forensics

KN, p. 218 “What Does the Federal Bureau of Investigation Do?”

 

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is an intelligence-driven and threat-focused national security organization with both intelligence and law enforcement responsibilities.”*  It is the chief fact-finding branch of the Department of Justice and helps other agencies by sharing that information and providing training.

 

Its mission is:

“To protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.”*

 

In 1908, the United States had about 100 cities with 50,000 people. The rest of the population (about 83 million) was spread throughout the rural areas of the country. Law enforcement personnel at the local level were often poorly paid (and were sometimes volunteer) members of the community. Murders were handled by local investigators and still are to this day. For the majority of the cases, murder is not a federal crime, unless carried out across State lines.

 

Prosecution of border security issues or organized crime was limited in 1908 since there was no adequate way to enforce the law at a national level. In fact, few criminal laws even existed at a federal level. For the most part, individual States and local jurisdictions handled their own criminal investigations, and sometimes that led to political corruption, corporate criminal behavior, and even slave labor in factories. Federal agencies were stretched thin or were nonexistent in some parts of the country.

 

President Teddy Roosevelt supported the idea of modernizing law enforcement, so when his Attorney General hired 34 of his own investigators (including nine seasoned Secret Service agents) to assist the Department of Justice, Roosevelt wholeheartedly endorsed the action. A few months later, the Bureau of Investigation was officially created. Hardly a large force, but it was a start.

 

At the beginning, incidents involving car theft across State lines, civil rights, and various kinds of fraud were the typical cases. The FBI also took on treason and domestic terrorism, and Congress (previously reluctant to loosen the purse strings) began to see the value of a national law enforcement agency.

 

It’s interesting to note that the Mann Act or “White Slave Traffic Act,” was passed in 1910 to help stop interstate prostitution and human trafficking, and the FBI had a role in the early investigations. One hundred years later, it has become an international problem and requires cooperation from many different agencies to obtain successful prosecutions.

 

World War 1 brought us the problems of sabotage by foreign agents against our military ships and munitions plants, as well as international smuggling. The FBI had entered the so-called spy business and worked hard to eliminate those threats.

 

In 1924, it was recognized that fingerprinting was a reliable way of connecting (or eliminating) individuals to a particular scene, and to collect that information in a central location would be helpful to other law enforcement agencies in the United States. Now, the FBI gathers and classifies fingerprints from convicted felons and other criminals, military personnel, federal applicants and employees, and shares that information with appropriate agencies. Additionally, fingerprints of military detainees and other persons of national security interest are being collected for national security purposes.

 

Formerly called Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), the program processes over 63,000 prints a day, is now integrated with other forms of identification and called IAFIS, and can deliver digital information in as little as two hours. It is used in connection with biometric databases (facial and voice recognition) for more accurate identifications. Next Generation Identification (NGI) combines biometrics, fingerprints, and palm prints to expand identification possibilities.

 

One of the programs developed by the FBI is the ‘Ten Most Wanted’ list. It began in 1950 as a way to call attention to fugitives who might otherwise remain at large. Each new list is posted in United States Post Offices and on the FBI website.

 

Since 1950, 518 fugitives have been on the list, and 484 have been apprehended or located. The stats below are from the FBI site:

    • 162 fugitives have been captured/located as a result of citizen cooperation.
    • Two fugitives were apprehended because of visitors on an FBI tour.
    • The shortest amount of time on the list was two hours, by Billy Austin Bryant.
    • The longest amount of time on the list was over 32 years by Victor Manuel Gerena.


With the advent of increased world-wide terrorism, the computer and cyber-security age, more complex corporate crimes, and a global awareness of human trafficking, the focus of the FBI has shifted.

 

At the end of 2017, there were over 35,000 employees, made up of intelligence analysts, field agents, language specialists, scientists, and information technology specialists. They are tasked with investigating:

 

  • Terrorism
  • Counterintelligence
  • Cyber Crime
  • Public Corruption
  • Civil Rights
  • Organized Crime
  • White-Collar Crime
  • Violent Crime
  • WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction)

 

 

Stay tuned for posts about Quantico and training for the FBI, and interviews with former FBI agents.

 

*Photo and quotes credit: (from FBI website)

1969 Latent Print Match
A latent print removed from a 1969 murder victim’s car was later determined to be a match to the suspect’s fingerprint (inset) contained in the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). The Houston police detective and Texas Department of Public Safety latent print technician instrumental in solving the cold case were honored by the FBI with the 2011 “Latent Hit of the Year” Award.

 

 

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KN, p. 216 “Crime Scene at the Beach”

 

 

A recent vacation week took us to the beach and we were lucky enough to rent a cottage right on the ocean. What a pleasure to wake up to seagulls calling to each other as they found breakfast on the incoming surf at the edge of the broad expanse of sand. Morning coffee was extra special as we breathed in the sea air and planned the day ahead.

 

Aside from all the great sunsets, fabulous seafood restaurants, and much-needed relaxation, we found time to chat about fictional bodies and where to find them.

 

TV shows and movies feature their share of corpses that have washed up on the rocks lining the shores of lakes, bays, or oceans. Any crime scene at water’s edge has its own challenges for the CSI techs processing the area for evidence, and our vacation spot highlighted a few.

 

Consider footprints on the sand:

 

 

 

 


This print had been fully visible until a wave washed it partially into oblivion.

 

 


Sneaker treads next to the barefoot print, showed the traffic on the dry part of the beach just a few feet closer to the dune.

 

 

 

 

 

There was more than one kind of sneaker tread to be seen.

 

 

The sneaker and shoe companies have data bases going back several years indicating the treads and styles of the various shoes they have manufactured. A search warrant or a friendly conversation with the people at the companies will reveal specialty editions of their footwear and the year they were produced. Matching the footwear to the prints on the beach can narrow the suspect list – helpful if the culprit remained in the area and the sneaker was an unusual brand.

 

Consider the tire tracks:

 

 

A windy afternoon caused this tire tread to lose its definition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This new tire tread was just ten feet away from the footprints.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beach bikes were in use as well. I didn’t have a ruler with me, so Sheila donated her sandal. This gives you some perspective of the width of the tread, essential in determining the type of vehicles near the ‘scene of the crime.’

 

 

 

Tire companies have data bases as well, and make their information available to law enforcement officers when needed. CSI techs take photos of the various treads for later ID and if needed, make casts of the footwear prints. Read “Is that your footprint?” here.

 

All three vehicle treads were within 20 feet of each other, along with all the footwear prints seen here – and it wasn’t high season yet, when a greater variety of cars, dune buggies, bikes, and shoes would be around.

 

Any crime scene in such a well-traveled place means it will be tough to find the killer. Nature washes or blows away the evidence and the crime scene is compromised by all the foot and vehicle traffic.  

 

Law enforcement officers have to hope for witnesses to the dastardly deed.

 

We turned our attention to the places to hide the body:

 

 

 

This lovely walkway leading from the cottage to the dunes gave access to an area that looked suitable for body stashing. Except that it wasn’t really all that great for anything covert. Three houses near ours had direct line of sight to that walkway, and all had overhead lights strung along their own paths to the beach.

 

Each of the other houses had three floors – ours was the smallest of the group.  That meant that anyone looking out at the ocean could also see anyone dragging a body out to the beach grass next to/under the boards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But, let’s say that nobody is looking out the window. While it is illegal to dig up the beach grass in the dunes because of erosion programs in most oceanside communities, a killer would have no such concerns. BUT, that Beach Grass (actual name is American Beach Grass) is tough. It’s meant to be, so that it holds the sand in place during stormy weather. It would not be practical or at all speedy to dig a hole in a grass-covered dune in order to hide the body.

 

Maybe that’s why so many bodies in the TV movies are dumped elsewhere and merely wash up on the beach. Then the writers don’t have to worry about how to hide the body at the scene of the crime.

 

 

Photo credits: Patti Phillips at the North Carolina OBX.

 

 

 

 

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KN, p. 142 “CSI Techs – What is that smell?”

 

Last week’s article about what Crime Scene Techs really do can be read here.

 

Warning: parts of this article are extremely descriptive about the work of a CSI at a murder scene.

 

A Crime Scene Investigator (also known as an Evidence Recovery Technician) is a forensic specialist. A well-trained, experienced CSI tech has an organized plan of action when processing a crime scene. Most go through extensive training, if not in the classroom, then in the field while working with seasoned law enforcement officers, before being allowed to work solo. They study how to recognize evidence, how to document the process and the proper way to prioritize, recover, handle, and package that evidence at the crime scene.

 

Challenges

Some of the TV shows and movies touch on the challenges in the job of a CSI, but generally the scriptwriters try not to gross out the viewing audience.

 

Occasionally, the collection of the evidence requires a strong stomach. If the CSI works a homicide or accidental death scene, they will likely be dealing with strong odors.  Although air/water temperature may affect the rate of decomposition, a dead body begins to stink fairly quickly. Think rotting meat. CSIs have various ways of dealing with the odors. Some apply Vicks under their noses, some use medical masks, but some just get used to it.

In case you were wondering:  A former CSI told me that the Tyvek suits we see at crime scenes during British TV shows, work very well to keep unwanted fibers and DNA samples away from the scene, but do not block the odors at all.

 

Sometimes, bodies are dumped in the water, and that affects the rate of decay. The condition of the body recovered from water is a surprise to most law enforcement officers the first time they see it. Unless recovered within the first day or so, the skin and muscle begin to change at such a rate as to become almost unrecognizable for what they are. Special bags are needed to contain the remains while bodies are removed from lakes or ponds. The bags have holes in the sides to allow the water to escape, without losing the body parts.

 

The condition of a body recovered in the heat can be a challenge on several levels. The body swells up and can pop if not handled correctly. In ‘cold cases,’ where the body has been sitting outside for months, perhaps only the skeleton will remain, requiring identification through dental records or bits of clothing still attached to the bones.

 

Homicide and some accident scenes can be bloody. It’s fair to say that most law enforcement personnel are deeply affected by the surprising amount of blood found at a murder scene or a particularly horrific accident scene. It’s tough to get used to that part of the job, however much experience you’ve had. But, it’s important to stay detached while collecting the evidence, taking the blood spatter photographs, and detailing the information, so that the victims can be represented properly in court.

On rare occasion, gloves and protective clothing that a CSI wears can rip or tear, exposing the CSI to possible infection or disease.

 

Stress and even grief can be factors that might affect the CSIs or ERTs. Working on fraudulent documents or stolen property is worlds away from dealing with dead bodies. Some larger departments offer (and even require) grief/stress counseling after emotionally tough cases, but the smaller departments just don’t have the resources for that. Imagine waking up night after night, reliving a crime scene in nightmares. In cases involving multiple deaths or children, the stress level can be especially high.

 

Rewards

So, with all the possible negatives/challenges in the job of a CSI, why would anybody do it?

Because of the result. A job well done helps to put the bad guys away.

 

Training

The job of a CSI changes based on geographic location and the needs of the department. Some towns have no budget for a full-time CSI and hand off cases requiring special evidence collection to County or State personnel. In general, big cities have more homicides and other crimes, so require full-time CSIs.  In small towns, the Police Chief or Police Officer might do the investigating, collection and analysis of the evidence.

 

With those factors in mind, training requirements vary from region to region and from decade to decade. Some departments require college degrees (i.e. Criminal Justice or Forensics) for their law enforcement personnel, with the understanding that specialized training (i.e. photography, computers, etc) might be required as cases come up.

 

Then after getting hired, the CSI tech will spend some time as an apprentice to a more experienced person – think the ‘probies’ on NCIS, the TV show.

 

One realistic test to see if possible candidates are really suited to the job of CSI at a murder or accident scene is to have them visit a morgue or an ER. If they get through a busy, bloody night at an ER, they might be able to work in Homicide.

 

If not, I’m told that there is lots of work in Forensic Accounting and CyberCrimes for CSIs, that does not involve blood or body parts.

 

*Photos by Patti Phillips

 

 

 

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