Officer Willie Findem was hot on the trail of two armed robbers, running s fast as his flat feet could carry him, when he heard a woman screaming for help as he raced past a row of shotgun houses in a section of town the locals call Murder Alley.

Despite the fact that his heart thumped against the inside of his chest (felt like his sternum was on the receiving end of a fast flurry of jabs and right hooks delivered by top heavyweight boxer), and that his lungs sucked at the atmosphere like a kid going after the last drop at the bottom of a fast-food milkshake cup, he turned and ran up the wooden steps, taking them two at a time, responding to “who knows what’s behind the front door of house number 1313,” the source of the yelping and squalling and screeching.

A quick twist of a slightly-dented steel doorknob, worn slick after many years and many turns by greasy, dirty hands, revealed a visibly shaken Ms. Patty Cakes, a petite blonde wearing a black bathrobe and a fresh coat of gleaming fire-engine-red polish on the nails of each of her ten stubby toes.

“Hurry, over here!” she said, pointing to an open doorway with one hand, clutching the robe tightly to her chest with the other. “It’s in the basement.”

Well, the officer’s mama didn’t raise no fool. “Ma’am, what’s in the basement?” he asked before taking a single step toward the entrance to the bowels of the home.

“The body! The dead body! That’s what’s in the basement! I heard a loud crash, and … I don’t know …  looked … and … he’s dead. And there’s blood, and a knife … and please, hurry! Come on, I’ll show you, but you’ll need a flashlight. The batteries mine are as dead as he is.”

Officer Findem clicked on his light, placed a hand on the butt of his gun, stepped in front of the nervous woman who detected a pleasant hint of Old Spice as he passed, and headed down the creaky, wood plank steps.

“See, it’s there. Right there … by the furnace.  told you, it’s a dead body!”

An hour later, Evelyn E. Dense (“Ev” for short), and her crackerjack team of crime scene  techs were hard at work collecting and packaging blood samples, the murder weapon, and hairs and fibers. “Ev” E. Dense is good at what she does. The best in the business, actually.

Findem was confident that he’d soon have his man, or woman.

Finding clues (evidence) is important, sure, but the manner in which those items are packaged can sometimes make, or break, a case. Common sense tells us to not pour the contents of a half-full wine glass into a cardboard box, right? So what are the proper containers for the many kinds of evidence encountered by crime scene techs and detectives?

Well, for starters, here’s “Ev” E. Dense’s handy guide to collecting and packaging items found at crime scenes.

Powders – clear plastic bags, paper (druggist folds), envelopes. Always separate by suspect, meaning don’t lump all things found at a scene in one package (powder found in Suspect A’s bedroom is packaged separately from the powder found in Suspect B’s bedroom).

Pills and tablets – clear plastic bags

Vegetation (weeds and other plant material retrieved from outdoor crime scene) – air dry and seal in paper container.

Plants – seal in paper container (bags, etc.) Never use plastic.

Needles and other sharps – always seal inside safety tubes with appropriate bio-hazard warning labels attached.

Urine – clean, leak-proof containers. Urine should be refrigerated, and may also be frozen.

Blood (liquid form)- vials containing appropriate anticoagulant. Refrigerate.

Blood-stains (dry) – collect sample using sterile swabs moistened with distilled water. Air dry and package (paper).

Blood-stained clothing – air-dry entire article, package in paper.

Wet evidence drying lockers

Blood-stained objects (guns, carpet, knives, furniture, etc) – deliver the entire object to the lab, if possible. For carpeting, isolate and remove stained area for transport and testing.

Seminal (semen) stains (dry) – collect sample using sterile swabs moistened with distilled water. Air dry and package (paper). For wet stains, collect using sterile swab and then air dry and package (paper). If needed, use alternate light source to detect seminal stains. For large items (mattresses, etc.), collect the entire piece and deliver to lab for testing.

Condoms – collect liquid using cotton swabs. Air dry both the swabs and entire condom. Package in paper.

Saliva – (dry) – collect sample using sterile swabs moistened with distilled water. Air dry and package (paper). For wet stains, collect using sterile swab and then air dry and package (paper). If needed, use alternate light source to detect seminal stains. For large items (mattresses, etc.), collect the entire piece and deliver to lab for testing. Cigarette butts, masks, chewing gum, etc., air dry and package in paper.

Fingernail area – swab between the nail and fingertip using sterile swab moistened with distilled water. Use separate swab for each hand. Package in paper and label appropriately (right hand and left).

Hairs and fibers – small boxes or paper (druggist fold). Do not bend hair. Do not mix samples.

Rope – preserve and protect cut ends for possible sharps identification. Plastic or paper container.

Ammunition (discharged) – package each piece separately (paper, such as envelopes, etc.).

Weapons – make each weapon safe, if possible (no ammunition, magazine removed, etc.). Package in cardboard box appropriately labeled “FIREARM,” etc.

*Plastic containers, such as Ziploc bags, can act as a mini-incubator, encouraging bacteria growth. Bacteria can decompose and/or destroy DNA.

*Policy and procedure may vary depending upon the individual department and/or lab.

Much like a writer’s intricately plotted tale of fictional murder and the macabre, evidence discovered at actual crime scenes also tells a story. And, with these valuable clues safely collected, bagged, and tagged, detectives set out on their own killer-exposing hero’s journey.

Here’s how homicide investigators use bits and bobs of evidence found at crime-scenes in their quests to solve real-life mysteries.

  1. Broken/Shattered Glass – fracture analysis can show the type of force used to break the glass, direction and angle of break, and the sequence of breaks and force used.

When packaging broken glass, wrap in paper. Smaller pieces may be placed inside appropriate size cartons.

  1. Hairs – testing determines if human or non-human, race, body area, stage of decomposition, artificial treatments (hair coloring agents, etc.), drug use.

When packaging hairs, double packaging in paper is best. However, if the hair is completely dry, plastic will work in a pinch. Hairs recovered from different locations must be packaged separately and labeled accordingly. Tape all packaging seams.

  1. Automobile Pieces, Parts, and Debris (left behind by crash, explosion, etc.) – paint and part analysis for vehicle make and model determination, tire impression (possible make and model), recovery of Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), trajectory analysis of damage by firearms (bullet holes), accelerants used in arson cases, analysis of blood and other body fluids.
  1. Explosions – examination and analysis of trace evidence, such as hair, fibers, glass, blood, soils, fabric, fingerprints, DNA, tool marks, bone (DNA, human/non-human, age, race, and sex of victim, cross check with missing persons data, etc.).
  1. Building Materials – examine for possible manufacturer source and/or other common source, such as a specific retailer.
  1. Cigarettes – DNA analysis from filter end. Latent fingerprint recovery from all areas/surfaces of the product and its packaging.

NEVER use plastic when packaging potential DNA evidence. Plastic encourages the growth of bacteria which could deteriorate or destroy DNA.

  1. Coded Messages – examine for codes, ciphers, and other efforts at concealment. If needed, agencies can send these messages to a specific FBI email address for analysis. These messages go directly to FBI codebreakers.
  1. Ropes, Strings, and Other Cordage – examine for possible source matching.
  1. Shredded Paper – examine for latent prints. Possible reconstruction of documents.
  1. Tapes – examine for hairs and other fibers that may be attached to the “sticky side.” Check for and develop fingerprints. Match end-cuts or fractures with possible sources.

To print the stick side of tapes, use:

  1. Sticky-side powder
  2. Alternate black powder
  3. Ash gray powder
  4. Gentian violet
  1. Tools – examine for trace evidence (hairs, fibers, spills, human tissue and fluids, etc.), latent prints, transferred paint and other building material for possible source-matching.
  1. Weapons – examine for blowback material (flesh, blood, brain matter, etc.), fingerprints, trace evidence, serial numbers, ammunition type and comparisons, tool marks, gunshot residue, marks (nicks, scratches, dents, etc.), comparison to broken fragments (broken knife blades), etc.

 

There’s nothing more boring than to read a book where the author lists a bunch of facts without any means whatsoever for us, the readers, to visualize how the crime is solved. You know the ones of which I speak …

The cop, Detective Sergeant Snoozer, found a bag filled with dirty clothing. He said to his partner, “I wonder if those reddish, brown stains could be blood, and I wonder where they got the bag? It looks familiar. Oh, well, we should look for real clues, I guess, such as fingerprints and other junk. And toss that piece of pipe over into the woods before someone trips over it.”

For goodness sake, all it would take to add a bit of zing to this incredibly mind-numbing scene is to insert a few cool facts (not an information dump, though!).

Show us how the detective uses science and personal experience to match the spots where the garbage bag was torn away from the roll to the roll found in the crook’s hideout. Show us how they determined that the stains were indeed blood, and that the pipe could be tied to a suspect who’d not left behind any fingerprints.

Show me, show me, show me this “junk.”

Show us a few details. Details that will surprise your readers. Make them interested in the scene. Impress them with the special knowledge and skills of your protagonists. Or, for a fun twist, show the villain attempting to disguise or erase the evidence. You want your readers to become invested in your characters, right?

To help add a touch of pizzazz to your story, here are 6 Ways to Transform a Boring Crime Scene into Fascinating Factual Fiction.

Tear points and striations

  1.  It’s possible to match tear points and striations of plastic garbage bags to the points where they were torn/separated from the roll. Thus, enabling investigators to prove a bag containing body parts was removed from the roll found beneath the kitchen sink inside the suspect’s apartment.

Laser trajectory

2.  Examining defects and holes in various materials caused by projectiles from firearms  can provide information about the round fired, the position of the shooter, the firearm from which it was fired, the direction of travel, and sometimes the order of shots fired. The use of lasers and/or stringing helps determine bullet trajectory. (See Detective P. Panther above)

Electrostatic dust print lifting

3.  As we walk, our shoes transfer dust and other other particulate matter to the various surfaces that have walked upon, leaving behind latent/unseen impressions of our footwear. Electrostatic dust print lifting provides the ability to successfully collect those impressions.

Author Donna Andrews photographing electrostatic dust print. ~ Writers’ Police Academy 

Jim Reynolds of Sirchie demonstrates electrostatic dust print lifting. 2018 Writers’ Police Academy 

Sirchie’s Shake-N-Cast Kit

4.  Dental stone casting material is used for the collection and preservation of footwear and tire track impressions. Since dental stone casting material emits heat during the process of hardening, a fixative must be used when casting in snow and/or icy conditions.

Investigators often keep an impression casting kit in the trunk of their police car. I did. In fact, mine was a kit comprised of products from our good friends at Sirchie.

Impression casting kits contain a casting material that’s similar in composition to the material dentists use when making impression molds for dentures.  The kits also contain dust, dirt, and snow hardener.

Sirchie’s Shake-N-Cast (center in photo) contains a pre-measured water pouch and the aforementioned dental stone. Apply pressure to break the water pouch and shake to mix the two ingredients. No messy containers and no casting material on a detectives shiny shoes. There’s enough material in a kit to cast an adult-size shoe up to 15″ long.

Metal casting frames are adjustable to fit all shoe sizes and most tire treads.

The spray in the can on the left in the above photo—Dust and Dirt Hardner—is used to strengthen impression evidence (tire tracks, footwear impressions, etc.) found in loose or sandy soil.

dirt-spray.jpg

A squirt or two of Sirchie’s Snow Impression Wax provides an insulating medium between the heat-generating casting material and the surrounding snow. Once the spray contacts the snow it locks in the impression details while the casting material hardens.

snow-spray.jpg

Snow impression wax prevents snow from melting during the casting procedure.

The well-mixed combination of water and the dental casting material is poured directly from the bag into the pre-treated impression.

sp1000-pouring-compound.jpg

The result, after hardening, is a cast of suspect’s footprint.

The cast is used to identify a suspect’s shoes by size and unique characteristics, like cuts and indentations. The cast also becomes part of the evidence that’s used in court. Image – 2018 Writers’ Police Academy, Sirchie demonstration

Trace Metal Detection (TMDT)

5.  Suppose the murder victim in your twisted macabre tale was bludgeoned to death with a section of metal pipe used by a psycho killer only you could create from details embedded in that wacky and weird place deep inside your imagination. But there were no telltale usable fingerprints left behind on the murder weapon. How could the hero of your story solve the crime without prints to tie the killer to the pipe?

Aw, heck, this is as easy as solving the convenience store robbery where the crook left his photo ID on the counter.

All your hero needs is a bit of trace metal detection solution and a UV light. Simply apply the solution to the suspect’s hands, or clothing, and then hold the light over the area where they applied the solution. If the person contacted the metal murder weapon/device, the proof appears like magic.

Here’s how it works.

When holding or contacting a metal object, metal ions transfer from the object to our skin (or clothing). The ions then react with the Trace Metal Detection (TMDT) solution applied by the investigator. Immediately upon contact, the ions begin to fluoresce under ultraviolet (UV) light. To make this process even more cool, the color ranges of the fluorescence indicates the precise type of metal contacted, such as aluminum (shows as a bright whitish color), copper (deep blue), and lead (a shade between the former two colors).

To add to the supreme coolness of this stuff, even the patterns observed on the skin can indicate the general shape(s) of the metal object contacted by the suspect. This process is often used in corroboration of suicide when firearms are used. It proves the victim held the weapon used to cause the death.

The game of Clue could end in less than a minute should players elect to use this stuff. Candlestick … check. Revolver … check. Knife … check. Lead Pipe … check. Wrench … check. Rope? Well, you can’t win ’em all.

Phenolphthalein

6.  To determine if a suspected stain discovered at a crime scene is blood, or not, a presumptive test should be performed. Phenolphthalein is such a test and it reacts with the heme molecule present in blood. It is not species exact, meaning the test does not prove whether or not the blood is that of a human. Should the result be positive, samples should be collected and delivered to a testing lab.

But a positive result does provide investigators with the knowledge that blood is indeed present at the crime scene. It doesn’t require rocket science at that point to connect the dots—place is in disarray, potential victim is missing, neighbor heard gunshots, blood of some type is found on the floors, wall, ceiling, and make up a series of bloody drag marks leading to front door, down the steps, and to the driveway. Hmm …

Here’s the test.

 

Firearms Evidence

Much of the violence that occurs in the world today involves a firearm of some type. How and what type of evidence recovered from those weapons can have a huge impact on the subsequent criminal cases. Proper evidence collection procedures … well, they can make or break a case.

Here’s a handy top six “How To” list for the heroes of your stories to use when processing firearms evidence.

1. While wearing proper gloves and a face mask to avoid contamination of evidence, safely unload all firearms prior to submitting to property room.

Revolver

If the weapon is a revolver, first make note of which chamber was in the firing position and of the type/brand/caliber of ammunition in each chamber. Also note fired and unfired cartridges and their position(s) in the cylinder.

When preparing semiautomatics or fully automatics be sure the magazines are ejected and the chamber is empty. Make note of the safety position (on or off) and of the de-cocking lever. If there are no safeties and/or de-cocking lever, make note of that as well. Lock the slide to the rear and insert a plastic zip-tie into the ejection port and down through the magazine well. Then, carefully and slowly release the slide to the forward position until it rests against the tie.

Pistol

Engage the safety if equipped. The weapon is now inoperable and safe for storage.

2. Collection of trace evidence—hair, tissue, fingerprints, blood, DNA, etc.

Again, proper gloves and face masks must be worn during this part of the process. Gloves must be changed with each piece of evidence handled.

*If the detective is unsure or doesn’t feel he/she can obtain a good, solid fingerprint they should submit the weapon to the fingerprint lab for processing.

3. Firearms should be stored in paper-based packaging—cardboard box, manilla envelop, etc. Never in plastic! If a firearm is to be shipped it should be securely packaged inside a cardboard box.

Sirchie photo

NOTE: If a firearm was located in water it must be packaged in the same water from where it was found. The laboratory will handle testing from that point forward.

4. Bullets. Never mark or deface a bullet, and never handle with bare hands. To avoid corrosion and other moisture-related issues never package bullets in plastic or glass containers. Always store or ship in paper-type packaging.

5. Bullets found embedded in an object—wood, drywall, etc. Do not “dig out” the bullet. If possible, submit the entire item. If it’s not possible to submit the entire article (door frame, tree stump, living room wall, etc.) remove or cut away the portion of the article containing the bullet and retain.

6. When removing a bullet from a body during autopsy, care should be taken to not alter the bullet in any way. Pathologists should use fingers or rubber-tipped forceps during the process. Never an instrument with sharp edges. X-rays of the body should be taken prior bullet removal.

Post autopsy image of a 9mm bullet wound (entry). Note the Y-incision stitching on the upper chest area of the victim.

Finally, as always, a little common sense goes a long way. Have the heroes of your stories use it whenever possible. For example, it’s practically impossible to determine caliber and weapon brand/type merely by looking at a gunshot wound. To have the hero of your story say otherwise tosses his common sense, expertise, and experience out of the window.

Working as a deputy sheriff in a rural county often presents its own set of special and sometimes unusual challenges, especially during the days before the existence of GPS, cellphones, and radio repeaters. In other words, it was pretty darned easy to get lost while traveling a convoluted maze of paved (sort of), dirt, and/or gravel roads. Roads with names like Burnt Tree Road, Red Clay Way, or Turkey Trot Lane.

Many of those winding back-roads led to five- or six-house communities where it was the norm for us to stop and ask for directions. Some of those kind folks, thinking it would be best for us to speak directly to the person we sought, allowed us use of their telephones, if they had one, because they didn’t want to be known as the one who sent the law after their friends. After all, liquor stills and pot grows were pretty popular in those days.

So, after a couple of rings and a loud “Hell-Oh,” this is what we sometimes heard as a response to our requests for directions to someone’s home.

“Go past Robert Junior’s old horse barn—the old one, mind you, not the fancy new one he built just after Myrtle’s operation—and hang a sharp right at the big oak tree. Female troubles it was—Myrtle’s operation. Anyways, then you go on down until you see a red mailbox. That ain’t ours, but you’re close. We’re just past where John Henry Daniels used to have a store. It burnt slam to the ground 37-years ago next week, nothing left ‘cept a pile of ashes, but they’s a big rock there with some yaller paint on it. Yaller was John Henry’s favorite color so his wife, Etta Jean—she’s Romey and Winonna Jenkins’ oldest daughter—painted the rock so’s everybody’d remember him and the store. If’n you knowed him you’d know John Henry sold the best pickles and peaches this side of Atlanta. That he did.

Lookahere, if you get to where the road splits into a “Y” you done gone too far, so turn around in Ethel Mae Johnson’s driveway—it’s the one with the deer head a-nailed to the cedar post next to road (her daddy used to be a taxxy-dermis)—and head back the way you come. Our house is the blue one a’settin’ off the road about two-hundred yards—the one with the goats and chickens running ’round the place. You can’t miss it, ’cause one of them goats ain’t got but three legs. Oh, whatever you do, blow the horn three times when you drive up so we’ll know it’s you, not those pesky Joe Hoovers Witnessers. We all lay down on the floor behind Granny’s old settee when they come a knockin’.”

True story … sort of. And that sort of description is sometimes what dispatchers often must decipher before attempting to direct police officers to where it is they’re supposed to go in response to a call.

To this day, driving on dirt and gravel roads takes me back to the day when unpaved streets and roads were sometimes my best friend when trying to follow a criminal’s trail. Dirt, mud, grass, and even sandy soil can be quite telling … if you take the time to look. Here are a few things investigators look for when following a trail.

1. Both cars and trucks sometimes lose traction when heading uphill, and when they do the tread patterns are smeared. They aren’t clearly defined. When going downhill, tread patterns usually remain unbroken (clear) because the rubber maintains full traction with the surface. Therefore, investigators can easily determine the vehicle’s direction of travel.

2. When viewing tire tracks in the grass it’s important to note whether or not the tracks are shiny/glossy, or not. Glossy tracks mean the vehicle was heading away from the spot where you’re standing. Off color, or slightly dull tracks indicate the vehicle was heading toward your position.

3. When traveling on slightly muddy surfaces (about the consistency of slush), the vehicle’s tires force (squirt) mud forward at a +/- 45 degree angle.

4. Mud puddles, small creeks, etc. are perfect for telling which direction a car or truck is moving. Vehicles always push and pull water in the direction of travel. The liquid also washes away tracks on the exit side of the water. So, if you see a puddle with clear tracks leading up to the water’s edge, and no tracks and a wet surface on the opposite side of the puddle, then you know the vehicle was traveling toward the wet road surface. You may also see wet spots on the dirt road from where water dripped off the car frame after it passed through the puddle.

5. Wet soil often sticks in the grooves of a tire tread pattern. As the vehicle moves along, the soil begins to dry and falls off, and it always does so in the direction of travel. Investigators can follow the trail much like following a trail of breadcrumbs.

6. When viewing tire tracks always position yourself where the track is directly between you and the sun. This enables the best view of the track’s details.

The same is true for examining footwear impressions.

6. Be sure to photograph the track for later comparison to a tire or shoe.

Finally, as you travel, be sure to examine the sides of the roadway and down paths and trails for the suspect vehicle. It would be pretty darn embarrassing to discover you’d passed by the crooks who’re parked in Ethel Mae Johnson’s driveway counting the stolen loot.

Detective I. Will Gitterdone had a spotless attendance record, never missing a day for sickness in his entire thirty-three years with the department. In fact, in all of his years of wearing a badge and toting a sidearm he refused to soil that record even though on this particular day his fever hovered at 102, and coughing and sneezing fits forced him to spend the majority of the morning with his mouth and nose buried deep into a crumpled and quite yucky handkerchief. His arms and legs felt heavy and his muscles felt as if he’d been trampled by a hundred stampeding wild pigs.

In spite of the aches, fever, chills, and perspiring like a Savannah ditch digger working in August midday sunshine, Gitterdone was busy collecting suspected blood samples (brownish-red stains for the official record) at a particularly brutal homicide scene. He was also spewing misty spittle via alternating coughs and sneezes. His partner, Al Lergictowork, told him he looked worse than bad and asked if he needed a break. Gitterdone promptly turned his head away from Lergictowork to fired off a round of lung-clearing ah-choo’s directly into the large paper bag of already-collected evidence. “No,” he said. “I’ll be okay. Besides, I’m almost done here.”

So, did you notice anything particularly wrong with Gitterdone’s method of evidence collection? Was there anything he should have done differently?

Well, I think it’s safe to say that it might be a good idea to have both Gitterdone and Lergictowork study this list of Crime Scene Do Nots. It would also be wise to have your protagonist take a peek, just in case.

Crime Scene DO NOT’S

1. Do Not blow away excess fingerprint powder! Doing so adds your DNA to the surface.

2. Do Not use Styrofoam to package electronic devices (computer parts, etc.) because it can cause static charges. Instead, use foam padding or bubble-wrap.

3. Do Not alter or add anything to a crime scene sketch after leaving the scene. Memories are not quite as accurate as we may think.

4. Do NOT place bloodstained evidence in plastic bags. Plastic bags and containers can serve as incubators for bacteria, which can destroy, alter, or deteriorate DNA. Rule of thumb—paper bags/containers for wet evidence (blood, semen, saliva, etc.) and plastic for dry evidence.

5. DO NOT collect DNA evidence samples (saliva, blood, etc.) from a criminal suspect without a court order, the suspect’s consent, or under exigent (emergency) circumstances.

Hapci-fr
6. Do NOT cough, sneeze, exhale, etc. over any evidence sample. This includes talking over a sample. With each word spoken comes your DNA that’s instantly transferred to the evidence.

7. Do NOT fold wet documents. Leave that to the professionals in the lab.

8. Do NOT use fingerprint tape or lifters to collect bits of trace evidence. The adhesion on print-lifting tape is typically insufficient for picking up tiny bits of evidence.

9. Do NOT use dirty digging tools when collecting soil samples. Always clean tools thoroughly after each use to avoid cross contamination.

10. Do NOT use fingerprint lifters in lieu of gunshot residue (GSR) collection materials. (see number 8 above)

11. Do NOT allow shooting suspects, victims, witnesses, etc. to wash their hands or rub them against other surfaces until after GSR tests/collection have been completed.

Finally, number twelve is one that writers should do, and that’s …

12. Attend the 2020 Writers’ Police Academy/MurderCon. We have an unbelievably cool and over-the-moon exciting lineup in store for you. This is an event you will not want to miss!!

Honestly, we’ve outdone ourselves this year. We’ve been sitting on a few exciting secrets about the 2020 event and it’s almost time for the big reveal. So stay tuned, because we’ll soon be releasing the details.


MurderCon is moving forward as planned. We have carefully detailed plans in place for proper social distancing, and we’re furnishing masks. Hand sanitizer will be readily available.

Sirchie, our host, is in the loop with state and local health officials since they’re in the business of making PPE equipment, including hand sanitizer and masks, for 1st responders. Between Sirchie officials and our in-house microbiologist, Denene, we’re closely monitoring the situation and making preparations. Your safety, as always, is our priority.

Sign up today to reserve your spot!

MurderCon 2020

There’s more to evidence collection than merely bagging and tagging bloody clothing and spent bullet casings. Crime scene techs are highly trained, skilled members of police agencies and forensic laboratories who more often than not provide the keys to solving cases.

In the “good old days,” many officers, including patrol officers, collected their own evidence (some still do, especially in smaller departments). They plodded into and poked around crime scenes, determining what items they thought might be of some value and then tossed those things into some sort of container—a grocery bag, department envelope, cardboard box, and even the cellophane wrappings from cigarette packs. In those days there wasn’t a lot of consideration for sterility, and DNA hadn’t yet made its way on the “scene.”

When investigators finally discovered plastic sandwich and ziplock bags you’d have thought they’d won the lottery, because packaging evidence had suddenly become a breeze. The problem with those new-fangled containers, though, was that detectives were placing everything in them, not knowing they could be destroying or damaging evidence instead of preserving it. And that brings us to the question of …

Paper or Plastic?

There’s a simple rule of thumb for deciding which type of evidence packaging—wet evidence goes in paper containers (wet evidence can degrade if placed inside plastic containers) and dry evidence goes in plastic. Items that could be cross-contaminated must be packaged separately. There’s a rule of thumb for other types of evidence, too, and here’s a handy list for the proper packaging of those items.

Hair – Double packaging in paper is best. However, if the hair is completely dry, plastic will work in a pinch. Hairs recovered from different locations must be packaged separately and labeled accordingly. Tape all packaging seams.

Fibers – Dry, and tape-lifted, fibers may be placed inside plastic containers.

Rope, twine, and other cordage – Paper or plastic.

Paint chips – Place inside folded paper. Then place the paperfold inside an envelope.

Tools – Paper or cardboard.

Tape – Wear non-powdered gloves when handling tape. Submit samples inside plastic. If the tape is stuck to an item the item must be submitted with the tape still attached. Do not remove the tape!

Glass – Wrap in paper. Smaller pieces may be placed inside appropriate size cartons.

Arson and other fire evidence – Airtight metal containers. Unused paint cans work best.

Dried stains – Wrap stained item in paper or place inside cardboard box. Large items – moisten swab with distilled water, swab the stain, and package in paper or cardboard after drying.

Blood – Allow to air dry and then package in paper.

Evidence drying lockers

DNA – Do NOT use plastic!
And when I mentioned that wet evidence is packaged in paper containers I did NOT mean to pour liquids into paper bags. Instead, items that contain wet evidence (bloody and/or semen-stained clothing, etc.) should be placed into paper containers.

“Hey, Sarge,” said Officer Trevor “Curly” Barnes. “Would you do me a favor and see if you can get a clear set of prints from this guy? I’ve tried three times and all I get are smudges. I must be out of practice, or something.”

“You rookies are all alike,” said Sergeant Imin Charge. “Always wanting somebody to do the dirty work for you.”

“But—”

Sgt. Charge dropped his fat, leaky ballpoint pen on a mound of open file folders. “But nothing,” he said. “All you “boots” want to do is bust up fights and harass the whores.”

The portly “three-striper” pushed his lopsided rolling chair away from his desk and placed a bear-paw-size hand on each knee. Then with a push and a grunt, he stood. The sounds of bone-on-bone poppings and cracklings coming from his arthritic knees were louder than the Buck Owens song—I‘ve Got a Tiger by the Tail—that spewed from the portable radio on his desk.

“Well,” said the sergeant. “Paperwork and processing evidence, including fingerprinting people, comes with the job too. You might as well get it in your head right now that police work is not all about flashy blue lights, driving fast cars, and badge bunnies. Not all ”

“I’m serious, Sarge. I can’t get a good print. I think the guy’s messing with me, or something.”

Charge sighed and rolled his deep-set eyes. Everyone in he department knew the eye roll as Charge’s trademark “I don’t want to, but will” expression.

“All right,” said Charge. “Go finish up the paperwork and I’ll take care of the prints and mugshots.” Then he pointed a meaty finger at the young officer. “But hurry up and get your ass back down to booking. I get off in thirty minutes and I’ve got plans. There’s a behind the scenes documentary on tonight about how they made the Smoky and the Bandit movies, and I don’t aim to miss it.”

“That’s right, it’s Thursday night, huh? What was it last week, The Best of Swamp People?”

“Bingo. And me and the little woman never miss. So, if you ever want to see day shift again, you’d better be back here in ten minutes to take this slimeball off my hands.”

Twenty minutes later, Sergeant Charge was on the phone with Captain Gruffntuff, the shift commander. “That’s right, Captain. The guy doesn’t have any prints. Not a single ridge or whorl. Nothing.”

A pause while Charge listened. Officer Barnes leaned toward his boss, trying to hear the other side of the conversation. The sergeant waved him away as if swatting away an annoying fly or mosquito. “No, sir. Not even a freckle.”

Another pause.

“Nope, not on either finger.” Charge leaned back in his chair. “All as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Beats everything I’ve ever seen.”

“Yes, sir. I checked his toes, too. Nothing there either. Slick as a freshly waxed floor.”

Sergeant Charge opened a pouch of Redman and dug out a golfball-size hunk of shredded black tobacco leaves.

“Nope. He’s not from around here. Says he’s from Sweden. Says his whole family’s like that. Not a one of them has any prints.”

“Says it’s a condition called adermatoglyphia.”

Charge shoved the “chew” inside of his mouth, maneuvering it with his tongue until it came to rest between his teeth and cheek.

“Looks like a hamster with a mouth full of sunflower seeds,” Barnes mumbled to himself.

“Yes, sir. Beats everything I’ve ever seen,” Sergeant Charge said into the phone’s mouthpiece. “Will do, sir.

A beat passed, then he said, “Yes, sir. I’ll stay to see it through.”

Another beat.

“Right, sir.”

Sergeant Charge placed the phone receiver back in its cradle without saying goodbye. His typical pinkish cheeks were the color of a shiny new fire truck. He sat silent for a second, thinking.

“Won’t be watching the Bandit tonight, I guess,” he said.

The man from Sweden, the prisoner, sighed, knowing it was going to be a long night. He’d been through this many times.

“Better call the little woman,” said Sergeant Imin Charge as he reached for the phone to give her the bad news. “And she ain’t going to be happy. No, sir. I’d bet a dollar to a doughnut that she’s already made a dozen or so of those little meatball sandwiches that I like so much. Probably has an ice cold can of Blue Ribbon waiting for me too.”

After a few “Sorry, dears,” Cgarge returned the receiver back to its resting spot and then turned to the prisoner who sat handcuffed to a wooden bench with the back of his head against the mint green wall. Another grease stain added to the collection, thought Charge.

“Okay,” he said to the man who’d been arrested for breaking into home of an Hazel Lucas, an elderly woman who’d whacked the intruder on the head with a rolling pin while he was climbing through a kitchen window. “Lemme see those fingers, again.”

The burglar held up his hands and said to the sergeant, “Good luck.”

Photo Credit: Nousbeck et al., The American Journal of Human Genetics (2011)

Adermatoglyphia, or “immigration delay disease” as it’s also known, is an extremely rare and unique condition found in members of only four Swiss families. What’s so unique about the condition? Well, for starters, people with adermatoglyphia produce far less hand sweat than the average person. But, perhaps the most startling characteristic is that people with adermatoglyphia do not have fingerprints.

In one instance, a female member of one of the affected families traveled to the U.S. but was delayed by border agents because they couldn’t confirm her identity. Why? No prints to compare.

The cause of adermatoglyphia has, until recently, been a mystery. Now, however, scientists have learned that the affected members of the Swiss families all had a mutation in the gene called Smarcad1. And this mutation is in a version of the gene that is only expressed in skin.

So, all you mystery writers out there…yes, there are people who do not have fingerprints.


A Tiger by the Tail


There’s still time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

www.writerspoliceacademy.com

 

Detective Sergeant Carl Catchemall studied the bloodstain pattern on and next to the ticking cow clock hanging on the kitchen wall. He stood there, staring, for what seemed like an eternity before turning toward his partner Hank Handsup. Then he tipped his bald, oval-shaped head back toward “the cow wall” where reddish splotches and dots of once-oozing blood contrasted sharply against the freshly painted, snow white surface. The cow’s tail moved from side to side with each tick and tock of the timepiece.

Tick Tock …

“I believe, Hank,” said the wise detective, “that our killer was right-handed, shorter than your own meager five-and-a-half feet, and was standing, not sitting, quite close to our victim, poor Mrs. Ima Ghostnow, when he pulled the trigger on what was most likely a revolver. That, my friend, is what I believe happened to our unfortunate victim.”

Tick Tock …

In the real world, to reach such a solid conclusion, it’s a must that detectives conduct a comprehensive bloodstain evidence investigation, using proper tools, techniques, supplies, equipment, and training. And, of course, experience always helps.

A good bloodstain training class typically uses actual blood, because nothing else accurately mimics the real stuff. Although, a decent substitute for the real deal is a mixture of Karo syrup and red food coloring.

During training classes students are exposed to nearly every type real-life scenario imaginable, but the first order of business is to learn the basics—characteristics of a blood drop.

Characteristics of a blood drop

– blood drops are formed by gravity

– blood drops cannot break apart unless contacted by an outside force

– larger drops travel further than smaller drops (due to mass, not size)

– blood drops always travel in an arcing path (impact injuries)

– size ranges from a few millimeters to few centimeters

– volume of a drop of blood is in direct proportion to whatever it’s dropping from (ax, stick, arm, leg, etc)

Crime scene investigators typically measure bloodstains that hit surfaces on the way up, not stains made by blood that’s on its way back down. Stains made when traveling upward are much more accurate for use as evidence because gravity is not as much of a factor in the pattern’s formation.

Types of Bloodstain Patterns

Impact – caused by high-velocity or medium-velocity wounds—gun shots or blows by an object such as a baseball bat or hammer.

Swipes (Wipes)Caused by a bloody object being wiped across another surface. These stains are the reason for changing the name of the examination from “blood spatter” evidence to “bloodstain” evidence (not all patterns are caused by airborne drops of blood).

*Remember, terminology could and often does vary from one area to the next.

The Lingo

Cast-Off– Caused by slinging blood off objects in motion (a swing of a bloody hammer, or arm).

Drip and Flow– Caused when blood drops off one object onto another.

Projected– Caused by arterial spurts. Often seen in stabbings and cuttings.

The ability to effectively interpret bloodstain patterns is a science and an art. But, before investigators can dive into a crime scene, they must learn a bit of terminology, such as:

Angle of Impact– the angle formed between the direction of an individual drop of blood and the surface it strikes.

Back Spatter– blood that’s directed back towards the source of energy, such as a hand holding a firearm, or hammer.

Expirated blood – blood that’s forced from the mouth or nose where air (exhalation) is the propellant.

High Velocity Impact Spatter (HVIS)– bloodstain pattern caused by a high velocity impact, such as those caused by gunshots or fast moving equipment or machinery (saws, drills, etc.)

Point of Convergence – the point (two dimensional) where the direction of travel (blood droplets) intersect. Can be used to help determine where the victim was standing when the fatal injury was delivered.

Point of Origin –the point (three dimensional) where the direction of travel (blood droplets) intersect.

Stringing – a method used to determine the point of origin. Investigators tie strings at the blood drops, following the direction of travel. The point where the strings intersect is the point of origin. Lasers are sometimes used in lieu of strings.

Stringing You Along!

So what are the tools needed to conduct a proper investigation of bloodstain evidence? Well, for starters …

Luminol

Luminol is a chemical that exhibits a bluish-white glow (chemiluminescence) when mixed with an appropriate oxidizing agent. It reveals the presence of iron in hemoglobin, even in the slightest traces of blood found at crime scenes. In fact, Luminol is capable of detecting blood even if it’s been cleaned away, and in situations where the scene has been altered to the point where there’s no indication that a crime was committed. The older the stain the more intense the reaction will be. By the way, Luminol is not recommended for use on visible or wet blood, and the area must be photographed prior to it’s use because the glow tends to fade quickly.

Photo – Sirchie

When your fictional detectives find themselves searching a property with hopes of locating blood evidence, here are some places they should look: kitchen and bathroom sinks and their drains. The same for tubs and toilets. The cracks between moldings and walls and floors, and at the base of tubs and toilet tanks, drains, cracks and crevices of wood. In addition, tile floors, grout, carpeting (beneath carpeting, especially if the carpeting appears to have been freshly cleaned), dirty laundry, hampers, bedding, ceilings, lampshades, beneath table tops and chairs, mops and mop buckets, sponges, door handles and knobs, knife blocks and, well, the list is as broad as the imagination allows.

When using Luminol to detect the presence of blood, it’s best to turn off all lights before applying it to the suspected/targeted area.

Keep in mind that chlorine bleach flashes brightly when contacted by Luminol. This is a sign that someone may have attempted to clean the area. It’s also important to note that iron and copper particulates will react with Luminol, giving a false positive for a suspected presence of blood. As always with presumptive testings (drugs, etc.), a laboratory test is required for confirmation or exclusion.

Other false positives for Luminol include iron and copper particles. Luminol is a blood search tool, and suspected blood areas must be confir

Luminol has been found to deteriorate DNA evidence, therefore DNA evidence should, if possible, be collected and preserved prior to the use of Luminol or similar products, such as BLUESTAR.

Photo – Sirchie

BLUESTAR is also used to determine the presence or absence of blood. However, what sets BLUESTAR apart from Luminol and other blood reagents is that its use doesn’t require total darkness, nor does it deteriorate DNA. Another benefit to BLUSTAR use is that the color, intensity and duration differs from that of Luminol. Therefore, investigators are less likely to confuse blood and false positives.

 

Bloodstain Pattern Investigations at the Writers’ Police Academy and MurderCon

This fall at MurderCon, instructor David Alford is scheduled to present a fantastic and wonderfully detailed hands-on class about bloodstain pattern investigations, called The Art of Blood. Here’s a “first look” at the workshop.

“Violent crimes and accidents frequently involve the interpretation of blood evidence. This class offers the attendee the opportunity to learn how to determine the velocity and angle in which a bloodstain impacted a surface, and the 3-dimensional point of origin – where injury or bleeding event occurred . The instruction will include presumptive testing techniques of stains thought to be blood, as well as, searching crime scenes for latent blood with luminol when circumstances dictate that the area was cleaned by the perpetrator. Attendees will participate in hands-on activities to reinforce the learning objectives.”

About MurderCon/Sirchie instructor David Alford:

David Alford is a retired FBI Special Agent with 21 years of experience investigating violent crimes, terrorism and other cases. He was one of the founding members of the FBI Evidence Response Team(ERT)and conducted crimes scene searches on domestic and international violent crimes and bombings, including the Polly Klaas kidnaping and murder, the Unabomber’s cabin and the 9/11Pentagon scene.

He worked in the Denver and San Francisco field offices and completed his career at Quantico in the FBI Lab ERT Unit.During the 6 years in the FBI Lab, he was primarily responsible for overseeing and teaching basic and advanced crime scene courses throughout the US and many other countries. In the 6 years before the FBI, he was a Forensic Serologist, Hair and Fibers Examiner and Bloodstain Pattern Analyst for the Kentucky State Police Crime Lab.After retirement, David taught crime scene courses around the world on behalf of the FBI and US State Department.David has been with Sirchie as an instructor and sales representative for Sirchie’s RUVIS and ALS products for the last 10 years.David loves teaching and allowing students to learn through hands-on training.


Below, 2018 Writers’ Police Academy instructor RJ Beam details bloodstain patterns and why how they’re formed.

 


Speaking of MurderCon, there’s a murder to be solved there and it’ll be up to you to crack the case by using clues and evidence gained and gathered at the event. Oh, my, it’s going to be a “killer”!!

Details to be announced when the all new website goes live later this week. Registration is scheduled to open this month. Sign up date also to be announced later this week.

It’s exciting, and due to the new format space is extremely LIMITED. So be ready!!

Writers’ Police Academy presents MurderCon

 

Can’t seem to find the right clues for your current work-in-progress? Well, here’s a handy guide to help with locating DNA evidence.

  1. Undergarments (boxers and/or briefs, etc.)
  2. Sweat-stained clothing
  3. Semen stains on clothing, bedding, skin and other areas of the body
  4. Pages of books and magazines
  5. Drinking cups
  6. Glass (window panes, mirrors, etc.)
  7. Ear wax
  8. Fingernail clippings/beneath attached nails.
  9. Used towels
  10. Urine
  11. Used stamps
  12. (Inner) cheek swabs
  13. Hair (with root is best)
  14. Dried blood
  15. Whole blood
  16. Chewed gum and similar candies/food items
  17. Dental floss and toothbrushes
  18. Cigarette butts
  19. Used tissue
  20. Dried skin, including dandruff and psoriasis
  21. Used razors
  22. Furniture (couch cushions, mattresses, and more)
  23. Carpeting
  24. Computer keys and mouse
  25. Used/worn stocking masks, gloves, mittens, caps, socks, pants, shirts, etc.

By the way, the odds of two people having the same 13 point DNA profile is approximately 1 in 1 billion. And…