Archive for July, 2012

PostHeaderIcon Ever Wonder What It’s Like To Kill Someone?

Ever wonder what it’s like to kill someone? Well, I don’t have that worry. You know the saying…been there, done that. And I’ve lived with the dead guy’s soul scrabbling around inside my head ever since.

I never thought about this sort of thing until it happened to me. And it didn’t take long to realize that once I’d pulled the trigger, sending bullets on their way, that was it. I couldn’t call them back. Nope, no “all e all ye in come free’s.” Not that I would’ve called them back, mind you. Not even one of them. It’s just that I sometimes wonder how life would be today if I’d never squeezed the trigger on my SIG P228.

Okay, enough what-if’s. Let’s get right to it. Here’s how I came about killing a guy on a blistering hot August day back in 1995.

The morning started off with me sitting in my office thumbing through a stack of offense reports from the previous night. Nothing special, a few drunks, some minor drug activity, a couple of break-ins, and the usual domestic he said-she saids.

Then it happened. The 911 call and silent alarm, both coming in at the same time. A young man—22-years-old—walked into a bank and pointed a long-barrel revolver at one of the tellers. He grabbed all the money he could carry in a white, wrinkled, plastic grocery bag, and then turned and calmly walked out the front door. The entire robbery took place in less than ten minutes.  The teller was left a trembling and tearful mess. An extremely traumatic experience for her. Victim number one.

The robber fled the scene and, unfortunately for him, he wrecked his car trying to escape. Five of us cornered the guy in a culvert beside his car—three patrol officers, one special agent from one of those “three-letter-agencies,” and me. I was dressed for court, wearing a coat and tie, which is not exactly the perfect outfit for exchanging gunfire with a bad guy on one of the hottest days of the year.

The robber had no intention of surrendering, and decided to shoot it out with us. Big mistake for him.

Four officers took cover at the top of a highway exit ramp, just above and out of the robber’s line of sight. I was closest to the gunman—twenty-five yards away to his left. My only cover was a small maple tree—a very, very small maple tree. At the time it seemed like a toothpick with only a few leaves.

The robber crouched down near the rear bumper of his car, where I watched him load his weapon—an old revolver. I yelled, begging him to drop the gun and come to us with his hands up. He ignored my orders and fired a shot toward my fellow officers on the hilltop.

The sound of his gunshot activated my brain’s slow-motion function. Time was crawling to a stop.

Somehow, and I still can’t explain it, I actually had time to look around before reacting to the gunshot. I saw my partners yelling, their mouths slowly opening and closing. Lazy puffs of blue-black smoke drifted upward from their gun barrels. I saw a dog barking to my right—its head rose and fell with each silent yap, moving slower than dial-up internet. Droplets of spittle hung in the air around its face.

I turned back to the robber, thinking “center mass,” and took aim, firing a single shot through the rear, side glass of the car and into the side of his head (that’s the only part of the body I could see at the time). He fell over onto his right side. I thought it was all over. Instead, the robber popped back up, smiling like a crazed zombie-like psycho. He fired four more times, pausing a few seconds between shots. This time I had a better view of him and answered each of his shots with one of my own, all directly into his chest. He fell each time a round hit, but only stayed down for a second.

car.jpg

Bullet hole in the rear glass from my shot. The large hole in the side of the car is from a slug fired from an officer’s shotgun.

After the fifth bullet hit him, he hit the ground and didn’t move.

Silence.

I called to everyone on my portable radio, letting them know it was over.

Suddenly, the robber jumped up and ran toward the officers on the hill. I ran after him. He stumbled, and I and a sheriff’s captain who’d just arrived on the scene, tackled him. We rolled the struggling robber over trying to gain control of his hands so we could apply handcuffs to his wrists. That’s when we saw that he still clutched the revolver in his right hand. He was squeezing the trigger repeatedly, but the gun was empty.

To this day, I can still hear the click, click, click of the hammer each time it fell.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered…suppose there had been one more round in that gun? Just one more round. What if…?

Yep, one more round in that revolver and I probably wouldn’t be here typing these words.

robber.jpg

Paramedics with wounded bank robber.

The bank robber died a few moments later. I’d killed him. And that’s when my troubles started. You see, our chief didn’t believe in counseling and de-briefing. No post-shooting administrative leave. So I was left to fend for myself. Tough cops were supposed to handle whatever came their way. My chief actually told me that a real cop would just suck it up. In fact, his way to help me avoid “mental issues” as he called it, was to send me to the morgue to photograph the robber’s body and to remove the handcuffs from his wrists. I wasn’t even given the rest of the day off.

The robber died that August morning, and his soul left for wherever it is that troubled souls go. But a part of my emotions were tethered to him, and it was several years before they returned.

A couple of weeks after the shooting, my partner and I met with the medical examiner (this was the same medical examiner’s office where Patricia Cornwell based her Kay Scarpetta series). Even though I watched each of my bullets travel through the air until they hit the robber’s flesh (those who shoot a lot sometimes have this ability), it still hit like a ton of bricks when she told me that all five of the rounds that hit the man’s body were indeed fired by me.

The famous pathologist spared no details when she described the damage caused by each bullet, telling me which rounds inflicted the life-stopping wounds. Actually, either of the last four rounds I’d fired would have killed him. The first…the round that entered the side of the robber’s head and exited near the jawline, well, surprisingly, that one wasn’t fatal. Sure, it made two nice little holes and knocked out a few teeth and ripped through tongue and other meat and tissue, but he’d have lived if only he hadn’t continued to shoot at us.

All he had to do was stay down. Toss the gun away. Give up. Just STOP SHOOTING and he would’ve lived. I would not have been forced to squeeze my trigger those last four times.

Yes, I recall firing each of the five rounds. Still can, just like it was yesterday. I smell the smells. Hear the sounds. Feel the heat. It’s with me every day of my life.

In the beginning, the dead guy only visited me during my sleep. Soon, he grew restless and figured if he couldn’t sleep, then neither would I. He visited me while I was at work. And he showed up during my off time. He walked with me while I mowed the grass, and he accompanied me to the store. His voice taunted me. His spirit tickled the hairs on the back of my neck just to let me know he was in the backseat as I drove my unmarked police car.

This was no downward spiral. No time for something that easy. This was a freefall straight to hell. Fortunately, just before I hit bottom I sought help on my own. And it took a few years to climb and crawl out of that dark pit, but I made it back and I actually think I’m a stronger person because of the experience. If nothing else, I have a real-life horror story to share.

Sixty-eight rounds of ammunition were fired during this shootout. The robber was hit five times, all five rounds were fired by me.  One police car was destroyed by gunfire. No police officers were injured by gunfire. However, soon after that day, one officer suffered a heart attack and died. He was 44. Two officers quit. Another died before he turned 55. An officer that showed up during the firefight died a few years later. None of us had received any de-briefing or counseling. None of us are in police work today.

Five more victims. Three dead. Three to go…

me-at-car.jpg

Police car destroyed by gunfire. That’s me with the cop/porn-star mustache. This photo was taken by a newspaper photographer just minutes after the robber succumbed to his wounds.

*This is a repeat post, but I’m currently traveling with no time spare time to write. I will, however, be checking in throughout the day. I’ll be back on Wednesday.

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Hurry! Registration for the 2012 WPA will soon be closing.

Writers’ Police Academy

PostHeaderIcon Footwear Evidence & Theft Detection: Leaving A Lasting Impression

Footwear Evidence & Theft Detection

Final Day of Sirchie Evidence Collection Training Classes – by Patti Phillips

Criminals rob, murder, rape or otherwise inflict bodily harm upon their victims. Physical evidence at a crime scene is an essential part of figuring out what happened. It is up to the police officers, investigators, and examiners to recognize what is and is not part of the evidence and then interpret the importance of each fiber, fingerprint, bloodstain, and other material in order to secure a conviction of the correct individual.

One of the most overlooked pieces of evidence at a crime scene is created by footwear.

If a window breaks as a thief enters the premises during the commission of a burglary, the glass will fall into the house, and onto the floor or rug below the window. When the thief steps through the window, unless the thief has wings, he/she will probably plant a foot right in the middle of the glass. And walk through the house, most likely tracking minute pieces of that glass. That glass may also become embedded in the grooves of the sole of the shoe, creating a distinctive footprint.

If the investigating officer can place a suspect at the scene with the footprint, then there is probable cause to fingerprint that suspect and hopefully establish a link to the crime.

A new method of eliminating suspects right at the scene involves stepping into a tray that contains a pad impregnated with a harmless clear ink that doesn’t stain, then stepping onto a chemically treated impression card. (So safe that it’s often used on newborn babies for the hospital records) No messy cleanup, immediate results, and it can even show details of wear and tear on the shoe. This can be a way to establish a known standard (we know where this impression came from) to compare with multiple tread prints at the scene.

Footwear Clear Ink Impression

Another tool for creating a known standard is the foam impression system. It takes a bit longer, (24 hours) but clear, crisp impressions can be made, including of the pebbles and bits stuck deep into the grooves and the writing on the arch. Very helpful when trying to place suspects at the scene. A rock stuck in the sole is a random characteristic that can’t be duplicated, so becomes another point of identification.

We definitely wanted to try this method for ourselves. Each of the writers stepped into the box of stiff-ish foam – a bit like stepping into wet sand.

Using foam impression system

An impression is made instantaneously. Look at the detail – down to the wear on the heel.

Foam impression of Wolverine boot

We used pre-mixed dental stone (made with distilled water and the powder) to fill the impression.

Making the cast with pre-mixed dental stone

We waited 24 hours for them to become firm enough to pop out of the foam. We now had permanent records of the footwear treads, which could be used for comparison to other prints found at the scene. There were more than a dozen of us walking through that room every day on a regular basis and assorted other visitors tramping through the perimeter. If a crime occurred before we left for the week, we’d have a LOT of eliminating to do, but we were ready!

Footwear casts

Occasionally footprints are found on the ground outside a window or in the gardens surrounding a house after a burglary or homicide. Ever see a crime show on TV where the fictional investigator makes a snap judgment about the height and weight of the owner of the footprint because of the depth of the impression? That’s merely a plot device and is not scientific evidence in real life. A crime scene photographer or investigator can photograph the footprint (next to a measurement scale), make a take away cast, and then compare the impression with those of the suspects or other bystanders at the scene. Beware: making a cast of the print destroys the print, so a photograph must be taken before pouring that first drop of dental stone.

Footprints can be found at bloody crime scenes as well. The suspect walks through the blood, tracks it through the house, cleans it up, but the prints are still there, even though not obvious to the naked eye. As we learned during the ‘Blood and Other Bodily Fluids’ session, blood just doesn’t go away, no matter how hard you try to get rid of it. It seeps into the cracks and crevices of a floor and even behind baseboards.

A savvy investigator will collect sections of carpet (or flooring) taken from where the suspect might have walked during the commission of the crime, then conduct a presumptive test for blood (LCV – Aqueous Leuco Crystal Violet), find a usable footprint, compare it to a known standard, and then be able to place the suspect at the scene.

Footwear Print

Crooks like to think they can outsmart the cops by coming up with new ways to get rid of evidence. But law enforcement officers are getting smarter as well. Filing down the serial numbers on a gun in order to cover up its ownership? No longer works.

We thought Mr. Skiff was kidding! But, no. We were each presented with a small rectangle of polished metal. Looks totally smooth and shiny, right? We were informed that one of the Sirchie employees had used a sander and removed numbers from some, maybe all, of the metal rectangles. Hmm… Our assignment was to restore the numbers. Ha! No way there was anything on mine.

Supposedly ‘gone’ serial number

(By the way, if this had been a gun in an actual case, first we would have photographed the area where the serial # was supposed to be, and shone a flashlight on it from several oblique angles to see if we could spot a fragment of a numeral.)

Our course of action was to:

1) polish the surface with sandpaper – very fine, 220 grade sandpaper. We were warned not to create heat, but to keep polishing until we had a mirror surface, about two minutes at a time.

2) wipe off the surface with clean cotton balls

3) apply cleaning solution

4) use a bulb pipette, apply 2% acetic acid solution, and flood the surface evenly.

The acid ate away at the metal, turned to light gray, bubbled, and gave off a bit of smoke. It was taking the destroyed surface and restoring it.

Acid treated metal

Once the bubbling stopped, we dumped the acid into the sink and wiped the surface dry with a clean cotton ball. It fogged and we kept rubbing hard, about 45 seconds. The next step was to run the piece of metal under the faucet and hold it an angle to see what we had.

Checking for numbers

Most of us saw something, but we couldn’t really tell what the writing said. We started the process again, beginning with the sanding at step #1. After another run through all the steps, three numerals appeared on mine.

584 pops out after only two attempts at restoration

Success! Followed by the application of an acid neutralizer to set the numerals. I just checked and almost two weeks after the class ended, the numerals have not faded.

If this were an actual case, we would photograph the numerals we were able to restore, call the gun manufacturer and ask for a match in their database. All legitimate gun manufacturers employ liaisons to work with law enforcement officers. Good news? – it is also possible to restore numbers on plastic, copper, and aluminum. And, if there were 20-30 numerals to be restored, and only half appeared, it’s possible to cover the recovered numerals with duct tape, then reprocess the missing ones.

Presumptive drug tests for narcotics can be conducted right at the scene.

The kits each include three ampules. A very small amount of the substance in question is added to the open bag and then the ampules are broken one at a time. After each ampule breaks, the test liquid mixes with the substance and will change to the correct color if the test is positive. Every once in a while, we see drug dealers on TV or in the movies dip a finger into a kilo of cocaine, taste it, then declare that it’s ‘good stuff.’ Not true in real life, and certainly a police officer could not do that at a drug bust. These tests are fast and accurate.

Presumptive drug test results

Theft detection comes into play during bank robberies and kidnappings. If officials know ahead of time that a bank is about to be robbed, or if kidnappers have asked for a money drop, but the identity of the suspect is unknown…what to do? Microwave the money to take out the moisture, then dust it with purple Stain Detection Powder. When the suspect picks up the cash, his hands will get the pesky purple powder all over them.

Visible Stain Detection Powder

The stuff is annoying and spreads easily onto clothes – messy, messy. So, if the suspect acts like any other average person on the planet, he/she will try to wash it off. But, that only makes the hands turn a bright shade of purple. This stuff does not wash off, no matter how many times you scrub. We watched Mr. Skiff continue to work on that purple stain for the rest of the day. I hope he didn’t have dinner plans out in a public place.

Visible Stain Detection Powder exposed to moisture

There are both visible and invisible fluorescent Stain Detection products (powders, pastes, crayons, ink markers, etc.) and they are used for both tagging and tracing. Some of the crimes most likely to be solved using them? Petty theft, money laundering, illegal drug sales, illegal firearm deals, industrial espionage, arson, and loads more. Stain Detection stamps have been used for years to track people coming and going at large entertainment venues. Cheap and easy way to tell if someone has paid for the entry ticket.

A few words about crime scene photography:

I’ve mentioned several times that photography plays an important role in recording evidence at the scene. We see crime scene photographers working the scenes on the major forensic crime shows on TV and in the movies all the time. Not just anyone with a cool new camera can photograph a crime scene, however. Aside from the ‘strong stomach’ factor, the photographer must have an expert level of knowledge about f-stops, raw vs jpeg images, and the list goes on. PLUS, you can’t delete the images you don’t like, even if fuzzy or off-kilter. Digital camera images are sequentially numbered and if the remaining photographs are entered into evidence in a court case, the attorneys will want to know what was on the missing images. Case gets thrown out of court because of your pride? Hmm…

The fabulous week came to a close with a graduation ceremony. Since we were not actually going to work in law enforcement – just write about it – we didn’t have to take the exam that usually closes the week of training. Whew!

Robert Skiff, Patti Phillips

Grads at other institutions receive flowers on graduation day. Not our group.

Our goodies? T-shirts, cozies, pens, and….

For a crime fiction writer, perfect!

I can’t say enough great things about Robert Skiff, the Sirchie Training Manager/Technical Training Specialist who conducted the class with his assistant, Chrissy Hunter, all week. He fielded our many (sometimes wild) questions with solid expertise as we attempted to find the perfect scenarios for our fictional crime-fighters and criminals.

Thanks as well to Lee Lofland and Writers’ Police Academy for making it all possible. Amazing experience!

Patti Phillips is a mystery writer/photographer/reviewer whose best investigative days are spent writing, cooking, traveling for research, and playing golf. Her time on the golf course was murderously valuable while creating the perfect alibi for the chief villain in Patti’s novel, “One Sweet Motion.” Did you know that there are spots on the golf course that can’t be accessed by listening devices? Of course, it helps to avoid suspicion if you work on lowering your handicap while plotting the dirty deeds.

Patti Phillips writes the online detective blog, www.kerriansnotebook.com. (Detective Kerrian chats about life as a detective as well as the central case in “One Sweet Motion.”) Patti’s book reviews of mysteries and thrillers can be found on the Facebook, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble sites. Her own review site, ‘Nightstand Book Reviews’ is coming soon.

Patti is a transplanted metropolitan New Yorker/north Texan, now living in the piney state of North Carolina.

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