the home after the pair had died, officials said.
“Taking advice from YouTube or any other social media site in order to do a craft . . . is not safe when you’re dealing with electricity,” Billeb said at the news conference.
“It’s very pretty, quite frankly,” he added about fractal burning. “But it should only be done by professionals.”