It’s no secret that I’m a Gettysburg/Civil War buff. The local bookstore got a new title in, “Last Stand at Bitter Creek,” written by Tom Rizzo, who seems to share my interest in 19th century law enforcement. As I read his tale of a Sheriff back in that era, I began to imagine what it would be like to sit down and chat with that Sheriff about a case.
Meet Sheriff Will Denton.
Sheriff Will Denton leaned back in the chair and stretched his legs in front of him, which gave him a little relief from the pain. A constant reminder that no one can outrun a bullet. He flashed a tired smile at Charlie Kerrian, and wondered how many other lawmen, or detectives, sought this man’s counsel.
Denton occupied the middle ground between the mid-forties and mid-fifties, his face a pattern of deep lines reflecting his experience and competence. His laid-back demeanor wasn’t accidental. It served the purpose of luring most bad eggs he confronted into a false sense of comfort. He wore his holster low and strapped down, the sign of someone who meant business.
“So here’s my problem. I got this railroad detective coming who thinks someone he’s hunting is holed up in my town. But I hear he’s a trigger-happy hothead. I don’t want the folks nervous, scared or edgy in anyway, and I’m trying to figure out how best to handle this.”
Kerrian took a sip of coffee from the mug he was holding and swallowed.
“From my understanding, Sheriff Denton, you have a reputation of being able to handle anything that comes your way. So, why seek input from me on this particular occasion?”
Denton hadn’t realized Kerrian knew anything about him. He admired his thoroughness. “Truth is, I’ve never enjoyed the luxury of talking things out with anyone. The town can’t afford to hire me a deputy. The only ones I ever confide in about anything are Hiram who owns the livery. He does a good job as my unofficial eyes and ears since I spend so much time roamin’ the countryside. And, I share my concerns on occasion with Ms. Brennan, who runs a local tavern.”
Denton, absent-mindedly slid his hand back to the handle of the Peacemaker he wore, making sure the small leather strip at the back of his holster was still looped over the hammer to keep it in place.
“I make it a point to learn everything about strangers who visit our fine town—even if they wear a badge,” Denton said. “Hotheads make me nervous. The last one I confronted put a bullet in my thigh.”
“And, what happened to him?”
Denton frowned. “He’s pretty much dead.”
“I have a feeling strangers who visit your town don’t stay long, Sheriff.”
Denton’s green eyes flickered with amusement. “We’ve had our share of roustabouts with the war ending. I tend to be an impatient sort when it comes to trouble. I figure it’s best to head off a problem rather than fix one. But, just the same, it wouldn’t do me or the town much good to have to shoot Mecklin.” He smiled. “That’s the railroad detective.”
Kerrian returned the smile. “Why does this man concern you so much?”
“From what I’ve heard, he’s quick to take charge. Prides himself on always getting his man.”
“Is that so bad?”
“Only when the innocent get in the way. He’s always left a few bodies between him and the man’s he’s hunting. No one has ever called his hand. Seems to have free rein wherever he goes.”
“It’s all about accommodation. The railroad pretty much calls the shots in small towns like ours. Money talks,” Denton said, lifting his hand to the side of his face and rubbing his thumb back-and-forth against the tips of his four fingers. “If your town’s lucky enough to be touched by the magic wand of the iron rail, it can’t help but grow.”
“And?” Kerrian said, squinting at his visitor.
“And, if the railroad decides to pull up stakes and leave, bad things happen. Those places just die up. They wither away. Become ghost towns. We fought long and hard to attract the railroad. Mecklin is the lead detective, with a long record of success and he pretty much can do what he wants because he has brought bad people to justice and recovered thousands of dollars in stolen gold.”
“What’s your end game, sheriff?”
“I don’t want him turned loose to do as he pleases.”
“So, don’t let him.”
“Easier said than done, Detective Kerrian. The town council has pretty much told me to butt out. Or, if I do butt in, to let Mecklin call the shots and not interfere in a way that puts the town at risk of looking uncooperative in the eyes of the railroad.”
Kerrian didn’t say anything, and closed his eyes. Seconds later, he opened one eyelid and squinted, and then opened the second one, seeming to bring Denton into sharp focus. The movement of the eyelids reminded Denton of a couple of windows opening.
“My intuition tells me you’re not going to allow Mr. Mecklin to have his way, no matter what the risk. No matter what the consequences.”
“Is that your advice?”
“You don’t need advice, sheriff. You just needed to hear the words out loud.”
A smile played on Will Denton’s lips.
“Reckon you’re right about that, Detective. My town. My rules.
A door to another room opened, and a gentle-looking woman smiled at Denton, and nodded to her husband, who glanced at his pocket watch.
“Will, we’d like you to join us for a home-cooked meal and a glass of sweet tea. And, one of Sheila’s wonderful desserts, of course. Would you do us the honor?”
Denton stood up, unbuckled the gun belt, and draped it over the arm of the chair.
“Best offer I’ve had today, Charlie.”
# # #
Thanks to Will Denton (aka Tom Rizzo) for stopping by Kerrian’s Notebook and giving us a glimpse into the life of a cop from another century. If you have any questions for Tom, please leave them in the comments. Tom posts some great articles about the West, so be sure to look for him online.
About the Author:
A passion for 19th century American history, Tom’s debut novel—LAST STAND AT BITTER CREEK—includes several elements of historical fact. The novel was a finalist for the Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award for Best Western First Novel.
His second book is entitled HEROES & ROGUES: THE GOOD & THE BAD OF THE AMERICAN WEST.
His writing journey has taken him from radio and television news reporting to the Associated Press, where he worked as a correspondent, followed by several years in advertising and public relations.
He grew up in central Ohio, lived in Great Britain for several years, and now calls Houston, Texas, home.
Tom is a member of Western Writers of America, Wild West History Association, and Western Fictioneers.
Part 2 – information about Evidence Collection Training Classes held at SIRCHIE.
Click here for Part 1 – PW: “Have you been fingerprinted?”
During the first two days of Evidence Collection Training, we used a number of chemicals, fingerprint powders, and brushes, and employed several different fingerprint lifting techniques on a variety of tricky surfaces. We discussed the benefits of both cheap and costly Alternate Light Sources.
Our notebooks were filling up and theories of the perfect crime were flying around the class. We kept quizzing Robert Skiff, our instructor, (Sirchie Training Manager/Technical Training Specialist) about ways to ‘get away with the murder of the decade.’ But, as we learned, there is no perfect crime. That pesky trace evidence will always be waiting at every scene for the investigator to discover it, photograph it, tag it, bag it, and transport it without losing the integrity of the sample.
It was time to visit the plant – see how the powders, brushes, and other crime scene paraphernalia were made.
Sirchie manufactures most of its products in-house. The specialized vehicles for SWAT, bomb rescue, arson investigation, and surveillance work, etc., are built in New Jersey, but the smaller products are produced right in North Carolina.
Security was carefully controlled throughout our tour. Most of our group writes crime fiction, so we are always looking for a way our fictional criminals can break in (or out of) a wild assortment of locations. As we walked through the stacks and aisles of products, we commented to each other on the smooth organization and many checks Sirchie had in place. Cameras everywhere. Limited access to the assembly floor. Labyrinths a person could easily get turned around in. If we got separated from the group while taking an extra photo or two, we were found and escorted back by an always friendly employee.
Of course, we couldn’t turn into rogue students anyway. Our fingerprints littered the classroom and they knew where we lived.
Security plays a part in the assembly model as well. Each product they create is put together from start to finish by hand. There are no assembly lines because of trade secrets and a dedication to preserving product integrity. Personnel are carefully screened before being hired and qualification for employment includes graduate degrees. No criminal history whatsoever is allowed. Every employee comes through the Evidence Collection Training Class so that they understand what Sirchie does as a whole.
Templates for the various products are created in-house. The operators of these machines are highly trained experts. Quality control is paramount, so training is constant.
All the printing is done in-house. The printing area was stacked with cases of items being packaged for shipment. We saw strips large enough to process tire treads.
Field Kits are created for general use by investigators, but can be specifically designed for a special need. The small vials contain enough chemicals to test unknown stains and substances at the scene. Note the dense foam holding the vials and bottles firmly in place. The kits are usually kept in the trunk and probably get tossed around quite a bit. The foam insures against breakage during car chases and while bumping across uneven road surfaces.
There are fiberglass brushes, feather dusters for the very light powder, regular stiffer brushes, and magnetic powder brush applicators.
We were lucky enough to see fiberglass brushes being made.
If a handgun is seized for evidence, there needs to be a simple, yet effective way to track chain of possession.
*Bag the gun to preserve the fingerprints and
*drop the gun in the box.
*Then fill in the blanks on the box.
*Easy to stack and store until needed.
Think of all the cases that may be ongoing in a large jurisdiction – the evidence is not sitting at the police station. It’s in a warehouse someplace, and needs to be easily identified when required for court. In addition to several sized boxes for guns and knives, etc. Sirchie also provides an incredible assortment of resealable plastic bags for preserving evidence like clothing, unidentified fibers, etc.
Magnetic powder was being processed that day and then put into rows and rows of jars and jugs. Before it is sent out to the customers, each lot is tested for moisture content, appropriate ratio of ingredients and other trade secret tests. We joked about taking some back to class for the next round of fingerprint study and were surprised by how heavy the jugs were.
No, she’s not making bullets. She is assembling the cyanowand cartridges used for fuming with superglue.
SIRCHIE makes riot gear.
This is not a photo of something from a SyFy movie. At the center of the shot is a helmet template. The drills encircling the template are aimed at spots where holes are needed for each helmet, depending on the type of helmet in production. All the holes are drilled at the same time.
The Optical Comparator, as well as the other machines, is built to order by hand.
While in the warehouse, we learned that if a product is discontinued, it is still supported by Sirchie. That means that if a law enforcement officer calls up with a problem a few years after purchasing a machine, he can still get help. Reassuring for jurisdictions with a tight budget that can’t afford to replace expensive equipment every year or two.
Sirchie sends supplies to TV shows, so next time you’re watching a fave detective or examiner lift prints with a hinge lifter, it may have come from Sirchie.
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at the Sirchie Education and Training Center in Youngsville, North Carolina.
People ask me all the time how I acquire the information needed to write Kerrian’s Notebook.
Simple answer: research. And lots of it.
If the questioners want to know more, I mention the conferences I attend, the reference books I read, the internet sources I’ve tapped into, and the experts willing to chat about their chosen fields. It’s a fascinating part of the job and I love it.
The next few posts will reveal some of the information gathered at a series of classes where I took photos and lots of notes. If you’re a regular follower of Kerrian’s Notebook, you may recognize some of the details mentioned here as having appeared on previous Detective Kerrian’s pages.
For all out fun, I go to the Writers’ Police Academy held in September – this was the 5th year at the Guilford County, NC location (my fourth). It’s a three-day, mind-blowing experience that demonstrates the nuts and bolts of police and fire and EMS procedure – taught by professionals and experts actively working in the field.
Along with several other strands of study, the 2011 WPA conference provided classes in bloodstain patterns, fingerprinting, and alternate light sources (ALS) conducted by Sirchie instructors. Because of the standing room only enthusiasm for these classes, Sirchie offered a five-day Evidence Collection training session for writers at their own complex in North Carolina. Sirchie makes hundreds of products for the law enforcement community and I felt this would be a great opportunity for Detective Kerrian to learn more about the latest and best gadgets being used to catch the crooks.
I happily sent in my application and plunked down my credit card to hold my space in the class – ten months ahead of time.
On the first day of classes, our instructor, Robert Skiff (Training Manager/Technical Training Specialist at Sirchie) discussed the ‘CSI Effect’ – the pressure placed by the popular TV shows on real life crime investigation. TV labs and real life investigations bear little resemblance to each other – not in time, or equipment, or budgets. Then we got to work, using the powders and brushes needed to process a crime scene and used by actual techs in the lab.
It’s up to investigators and examiners to prove the case against the suspects, using proper evidence collection techniques and tools, because trace evidence is ALWAYS left behind.
Fingerprints found at the scene are still the favored piece of evidence tying the suspect to the crime. These days, using a combination of ingenuity and newly developed chemicals and powders, a crime scene investigator can lift (and/or photograph) prints from many previously challenging surfaces.
By the way, black fingerprint powder gets all over everything when newbies are handling it for the first time. We must have used 50 wet wipes each during the morning alone.
After dusting prints with black fingerprint powder,
they were lifted from various smooth surfaces using (in forefront) a gel lifter, a hinge lifter and (in background) tape.
Our prints were photographed and then viewed under an Optical Comparator. This machine can be hooked up to a laptop, and the image sent off to AFIS for identification purposes. No crooks in our crowd, so we omitted that step.
Did I mention that we had loads of fun?
On the second day, Robert Skiff’s assistant for the class, Chrissy Hunter, passed out stainless steel rectangles and we pressed our fingers onto the plates, twice. First time – plain ole print, second time – ‘enhanced’ by first rubbing our fingers on our necks and foreheads to increase the amount of oils in the print. The ridge detail in the prints was so clear in the ‘enhanced’ version that there was no need to process them with powder. We lifted them with a gel lift.
If we were working a real scene, that might never happen, but it could. The usual occurrence is that partial prints are left at the scene and that’s what makes the search for the suspects so much tougher than what the TV dramas indicate. There is no instant ‘a-ha’ moment that comes 45 minutes after the crime has been committed.
The prints are generally sent off to be compared with the millions in the AFIS database, and here’s where TV parts with reality again. AFIS comes back with a list of 10-20 possible matches and someone then makes a comparison by hand of the most likely hits.
After practicing the basics, it was time to move on to fingerprint discovery on documents. There are scheming relatives who forge wills, less than loving spouses who murder for the insurance, bogus suicide notes, and the list goes on. How to prove the nefarious intent? Fingerprints. But…as we discovered the first day, fingerprint powder is messy and almost impossible to clean up. An important document could be destroyed in the search for evidence of foul play. Enter chemicals and alternate light sources (ALS).
If used in this order, the sample won’t be compromised, even though treated several times over several days. We experimented with several chemicals with excellent results, but for the ‘wow’ factor, I’m showing the ones that look great on camera. 😉
DFO reacts to amino acids in the prints. We created our samples placing our own enhanced prints on plain white paper. We hung the papers in the fume hood, saturated them with DFO, then put them in the oven to bake for several minutes.
Alternate Light Sources vary depending on the scene lighting and/or need to highlight the evidence. A few used in the field are: the ‘poor man’s ultimate light source’ (a mag light), black lights, UVC lights, lasers, LED lights, Ruvis lights (cost about $20K), and pure white lights. Each has a specific quality that the investigators can tap when needed.
After we sprayed our samples with DFO and baked them in the oven, we darkened the room, and put on orange plastic glasses. Then we side-lit the sample with a 455nm light. The photo was taken at that point.
Before working with any chemical, it’s a good idea to make copies of the document. Why are there different kinds of Ninhydrin? Zylene will run some inks. Acetone will run all inks, all the time. Ooops! There goes the document if you grab the wrong chemical, so copies are definitely necessary. Noveck is the clear winner when working with inks. It gets fast results and dries quickly. Additionally, it can be sprayed on an outer envelope to reveal what’s inside. Without damaging either piece of paper. Very cool.
You could see the plots developing in our writerly minds as the Noveck dried and the words inside the folder faded from view.
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at the Sirchie Education and Training Center in Youngsville, North Carolina.