KN, p. 322 “Training for a Career in Forensics”

If there are no paragraph separations in this article, please double-click on the title to create a more readable version.The CSI shows on TV have generated a tremendous amount of interest in the field of forensics, whether the technicians are in the lab or out in the field at crime scenes. Crime shows (and movies) have changed the way the public looks at law enforcement – not only in how quickly crimes are solved, but how cases are brought to court. As technology has improved, and more efficient ways of assessing evidence have been developed, more careers in the forensic sciences are available than ever before.

It used to be that cops on the beat, or detectives looking into a potential crime, picked up techniques along the way that pointed them to possible suspects. They learned where evidence (like fingerprints or footprints) might be found by using their experience on the job and continued training after attending the police academy. Not necessarily scientific, but hard work and diligence usually paid off.

These days, crimes can involve the dark web, human trafficking, and international cartels, in addition to the forgeries, kidnappings, and drug busts (etc). Heists are more sophisticated, crime lords sink to greater depths of evil, and crimes against humanity are more widespread and complex. We still need the cops on the beat to help keep our neighborhoods safe, but we also need forensic scientists to help unravel the latest iteration of criminal activity.

Let’s take a look at what kind of training is needed for seven of the various fields. You may know someone who’d like to serve in law enforcement, but who doesn’t want to shoot or chase anyone down an alley in order to catch the bad guys/gals. The following specialties are areas in which they can assist without the need of a bulletproof vest.

Computer Forensics: Identity theft via the internet is on the rise, as is corporate hacking, and cyberterrorism. Highly skilled computer analysts are sought after in almost every area of today’s  cyber world. Think ‘Bobby’ in TV’s “Tracker.” Most two and four-year computer forensics programs deliver instruction in investigative techniques, white-collar crime, as well as the laws that oversee the work of searching & seizing digital information, since computer forensic specialists can recover information to be used later in criminal trials.

Cybersecurity: Cybersecurity concentrates on protecting information. Cybersecurity specialists track data thieves, thwart e-terrorists, and guard sensitive electronic information. They generally need at least a bachelor’s degree for entry level jobs, but lots of experience counts.

DNA Analysis: Several colleges and universities have programs to train wannabe DNA analysts, who most often need a bachelor’s degree to start. In order to advance in a career or to work in  a more demanding work environment (think the FBI), a master’s or doctoral program might be necessary. What’s interesting to note is that a career in DNA analysis might be reached through a degree in organic chemistry, quantitative analysis, and/or biochemistry, each part of the DNA investigative process.

Forensic Accounting: This career deals with a great deal more than looking into sloppy bookkeeping. Forensic accountants examine flaws in the records of suspected criminals to find financial crimes such as money laundering, insurance fraud, and embezzlement. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE, a certifying agency) reveals that a job at the FBI requires the minimum of a four-year degree, but another year (Master’s level training), is sought after by employers. This field pays very well.

Forensic Anthropologists: People in this career path diagnose posthumous death by analyzing  skin tissue, bones, as well as the area where the body was found. The skills needed have helped families find closure in cold cases, and are essential in identifying large numbers of persons who have perished in natural disasters, multiple vehicle crashes, and/or in war zones. Training takes years, however, with the minimum requirement of a Master’s Degree (about 6 years of higher education). Anyone with a wish to get ahead in this field would need a Doctorate as well as Certification in the specialty of choice.

Forensic photographers document a crime scene visually, and the job includes taking images of tire tracks, fingerprints, intentional wounds, and blood spatter patterns. Training as a professional crime scene photographer focuses on understanding crime scene investigation and learning about the types of photos needed to document clues and details. The details in the photos can be essential for solving the crimes and helping to prosecute at trial. Since some photos must be taken at night, without bright lights available to backlight the scene, the photographer must be able to take low light (or no light) shots.

In many jurisdictions, the crime scene isn’t cleared until the photographer and videographer have finished recording all of the evidence. This means that if murder is suspected, a dead body is part of the photography assignment. Training would cover what to do (or not) so that evidence isn’t damaged or destroyed, as well as how to collect, store, and authenticate the crime scene photos. (No photos can be deleted from the memory card, even if blurry.) Training doesn’t always cover the fact that dead bodies smell, a crime scene involving said body is horrific, and that everyone must have a strong stomach to deal with all of the blood and sometimes gore.

Smaller jurisdictions don’t often have enough crimes that need photographic evidence (i.e. a fulltime photographer on staff), so this job may be handed to someone a cop or firefighter knows who can take detailed shots. Not the local wedding photographer, but someone who has the stomach for the gritty stuff. A strong academic background in criminal justice and crime scene investigation techniques might be the best way to move to a career in forensic photography.

Forensic toxicologists use scientific knowledge to decide if accidental or intentional poisoning was a cause of death and to determine fault. A degree in biology or chemistry is generally required at entry level. But some universities offer one-year certificate programs and associate’s and master’s degree programs in forensic toxicology to add to the undergraduate degree. Forensic toxicologists might never see an actual crime scene.


*Some degree requirement information is from forensics colleges.



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KN, p. 320 “The Power of Forensic Geology”

3 soil samples found within 50 feet of each other

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The practice of Forensic Geology helps resolve legal disputes, can determine the location of the scene of a crime, can absolve (or help convict) persons of interest in murder cases, and more.

Several TV crime shows feature forensic geology as part of the process of solving a case. From dirt on a victim’s clothes, to odd fibers in the area of the body, the CSI evidence collection team assesses the crime scene (if known) and gathers everything they deem pertinent to the deadly deed. If the person was found in a pond or lake, samples of the water itself are collected to be compared with water found later during an autopsy. If a vehicle is used to transport a body, floor mats are a treasure trove for the discovery of soil samples that can reveal where the killer was, and therefore may point to the actual crime scene.

North Carolina Forensic Geologist, Heather Hanna, spoke at a Writers’ Police Academy conference in 2019 and mentioned the principle of Locard’s Exchange, acknowledged by forensic scientists in murder cases: “Every contact leaves a trace. Everywhere you go, you pick up something and leave something behind.”

Comparison of unknown to known
Soil analysis begins with the collection of samples. Whether CSI techs in the lab, or forensic geologists, they must have something with which to compare the potential evidence. These days there are national data bases that contain specific files dealing with the area of interest –  bullets, guns, tire treads, sneakers…and the list goes on. For the geologist, specialty sources deal with rocks, dirt, feathers, plants, and mineral samples, etc. from around the world. A click on the computer keyboard leads to (almost) readily available comparisons.

Hanna also revealed that forensic geology can be used to authenticate old papers. It can be determined whether they are forgeries or the real thing by checking what’s in the ink. Over the years, different minerals have been used in the making of ink, and some inks are now made with synthetic materials – a dead giveaway when an ‘ancient’ treasure map has a modern chemical contained in the drawing of the tomb that hides the gold.

The Dodson Case *
In order to create an airtight case for murder, the suspect should have motive, means, and opportunity. In 1995, investigators suspected that Janice Dodson had killed her husband of three months while on a hunting trip. The prosecution had discovered the motive: cashing in on the life insurance policy.

A search of the area uncovered a .308 caliber shell casing and a bullet. The husband had been shot three times, but since it was a hunting location, it was impossible to connect the bullets to the murder without the rifle. Perhaps coincidentally, the ex-husband was hunting nearby and owned the rifle most likely to be the murder weapon, but he had reported the rifle and bullets stolen while he was away from the tent. His whereabouts were substantiated. The rifle was never found in order to prove the means, but the initial investigators were savvy enough to collect and keep the wife’s clothing in evidence.

Janice Dodson said she was in a specific hunting area while her new husband was being murdered, but the soil sample on the clothes retained in evidence for several years, later proved otherwise. Only one muddy region yielded the exact match to the dirt on her clothes, but it wasn’t her alibi spot, finally proving she had the opportunity to commit the crime. Her alibi didn’t hold up and she was arrested in 1998. The jury felt that meeting two of the three requirements was sufficiently compelling and Dodson was convicted in 2000.

Murder is not the only crime that can be solved through the use of forensic geology. Mine fraud can cause millions of dollars of loss to investors.

Bre-X Mine Fraud Case
Worthless mines and desperate engineers can create a dangerous combination, so it’s good to know that there are ways to keep swindling in check. Felderhof and de Guzman, two geologists short of cash, sought to sell a gold mine in Borneo. One small problem: hardly any gold was left in the mine. But, undaunted by that detail, de Guzman went to Borneo in 1992 and reported it as a viable mine.

A year later, Canadian businessman David Walsh, owner of Bre-X, bought the mine in Borneo for $80,000 because of de Guzman’s report. A few months after that, drilling revealed the truth, that very little gold was actually there…in the first two holes. Mysteriously, lots of gold was found in subsequent drilling and the mine became a hot commodity on the stock exchange.

Enter the Americans. In 1997, an American mining company opted to buy part ownership of the mine. That company’s geologists tested the third hole and discovered from samples that the hole contained man-made gold and copper alloy. More sample testing divulged planted gold that came from other mines. When they sought to check the core samples from the original testing, it appeared those samples had all been thrown away, all the records gone. The American company contacted Felderhof and de Guzman, wanting to know what was going on. Nine days later in Borneo, de Guzman died in a questionable fall from a helicopter, his body found with hands and feet removed. The mine was declared worthless. Billions of dollars had been lost.

David Walsh died of natural causes. Felderhof was charged with insider trading, but was acquitted in 2007. The massive fraud perpetrated by Bre-X prompted the Canadian government to stiffen its mining regulations. Victims included pension funds.

Fake Art
Before art collectors plunk down millions of dollars for paintings created by the Old Masters, the work is authenticated by experts, and certified by the art houses brokering the sales. The basic things to check are the age of the canvas, the brushwork techniques, and the provenance (who owned it and where it’s been). Part of the forensic detection of art fraud might include  identifying a mineral contained in the paint that had not been available during the century the painting was purported to have been created.

Art fraud is a serious problem for collectors. Skilled forgers can make several copies of an original. Eager collectors might not realize they’ve been duped in a private sale, where not enough questions are asked. I was told recently that some museums commission forgers to paint a duplicate to hang on the wall, while the original is kept safely out of sight of would-be thieves.

*Information about the Dodson case:


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KN, p. 309 “Ammo Casings”

Ammo for Rifle

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It was sort-the-photos week and instead of delete, delete, delete quickly, it took me hours to get through a few albums at a time. Memories and smiles popped up to slow the process. I had forgotten a few of the events, but one from two years ago became the basis of today’s post.

My cousin passed away two years ago next month. For a variety of reasons having to do with a donation his Estate made to a major charity, his possessions had to be inventoried, down to the quantity and types of boxes of bullets. His best friend (a firearms expert and my cousin’s shooting buddy) and I elected to inventory his gun paraphernalia ourselves, in order to expedite matters. In addition to the firearms and hunting gear, the lower level of the house contained equipment for making his own reloads (basically recycled shell casings to make new ammo). It was a hobby that fascinated him and helped reduce the cost of ammo he used at the gun range.

I took photos of everything for the lawyers. I discovered that he had boxes and boxes of shell casings waiting to be worked on, but they were not the same in color or size, since he had a variety of firearms he used in competitions.

This is what I learned: Ammunition casings can be made from five different materials and there are benefits and drawbacks to each.

  • Brass
  • Steel
  • Aluminum
  • Brass-plated or Nickel-plated Brass
Ammo for Handgun

Each casing material acts differently, so my cousin chose his ammo to fit his activity – practicing at the range, competition shooting, or hunting.

Brass Ammo Casings are known for their consistency in firing, but they are also the most expensive. They are easy to reload and resist corrosion.

Steel Ammo Casings are cheaper than brass and made in many calibers (diameter of the ammo)

Aluminum Ammo Casings are also cheaper than brass and are lighter in weight.

Plated Casings are ammo with a base metal which has been electroplated with nickel or brass. The nickel plating makes it corrosion resistant. Some competitors prefer this version because of its ease of use in a handgun at timed stand-and-shoot competitions.

As shown in the photo above, ammo casings are part of the cartridge – not the same as the bullet section of the cartridge. The shell casings separate from the bullet and are ejected from the firearm as the bullet propels forward to the target.

The casings are what law enforcement find on the ground (where a shooter was standing) after shots have been fired in a crime. Patrol Officers and detectives hope that fingerprints can be found on the casings, and that the shooter can be linked to the crime. Careful gun owners pick up their ‘brass’ so as not to litter a gun range, with easily a 100 rounds at a time for each session for each guy/gal. Snipers pick up their ‘brass’ so as not to leave a trace of their having been in that spot. Drug dealers or gun dealers may be involved in a shootout and don’t take time to search for the casings left lying around.

Since the 1990s, there has been a national data base devoted to shell casings: NIBIN – The National Integrated Ballistics Information Network. Run through ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) the information is available to most major metropolitan areas  in the USA.

Firearms techs enter shell casing evidence photos into the Ballistic ID System, which are then matched/integrated with the database. Local law enforcement is able to search for matches in the system throughout the country, looking for similar crimes, where the casings were found, fingerprints and other information connected with the casings. Over 1,400 law enforcement districts use the database and funding is expanding, as NIBIN continues to demonstrate its benefits.


*Photos of cartridges were taken at conferences.

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