The Real World of a Forensic Scientist: Dr. Katherine Ramsland and Dr. Henry Lee

Dr. Katherine Ramsland has published 35 books and over 900 articles, and is the chair of Social Sciences at DeSales University, where she teaches about forensic psychology, profiling, serial murder, and forensic science. Her latest books include The Devil’s Dozen: How Cutting-edge Forensics Took down 12 Notorious Serial Killers and The Real World of a Forensic Scientist, with and about Henry C. Lee. She describes what it was like to work with him.

In the Company of Dr. Henry Lee

Dr. Henry Lee

First, I want to say that this experience proves a point I often make: you should always be prepared, because opportunity can arrive from unexpected places. A couple of years ago I’d been invited to an annual symposium sponsored by the Henry C. Lee Institute in Connecticut. I went up on Sunday night and a few others were there so Dr. Lee came to join us for dinner. I ended up sitting next to him. I’d met him several times before in other venues so he knew my background. In fact, he’d given me a blurb for Beating the Devil’s Game. He started to talk about writing and mentioned that he’d recently lost his co-writer for a book about his life and work that was now overdue. So, there I was, a writer (and biographer) with background in forensic investigation. I offered to step in, and voila! I was part of an awesome team: Lee and his former lab director Elaine Pagliaro.

Dr. Henry C. Lee is one the most knowledgeable international experts in contemporary crime scene investigation. As a former Commissioner for the Department of Public Safety, Chief Criminalist, and Director of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory in Meriden, CT, he has visited thousands of crime scenes and testified in numerous high-profile cases, notably his participation on the O. J. Simpson defense team. He’s also been a consultant on the reinvestigation of the Sacco-Vanzetti affair, the JonBenet Ramsey murder, the John F. Kennedy assassination, and the mystery surrounding Vincent Foster’s death. Available to over three thousand agencies worldwide, he has assisted law enforcement in thousands of cases.

The first step for us was to outline the book and decide who was doing what. The cases came directly from Lee and Pagliaro’s reports, and I was happy that Elaine intended to write the technical stuff. I was more interested in forensic history and case analysis, especially the notes from the infamous wood chipper case and the investigation of serial killer, Michael Ross, who’d created such havoc in Connecticut when he elected to move forward with his execution.

Lee and I outlined the contents and he looked for photos and charts while Elaine and I filled in content. One of my projects was to visit the Henry C. Lee Institute to observer their forensic science program. I do a hands-on investigation course, myself, with a crime scene set-up, but the Institute has a lot more resources. It was no surprise to see that they had an amazing scenario, with an entire apartment laid out for setting up crime scenes. Next to that was a lab for analyzing the evidence, as well as a classroom.

Lee had devised it after he realized how ineffective it was to teach a practical skill with lectures alone. “When we were training students,” he said, “we noticed that it was very difficult for them to get practical experience, so I got the idea to set up an institute that would accept cases from people who could not pay a consultant fee. We charged them only the cost and those cases allowed students to get working experience. It also helps the community.”

While Lee appears to be a Jack-of-all-trades where forensic science is concerned, he got his start as a police officer and investigator, and then became a biochemist. His forte is getting the overall picture. “The major area for me is putting the case together,” he told me, “how to reconstruct a crime. Laboratory tests are mostly mechanical; you follow the procedure, you get the result. But how you interpret that result becomes crucial. You have to fit it into the whole case scenario. Sometimes you find DNA and it doesn’t mean a thing. We had a case where the police collected a lot of cigarettes, so we found a lot of DNA on the butts, but how do we know anything about that cigarette butts that people just threw there? It’s a shotgun approach. You pick everything up and hope that one will match your suspect.”

Lee’s mission is to keep improving the quality of crime scene investigation. Among his efforts was to create a decision tree, with which investigators can diagram their reasoning process. “It’s like a living textbook,” Lee stated. “When you look at the history of criminal justice, not only in this country but in foreign countries as well, the problem is that in many cases the crime scene was not handled properly. We lost the window of opportunity and now the crime scene is gone. The physical evidence is was not collected or was collected but improperly. It got contaminated, or deteriorated, or distorted. All of those issues can be avoided. How we can improve that is threefold: through education, good textbooks, and practical experience. Many times, people investigate cases with a shotgun approach—hit and miss. The logic tree approach is the reverse. We have to look at a crime scene first and try to determine what’s the MO, what’s the pattern evidence, and then try to determine what happened, where it happened, how it happened, and when it happened. We have to determine the primary scene and secondary scene, and whether it’s an active scene or passive scene, or an organized scene or disorganized scene. Once you have all of those issues resolved, you develop a hypothesis.”

When I teach forensic science, I’m often surprised that police officers in the class erroneously believe that the scientific method involves forming a theory about what happened at a scene and finding evidence to support it. Lee has noticed this as well: “The problem with most police officers is that they think in real life, you develop theories, like Kojak or Columbo. But nobody has a theory. A theory is something that has to be proven to be correct. We start with a hypothesis, which is based on our experience and training. In other words, you come up with a logical explanation. So we try to teach the students how to develop logical thinking from a hypothesis. Then how you use witness statements and physical evidence to prove or disprove this hypothesis. After it’s been tested and proven, you have a viable theory.”

For gaining experience, the Institute offers courses to professionals from around the world on such things as blood spatter, cold case investigations, and gunshot reconstruction. “We go shoot up a car,” said Lee, “and then let them study the bullet holes in the glass and in the car body, and teach them to use the bullets and casings to determine the shooter’s position and the bullet trajectory. We videotape them and then show them the original videotape that shows how we shot the car. They then learn from that how they made mistakes.”

Lee emphasizes that crime scenes are unique: “It’s like a human face: very individual, all different, but all humans have hands, arms, and legs. So you can approach a crime scene with a general principle. As long as you follow that principle, you will not make basic mistakes. Then you learn the specifics. Each type of crime scene-a rape or homicide scene or contract killing—all those specifics mean we handle it as a special type of case. You develop this through years of experience because the more you see, the more you learn; the more mistakes you make, the less mistakes you make in the future. The best way to avoid mistakes is to learn how others made mistakes. Then you don’t make your own mistake.”

Dr. Lee once taught a class for me, offering advice to aspiring forensic scientists:
“I come to this country with only $50 in my pocket. I didn’t speak English. This country provided the opportunity for me to learn to grow. It’s the only country in the world where if you work hard, you can prove yourself. The forensic field is not lucrative. You cannot become wealthy. If you want to be challenged, it’s the right field. But you have to have a good science background. You also have to learn to use deductive and inductive logic. You need to have curiosity. You can’t have an 8-to-4 attitude. I never have a day where I go home at 4:00. You have to have that persistence. Then you need an attitude, that you do your best. Win, lose, draw, you don’t care. Don’t let public opinion pressure you. Don’t let the police pressure you. Don’t let anything pressure you to do something unethical. Then you can survive and become one of the best forensic scientists.”

I’m proud of the work we did to produce The Real World of a Forensic Scientists and I hope it’s useful to students and experienced professionals alike.

*This book is a favorite of The Graveyard Shift. I have a copy and it is fantastic. You can find a copy here.

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Paul Beecroft: International Festival of Falconry at the Englefield Estate, England

My friend, Paul Beecroft, a Coroner’s Officer employed by the Thames Valley England Police, has generously invited us to join him on a visit to the Second International Festival of Falconry. The festivities were held at the Englefield Estate on the outskirts of Reading in England. This is the home of Sir Richard Benyon.

On the 11th & 12th July, falconers from all over the world – over 50 nations – joined together to celebrate what is perhaps the oldest of field sport dating back thousands of years. From the Steppes of Russia to New Zealand, China, Europe, UAE and America.

Parade of Nations

Falconers traveled thousands of miles bringing with them their traditions, culture and music.

Front page of the programme.

There were a number of dignitaries there one of which was Prince Andrew.

Prince Andrew with Gyr Falcon.

Many were in traditional dress or dressed from bygone days. The event was colourful and spectacular.

Korean Faloconers.

Henry VIII

Peregrine Falcon

Gyr Falcon

Black Eagle

Russian Falconer

Austrian Falconer

Turkmenistan Falconers

83 year-old Turkmenistan Falconer

American Falconer

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Friday’s Heroes: Remembering The Fallen

Officer Michael Davey, 34

Weymouth Massachusetts Police Department

Officer Michael Davey was directing traffic at a construction site on August 24, 2009, when he was struck and killed by a motorist. He leaves behind his wife, three children, two brothers, and parents.

*Thanks to ODMP


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Sandy Russell: Private Investigator


Hi, I’m Sandy Russell, a Private Investigator licensed in the State of North Carolina. I traveled along a very interesting path in order to get to this place in my life. I was always somewhat of a “tomboy.” I loved to to do anything as long as it was outdoors. I grew up on a small plot of land just outside of Greensboro, NC. I loved horses, so my mom bought me one when I was about 6 years old. I would ride from the time I got out of bed in the morning until just before dark. Those were the days when a child could take off and be gone all day and the parent had nothing to fear, well except for my mom. She never knew when I was going to come home with a stray dog or cat, sometimes something more unusual. But, she did know I would be home safe and sound.

I was married before graduating high school and fell into a life as wife and mother and not much more. That is until one day I was scanning the newspaper for a part-time job. I saw where the Belk Department Store at a local mall was hiring a part-time loss prevention officer. I applied and believe it or not they hired me, just like that. No experience, no background in anything really. It turned out to be a full time job and I caught the fever.

A few years later I was hired as a police officer at a local UNC school. They gave me uniforms and a gun. Wow! They wouldn’t let me drive the patrol car because the insurance didn’t cover me until I had attended “rookie school.” Did you catch that? I couldn’t drive a car, but they gave me a gun. I had been driving for about 12 years but had never shot a weapon. How cool is that?

I stayed there a few years and then was hired as a Deputy Sheriff. That is where I really found my passion. That was still during the time where women were a rarity in law enforcement. I was promoted after a few years, first to the rank of Corporal, then Sergeant, and finally Lieutenant. I was the first female in the history of the department to hold a supervisory position in the field. Articles were written about me in the local newspapers and probably had a lot to do with what happened next. As luck would have it, my luck ran out, and a new Sheriff was elected. And in the South that means a few key people had to vacate their positions and find work elsewhere. I was one of those.

I got lucky and was hired by a high security printing company out of New York to provide on premise security. We printed postage stamps, treasury checks, U.S. Visas and social security cards to name a few. My job was to turn this building into a mini Fort Knox, well sort of. Our clients that I mentioned above were very particular about the security of their products. Our perimeter was fenced; we had a 24 hour security staff. Our buildings were secured with electronic devices that I had never heard of prior to coming to this job. Cameras were everywhere. Our officers were even enclosed in a bullet proof office. The joke was always that no one could ever shoot one of us, but we couldn’t shoot them either.

North Carolina allows private companies that meet certain criteria to develop their own police departments. So, I decided to establish a Company Police Department within this company. It turned out to be a great marketing tool from a secure environment standpoint. So, now I was a Chief of Police. My department was larger than some public police departments in NC.

During this time I decided to run for Sheriff of the same department where I had worked and been eliminated. I made a pretty good showing, but as you can see, I am a PI, not the sheriff. So you guessed right if you thought maybe I lost that election. Well, here I am today, eight years or so later. I am a Private Investigator with my own company, CornerStone Investigations, but I am also a wife, a mother and a grandmother and loving every minute of it.

Private investigations have come a long way just in my lifetime. I sometimes watch the old movies where the wife comes into the smoke filled office of the man she is going to hire to follow her husband. He sits behind an old desk, feet kicked up, smoking a stub of a cigar. She sits gingerly, somewhat timid, across from him with a tissue in hand.

Today the smoke filled room is a thing of the past. And, more than ever there is a woman sitting behind that desk. I have been a Private Investigator in North Carolina for 8 years. To get my license I was subjected to an extensive background investigation and then I had to go before the Regulatory Board to be interviewed. After two meetings I was officially a “PI.”

PI’s in NC perform a wide range of investigations. Of course the old standby, domestic situations is almost always the main staple of our diet. But, we do get to do more interesting things like, murder investigations; missing persons; nursing home abuse; skip tracing; serving civil papers; executive protection and lots of other dangerous things.

Here is one example of a case I was involved in. It was my first case and was almost a flashback to the smoke filled room and the man with the cigar. Of course he was the client, not the PI. It turns out we had a mutual friend who recommended my services to him. When I arrived he was shocked to see that I was a woman. Turns out that he was an elderly gentleman whose wife had been receiving harassing phone calls. The language that was being used was crude and he and his wife were shocked by it. The common link seemed to be that the calls always came in just after he left the residence, leaving his wife alone. They called two to three times in a row. She told them how mean and ugly they were being and asked them if their mother was aware of their behavior. The husband had placed a device on his phone so that he could record the caller in case it was needed as evidence.

When I asked to listen to the recording he hesitated and then said, “I can’t let you listen to that, you’re a lady!” I then asked him, “Has your wife heard it?” He got the hint and turned over the recording to me. I respected him enough to listen to the tape outside of his earshot. I’m sure he would have been totally embarrassed otherwise. We had to report the calls to the police so that the phone company could trace the calls as they came in.

On my first day I suggested that I stay in the house with his wife while he went to play golf. My car was parked a few blocks away. Almost as quickly as he left, the phone rang. The wife answered it after a few rings. I picked up the extension at the same time. The caller proceeded to say things that brought red even to my cheeks. I motioned for her to hang up without speaking. The phone rang yet another time. Same caller, same type of language. She hung up. Suddenly I heard giggling and swearing outside. The phone rang one more time. I motioned for her to answer it while I slipped out the side door of the house. I slid in behind the shrubbery and made my way around the house. A window was open near where the wife was. I could hear her trying to shame the caller into some type of repentance. Just before I got to the corner of the house I realized from the stinging on my face that I had run into the middle of a yellow jacket convention of some type. I came out of the bushes jumping and screaming.

Before I realized it I was standing in front of two teenage boys using a cell phone to harass this nice old lady. Working in my favor was the jumping and screaming that came naturally to me because of the bee stings. The boys dropped the cell phone and started yelling for me not to shoot. Needless to say, I didn’t shoot them but I did call the police who came and arrested them for trespassing and harassing phone calls. It turned out that the boys lived a few blocks away and were no strangers to trouble. The police found several other misdemeanor warrants on them.

I went back not realizing that my hair was a mess. I had a couple of stings on my face, including one on my lip. What a sight I must have been. The lady then fixed me some ice water and mixed up some concoction and put it on my stings. I was relieved because the stinging was subsiding. She was relieved because the harassment was now over and her husband who had come home just after the police arrived was relieved because his wife was safe.

He shook my hand and told me he appreciated everything I had done for them. He said he was still a little embarrassed, and I was glad to hear it. I guess chivalry is alive after all.

In the end, the boys were convicted and sentenced, their family moved away from the neighborhood. The exterminator was called and the bees left the area too.

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