Like all patrol officers and police detectives, I’ve seen a lot of horror. The real-life kind, though. Not the kind that sprouted from an idea that once lived in a dark, dank corner of Stephen King’s twisted mind.

Sadly, quite a bit of the terrifying gruesomeness stemmed from domestic violence, and some of the acts were far beyond the comprehension of the typical human being. The brutality discovered during many investigations were both heartbreaking and stomach-turning.

For example, one night we received a call to be on the lookout for a pickup truck with oversized tires, the kind used for off-roading. The caller said the the driver was a white male with short hair. She went on to say that he appeared to be heavily intoxicated and that had physically assaulted and abducted a white female from the parking lot of an area nightclub.

Witnesses at the scene told us that the man was known to be armed with a handgun and his truck was equipped with a gun rack mounted behind the seat and was clearly visible through the rear window. The rack contained both a rifle and shotgun. He was an avid hunter and an equally avid drinker.

Just minutes after dispatch received the initial call, they received another about the same incident. This caller, though, shed more light on the situation. The abducted woman was the girlfriend of the man who’d taken her and he’d returned home after a day of deer hunting and liquor drinking to find her gone. They surmised that he’d noticed her favorite party outfit was missing along with her “dancing shoes” and then, in a rage, set out to search for her. This would not be the first time this had happened.

A few miles from their home, the angry drunk, with a pistol tucked into the waistband of his faded Levi’s, indeed found his girlfriend on the dance floor of a local club, cheek-to-cheek and belly-to-belly with a city slicker from out of town.

After promptly decking the rosy-cheeked man who wore a crisp button-up shirt, creased khaki pants, and brown leather shoes, the boyfriend pulled the woman from the parquet floor and dragged her out into the parking lot where he punched her a few times before ripping her polkadot mini dress from her body. She’d worn nothing but her birthday suit beneath.

He pulled her across the rocky lot and then shoved her inside the cab of his truck. Witnesses said he’d caught her long blonde hair in the door when he slammed it shut and, as he tore from the parking lot spraying cars and bystanders with stones and bits of fine gravel dust, they saw her hair fluttering and waving in the breeze.

Every cop in the area was watching for the truck. Officers checked the homes of the couple and those of their families and friends. They searched the man’s hunt club, and other night clubs in the city. They drove down dirt roads and along side roads and country roads. In the city they made passes through alleyways behind shopping centers and malls and grocery stores. Beside railroad tracks and in city parks and cemeteries.

Then we received the call we didn’t want to receive. A young couple were traveling along a country road a few miles from the city when they saw something in the road. At first they thought someone had perhaps struck a deer. Could’ve been anything, though. Maybe an old mattress, a garbage bag, or even a hippopotamus for all they knew. After all, “seeing things” was a possibility since the purpose of their super-slow drive in the countryside was to smoke weed, enjoy a bit of acid, and listen to good music.

When they drew closer they realized what they’d suspected to be a deer, or a hippo, was actually the bloody body of a nude woman. They guessed her age as somewhere around 22 or 23. She was dead, of course. Her entire body was one single hunk of road rash.

We finally located the man sitting in his truck parked at the edge of river. The place was a favorite of teens and young adults. They went there to drink, swim, smoke dope, and party. The spot was in the middle of nowhere. So far out, actually, that when you reached the middle of nowhere you took a left and traveled 10 additional miles to get to this place.

The boyfriend confessed to the abduction. He also said that he and his girlfriend had argued. He told us that he’d held a gun to her head, but it was just to scare her. He also said he’d ordered her to perform sex acts on him while he drove. When she refused he hit her repeatedly with the barrel of the pistol. Then, suddenly, she managed to open the truck door and jumped out. At the time he guessed that he’d been driving at a speed of approximately 70-80.

The man said he saw her body, in his side mirror, as she tumbled along the pavement. He stopped and backed up to check on her, but decided not to get out of the truck, thinking there was nothing he could do for at that point. So he left her there, like a chunk of roadkill.

I’d previously arrested this same man for domestic violence—threatening his family with a shotgun and later pointing that same firearm at me. The woman, his wife at the time, was not the blonde who’d leapt to her death from his truck. This was a different woman—his former wife—who he’d beaten more times than I can remember. And each time, she took him back and refused to testify against him in court. It was only after he’d fired the shotgun in the direction of their children that she’d decided she’d had enough and left him for good. Still, the judge merely ordered a fine, no jail time, and he was back at it again with other women. I guess shooting up his house and threatening people with a loaded firearm, and pointing that loaded firearm at police officers, well, I guess that was simply not a big deal to the judge.

This last time, though, he was charged with manslaughter for the death of his girlfriend.

Finally, the man would get what he deserved; however, the judge, the same as before, found the man guilty as charged but let him go with time served. He’d been in jail for only a few months prior to his release.

 

Working the graveyard shift on weekend nights comes with a special worry … closing time of local bars. Before streets and highways become obstacle courses for pin-balling drunk drivers, comes last calls and the traditional bar fights. And, with those last calls for alcohol and final, desperate pitches for late night encounters, some inebriated patrons find themselves involved in physical altercations.

Sometimes barroom brawls are nothing more than shouting and shoving matches; however, there are times when the action involves weapons and bloodshed and even murder.

Club brawls are a unique breed of fighting. They’re where typically everyday people who, with the irresistible goading of alcoholic beverages, are suddenly transformed from the meek and mild of fuzzy kittens to someone who believes they’re ten-feet tall and bulletproof. And why wouldn’t they feel so invincible? After all, they’ve spent several hours chugging drink concoctions with names such as Cobra’s Fang, Mind Eraser, Corpse Reviver, and Death in the Afternoon.

The transformation from quiet librarian or gentle mystery writer to a beast who eats rusty nails for breakfast”is a slow one. Their speech grows louder and their eyes wilder and wilder as time and drinks pass. Tongues grow thick and nerve grows bold.

Vision becomes blurry. Rooms spin and sometimes the transformers even see things that aren’t there.

Live bands and DJs add to the frenzy by playing music that turns even the tamest hearts into pulsating and throbbing, blood-pumping workhorses.

The combination of noise, music, alcohol, drugs, flashing and blinking and whirling lights, and people frantically dancing like a gathering of rabid Tasmanian devils, stimulates emotions and hormones to chart-topping levels far beyond the tolerance level of the average man or woman.

Bar fights are caused by, well, anything and everything, or nothing at all. When inside a drinking establishment, people don’t need a justifiable reason to punch another person. This, my friends, is an unwritten rule. People feel free to punch, bite, scratch, kick, or whatever, as long as they do so within the four walls of a club that serves “adult” beverages. At least that’s the belief of bar-goers who take offense to whatever they deem is the offense du jour.

Bo Bo Juice

Could be that they, the bar fighters, don’t like the way you belt out the chorus to Peter Framptom’s “Show Me The Way.” You know, instead of “I want you, to show me the way,” you’ve always, for your entire life, thought Frampton was singing, “Bo Bo Juice, show me the way.” Or they don’t like the way you left eye wanders toward their significant other while the other attempts to focus on the mole in the center of their forehead. Whatever.

(80s rocker Greg Kihn once told me that, for years, he thought Frampton was saying, “Bo Bo Juice, show me the way.” True story.).

Anyway, to get to the point of this tale, nightclub fights often involve multiple people and such was the case one particularly warm Friday night (early Saturday morning) at 2 a.m.

Fight in Progress!

My partner and I were wrapping up a drug deal, a buy-bust, in a pretty bad section of town when we heard the call come in over the radio.  “10-10 in progress. Billy Bad Ass’s Bar and Grill (name changed to protect the guilty). Weapons involved. Shots fired.”

Buy-Bust – a police sting-type operation where undercover officers purchase drugs from individuals and then arrest the dealers once they’ve handed over the drugs.

By the way, in our area 10-10 was a fight. In the neighboring locale 10-10 was code for “negative.” This is why agencies shy away from 10 codes.

Imagine the confusion if you were on the other end of a radio when you heard someone say, “10-10. 10-4?” Now, in plain speak, to his coworkers this officer stated, in 10-code, “There’s a fight in progress. Do you copy/yes, you understand my message, right?” However, you being an officer from an agency whose 10-code is entirely different, heard, “Negative/No. Yes.” Therefore, your hope for backup to respond would go unanswered.

I know, I’m rambling and I’m all over the place, but I see things in the telling of this event that could add tidbits to your fiction, such as the term “buy-bust, so I stop to emphasize and explain.

Okay, back to the fight. My partner and I were pretty close to the scene so we activated our emergency equipment (that’s cop speak for we turned on our blue lights and siren) and headed to the bar. When I turned the final corner and the bar came into view, I saw several small fights—two to four people here and there, and one large fight—at least thirty people in a big pile—and all were in full slug fest mode.

I pulled my unmarked car into the middle of the lot and gave a couple blasts of the siren. The piercing and unmistakable sound normally clears out a few people, especially those who are holding contraband, such as dope and illegal weapons. It also sends the probation and parole violators running like scared rabbits. In their wake are the people with outstanding warrants. Siren blasts are an easy and effective way to cull the herd.

We parked near the largest pile of fighters who looked like an army of ants, all squirming to get inside their hill at once. We tried to pull off the outside layer but didn’t have much luck because new people dove onto the pile every few seconds. So, we began to spray the entire pile with pepper spray. In fact, we let loose like we were spraying a large infestation of insects.

A nice side-to-side motion of the canisters worked well because the mound of people slowly began to dissipate. Lots of moaning and groaning, tears, and mucus. Remember, before you say our actions were overkill, there were only two of us and 30-40 of them. We had to even the odds.

When that group finally had enough we turned our attention to a smaller, but more dangerous fight that had erupted to our right, near the front door of the club. An older, biker-looking guy was waving a knife of sword-like proportion at two younger men.

My partner and I gave our cans of pepper spray a couple of good shakes to make sure all the good stuff hadn’t settled to the bottom, and headed toward biker dude.

We’d worked together for so long that our arrest techniques came naturally. I went for the knife hand (I’m still not sure how I always got stuck with this duty), and he went for the other. I quickly disarmed the guy and took control of the knife, but he was a little stronger than we’d bargained for. Actually, he was a lot stronger than we’d bargained for because, as they say, it was on! We had a real struggle on our hands. Getting cuffs on that clown was really tough.

Fortunately, like the finely-tuned arrest team that we were, we each went for our pepper spray. Unfortunately, the biker dude saw it coming and ducked. Yep, we sprayed each other squarely in the face. Now, I don’t know how many of you have ever been pepper-sprayed, but let me be the first to say it ain’t pretty.

Neither of us could see, so we just held on to our guy and slowly slid to the ground, maintaining our grip on biker-dude, and waited for backup to arrive. Of course our fellow officers gave us a really hard time. I don’t think I’ll ever live that one down.

By the way, the effects of pepper spray stop immediately if you dunk the affected body part in ice water. However, once the ice water is removed the burning starts all over again.

Lee Lofland

Help, my name is Lee. I’ve been pepper-sprayed. 

I think I’ll stick to writing. It’s much safer …

 

 

Age Prediction based on bodily fluids

Lucky Thomas got himself nabbed by a day-shift flatfoot after his latest job, a quick little “in-and-out” B&E of Linda’s Ammo Depot.

The eager copper spied Lucky climbing out of Linda’s office window with a bag of “goodies” in hand. The beat cop yelled, “Stop!” but the word merely shifted Lucky’s feet into high gear, setting the stage for an early morning foot pursuit.

rocky the raccoon

The officer, with keys jingling and jangling and holster slapping and popping against his outer thigh, chased the career bandit down Pleasant Street, two blocks on Happy Lane and then eight blocks up Freedom Way before Lucky ducked into the alley between Ida Sue’s Thrift Store and Rosco’s Rib Shack.

Lucky, a former track star at the local high school, probably would have lost the chubby cop had he not slipped on a pile of yesterday’s slick-as-eel-snot collard greens and greasy ham hocks that Rosco’d left out for the pair of hungry raccoons—Rocky and Roxie—that pay nightly visits to the Shack’s overflowing maggot-laden dumpsters.

An exhausted and nervous Lucky barely had time to catch his breath when he felt the steel cuffs clamping around his wrists. The sound of the jaws ratcheting closed was all Lucky needed to hear to know that he’d been arrested, again.

But is it always that clear to people? Does an arrest always end in handcuffs?

Well …

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Lucky’s lawyer, I.M. Shady, a shyster of less-than-stellar reputation among his peers, who needs not open a door to enter a room (he slithers beneath them), argued that the officer lacked probable cause to arrest his client. However, Circuit Judge Hugh Didit, quickly delivered a guilty verdict and sentenced Lucky to twelve months in the county jail.

Judge Didit, citing the officer’s perfect eyesight and that those two perfect-peepers saw Lucky climbing out of the window holding a bag of stolen goods was all the probable cause needed. “Guilty!” said the judge, in that distinct booming voice that had been known to rattle the feet and ankles of the clerks working on the floor above the courtroom. “Take him directly to jail, and do not pass … well, you know the drill. Get him outta here. Next case! Oh, and counselor, I suggest you study the meaning of probable cause before coming back in my court.”

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Sitting in his cell at Sheriff P.U. Stink’s lockup, Lucky often wondered if things would’ve turned out differently had he ducked inside the restaurant or the thrift store. Could the officer have followed him inside without a warrant?

One of the jailhouse lawyers, a long-timer who charges a pair of tennis shoes, two pieces of cake, and a month of cell cleanings to write a Writ of Habeus Corpus, explained the law to Lucky, saying that, sure, during a foot pursuit if the officer sees the bad guy run inside a building she can indeed rush in after him. However …

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During the discussion of “what’s legal and what’s not” it didn’t take long before a crowd of inmates stopped by to listen to the jailhouse lawyer explain the various laws and scenarios. So, enjoying the attention, the self-taught legal eagle further explained why pat-downs (frisking) are legal. He said …

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In fact, the faux attorney even cited the case where it all started, Terry v. Ohio.

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Lucky, after the lecture was over, climbed onto his bunk and stared at the ceiling, wondering what some guy in Ohio had to do with his getting caught two states away. He also decided that he’d never again eat a meal of ham hocks and collard greens.

Investigating a murder can be, and often is, a methodical and meticulous slow-grind of information gathering. It’s knocking on many doors, speaking with countless numbers of people, digging in the dirt and leaves and mud, pawing through mounds of garbage, searching through closets and hampers filled with grimy and disgusting clothing. It’s collecting solid bedding and mattresses, stained underwear, and body fluids. It’s hours and days and months and years of clue-chasing rollercoasters that seem to go round and round and round and up and down and back again. All to catch a person who ended the life of another human.

In the end, it’s extremely satisfying to ratchet cuffs around the wrists of a suspect who used a weapon of some type to kill. All that hard work coming to a close leaves an investigator with a combined sense of relief, success, and satisfaction that they’ve help bring a small bit of closure for surviving family members.

Sometimes, even though mountains of potential evidence piles up during an investigation, it’s the tiniest bit—a trace—such as a carpet fiber, that serves as the cornerstone of a case. And such was the key element that helped Delaware investigators nab a serial killer known as The Corridor Killer.

A dark and story night

As it’s been said to not be said, it was a dark and story night on November 29, 1987, when 23-year-old ex-prostitute Shirley Ellis hoped to to catch a ride into Wilmington by hitchhiking along Route 40 near Bear, Delaware. She was on her way to deliver a Thanksgiving dinner for an AIDS patient who was undergoing treatment at Wilmington Hospital.

At approximately 9:25 p.m. that evening, a teenage couple pulled into a popular make-out spot to do the things teenagers do in those types of secluded locations. It was then that they discovered Ellis’ partially clothed body. Her legs were spread apart and autopsy later revealed evidence of torture and mutilation—she’d been bound at the feet and the ankles and scraps of black duct tape were still attached to strands of her hair. It was likely that the tape had been used to prevent her from screaming. She had not been sexually assaulted.

Seven months later, on June 28, 1988, Catherine DiMauro, a 31-year-old woman with a history of prostitution arrests, was walking along Route 40, near Bear, around 11:30 p.m. It’s not known if she was soliciting customers or simply using the route to go from point A to point B. But it was that night when she accepted a ride from a man driving a blue van. Her nude body was discovered by workers building a nearby apartment complex. Her wrists and ankles were bound and, like Ellis, duct tape had been used to silence her. And again, like Ellis, there was no indication of sexual assault.

This time, though, a vast amount of blue carpet fibers were found on DiMauro’s body. Finally police had a clue. A minor clue. But a clue. And the police were all over it. They assembled a 60 member task force with access to airplanes, helicopters, rental vehicles, and an unlimited budget. No stone or fiber was to be left unturned or untested.

The task force consulted with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, and they concluded that these acts were the acts of a serial killer.

The team decided to send out undercover female police officers dressed as prostitutes to walk the stretch of Route 40 where the killer had picked up the victims. They flirted with the men who stopped, and there were several, but they never got into a vehicle. In the meantime testing was underway to identify the blue fibers found on DiMauro’s body. Without fibers to use for comparison, however, these blue pieces of evidence would remain on hold.

On Aug. 22, a prostitute named Margaret Lynn Finner went missing. She was working the streets along U.S. 13, near the stretch of Route 40 connected to the crimes of the serial killer. Finner was last seen climbing into a blue Ford panel van with round headlights. The van was driven by a white male.

Roughly three months later, Finner was found dead near the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Due to the advanced stage of decomposition a cause of death couldn’t be determined. No clues were found and no one was charged for death.

Undercover Ops Begin

On Sept. 14, 1988, a 23-year-old New Castle County, Delaware undercover officer dressed as a prostitute headed out to walk the Route 40 corridor, hoping to snare the killer. It wasn’t long before a line of 5 or 6 vehicles lined up on the side of the road. The drivers of those vehicles included doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, and they all wanted to talk to “the prostitute.”

But the vehicle that caught the undercover officer’s attention was a blue Ford panel van with round headlights that drove past. Her cops’ alarm bells sounded loudly inside her head when the van stopped a little farther down the road and turned around to make another pass. The driver of the van repeated the action, driving past and then U-turning, seven times within a twenty-minute period.

The officer walked to a more secluded area, hoping to tease the driver into stopping. Finally the van pulled over and a white male opened the side panel. The officer immediately saw blue carpeting covering the van’s interior. She later said the man was different than any other person who stopped for her. His demeanor was cold and he was difficult to engage in conversation. He seemed to stare through her.

The Blue Fibers

While talking to the man, the undercover officer used the time and distraction to rub her hand on the carpeting, pulling out a few blue fibers for testing. The driver, though, demanded that she get in the van, but she refused, saying that she tired from partying and needed to sleep. The man gave up and drove away. A task force member in the area recorded and ran the plate numbers on the van. It was registered to Steven Brian Pennell, a Delaware electrician. His record showed no arrests.

Police sent the blue fibers were sent to a lab for testing. In the meantime, on September 16, Michelle Gordon, a 22-year-old known prostitute was seen on Route 40 climbing into the passenger side of a blue Ford panel van. But there was a witness and she knew both Gordan and Pennell, and she recognized Pennell’s van

This time, however, police caught a major break. The lone witness to the abduction knew both Gordon and Pennell, and she immediately identified the vehicle. Sadly, Gordon’s body was found four days later when it washed up on the banks of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal on Sept. 20. Gordon died while being tortured.

Three days later, 26-year-old Kathleen Meyer was last seen alive hitchhiking along Route 40 around 9:30 p.m. This time the witness was an off-duty police officer who saw Meyer accepting a ride from a man driving a blue Ford van. The officer ran the plates and learned the vehicle was registered to Pennell. Meyer’s body was never found.

After having to wait for evidence (carpet fibers) to be processed and Delaware Attorney General Charles Oberly to approve a search warrant for Pennell’s van, police took matters into their own hands and pulled Pennell’s van over for a routine traffic violation. This allowed them to take Pennell into court to pay his ticket.

Icing on the Investigatory Cake

In the meantime, officers searched the van and immediately discovered carpet fibers that matched those on the victims. They also found hair and blood and even the same brand of duct tape used to silence DiMauro. The icing on the investigatory cake was Pennell’s gruesome “torture kit”—pliers, needles, a whip, handcuffs, knives and various types of restraints.

Police had their suspect.

Pennell opted to remain silent and did not offer a statement.

The blue carpet fibers were indeed the cornerstone of the entire case against Pennell. Without them, the state’s case could not have moved forward because any other actions and evidence would have been ruled as fruit of the poisonous tree.

So, of course the defense attorney attacked the fibers, stating the officer did not have a legal right to remove those fibers from the van without a search warrant. However, Superior Court Judge Richard Gebelein denied the defense claims and ruled that the carpet was in plain view once Pennell opened the door to invite the undercover officer inside the van.

Justice Arrives

On November 23, 1989—Thanksgiving Day—as a massive snowstorm blanketed the area, Pennell was convicted of murdering Ellis and DiMauro. The jury, however, deadlocked on the Gordon case. They also deadlocked on the death penalty.

In 1990, Pennell was sentenced to two life terms in 1990 and, as a result, Pennell filed appeals, alleging that the fiber seizure was unconstitutional. During this time, police continued their investigations and, based on new evidence, Pennell was indicted for the murders of Meyer and Gordon. Pennell asked the court if he could be allowed to represent himself for the new charges. The court granted the motion.

Pennell then did the nearly unthinkable. Even though he did not offer a confession, he pled no contest to both murders and asked the Superior Court to impose a sentence of death.

At a hearing to determine if Pennell’s life should be spared, Pennell offered a bizarre argument for his own death –  “‘The law was developed from one book, and it’s that book I quote from,” he said. “‘In Numbers, chapter 35, verse 30, ‘Whoever kills a person, the person shall be put to death.’ “‘Also, in Genesis, chapter 9, verse 6, ‘Whoever sheds man’s blood by man, his blood shall be shed.'”

“This court has found me guilty on the testimony of witnesses. So I ask that the sentence be death as said by the state’s laws and God’s laws. That’s all I have to say.”

Perhaps it was both fitting and somewhat spooky that, on Halloween day in 1991, Pennell was sentenced to death. As part of Delaware’s mandatory death penalty appeal process, Pennell appeared before the to the state Supreme Court court on Feb. 11, 1992, where he again asked for his own execution. He remains the only person to represent himself before the state Supreme Court, and the only one, of course, to ask for death.

During the entire case, Pennell always referred to himself in the third person. Never in first person.  During the appeal, Pennell said to the court, “The perpetrator must have sensed a pleasure in the killings. Since he did not commit just one, but continued in the same depraved manner on the others, this pleasure is evident.”

On March 14, 1992, Steven Brian Pennell was the first man executed in Delaware in 46 years.

Pennell died by lethal injection, and as a result of a savvy undercover police officer who thought to grab a couple of tiny blue carpet fibers.

 

It’s often the tiniest of details that’ll pique a reader’s interest in your work. Those elements, by design, just might make a lasting fan out of someone who recognizes that you’ve done your homework, and that you know how to subtly weave fact into fiction.

Like a well-rehearsed performance of Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II by The Philadelphia Orchestra, where we as concert-goers don’t see all the behind the scenes practice time that goes into scores such as The Rabbit of Seville, and Rhapsody Rabbit, a seasoned cop’s daily motions come with ease, as should the scenes you create where officers make arrests and carry out other duties that come with the job.

Cops perform certain tactics and techniques on a regular basis—handcuffing, using the car radio, pat-down searches, etc. They do these things so often that they could almost perform them in their sleep.

They rehearse tactics and techniques at the academy through role-playing. They practice what they’re taught, in their minds. They run through scenarios in their thoughts. All of this to prepare them for the big show—the encounter with that person or people who violently resist arrest, or those who simply want to hurt or kill a police officer.

That sense of “comes naturally” is the feel that fictional characters should exhibit on the page.

Detail, detail, detail

Living, breathing, pulse-pounding detail hooks the reader by thumping their hearts and increasing their respirations. Details that cause them to grip the book a bit tighter when the danger level is high and then reduces the tension when it’s done. It’s a rollercoaster ride that hinges on a writer’s ability to conduct a harmonious symphony of words, from the first moment through the last.

So, just as conductor George Daugherty and The Philadelphia Orchestra leads the audience on a speculator journey with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Pepe Le Pew, Tweety, Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote, and the Road Runner, writers should compose their stories in a manner that leads the reader on an eye-popping emotional journey, a trip they want to take and won’t soon forget.

Readers want writers to stimulate their senses. They want and need to know your characters on a personal level. And you definitely want readers to step into and immerse themselves into your carefully crafted stories. It’s an escape from reality that must begin with a passion to tell a tale.

 

Ask Yourself the Important Questions

So, in order to add those tiniest of important details needed to breathe true life into your cop characters, you should ask yourself a few basic questions, such as:

How should officers position themselves when making an arrest?

Answer– Always, always, always stand with their gun sides AWAY from the suspect. This is especially important when the subject is combative/resisting.

Which areas of an arrested subject should an officer search for weapons? Is there a standard procedure?

Answer – Start with the most obvious locations first—the waistband, of course, and this is especially so when dealing with male subjects. The waistband seems to be their go-to area of choice when concealing a weapon.

Each officer should establish a routine as to how they conduct searches of a person. By doing so the chance of missing an area is greatly decreased.

For example, after searching the waist and leg areas (boot knives and holsters are good hiding spots for weapons such as small guns and edged weapons).

For example, after first handcuffing the subject and then checking those main spots—the waist and leg areas (for guns and edged weapons), I moved to the top where I began the overall secondary, intensive search, starting beneath hats and working my way down until I reached the ground, leaving no area untouched, and that includes a firm hand in the groin area. This, believe me, is not the time to be shy. I’ve found more than one handgun and or/drugs hidden inside pants and underwear.

No item should be left in pockets and no portion of the body or clothing should be left untouched!

Another point to note is that when officers hand over a suspect to another officer, the second/receiving officer should conduct another detailed search of the suspect. I know, it seems redundant, but it’s not worth risking your life by depending upon the potential sloppy search, or no search, by another human. Anyone, even the best of the best humans could make a mistake.

What are some of the danger signs officers look for when making arrests, or when simply speaking with suspects and some witnesses?

Answer – There are many, so I’ll mention only a few of the basics, such as:

A person wearing a coat during the summertime. This could indicate the subject is armed and is using the outer garnet to conceal the weapon. The same is true when a person touches an area on their waistband or moves a hand toward the area, or that a shirttail is untucked on one side. Or even when a person’s clothing “appears” a bit heavier on one side. Sometimes, the shape of a gun’s grips/an outline is noticeable  beneath the material.

Pockets that appear heavier than normal. Sagging due to a heavy object inside could indicate the presence of a weapon. Keep in mind that even heavy objects such as rocks and bottles can and are used as instruments of death. Yes, a rock can kill, and has, when used with enough force.

Many, if not most of the “killed in the line of duty” deaths occur during an officer’s initial approach to a subject. This is why it is imperative that the officer quickly, almost within the blink of an eye, size up the person and then formulate a plan. Remember, no two situations are perfectly identical nor are two people the same in every way. So quick thinking and a plan are necessary.

It’s a given that it’s rude to not look someone in the eye when speaking to them. But eyes cannot hurt us. Therefore, officers should always, always, always watch the hands of a suspect/subject. Next, watch the feet. They, too, can be used as powerful weapons.

Still, a suspect’s eye movements often telegraph their next move, such as constantly glancing toward an officer’s sidearm may indicate the person could be planning an attempt to grab the gun. Or, they could searching for an avenue of escape or that a partner is sneaking up behind the officer’s back.

The combination of potential hazards explains the need for officers to forever scan their surroundings, Ambush attacks are common, and they’re deadly.

Officers should have a backup plan in case Plan A fails. And never hesitate to retreat if a situation becomes unmanageable and/or unsafe.

When in doubt call for backup!

How important is firearm maintenance?

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – Coast Guard Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Cameron Hutchens of Maritime Safety and Security Team (MSST) 91103, deployed to Joint Task Force Guantanamo, cleans an M-9 pistol.

Answer – Officers should maintain their weapons in excellent, tip-top condition. They should make certain that all firearms are clean, oiled, and operate properly. And they should practice their shooting skills on a regular basis. Shooting practice should include scenario-based training, not simply going to the range and popping 60 holes in a stationary paper target once each year during the required annual qualifying session. After all, how many times have you heard of an officer being killed by a non-moving sheet of paper?

The same is true of vehicles and other emergency tools and equipment. Maintenance and practice, practice, practice driving skills, as well as other tactics, such as building entries, etc. PRACTICE!!

What are some things that officers overlook when making an arrest?

Answer – Officers sometime become complacent. It’s easy to do when doing the same thing day after day after day. Unfortunately, when an officer is careless and, say, skips searching the crotch area of an arrested subject because he was too embarrassed to put a hand “there,” well, it could be the last mistake he’ll ever make when the guy reaches into his pants to retrieve a hidden .380.

Working Overtime and Second and Even Third Jobs

This isn’t so much “overlooking something” as it is being careless, but many officers often tend to work while excessively sleepy and/or tired. Their pay level is sometimes not so desirable so they work a lot of voluntary overtime to help make ends meet. Some even work second or third jobs.

When I worked at a sheriff’s office, I worked extra jobs. When I signed off after working night shifts I immediately drove to a motel where I worked another shift there performing maintenance work—repairing leaky pipes, painting, drywall, electrical work, etc.  I’d studied and took the test to become a licensed electrician. I also took care of all lawn maintenance and gardening. I did the same at a local college. And, I taught beginning, intermediate, and advance guitar lessons at the college.

Sometimes, on our days off, three of us deputies took on roofing jobs. We’d remove shingles and old paper on one day and haul them to the landfill after we’d finished (sometimes it was after dark when we were done). We’d then install new paper and shingles on the second day. It was exhausting and hot work. Making it even more tiring was that many times we were scheduled to work night shift after the second day of roofing work, or the night before the job was to begin.

I maintained this schedule for a few years, all while as a single dad. Yet, I made time to attend my daughter’s school functions and sports activities. She was a star softball player who was, during her high school years, recruited by the U.S. army to play ball for them. I can’t remember ever missing a home game, even if it meant attending in uniform with my ear glued to my radio.

I did the same (attend school function and games, etc.) when I left the sheriff’s office to work for a city police department. As a police detective, I attended many games with a gun and badge strapped to my belt with my unmarked car parked near enough that I could easily sprint to it, if necessary. I’ve left more than one game with blue lights winking and blinking and flashing.

Working a job where your life could be threatened at any time requires a person to be on top of his/her game. Working long, stressful hours with little sleep is not an idea scenario.

Everything, Anyone, and Anything Could be Hazardous!

Overlooking the obvious is something that happens a lot. Just as I suggest to you that writing important details are, well, important, officers must take that to another level. For them, everything and everyone should be considered a danger until it’s proven that it’s not.

Hiding behind things such drywall and plywood works as concealment, but not as true cover. Bullets slice through both items as if they weren’t there. So find the best possible cover to protect against gunfire.

I’ve seen officers run to a man down as if the danger ceased immediately once the suspect hit the dirt. This is an extremely perilous time. Always assume the suspect is still armed and capable of shooting and killing. Approach with caution, still using cover and concealment, if possible, until you’re certain the threat has ceased to exist. Keep in mind that the downed person may still have a hidden weapon and is pretending to be incapacitated.

Officers, never let down your guard. Not ever.

Finally, here’s Bugs to wrap up the day …

 

 

Stop and Frisk has once again worked its way into the news by way of politics, with a presidential candidate apologizing for the use of the practice in a city where he once served as mayor. Those stops, he once vehemently argued, were necessary to help curtail the city’s out of control gun violence.

Since I choose to not dip my toes into political waters, opting only to present factual information, which politics are often on the opposite end of the truth meter, let’s instead examine “stop and frisk” and the Supreme Court decision that supports its use. We’ll also have a look at why, when properly utilized, its an effective tool.

What is Stop and Frisk?

Here’s how it all began, and it’s not a newfangled practice, not by any means.

In the mid 1960’s, when I was still not quite a teenager (yes, this law has been on the books for a long, long time), a Cleveland, Ohio detective named McFadden saw two men, strangers to the area, walking back and forth in front of a store. On each pass the men stopped to look into the store window. McFadden watched the men while they made a dozen or so trips past the storefront. After each trip by the business the two men met at the street corner to chat for a minute or two. Soon, a third man joined the two at the corner.

Detective McFadden, being quite the observant and proactive officer, had seen enough to send his “cop radar” into overdrive. He was certain the men were “casing” the place, waiting for just the right moment to rob the store owner. Their mannerisms, as do many telltale gestures of criminal behavior, telegraphed their intentions.

So McFadden approached the three men, identified himself as a police officer, and then asked for their names. Someone mumbled something but no names were offered. Sensing things could quickly go downhill, McFadden grabbed and spun around one of the mumblers(John W. Terry) and patted the outside of his clothing, feeling a pistol in the man’s coat pocket.

Unable to retrieve the pistol on the street while keeping an eye on all three potential robbers, the detective ordered the men inside the store where he had them face the wall with their hands in the air. McFadden retrieved the pistol from the first suspect’s coat and then patted the clothing of the the other two men. During the searches McFadden located a second pistol. As a result, the three men were detained and taken to the police station. The two men with the guns were charged with possession of a concealed weapon.

On appeal, Terry argued that the officer had violated their constitutional rights according to the 4th amendment (unlawful search and seizure). However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the officer, stating that his search was the minimum action required to see if the men were armed, a necessary tactic to safeguard his safety and the safety of others. And, that the suspects were indeed acting in a manner consistent with the probability of robbing the store owner.

Basically, the Court did not change or add laws to the books. Instead, they upheld that whenever possible and practicable, a police officer must obtain a warrant to conduct a search and seizure. However, they ruled, an exception must be made when “swift action” is required based on the observations of an officer.

Detective McFadden’s stop and frisk tactic has since been known as a Terry Stop. It’s a proactive tactic that prevents some crime before it happens, and it helps reduce the numbers of illegal weapons often carried by criminals. Without Terry Stops (Stop and Frisks), bad guys have no fear of being caught carrying a gun.

The Terry Stop According to the Supreme Court ruling Terry v. Ohio

A Terry stop is defined as a brief, temporary involuntary detention of a person suspected of being involved in criminal activity for the purpose of investigating the potential criminal violation.

In order to lawfully conduct a Terry stop, a law enforcement officer must have “reasonable suspicion,” which has been defined as “articulable facts (articulable means able to explain in words) that would lead a reasonable officer to conclude that criminal activity is afoot—more than an unsupported hunch but less than probable cause and even less than a preponderance of the evidence.

A police officer may, in appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner, approach a person for the purpose of investigating possible criminal behavior even though there is no probable cause to make an arrest.

Also known as the Common Law Right of Inquiry, this section of existing law permits an officer or agent to engage any citizen in a purely voluntary conversation (i.e. “May I speak with you a moment? Do you need any help? How long have you been here?”). In these cases, a citizen must be free to terminate the conversation at any time and go his or her way with no restrictions. This, however, is not a Terry Stop where an officer would conduct a pat-down of the person(s). Remember, this is a voluntary action on the part of the citizen. Terry Stops are not voluntary. In fact, Terry Stops are brief periods of actual detention that may include handcuffing the detained subject for the safety of the officer and others.

*The preceding three paragraphs are excerpted, with some paraphrasing, from FLETC training material. FLETC is the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers.

Based upon Terry v. Ohio, what are officers permitted to do regarding pat-down searches?

Officers may, even without sufficient cause for arrest, briefly detain someone if …

  •  the officer identifies him/herself as a police officer (either by the uniform and badge, or verbally) and asks reasonable questions regarding the suspect’s current conduct.
  • the officer has knowledge of facts that lead them to believe the suspect is involved in some sort of illegal activity.
  • the person they’ve stopped does not immediately justify his actions in a manner that satisfies the officer’s suspicions.

Officer’s may conduct a pat-down search during a Terry Stop if they have a reasonable suspicion, based on personal knowledge of facts, that the person is armed.

The Terry Stop is a Search for Weapons

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Officers may not, however, go out on “fishing expeditions” under the guise of the Terry Stop. There must be facts supporting their reasons for a “frisk.”

By the way, a pat-down search is exactly as it sounds. Officers may only “pat” the outer surfaces of clothing. They may not reach into a person’s pockets unless they feel a weapon.

There is an exception to the rule, however, and that’s when an officer who has sufficient training and first-hand knowledge of narcotics packaging, “feels” what he/she suspects is a packet of drugs.

The skilled officer, one who’s extremely familiar with narcotics and how the various ways they’re wrapped and contained, may then reach into the pocket to retrieve the packet. To do so, the officer must be able to testify under oath, and verify, that he/she has the sufficient experience and training that would give them the knowledge needed to identify narcotics packaging by feel.

An example would be an officer who worked undercover or on a narcotics task force, like me. I was deemed an expert witness by the courts and, as an expert, was often called upon to testify in various cases.

If an officer’s assignment is to patrol a high crime area of the city, then it should be no problem to spot people who’re engaging in suspicious activity—drug dealers, robbers, rapists, car thieves, etc.

Those are the people, the folks involved in some sort of criminal activity, who warrant being stopped and frisked, if they exhibit signs of criminal intent. Not mom and pop and baby brother who’re on their way to church, school, or the grocery store. And certainly it is not permissible or even ethical to stop someone for a pat-down merely because their skin is a certain color.

capture-prisoner

When used properly, Terry Stops/Stop and Frisks are a highly effective means of removing weapons and illegal narcotics from the street. When crooks know officers may approach and search they’re more apt to leave their guns at home or at least keep them hidden, out of their pockets. And, without having a firearm instantly available, the tendency to shoot first and ask questions later is greatly reduced.

Remember, Stop and Frisk/Terry Stops are still absolutely legal and constitutional, and they’re done each and every day all across the country. This, as current law states, is not debatable. Department policy, however, may differ.

In 2013, US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that New York’s stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutional “as applied.”  In her decision, she stated that New York’s stop-and-frisk strategy focused too heavily on black and Hispanic people and was applied far too often without reasonable suspicion. In other words, Judge Scheindlin believed that officers in New York often engaged in racial profiling when determining who to stop and frisk. This, of course, is not how Terry v. Ohio (Terry Stops) are to be applied. Again, no fishing expeditions allowed.
Still, Terry Stops (Stop and Frisk) are absolutely legal and I can say that without a doubt these stops are an essential part of both proactive and reactive policing, and they save lives. At the very least, the practice helps remove illegal guns from the hands of those who’re likely to injure or kill others.
For politicians to use and Terry Stops as part of a political campaign is highly inappropriate, I believe, especially when they do so without first educating the public about the true meaning of the practice. Sure, using Terry Stops to simply and indiscriminately approach every Tom, Dick, and Bubba on the street is definitely unconstitutional. But to broadly paint all Terry Stops with the same brush is wrong.

You’re the Officer

If you, as a police officer, saw an agitated, nervous and sweaty person wearing a long overcoat in the middle of July, a coat with a distinctive bulge on the right side in the shape of a shotgun, who was about to enter a school, church, Walmart, sports stadium, or other location, what would you do?
Shouldn’t you be able to act based upon the coat and the mysterious gun-shaped object beneath it, along with the person’s odd appearance and actions? Wouldn’t you want to stop that person and pat them down as a precaution? After all, your suspicions as a trained and experienced officer are reasonable, right?
Suppose you didn’t check them for weapons and they went inside and began shooting innocent people?
What if you had reasonable suspicion that a person was about to enter a school with a firearm? Would you allow them to go inside without first conducted a lawful Terry Stop/Frisk? A quick pat down to check for weapons and then send them on their way.

So why tie the hands of officers? How many victims could/would be spared the horror and trauma of violence associated with gunfire that’s intended to do harm had police been permitted to do their jobs?

suspect-handcuffed-from-rear

 

*Please do not turn this article into a political discussion. It is meant as a learning tool about Stop and Frisk. Nothing more. Again, PLEASE keep politics as far away from this site as possible. I treat it like the plague. I only mentioned the politician above because they brought this topic to the attention of the media.

Politics … BAH, HUMBUG!

Footprints in the snow

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

The familiar phrase above is actually from an ancient Greek work of Herodotus describing the Persian system of mounted postal carriers. The phrase is also inscribed on the James Farley Post Office in New York City, and is sort of the unofficial creed of letter carriers across the country.

Another group of people who closely adhere to those words are criminals. Yes, this menagerie of lawbreakers—pickpockets, robbers, rapists, murderers, and the like—pay no attention to the weather when planning and plotting their devious acts against property and their fellow humans.

And, when the criminals do their dastardly deeds, even in bad weather, law enforcement officers must do what it takes to bring the offenders to justice. Unfortunately, crime-solving often involves traipsing around the woods in the mud, snow, sleet, and freezing rain while trying to find a footprint or two.

One method of identifying and locating a bad guy is to do as they did back in the old west, and that’s to track the thugs back to their hideouts. Sure, following broken twigs and disturbed vegetation is one method. Finding and making castings of footprints and/or tire tracks in the dirt and dried mud is another.

But what about prints in the snow? After all, we know that casting materials generate heat, which causes snow to melt and deform the impressions left by footwear.

So how do investigators overcome the challenge of melting snow in and around footprints?

Well, our good friends at Sirchie have the perfect solution to the problem.

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.

Shake-N-Cast (center in photo) is a kit containing a pre-measured water pouch and dental stone.

Apply pressure to break the water pouch and then shake to mix the two ingredients. No messy containers and no casting material on a detective’s 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.

While we’re on the subject of impression evidence, the spray in the can on the left in the above photo—Dust and Dirt Hardener—is used to strengthen impression evidence (tire tracks, footwear impressions, etc.) found in loose or sandy soil.

The material keeps the soil intact under the weight of the casting material.

Finally, liquid silicone is often used for producing exact replicas of various impressions, including tire and footwear, jimmy marks, and even fingerprints.

Liquid Silicone is incredibly temperature tolerant, and can withstand cold down to -70F and heat to +500F.

Sirchie Silicone Casting Kit

The material sets within three to five minutes.

So there you go. Now your fictional CSI team need not worry about collecting evidence in the snow, or mud. Well, as long as they keep a can Sirchie’s Snow Impression Wax handy.

Like reading a really well-written novel, it’s easy to step into the fictional worlds of crime TV shows. I mean, I’m there. I can hear the sounds of the police stations. I smell the gun oil. I hear the creaking of gun leather and the jingle of keys. And I feel the sudden tightening of the suspect’s muscles when they’re about to resist arrest.

I’ve been there, so I know what it’s like. Therefore, when I switch on one of those tension-filled dramas I know there’s a chance I’m going back, even if it’s only for an hour.

After reading one or two of my blog posts, a few diehard TV fans have written me to say that I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to certain areas of police procedure, and that I could learn a thing or two about it from the writers of popular cop shows.

Yeah, I know, that’s why TV and film writers attend the Writers’ Police Academy, because they know more about cop stuff than, well, actual cops. AND, I’m sure it’s my extreme lack of cop knowledge that actors, writers, and directors sometimes call on me for advice.

Oh, and there’s THAT book … 🙂

PP&I cover

One repeated complaint that shows up when I mention the nonsense of a TV cop “racking” the slide on their pistol before entering a dangerous situation. Now, for those of you who do not know, the racking of the slide serves two purposes (three if you count TV writers thinking it looks cool).

One – when a shooter racks the slide the action ejects the round that’s in the chamber, leaving the gun short of one very important bullet. And, that foolishly ejected live round is sent to the pavement where it becomes as useless as a wad of gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. Since we never see a round eject when TV cops rack a slide, well, then it’s safe to assume there was not a round in the chamber. More on this in a second.

Two – racking the slide delivers a round from the magazine to the chamber. Until a bullet is seated in the chamber a pistol will not fire. And why won’t it fire? Because there’s no bullet in the chamber. Duh!

Revolvers, however are a different story. To learn more about the differences between semi-automatic pistols and revolvers and the workings and parts of each, go here.

That’s right, without a bullet ready to fire (in the chamber) the weapon is practically useless. Unless, of course, you want to use it to whack someone on the head, or as a doorstop, a bookend, or paperweight. And this, a pistol with an empty chamber, is how many TV detectives and uniformed officers carry their sidearms … not ready to fire/unable to fire when needed.

Actually, a couple of chronic complainers/armchair cop experts have written (sometimes in ALL CAPS) that it’s AGAINST THE LAW, even for a police officer, to carry a live round in the chamber. One person said I was an idiot and should have my blogging license revoked. WHAT??? And give up all of this???

Well, I suppose they got the idiot thing right, but not the part about police officers unable to carry a round chambered in their weapons. Cops DO (see, I can use all caps too) keep a round chambered at all times (with the safety OFF, if equipped). In fact, chambering a round comes almost second nature to cops when loading their weapons.

When you ask an officer how many rounds he/she carries in his/her weapon they’ll often respond with an answer something like, “Fifteen plus one.” This means they have a full magazine containing fifteen rounds plus one round in the chamber. Some officers take the answer one step further and include, “Plus I’m carrying two full magazines on my belt. That’s fifteen rounds in each magazine, for a total of forty-six rounds, including the chambered round. Yep, I’m carrying forty-six rounds, four short of an entire brick.”

Brick = a full box of ammunition. The cardboard box containing the plastic insert and ammunition is shaped like a small brick.

New Picture (3)

When loading their weapons, officers first insert fifteen rounds into the magazine (the number depends on the weapon carried). Then they shove the full magazine into the pistol, pull back the slide and then release it, which loads a round into the chamber. Then they eject the magazine, which now contains one less bullet (14) and replace the round that was previously loaded into the chamber. They now have a pistol that’s loaded to 15+1, or whatever number of rounds their particular weapon holds.

Glock_19_Generation_4_9mm_Pistol

Weapons loaded to the +1 capacity (a full magazine plus one in the chamber) decreases the amount of time an officer needs to react when involved in a deadly shooting situation. The time an officer spends placing a round into the chamber could be the amount of time it takes to save his/her life, and that’s IF they’d remember to “rack the slide” when faced with a split-second need to use deadly force.

Carrying a semi-auto pistol without a round in the chamber would basically be the same as showing up to a gunfight with an empty gun. Besides, when under fire, the last thing you want to do is to use up precious time chambering a round. The same is true regarding the safety. Officers carry their sidearms with the safety switched off. Again, having to take the time to find and fiddle with a switch, if they remember to do so, could very well mean the difference between living and dying.

So yes, officers always carry a fully loaded weapon, and that means with a round in the chamber and with the safety OFF. There’s no slide-racking or safety-switching in real life.

Again – U.S. officers carry with a round in the chamber and the safety off.

Okay, you’re at your desks with hands poised above the keyboard. Thoughts of murder, chaos, and of your 100th six-figure book deal churn inside your head like the winds of an F-5 twister that’s just touched down in a midwestern mobile home park. This. Is. Your Best. Story. And it is exciting.

Now it’s time for the call to action. The time when it’s your job duty to coax, draw, persuade, and perhaps even drag readers throughout the hero’s journey until they reach the final page of your book.

Along the way, of course, you’ll concoct dangers and thrills, twists and turns, and risks far more convoluted and sometimes more perilous than those undertaken by the average human. Readers do sometimes enjoy the fantasy of living life through the eyes of fictional characters, right? After all, being Jack Reacher or Kay Scarpetta for a few hours could be fun and thrilling.

So off you go, clacking away at the keyboard, transforming the tale you’ve spent months creating a saga, either on paper for you plotters or stored in your mind for those of you who’re pansters, that’ll sit on the top shelf in bookstores all around the world.

In your mind you picture the blurbs and promo ads sent out by your publisher and publicists. Each of them promise your fans “It’s THE book of a lifetime.” “A book you can’t put down until the final page is turned.” “Lock your doors before reading this thrilling ride into the unknown!”

“The crime of the century.”

“It’s THE PERFECT MURDER!”

Dr. Edmond Locard’s Exchange Principle

Creating a murder based upon terminological inexactitude, one that’s committed by a pretend villain in a make-believe world, a crime that’s to be solved by a fictional hero, can be a daunting task for many writers. This is especially so when the writer is clue-challenged when it comes to first-hand knowledge of actual death scenes. But help is on the way and it comes in the form of your imaginations, along with a little help from Dr. Edmond Locard.

So, whether you’re a panster or a plotter, my advice to you, the writer of twisted tales, is to carefully consider Dr. Locard’s Exchange Principle (see below) before writing the first word. Doing so could elevate your stories to levels you never thought were possible to achieve.

I know, you’ve done quite well in the past, but readers are changing. Their knowledge of forensics and police investigations is growing with each passing day and with with each new TV show featuring brilliant experts who really know their stuff. And those folks don’t hesitate to share their expertise with an eager viewing audience, an audience who’ll later pick up a book to read for enjoyment only to find that the author doesn’t know the difference between cordite and kryptonite. By the way, neither cordite nor kryptonite should appear in crime fiction set in modern times.

Cordite manufacturing CEASED somewhere around the end of WWII. I’ll say that again in case you weren’t listening, or in the event the radio was playing too loudly and caused you to miss it.

Cordite manufacturing CEASED somewhere around the end of WWII.

They don’t make the stuff anymore. It’s not used in modern ammunition. Nope. Not there. Don’t use it. Don’t make it.

So no, your cops can’t smell it! That’s not what’s hitting their noses when they enter a crime scene.

Getting “IT” Right

As a former police investigator, I’m often asked what I think would be the perfect murder and my response is typically quick and always the same … “there’s no such thing as a perfect murder.”

I say this because I’m a firm believer in Dr. Locard’s Exchange Principle, a theory stating that always, without fail, when two objects come into contact with one another, each of those objects take something from the other or leave something behind. According to Locard, “It is impossible for a criminal to act, especially considering the intensity of a crime, without leaving traces of this presence.”

Locard’s Principle was on my mind throughout every case I investigated. It helped me to maintain my focus on the tiniest of details so that nothing went overlooked, not even the smallest of fibers.

Therefore, writers must, and I emphasize the word MUST, consider keeping this simple rule of thumb in mind when creating crime scenes and scenes of crimes, IF you’re going for realism. You do know there’s a difference between a crime scene and a scene of a crime, right?

Crime Scenes

Crime Scene and scene of the crime are not always synonymous. A crime scene is anywhere evidence of a crime is found (a dumpster located five miles away where a killer dumped the murder weapon, or the killer’s home where he deposited his bloody clothes, where the body was found if removed from the scene of the crime, etc.). Scene of the Crime is the location where the actual crime took place (where the killer actually murdered his victim).

 

Crafting the Perfect Murder

We’ve all heard about the killer who stabs someone with an icicle, a murder weapon that melts, thus leaving no trace evidence. Well, this is far from the truth since the killer had to approach the victim and he/she had to leave the scene. Therefore, he either left something behind or he took something with him (soil on the shoes, DNA, etc.).

There is trace evidence of some sort everywhere in every crime scene—again, footprints, DNA, fibers, tiny shards of glass, blood, etc. The weak link in a case would be, unfortunately, the detective who doesn’t dig deep enough or long enough or hard enough to find the evidence. This is true in all cases. The evidence is ALWAYS there, somewhere, begging to be found. It’s up to the savvy detective to locate it.

Disposing of bodies in clandestine grave sites are a fantastic means to hide a big piece of evidence … the body. Still, the killer was at the scene of the crime, therefore he left evidence. He had to move the body to the burial site. More traces of evidence—footprints, toll receipts and images captured by cameras at toll booths, gas purchases, purchases of burial equipment, and on and on and on. And then there’s the hound dog who drags a human femur to his owner’s back doorstep. He, the killer had to arrive at and then leave the scene. Again, the evidence is there for the taking—tire tracks, footprints, a leaf, a unique plant seed, a hair, or mud stuck to the soles of his shoes, etc. The list is practically endless.

The Almost Perfect Crime

Embalming fluid

What if a killer committed the murder in a funeral home embalming room, a place that sees hundreds of dead bodies pass through its doors. It’s a place where death “evidence” is routinely and efficiently scrubbed away.

Think about it for a moment. A funeral home where tons of body fluids and DNA have the potential of co-mingling and are routinely cleaned away using chemicals that can and do eliminate the typical clues searched for by investigators.

Yep, blood, saliva, nitrous and other fluids are scrubbed from the room, and all other physical evidence (breaks in bones, gun shot and stab wounds, etc, are totally destroyed during cremation. It’s the perfect It’s the perfect spot for the perfect crime, right?

Well, not so fast. Remember Locard, “when two objects come into contact with one another, each of those objects will take something from the other or leave something behind.” The victim had to arrive at the funeral, therefore evidence of the trip there would generate some sort of evidence trail. However slight it may be, it’s there.

Still, an inexperienced investigator could miss the clues in a funeral home setting.

To make it even more difficult for the detective, there’s this …

Cremation: The Process

Coffin materials are generally selected so as to minimize pollution generated when cremation takes place. Non-combustable coffin do-dads are removed (handles, knobs, hinges, etc.). PVC, heavy metals, solvent-based paints and other toxic resins are also removed or not at all used.

Cremation containers should be completely enclosed, rigid, leak resistant, and definitely combustible. They may be made of cardboard or particle board, wooden, or even a those nice and shiny, highly polished caskets, as long as they’re combustible and non-toxic. Metal caskets cannot be cremated.

Implants of any types which contain power sources are removed from the remains. Also removed are prostheses, jewelry, and non-combustible parts of clothing.

Cremation takes anywhere from 30 minutes in the case of the very small, to over two hours. The human body contains between 65% and 85% water by weight, so a temperature high enough to facilitate the combustion process—up to 2,000 degrees F is where the cremation process typically occurs.

Not for the Squeamish!!

Combustion in the cremator occurs in two steps

  • The primary combustion in the main chamber. It’s here where tissue, organs, body fat, ligaments, tendons, and the casket itself burn off as gases.
  • The secondary chamber, where they continue to undergo combustion (bone fragments remain in the primary chamber). Inorganic particles, usually from the cremation container, settle on the floor of the secondary chamber.  The gases formed as a by-product of combustion—carbon dioxide, water, oxygen, etc.—discharge into the sky through a stack.

When complete, funeral home employees (or the villain of your story) sweep the remains into a tray where they’ll sit to cool. This step is similar to when grandma baked a pie and then allowed it to cool on the sill of an open window before slicing it into individual serving sizes.

Once sufficiently cool, the employee, or bad guy, sifts through the ashes to remove bit of metal, if any (evidence). Any bone fragments are pulverized until all until the remains are less than 1/8” in size.

The cremated and squashed remains are then transferred to a plastic bag and placed into an urn. Or, if this step involves a murderer, the remains would most likely wind up scattered in a field down by Old Man Kelsey’s creek.

The “Other” Cremation: Human Soup

Alkaline hydrolysis, AKA “water, or green cremation”, is a water-based dissolution process that uses alkaline chemicals, heat and pressure and agitation to speed up natural decomposition. Once complete, all that’s left behind is bone residue and a liquid … human soup. This “human broth” is, believe it or not, considered sterile and is simply discharged with into local sewer system and is then treated as any other wastewater product (the stuff that goes down the drains of your home).

Leftover bone material is then pulverized and placed into an urn. Since there is more leftover bone material than with cremation by fire, these remains require a larger urn. And, by the way, due to the larger amount of “leftovers,” it would be more difficult for the villain of your story, if this setting is your thing, is someone who most likely works in a funeral home, to hide the remains created by this method of cremation.

Still, these methods of hiding and/or destroying evidence are far more effective than merely shooting Bill Imdead and then leaving his corpse on the living room floor to be found by cleaning company workers.

The perfect murder? No, but pretty darn close.

*Someone who commits a murder inside a crematorium by hastily shoved the body into the cremation chamber, and then flees the scene, leaving the body to reduce to ashes, would leave behind a mound of clues—bone, teeth, jewelry, implants complete with serial numbers, etc. Sure, the majority of the body parts would be gone, but it would still speak to investigators … if they took time to listen.


Click the link below to discover …

6 WAYS TO TRANSFORM A BORING CRIME SCENE INTO FASCINATING FACTUAL FICTION

Police work is certainly filled with unknown and unseen perils. Without a doubt, it’s a job that comes with a long list of hazards. Aside from the obvious dangers—fights, stabbings, car crashes, shootings, etc.—one of the most gut-wrenching threats to officers is known universally as the dreaded “Open Mic.”

Open Mic – When an officer unknowingly presses the transmit button on his portable radio and is broadcasting everything he/she says and does to anyone and everyone.

And this, one cold, winter night, is when an open mic caused a bit of embarrassing grief for Captain “Jim” and a young female dispatcher I’ll call Geraldine for the purpose of this post. You see where this is going, right?

I was working late that night, wrapping up after a successful raid on a crack dealer’s house, when I heard the “dead air.” A sound, or lack thereof, that’s unmistakable and easily recognizable to officers everywhere. It usually starts out with a bout of silence, followed by faint traffic noises, a car radio playing somebody’s favorite tune, or maybe a conversation. This faux pas often occurs when an officer leans over to one side and accidentally depresses the talk button on his belt-mounted walkie-talkie. Seat belt connections are notorious for pushing the button inward. However, when the officer moves the button is released and all is well. No problem.

Sometimes, though, what comes spewing from the speaker is downright porn. You know, the officer is at home for lunch with the spouse and things get a bit heated and the next thing you know off goes the gun belt. The officer drops the belt to the floor where the radio talk button becomes jammed against the point of a high heel or a chair leg. And, well, “lunch time” is instantly broadcasted to everyone with a police radio and/or scanner. Not good. No, not good at all. No, sir.

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Anyway, back to Captain Jim’s troubles.

I heard the dead air followed by the sound of voices, a man and woman. It quickly became apparent that the male was our boss, Captain Jim. The female’s voice was difficult to pinpoint. Familiar, somewhat, but I had a hard time figuring out who she was because of all the screaming … “Oh, Jim! Oh, Jim! Yes, Jim! Oh, Jim! Yeeeesssssss, Jiiimmmm!!!!

Next, I heard a bit of light smooches and then a few odd, indiscernible clicks and rattles.

Then … silence.

Suddenly, an exasperated voice spewed from the speaker in my car, and from, I’m sure, every police car radio in the entire network—city police, county deputies, state police, and every household where a police scanner sat perched on somebody’s grandpa’s nightstand. Even worldwide should someone happen to be listening in on their computer or cell phone from Padooky, Kansas, or Fryonion, Nevada, or Crookedfoot, Alaska. Or even as far away as China, Russia, or Australia. It’s possible.

“S**t! The door’s locked,” said Captain Jim.

“What?” said the female voice who I immediately recognized as that of Geraldine, one of the night shift dispatchers. “Stop joking,” she said.

“I’m not kidding,” said Captain Jim. “I forgot about not being able to open the back doors on patrol cars.” A pause, then, “I knew I should’ve driven my own car, dammit.”

“What are we going to do?” said Geraldine.

“I’ll have to call someone … oh, s**t, the mic’s open.”

That’s the precise moment when the hot microphone died and regular radio traffic resumed.

The next voice I heard on the radio was Captain Jim calling me, asking if I was available to come to his location. He told me he was at an old abandoned runway out at the county’s private airport. Meeting an informant is the reason he gave for being there. Yeah, right.

I ten-foured him and headed out to the airport, grinning all the way as I imagined the captain and Geraldine trapped in the backseat area behind the partition, waiting patiently for me to come rescue them. I also had thoughts of all the folks who’d urinated or puked or bled in the backseat currently being used as a cozy little love nest.

I drove to the end of one runway and then turned left onto the cracked and pot-hole littered asphalt of the abandoned runway, and there, parked among a stand of tall weeds and overgrown shrubs and sycamore trees, and rusty, old appliances someone had discarded, is where I saw the police car. No one was visible in the vehicle. Not that I could see, that is, because the windows were heavily steamed.

I parked my unmarked car, got out, and walked over to the rear door on the driver’s side where I grabbed the handle and pulled it open. Then I turned around and went back to my car and drove away.

Neither Captain Jim nor I ever spoke about that night. I figured what happened out there was none of my business. I do know, however, that I was never denied a single vacation request from that night forward.