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The abandoned factory sat just across the county line. Its towering and crumbling red brick smokestacks stood like fingers pointing to the sky. Portions of the building’s red brick facade and stacks appeared as if they’d been devoured by mounds of deep green kudzu.

A vast asphalt parking lot and an array of driveways surrounded the enormous building, a place where hundreds of employees once buzzed about like bees in a hive.

During its heyday, rows upon rows of workers sat side-by-side at long metal tables, operating industrial sewing machines. Others were charged with dying operations, driving forklifts, and pushing the buttons and dialing the knobs of machinery that clicked and clacked and whirred as they transformed tiny threads into enormous rolls of various types of cloth. Floor sweepers maneuvered back and forth in the corridors and spaces between equipment. Their nonstop to-and-fro movements were much like the mechanical and mindless ducks in a shooting gallery.

An in-house machine shop contained every tool imaginable for the repair of equipment from the smallest of contraptions to the hulking and huffing and puffing metal machinery, some the size of buses. There, highly skilled professionals wore heavily soiled overalls and displayed a shift’s worth of jet-black grease stains on their faces and hands. They went about the business of fixing and mending and fabricating at a never-ending pace, round the clock, seven days per week. Likewise, the factory workers tended to their never-ending tasks that, too, were divided into three round the clock shifts.

A constant flow of tractor trailers arrived empty and left filled with goods, heading to other factories where the materials would be transformed into an assortment of consumer goods.

Then, without notice, came the layoff notices and one by one workers were let go, machinery slowed, lights ceased to flash, motors stopped turning, and the factory quickly began to die. Paint peeled, roofing sagged, and pipes leaked. Weeds sprouted through cracks in the parking lot and driveways. With the end of truck traffic the wild plants and stalks flourished and propagated and spread and grew and grew and grew.

Rats and roaches replaced workers. Raccoons and opossums took over office spaces.

Vandals arrived to break windows and leave behind painted symbols and signs. Teenagers held spooky nighttime seances. Others smoked pot and drank beer and cheap wine and told stories of ghosts who roamed the empty hallways and cavernous spaces.

We received a call from a concerned citizen who’d reported seeing what appeared to be a person inside the factory, using a flashlight to find their way. It was just after midnight and the caller said “something just didn’t seem right.” She was absolutely correct.

Inside the factory, using our bright Maglights to help find our own way, we stepped into a room big enough to contain two high school gymnasiums. Inside the sprawling space we waded through an assortment of monstrous machinery and rows of metal racks. The roof sagged and  dripped oily water. Rust coated the steel supports that crisscrossed the upper spaces. Field mice scurried along tabletops and among the broken glass that littered the floors. Roaches as big as my thumb scattered and slid into cracks and crevices when the powerful beams of our flashlights illuminated them.

And that, in that huge room among the mice droppings, dripping water, massive insects, and eerie echoes, is where we found the boy. His body hung from a thick and long, black extension cord that connected his neck to a steel beam that supported an upper floor. Two loops of cord around the neck were held in place by a granny knot.

The boy, barely a teenager, wore a dark t-shirt, shorts a bit too big for his narrow frame, dirty white socks, and one black Converse tennis shoe. Its mate, the left one, was on the floor beneath the body. Also under the boy’s body was old office chair. The seat was on its side with its wheels two or three inches from the left shoe, which was also on its side.

His eyes and mouth were open, as if locked in a silent, terror-induced scream. His skin was cool and firm to the touch. There was no flashlight and without it there was no way the boy could’ve found his way through the pitch black darkness to find the room, find a chair and cord, attach the cord to a rafter, and so on. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face inside that place without the assistance of a light of some kind.

The knot that held the cord closed and tightly to the boy’s flesh was positioned on the right side of the neck. According to his mother, the boy was left-handed and to use his right would have been extremely awkward, unlike many left-handers who are fairly fluid with the use of both. Still, a knot on either side of the neck is not a particularly strong indication of left- or right-handedness. A point to consider if all else failed.

The victim’s friends said he’d been hanging out with a group of older teens who sold drugs They said the boy was not a user, not even pot. However, an autopsy indicated the presence of cocaine and pot. The examination also showed bruising in various spots on the body, including the areas around the wrists and forearms, as if someone had held him there, tightly. The signs pointed to a beating and a murder.

Still, the medical examiner ruled the death as a suicide. I knew better. Remember, the call came in as a report of someone seeing a light inside the factory. There was no flashlight to be found and common sense told me that flashlights don’t grow legs and flee crime scenes. So, in spite of the official ruling and based solely on the witnesses claim of seeing a light, and common sense, I continued to investigate and it didn’t take long to learn the truth.

The boy sold drugs for a known dealer. While selling those drugs he caved to peer pressure and began using. Then he became hooked. His habit grew to a point greater than he could afford so he started using the drugs he was given to sell. Then, as is often a problem, he was quickly unable to pay his dealer and went deeper and deeper into debt.

So they killed him. And they left his body swaying in an abandoned warehouse among rats and mice and roaches and raccoons and opossums and rust and broken glass, dripping oily water, and eerie echoes.

A few days after the boy’s funeral, teenagers, those who went to the factory at night to drink and to smoke pot and to tell tall and spooky tales, had a new ghost story to tell, one of a new spirit roaming the factory corridors. Many claimed to have seen the dead boy hanging from the rafters, especially on Halloween nights. Passersby sometimes said the boy appeared at the windows, peering out from behind cracked glass.

As a result of those vivid imaginations we’d sometime receive calls of people seeing what appeared to be a person inside the factory using a bright flashlight to find their way. And we’d investigate. Of course, we never found a single ghost, but each time I went, even though it was just a memory, I did indeed see that poor boy hanging from the rafters. It’s one of those things you never forget.

The cause of death, by the way, was changed to Murder, a fact I never doubted, not even for a second. So remember, writers, sometimes it’s “the thing” that isn’t there, such as a the flashlight in this case, that’s the key to solving a crime.

 

It was a cold January night back in 1975, a night when the temperatures dipped to the mid 20s. There were no clouds in the coal-black sky, but the overhead inky nothingness was peppered with thousands of tiny off-white dots—winking and flickering wintertime stars.

The victim, a fragile 88-year-old retired school teacher, Eva Jones, was in her modest home located less than a hundred yards, just short of a football field’s distance, from the local police department. She was at home alone, typical of most evenings, when the stranger forced his way through the front door.

Minutes later the elderly woman had been choked, raped, and robbed of $40 cash, all the money she had in her possession. Her attacker then slipped away as quickly as he’d arrived.

The old woman managed to get to her phone and dialed the number to summon police. When the dispatcher answered the call she heard a female voice gasping for breathe as she pleaded for help. Since the station was within sight of her home, officers arrived right away and found the partially-clad victim of the brutal assault.

Two hours later, after being transported to the hospital, Eva Jones was dead. Before she died, though, she told police that “a negro man had torn her clothes off and had choked her.” No further details. Just the man’s race. And then she was gone, leaving police with little—practically nothing—to help with their investigation.

During the next few days police questioned several men who’d been seen in the area, nearly two dozen, or so, but they were each cleared and sent on their way. Eventually, officers set their sights on a 32-year-old man, Curtis Jasper Moore, who’d been recently released from a psychiatric hospital.

Investigators interrogated the man for approximately six hours, nonstop, but Moore never, not once, admitted involvement in the murder of the woman. During the taped questioning, the man repeatedly hummed the theme song of a popular western television show. His mind and thoughts strayed from the matters at hand, and his statements were inconsistent. Some of his words, though, were taken as incriminatory.

So police took the man to the woman’s house—the scene of the murder—hoping the visit would illicit a confession. Again, some of his words, while confusing, were thought to be incriminating, including a couple of statements that seemed to indicate that he’d been inside the woman’s home on the night of the killing. That scant bit of “evidence” was enough for police officers who desperately wanted to close the case. Public and political pressure to do so, of course, was great. They arrested Moore for the murder and rape of the former educator.

A little over three years later, Curtis Moore, the severely mentally-challenged man, was convicted of murder, rape, and robbery and was sentenced to serve life in prison. His guilt was based almost entirely on the statements he’d made to police. There was no physical evidence that connected him to the murder scene. Due to his diminished mental capacity Moore was sent to a psychiatric hospital.

Court appointed attorneys filed state appeals on his behalf but all were denied. Next, a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed. It was only then when a U.S.  District Judge ordered the confession suppressed and set aside the conviction.

The judge ruled that the interrogation was improper because the man had not been offered the Miranda warning until after at least four hours of interrogation had passed. The judge also determined that the state was unable to prove that the man understood his rights after investigators finally got around to advising him.

It took a year and half after the judge’s ruling for the appeals court to affirm his decision, and when they did, finally, the man was released from prison pending a new trial. It was three years after his conviction that he was able to set foot outside of institutional walls.

Prosectors, with no evidence on which to rely, elected to not pursue the case and dismissed it..

Twenty-four years later, the governor of Virginia ordered testing of biological evidence that was found contained in the files of a recently deceased state crime analyst, Mary Jane Burton. Burton, for whatever reason, secretly taped small swatches of biological evidence—samples she used for blood typing—to her test sheets and then placed those sheets in her permanent hard-copy files.

The Burton evidence was discovered in 2001 when The Innocence Project requested all files on behalf of Marvin Anderson, a man convicted of rape. He fought and continued fighting to prove his innocence after his release from prison based on Burton’s saved/hidden evidence..

But saving bits of biological evidence was not the norm. Actually, by preserving the samples the examiner violated the lab protocol that all evidence was to be returned to the submitting agencies/investigators. However, by breaking department rules, the saved evidence samples were indeed tested per the order of the governor and the results produced were nothing short of stunning.

The rule-breaking, highly-meticulous Mary Jane Burton and I have a couple of loosely-based connections.

  • It was Mary Jane Burton who determined the identifying characteristics of biological evidence that would later convict Timothy Spencer, the serial killer known as The Southside Strangler. Spencer was the first person in the U.S. sentenced to death based on DNA evidence. I witnessed Spencer’s execution via electric chair.

Author Patricia Cornwell worked in the state lab at the same time as Burton. Dr. Marcella Fierro, the state’s chief medical examiner, a colleague of Burton was the inspiration for Cornwell’s character Kay Scarpetta. Dr. Fierro’s office conducted the autopsy on the bank robber I was forced to shoot and kill during a shootout beside a major interstate highway. Dr. Fierro and her assistant had dinner with Denene and me at the Commonwealth Club in Richmond, Va. the night Denene received her PhD.

  • In 2008, the evidence in the Jones murder case that was found in Burton’s file was submitted to the lab for DNA testing. The DNA tests proved that, without a doubt, the murder of Eva Jones could not have been committed by Curtis Jasper Moore.

 

Instead, the DNA was a solid match to a man named Thomas Pope Jr. Pope’s DNA was in the system because he’d been convicted of abduction and forcible sodomy in 1991. He was paroled in 2003.

 

My connection to Thomas Pope, Jr.? I’ve had the “pleasure” of investigating and arresting him a couple of times over the years, including for sexual assault (not in the same area as the Eva Jones murder, though). Unfortunately, at the time I arrested Pope his DNA had not yet been entered into CODIS. Somewhere in my files, I still have a copy of one of the Pope’s arrest warrants.

 

Curtis Jasper Moore didn’t live long enough to learn  that he’d been totally exonerated. He died in California in 2006.

 

The two officers who interrogated Moore have since passed away, as well. One committed suicide in the mid nineties. The other died of natural causes. Both were elected and served many years as sheriffs in Virginia.

 

On March 24, 2010, Thomas Pope,Jr., 55, was finally convicted of the rape and murder of Eva Jones, the retired, elderly school teacher. He was sentenced to life in prison.

I imagine Pope is currently residing in a state-run prison somewhere in Virginia after nearly and literally getting away with murder because two cops flirted with disaster by allowing tunnel vision and political pressure take over their investigation. And for taking advantage of an obviously mentally ill man.

 

It was a Saturday morning, a day when the temperature had already reached the mid 80s and the southern air with was packed with enough humidity to make it appear as if a quick rain shower had passed through. Condensation on the windows of the county jail, the red brick building that also housed our offices, was dense enough to obscure the view outside. Even our brown patrol cars appeared to be perspiring. Moisture dripped from the leaves of the tall oaks that had lived on the courthouse lawn since the days of the Civil War. In fact, one of those trees served as the “hanging tree” back in the day. Jail inmates sat in their cells wearing nothing but sweat-soaked boxer shorts and white socks. The day was indeed on track to be a real scorcher.

I know, never start a story with the weather, but this is real life, not fiction. I’m not writing that first line, the hook, to grab your attention.

This day, the one mentioned above, was brutally hot. I mentioned the temperature because, as is with most instances involving police, it’s important that you know that temperatures and weather conditions often play a huge role in their profession.

It’s also important that each and every word in your tales has meaning and that each one has a purpose. For me, based on personal experience, weather can be “a character” in a story and it’s sometimes as important as the hero, the villain, or the victim. I say this because …

Words Melt Everyone

“Man it’s a hot one
Like seven inches from the midday sun
Well I hear you whisper and the words melt everyone
But you stay so cool” ~ “Smooth” by Santana, featuring Rob Thomas

Weather conditions are part of the equation, just as are criminals, courts, judges, and guns, including being a part of the smallest of details of a murder scene. Winter, spring, summer, fall, snow, sun, rain, and wind all play a role in the real world of cops and robbers. It has purpose and it has meaning.

Such as the mid August day in Savannah, Ga. when heat and humidity make you practically gasp for every breath like it could be your last, and when bending over to have a look at a victim’s body at the precise moment when that lone drop of sweat reaches the tip of your nose and you absolutely must prevent its fall to stop your DNA from commingling with that of the killer.

Or when preparing to enter an abandoned warehouse to search for the armed robber who was last seen going inside. It’s 10 degrees outside and the grip of your gun is ice-cold to the touch. Your hands are nearly numb and you can’t feel your toes because you’re standing in three feet of freshly-fallen Boston snow. The combination of fear, frigid temperatures, and freezing digits cause your hands to tremble ever so slightly. Will you be able to shoot straight and accurately if the time comes and if your very life depends upon that first shot?

The wind howls outside, concealing the sounds of a bad guy’s movements. Is he in front of you, to the side or to the rear? You don’t know because the only thing you hear is the sound of your own heart thumping wildly against the inside of your chest wall. That and the limbs of the old hackberry tree scratching and scraping across the weathered clapboard siding with each gust of swirling air.

So yes, weather is an important aspect of police work.

Saturdays are for Fishing, Not Killing

There were only two of us assigned to patrol the county that hot day, which was not a big deal because Saturdays were typically slow. Weekend nights were the times when the action jumped off. I suppose that most trouble-makers’ daytimes were reserved for rest, fishing, lawn mowing, recuperating from hangovers, and driving out to the back forty to plink a few rounds at tin cans and discarded refrigerators and rusty clothes washers. Fun times.

Some folks visited community swimming pools and a few teens would head out to the old gravel pit to swill cheap beer and to smoke weed and for dip in the water. It’a place where at least one kid drowned each summer and usually within the next day or two we’d find the bloated body tangled in the branches of fallen trees, if a state police diver wasn’t able to immediately locate the victim in the incredibly deep water.

Sometimes we’d interview a sobbing 15- or 16-year-old girl who reeked of stale beer and pot smoke, a doe-eyed kid who’d stand on the ledge and weep and point to where she last saw him, right after she’d begged him to not leap of into the water from the rocky cliff. He’s a good swimmer, she’d say, but we’d been drinking and his buddies dared him to do it. So he did. Of course, she wouldn’t mention the weed or that her top was on backward or that her shorts were on inside out.

The 911 Call

My fellow deputy and I began our shift at 0800 that Saturday and we’d decided to catch up on a bit of paperwork at the office before going our separate ways, making ourselves seen throughout the county. Nothing much happened before noon on Saturdays anyway.

It was 9:30 when a man called the dispatcher to say he’d just killed his sister-in-law and that the “911 lady” should send “the Po-leece” right away. Then he hung up.

So each of us sprinted to our patrol cars and left the front of the jail with red and blue lights winking, spinning, and blinking. Throughout the city streets we blasted our sirens at intersections and when we drove up behind the Saturday morning Q-tips who were in town to do their weekly shopping—the older ladies of a certain age to get their hair styled and molded into those blueish helmet shapes, and the men who stopped in the barbershops for a snip here and there and to have the barber apply enough tonic to keep the combover in place while they visited the feed store to browse through the rows of shiny red or green mowers and tractors. Then, when enough time passed the tractor-lookers would toss their canes into the backseats of their Ramblers or Buicks and head back over to Betty’s Cut and Curl to pick up the wife so together they could do their grocery shopping and perhaps have a bite to eat at the diner before traveling at a snail’s pace back to the farm.

They were slow drivers who never, not ever, looked into their rearview mirrors. So we’d follow behind with full lights and sirens until we caught a break in traffic so we could pass.

This day, though, we pushed the limit, zipping through town until we reached the main county road that led us in the direction of the alleged murder. The location was 30-40 minutes away when driving the speed limit. We reached scene in less than 20. As the truckers’ used to say, it was pedal to the metal all the way. We straightened curves by taking advantage of “the racing line” of the roadway.

For those of you who don’t know, a driver who follows a racing line greatly reduces the angle of a curve by entering it at a the far outside edge of the roadway and then crosses over to the inside edge, the apex. The apex is the point at which you are closest to the inside of the corner. The turn/curve is then completed by moving back to far outside edge of the roadway. This maneuver is sometimes called “hitting the apexes.” It reduces braking and “straightens the curve” which allows the officer to drive safely through curves at a much faster speed. However, it is a must to constantly remain alert for oncoming traffic since some of the officers’ curve-straightening involves driving on the opposite side of the road.

Standing beside a mailbox at the end of a long dirt drive was a man dressed in a red and white striped shirt, white pants, and brown work boots. As we turned into the driveway I noticed what appeared to be a significant amount of blood spatter on his clothing and shoes, so I stopped. He was obviously agitated, excited, and he rambled on incessantly about that fact that he’d just arrived to earth from Mars. I handcuffed him, placed him in the seat beside me (we didn’t have rear cages), and hurried to the house.

My coworker and I raced to the door and went inside, yelling “Sheriff’s Department!”

What we found in the home, in the master bedroom, was nothing short of the stuff horror movies are made of.

Blood ran down the painted drywall in narrow but rapidly drying convoluted trails. Spatter of various sizes and shapes was everywhere—ceiling, walls, the floor. A severed human hand lay next to one wall. I’d later count 13 chop marks in the hardwood next to it. Pools of rusty-red blood separated by drag marks of the same color and substance led to the body of a dead woman, a female who died a brutal death caused by the repeated blows of an ax.

The woman’s forearms were badly cut, signs that she’d attempted to stop dozens of strikes of the ax. A large gash to the right side of her head revealed the white of her skull, bone that had been hacked and chipped away, revealing brain matter. Some of it was found stuck to the ceiling.

Small bits of splintered bone were scattered across the floor.

Blood spatter was also on the furniture, including a king-size bed. It’s dull brownish-red hue was in sharp contrast to the crisp white sheets. More spatter was on the faces, hands,  legs, feet, and kids’ pajamas worn by the woman’s four small children who sat huddled together on the center of the mattress. They’d witnessed the entire act, a murder that occurred for the simple reason that the killer had asked his sister-in-law for enough money to purchase a pack of cigarettes. She didn’t have it so the man walked outside to the woodpile where he picked up the ax and went back inside to kill her.

The first blow was from behind, to the head. We pieced together that at that point the woman went down but turned and held up her arms and hands to fend off the onslaught that followed.

When I questioned the killer, he claimed to have come to earth from Mars and that voices from a tower told him to kill the woman. He also said he’d cut off her hand because it kept pointing at him.

He’d been tucked away in a psychiatric care hospital until two weeks prior to the murder. His release came when a sympathetic judge found him competent to return to life outside, placing him in the care of his brother. Fourteen days later the brother’s wife was dead and his four kids were scarred for life.

The killer was found to be not competent to stand trial for the murder and has remained in an air-conditioned psychiatric facility since.

 

 

Evidence = The thing or things that furnish proof.

Proof = Something that establishes the validity of truth.

Truth = A body of real things.

Real Things = Evidence.

Okay, now that we’ve established the fact that evidence is/are real things that offer proof of the truth, let’s examine a few places where police investigators sometimes find those real things.

Above all, though, before beginning the death scene investigation detectives should first check for signs of life. There’d be nothing worse than wrapping up a crime scene investigation and then have the victim sit up and tell you that you’d missed the most obvious clue of all … a heartbeat.

The savvy detective knows to always look up, down, and all around. After all, tunnel vision can be a cop’s worst enemy in more ways than one. Detectives also know to never smoke, chew gum, eat, or drink while inside a crime scene, and that’s because doing so could deposit “real things” that crime scene techs could be confuse with actual evidence, such as cigarette ashes or a gum wrapper.

And, since there are no “do-overs” with a crime scene, you only have one shot at it before the scene is forever altered. Remember Locard’s Principle from yesterday’s article—“always, without fail, when two objects come into contact with one another, each of those objects will take something from the other or leave something behind.”

A head-to-toe visual exam of the body/victim includes making note of its position and if there’s something abnormal, such as an arm or leg in an unnatural angle. The eyes. Are they open or closed? Any obvious signs of a struggle. Defensive wounds on the hands?

Check for lividity. Is it fixed? If so, where does it show up. Lividity, when present, should appear at the lowest points of the body. If not, that’s an indication that the body was moved after death.

Lividity

Lividity, aka Livor Mortis is the pooling of blood in the lowest portions of the body. It’s caused by gravity and begins immediately after death. The telltale signs of livor mortis, the purplish discoloration of the skin, begins the moment the heart stops pumping. This process continues for approximately 6-12 hours, depending upon surrounding conditions, until it becomes fixed, permanently staining the tissue in the lowest parts of the body. When large areas become engorged with lividity, the capillaries in those areas sometimes rupture causing what’s known as Tardieu spots. Tardieu spots present as round, brownish blacks spots.

Lividity can help investigators determine an approximate time of death. The staining of tissue normally begins within the first two hours after death. The process reaches it’s full peak (fixed) in eight to twelve hours.

If the victim is moved during the first six hours after death the purplish discoloration can shift, causing the new, lowest portion of the body to exhibit lividity.

After a period of six to eight hours after death, when lividity becomes totally fixed, the patterns of discoloration will not change. Therefore, investigators know a body found lying face down with lividity on the back, has been moved.

Rookie officers have often confused lividity with bruising caused by fighting.

Remember, ambient air temperature is always a factor in determining the TOD (time of death). A hot climate can accelerate lividity, while a colder air temperature can slow it down considerably.

Missing Jewelry

Before bagging the hands (use paper bags) to preserve any evidence that may be located around and beneath the fingernails, investigators should carefully examine the hands and wrists, visually, making note of marks or other indications that jewelry had been worn, such as a tan line or indentation on the ring finger. This is a sign that robbery could have been the motive for the death. And that the missing items may appear on an upcoming pawn shop daily report. In most areas, pawn shops are required to submit a daily list of all items purchased. This aids police in tracking down stolen merchandise.

Paper bags are used for bagging the hands because plastic aids in the incubation process of bacteria and, as you know, bacteria growth accelerates decomposition. Bacteria can also destroy DNA.

Alternate Light Sources (ALS)

The use of various alternate light sources are used to detect stains and body fluids, fibers, and even fingerprints, all evidence that’s often not visible to the naked eye.

ALS equipment/RUVIS – Sirchie ~ 2018 Writers’ Police Academy

 

 

 

RUVIS (Reflective Ultraviolet Imaging System), a system of locating latent (invisible) fingerprints) without the use of powders, fumes, or chemicals, was developed by Sirchie Fingerprint Laboratories, a sponsor of the Writers’ Police Academy, and the U.S. Army. The system focuses on one specific section of shortwave ultraviolet light, the germicidal spectrum of light, which cannot be seen by the naked eye.

A particularly unique feature of RUVIS technology is that it works in both total darkness and in bright sunshine, a must for use by police investigators.

Sirchie’s Krimesite Imager uses RUVIS technology to detect invisible residues from fingerprints. Those residues reflect UV light projected from the device, which immediately captures the reflections with a 60mm UV lens. A built-in scanner then converts the images to visible light, allowing the investigator to see the fingerprint. All this is done instantly, in real time. And, the detective is able to see images from up to fifteen feet away.

Once the print is located, the investigator uses the Imager to photograph it and, with the use of a micro-printer, print a copy of the desired evidence. All this without the messy powders that never seem to wash away. The KS Imager can also be used to greatly enhance prints developed using cyanoacrylate fuming (Super Glue).

*By the way, keep your eyes and ears open for a major announcement regarding the Writers’ Police Academy and Sirchie. You are going to lose your minds when you hear the news!

Bloodstain Patterns

Characteristics of a blood drop

  • blood drops are formed by gravity
  • blood drops cannot break apart unless contacted by an outside force
  • larger drops travel further than smaller drops (due to mass, not size)
  • blood drops always travel in an arcing path (impact injuries)
  • size ranges from a few millimeters to few centimeters
  • volume of a drop of blood is in direct proportion to whatever it’s dropping from (ax, stick, arm, leg, etc)

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

Types of Bloodstain Patterns

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

Swipes (Wipes)Caused by a bloody object being wiped across another surface. These stains are the reason for changing the name of the examination from “blood spatter” evidence to “bloodstain” evidence (not all patterns are caused by airborne drops of blood). Remember that in your writing. Patterns caused by spattering, splattering, or wiped-on blood is no longer called “blood spatter.”

Therefore, your characters should reflect the change, as have their real-life counterparts. An example of the change:

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

Tick Tock …

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

Tick Tock …

*Terminology could vary from one area to the next.

 

The Lingo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Always look up, down, and all around

As I stated earlier, this rule of thumb is extremely important when search for evidence and it’s especially so when examining a scene for blood spatter. This includes the undersides of table tops and seat bottoms. The insides of door frames and windowsills. In fact, a peek inside a refrigerator can sometimes save the day when all else come up empty.

Yes, bad guys sometimes cannot resist the urge to grab a quick snack or something to drink while taking a break from dismembering their latest victim. Therefore, it’s not at all unusual to find a bloody fingerprint on the container of onion dip, or loose hair from the head of the killer that’s lodged between the Swiss cheese and plate of leftover hotdogs.

Spatter is often found on ceilings and overhead lighting. On doorknobs and bedroom slippers that sit by the fireplace.

Other bits of often overlooked evidence can be found under rugs or carpeting, behind light switch covers …

Removing the plastic wall cover to reveal a thumb drive concealed inside the electrical box housing wall light switch.

… inside statues, faux spray cans, sewn inside the hem of clothing and bath towels, inside appliances and handheld electrical gadgets, shoes and, well, you name it and a crook has probably hidden something there.

Locating evidence in an outdoor crime scene – this, my friends, is a topic for another day. In the meantime, remember to have the heroes of your stories to “always look up, down, and all around, because without fail, when two objects come into contact with one another, each of those objects will take something from the other or leave something behind.”

The evidence, proof and truth of the crime and who committed it, is always there. It’s up to the detective to find it.

 

In some locations, typically rural, a medical examiner does not always go to the scene of a homicide. Instead, as is the case of many areas within in the Commonwealth of Virginia, EMS or a funeral home is responsible for transporting the body to a local hospital where a doctor or local M.E. examines the victim. If an autopsy is to be performed, though, it is not the local medical examiner who’d conduct it. Instead, the body is transported to a state morgue which could be hours away.

In Virginia, there are only four state morgue locations/district offices (Manassas, Norfolk, Richmond, and Roanoke) where autopsies are conducted. Each of the district offices is staffed by forensic pathologists, investigators, and various morgue personnel.

Breaking Bread with Kay Scarpetta

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) is located in Richmond (the office where Patricia Cornwell’s fictional M.E., Kay Scarpetta, worked). This is also the M.E.’s office that conducted the autopsies on the homicide cases I investigated. The real-life Kay Scarpetta was our M.E.

She, in fact, and one of her assistants, joined Denene and me at dinner at the Commonwealth Club in Richmond the night Denene received her PhD in pathology from Virginia Commonwealth University. Ironically, it was this very assistant to the real-life Kay Scarpetta who months later performed the autopsy on a bank robber who engaged me in a shootout. And it was she who, in explicit detail, informed me that four of the five rounds I’d fired were fatal rounds. The fifth, she told me, entered the skull at an angle that would not have resulted in death.

There are several local M.E.’s in Virginia (somewhere around 160, or so) but they do not conduct autopsies. Their job is to assist the state M.E. by conducting field investigations, if they see fit to do so, but many do not. Mostly, they have a look at the bodies brought to  hospitals by EMS, sign death certificates, and determine whether or not the case should be referred to the state M.E.’s office for autopsy. They definitely do not go to all death scenes. Again, some do, but not all.

An example (one of many) was a drug-related execution where I was called on by a nearby county sheriff to assist his department in the investigation. Following the evidence, I and his detectives located the killers. After interrogating one of the suspects he led me to the crime scene where we located the deceased victim. The suspects carried and dragged the body several yards, deep into a wooded area. The local medical examiner did not attend. Instead, he requested that the body be delivered to a local hospital.

Me standing on the left at a murder scene where a drug dealer was executed by rival gang members who then hid the body in a wooded area. I was asked to assist a sheriff’s office with the investigation. The medical examiner was called but elected to not go to the scene. The body and sheet used by the suspects to drag the victim were placed into a body bag and then transported to the morgue via EMS ambulance.

Pursuant to § 32.1-283 of the Code of Virginia, all of the following deaths are investigated by the OCME:

  • any death from trauma, injury, violence, or poisoning attributable to accident, suicide or homicide;
  • sudden deaths to persons in apparent good health or deaths unattended by a physician;
  • deaths of persons in jail, prison, or another correctional institution, or in police custody (this includes deaths from legal intervention);
  • deaths of persons receiving services in a state hospital or training center operated by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services;
  • the sudden death of any infant; and
  • any other suspicious, unusual, or unnatural death.

* Remember, “investigated” does not mean they have to go to the actual crime scene.

Again, me on the left as a sheriff’s office crime scene investigator points out the location of spent bullet casings, drag marks, and a blood trail. Pictured in the center are a county sheriff and prosecutor. The M.E. elected to not travel to the scene. As good luck would have it, we had the killers in custody at the conclusion of a nonstop, no sleep, 36-hour investigation.

After a lengthy interrogation, two of the four confessed to the murder. Of course, they each pointed to someone else as the shooter, and he, the actual shooter, placed the blame on his partners. But all four admitted to being present when the murder occurred and all four served time for the killing.

In the areas far outside the immediate area of Virginia’s four district offices of the chief medical examiner, where officials rely on local, part-time medical examiners, it is typically police detectives/officers who determine when a body can be removed from the scene. EMS, after checking for signs of life, stand by until the police instruct them to transport the body.

If the local M.E. shows up, and they’re almost always called, he/she will have a say in when the body is to be removed, but it’s rare that they do anything other than gather information for their notes and discuss possibilities and evidence with the police investigators.

Take Two Bodies and Call Me in the Morning!

In many cases, the local M.E.’s will simply instruct the calling detective to have EMS transport the body to the hospital morgue and they’ll take a look when they have a chance. They’ll sometimes ask to speak to the EMS person in charge of their crew. This, the instruction to transport the body, is especially so when the call comes during the overnight hours.

The pay for local M.E’s in Virginia is a “whopping” $150 per case, if the case referred to the state is one that falls under their jurisdiction. The local M.E.s receive an extra $50 if they actually go to a crime scene. Again, many do not. Interestingly, funeral homes pay the local medical examiner $50 for each cremation he or she certifies.

The requirements to become a local M.E. in Virginia are:

  • A valid Virginia license as a doctor of medicine or osteopathy, Nurse Practitioner, or Physician Assistant
  • An appointment by Virginia’s chief medical examiner
  • A valid United States driver’s license

Once someone is appointed as a local medical examiner their term is for three years, beginning on October 1 of the year of appointment.

The four district offices employ full-time forensic pathologists who conduct all autopsies. Obviously, a physician’s assistant is not qualified to conduct an autopsy, nor are they trained as police/homicide investigators.

Keep in mind, things are never the same/uniform across the country. It’s always best, if you’re going for 100% realism, to check with someone in the area where your story is set. The rules and regulations on one side of the country may not be the same on the other. And the middle of the country may also be totally different from the other localities.

For example, in one Ohio county, a coroner there mandated that autopsies be performed for all deaths that occurred during vehicle crashes. This is not so in other areas of the country, or even in other locations in Ohio. By the way, at the time, his office received $1,500 per autopsy performed, with $750 of the sum going to the pathologist performing the exam.

Sometimes it’s the tiniest of details that offer the extra oomph needed to send a good story over the edge to “can’t-wait-to-turn-to-the-next-page” greatness. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on the point of view, many writers of whodunits and other such crime novels have not had the opportunity to visit an actual crime scene where the victim du jour has been murdered.

Sure, there are tons of books that describe the experience, and there are many writers conferences around the country that feature experts who detail the steps and equipment used to solve crimes. But a list of procedures and pictures of investigational do-dads don’t quite add the over-the-hump material that sends a tale into sensory overdrive.

Writers must express the sights, sounds, odors, and emotions that detectives experience as they process a crime scene. Actually, what I just described is what investigators should do before entering a crime scene—look, listen, and smell.

Those are three very important initial assessments, and that’s so for a variety of reasons.

  1. Look – Scan the area visually for anyone who may be involved with the crime. Sometimes people enjoy watching the police as they work, seeing if they’ll stumble upon something that may incriminate them. Also, it’s a safety issue. This is a time to trust no one because even family members of the victim(s) could become violent. One of the worst fights of my career occurred while attempting to protect a murderer from the victim’s family. There were two officers against a dozen angry, emotional, and violent people trying to go through us to get to the killer.

Be on the lookout for animals. Wildlife may be on the prowl for, as unpleasant as this sounds, a meal. Therefore, the officer may need to call upon animal control or area game wardens for assistance. The same is true for family pets who will often stop at nothing to safeguard their domain and/or the lifeless bodies of their owners.

Make note of any vehicles scene driving through or leaving the area.

Notice insect activity.

Visually scan the entire area for secondary crime scenes, areas where evidence of the main crime is located.

For example, Tom Ishotem killed Bill Isdead, using a hollow point fired from a .357. Tom ran twenty yards and then tossed the revolver into Ms. Irene Iseenitall’s front yard next to her blue-ribbon-winning salmon-pink Barbara Bush hybrid-tea rose bush she ordered from the Rogue Valley Roses over in Oregon.

Then the murderer hopped the hedges and disappeared into the night. Actually, he landed in a manure pile in Harvey Jenkins’ hog pen, but it sounded far more cool to say he vanished into the darkness, right?

Anyway, Ms Iseenitall’s front yard is considered a secondary crime scene because evidence, the gun, was found there. Remember, the spot where the crime actually takes place is “the scene of the crime.” All other locations where evidence is found are secondary crimes scenes.

2. Listen – Be alert for the hissing of broken gas lines, snarling dogs, and even the rattle of snake’s tail. After all, the cause of death could be the bites of a baker’s dozen of rattlesnakes. Listen for the sounds of footsteps and moving brush. The crackling of twigs. I once discovered a killer hiding in the tangle of bushes because he’d moved slightly which caused a thin branch to snap when his shirt caught a sharp end of the limb. Had he not done so (it was nighttime and raining) he may have gotten away.

3.  Smell – Again, take a moment to put your nose to work in the event there’s a gas leak. What about the lingering odor of a cologne or perfume? The fresh scent of gunpowder? But whatever you do, do NOT write that your hero smelled cordite. NO, NO, and NO! The manufacturing of that stuff ceased at the end of WWII. Again, NO!

Be alert for the odor of toxic chemicals—meth labs or even biological weapon manufacturing.

4. The first responder should ALWAYS assume the crime is currently in progress until they’re certain it is not. All too often officers are surprised by the guy behind the door (hypothetically) with a knife. However, that’s exactly what happened to my rookie butt one night when I stepped into a room, assuming the bad guy was either under the bed or in a closet. Thankfully, my experienced partner stopped the guy from inserting a serrated-edge steak knife between my shoulder blades. That’s a lesson I’ve not forgotten.

So, yes, tiny details, such as the sweet scent of a lovely Barbara Bush hybrid tea rose, the salmon pink ones, mingled with the odor of escaping propane from a loosened copper fitting, along with the putrid funk of Mr. Bill Isdead’s decomposing corpse, a scent that brings to mind a forgotten Purdue chicken left to thaw in a kitchen sink for two solid weeks, added to the chemically-offensive meth lab concoctions, would certainly add a bit more “flavor” to a tale than simply writing …

“Detective Johnson approached the scene with caution before entering the room where the body of Mr. Billisded lay dead. He wondered, whodunit.”

Look, Smell, and Listen!

 

Does the villain in your story earn over 2,000 times the minimum wage rate? If so, does he need a defense attorney who’s skilled at obtaining a downward departure for diminished capacity? I think the bad guy’s sister is guilty of misprision of a felony.

Hey, isn’t it time you slipped a few of these tasty tidbits into your stories? Okay, here are a few to get you started, beginning with …

Accessory After the Fact – A person with direct knowledge that a crime has been committed and by some means helps the suspect escape arrest or punishment for the offense.

Aiding and Abetting -This crime is committed, not by the actual perpetrator—the robber, arsonist, murderer, rapist, etc., but by someone who actively promotes the commission of the criminal act, the robbery, arson, murder, rape, etc. A person who aids and abets is often subject to the same punishment as the person who performed the original crime.

Attempt – The effort to commit a crime but without achieving success. A person attempting to commit a crime may be subject to the same punishment as if their efforts were successful.

Bureau of Prisons – The agency that houses federal inmates. Also known as the BOP (pronounced as individual letters – B.O.P., not like “I’m going to “bop” you on the head!”).

Criminal Livelihood – When a defendant commits offenses as part of a pattern of criminal behavior/conduct—a person whose primary source of income is obtained from criminal activity. Federal sentencing guidelines specify that punishment be a “substantial term of imprisonment” for the defendant who commits an offense as part of a pattern of criminal conduct, such as someone whose criminally-sourced income is 2,000 times that of minimum wage.

Dangerous Weapon – Any device or instrument that’s capable of inflicting death or serious bodily harm, including objects that closely resemble such a device. An example of the latter would be, for example, a gun carved from a bar soap and then painted to look like the real thing. A reasonable person could then expect the faux gun to have the capability of causing death or serious bodily harm. Prison inmates have indeed carved guns from bars of soap, and some have used them to successfully fool guards into thinking they’re the real thing.

Defendant – A person who’s been accused of a crime and has entered into the “court” phase of the legal process. Upon conviction, the same person is then considered to be an “offender.”

Defense Attorney: A lawyer who represents a defendant throughout their criminal proceedings.

Departure – Federal Sentencing Guidelines (see below) are predetermined ranges of terms of punishment based on certain factors of a crime and the criminal’s previous history, among other pertinent background and circumstances. A sentence outside the guideline range is called a departure. Departures may be upward, above the guideline range, or downward, below the mandatory minimum required sentence.

For example, a downward departure, a sentence below the mandatory minimum, is based on the defendant’s “substantial assistance” to the government in their investigation and/or prosecution of others. In short, a person who snitches on someone else and when the snitching results in putting their former friend behind bars, well, the snitch receives a shorter sentence than the one specified in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. A perfect example, hypothetically, would be the former friend of a politician who’s been busted for financial crimes. He, in turn, snitches on … say … a president of the United States. The snitch would then receive a lighter sentence than if he’d remained quiet and accepted the standard punishment for his own crimes.

Diminished Capacity – A downward departure from the normal sentencing guideline is warranted if the defendant suffers from a significantly reduced mental capacity, a condition that greatly contributed to the commission of a non-violent offense. Voluntary drug or alcohol use/abuse at the time of the commission of the crime does not apply, nor is it considered by the courts when determining if diminished capacity is a factor.

Duress – A downward departure may be warranted/granted if the defendant committed the crime in question because of serious threats, coercion, or pressure. For example, the man who commits a bank robbery under orders of a kidnapper who’s holding the man’s family hostage and threatens to do them harm should the man not do as told.

Extreme Conduct – A defendant may receive an upward departure from the guidelines range if their during the commission of the crime was exceptionally heinous, cruel, brutal, or degrading to the victim. Likewise, An upward departure from the guidelines may be warranted if a victim suffered extreme psychological injury that’s deemed exceptionally more serious than that normally resulting from commission of the crime.

Brutally maiming and murdering federal agents simply because they dared to ask questions (revenge), well, that may be a crime that warrants an upward departure from the typical sentence.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines – Federal Sentencing Guidelines are rules that determine how much, or how little, prison time a federal judge may impose on a defendant who has been found guilty of committing a federal crime.

To read more about Federal Sentencing Guidelines, click here.

Felony – An offense punishable by a prison term of one year or more.

Felony Murder: A killing that takes place during the commission of another dangerous felony, such as robbery.

To get everyone’s attention, a bank robber fires his weapon at the ceiling. A stray bullet hits a customer and she dies as a result of her injury. Then the robber turns toward the bank manager to order him to stay put and, while in the process, accidentally stabs and kills the man with the knife he held in his non-gun hand, the implement he’d planned to use to cut open sealed money bags. The robber has committed felony murder, a killing, however unintentional, that occurred during the commission of a felony. The shooter’s accomplices, assessors after the fact, could also be charged with the murder even if they were not in possession of a weapon or took no part in the death of the victim.

Firearm – Any weapon that expels a projectile caused by the action of an explosive. Since pellet and BB guns do not operate based on explosive charges they are not considered to be firearms. However, depending upon their use, they may be considered dangerous weapons (see Dangerous Weapons, above).

Good Time Credit – Federal prisoners may earn sentence reductions of up to 54 days per year a for their good conduct while in prison. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) awards the credits, not the courts, and they apply only to sentences greater than 12 months. Good time credits may be revoked should an inmate commit rule infractions during their incarceration period—fighting, stealing, possession of contraband such as drugs, weapons, or other prohibited material.

Federal prisoners who play nice during the course of their time behind bars typically see a substantial accumulation of good time credit and will subsequently hit the streets much sooner than those who repeatedly act like idiots.

Due to earned good time credit, federal prisoners who follow the rules are typically released after serving approximately 85% of their sentence.

Hate Crime Motivation –  If it’s proven beyond any reasonable doubt that a defendant intentionally selected a victim because of their race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability or sexual orientation, the courts may impose a sentence enhancement/upward departure of the guidelines.

Indictment – A formal, written accusation of a crime made by a Grand Jury. An indictment, once issued, is then presented to a court at which time begins the prosecution of the defendant.

Information – Like an indictment, an Information is a formal, written accusation of a crime. However, the Information is made by a prosecutor, not Grand Juries. This typically occurs in areas where Grand Juries are not utilized.

Judgment and Commitment – Or simply, the “judgment,” is a written record of the defendant’s convictions the sentences.

Kidnapping – An abduction, taking of a hostage, or unlawfully restraining a person to facilitate the commission of an crime. An upward departure of sentencing may be warranted in either of these instances.

Mandatory Minimum – Non-discretionary penalties required by law, such as the federal drug offenses that carry mandatory minimum penalties.

*See Federal Sentencing Guidelines above. To read more about Federal Sentencing Guidelines, click here.

Misdemeanor: A crime that’s punishable by one year of imprisonment, or less.

Misprision of a Felony – The concealment and/or nondisclosure of a felony by a person who did not participate in the committed crime. Example – John Iseenit, the man who knows that his friend, Bill Idunit, robbed a bank yet he allows Bill to hide out in his home along with the stolen cash. When the cops stop by to ask if John knows Bill’s whereabouts, he lies and says he does not.

Obstruction of Justice: Obstruction of Justice is a very broad term that simply boils down to charging an individual for knowingly lying to law enforcement in order to change to course/outcome of a case, or lying to protect another person. The charge may also be brought against the person who destroys, hides, or alters evidence.

For more about obstruction, see When Lying Becomes A Crime: Obstruction Of Justice

Offense Level: The severity level of an offense as determined by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines are rules that determine how much or how little prison time a federal judge may impose on a defendant who has been found guilty of committing a federal crime.

To learn more about these guidelines, go here … So, You’ve Committed a Federal Offense: How Much Time Will You Serve?

Order – The written command issued by a court or a judge.

Parole: The early and conditional release from prison. Should the parolee violate those conditions, he/she could be returned to prison to complete the remainder of their sentence. Parole, however, was abolished in the federal prison system in 1984. In lieu of parole, federal inmates earn good time credits based on their behavior during incarceration. Remember, federal inmates may earn a sentence reduction of up to 54 days per year. Good time credits are often reduced when prisoners break the rules, especially when the rules broken are serious offenses—fighting, stealing, possession of contraband such as drugs, weapons, or other prohibited material.

* Writers, please remember this one. There is no parole in the federal system. People incarcerated in federal prison after 1984 are not eligible for parole because is does not exist. I see this all the time in works of fiction.

Plea Agreement – Is an agreement whereby a defendant enters a guilty plea to avoid proceeding to trial. The agreement contains promises made by both the prosecutor and defendant, and each must must each abide by those written guarantees. Each party benefits in some way. The prosecutor avoids a lengthy and costly trial while maintaining a desired conviction rate. The defendant typically receives a shorter, more lenient sentence for agreeing to help the prosecutor maintain that upper level conviction rate.

Pre-sentence Report (“PSR”) – Prior to sentencing, a probation officer must thoroughly investigate all aspects of a defendant’s life—criminal history, family ties, work record, community ties, etc. This information is then compiled into a comprehensive report that’s filed with the courts, under seal. Also contained in the pre-sentence report is information about the offense and offender, the mandatory range of punishment, and recommendations and basis for imposing a departure above or below the guideline range.

Probation – A sentence option that allows a defendant to avoid imprisonment. Although, it’s common to see sentences comprised of some probation in conjunction with short stays in prison, such as the sentence of five years that’s split as three years behind bars with the balance of two years served as probation (this is known as a “split sentence”). Or, a sentence may be served as weekends in jail, confinement in halfway house where the offender is allowed to work during the day but return to the halfway house at night. Even home detention is a prison or jail sentence. It’s merely served in a unique way.. A person on probation is monitored by a probation officer and must follow all rules issued by the judge. Should  probationer break a rule, he may be ordered back to prison to serve the remainder of their sentence.

Revocation – The cancellation or reversal of an act or court order, such as when an offender violates the terms of supervised probation. The probation officer would ask that the judge revoke the offender’s supervised release and return them to prison to serve the remainder of their sentence. Prisoners refer to this action as being violated.

“Why are you back in the joint, Petey?” said One-Tooth McGee.

“That &%*# probation officer violated me,” Petey said.

Sentencing Table Sentencing guideline, in months. See  So, You’ve Committed a Federal Offense: How Much Time Will You Serve?

Substantial Assistance – Assisting the government in its investigation and/or prosecution of another individual in return for a reduced sentence.  *See “Departure” above.

Vacate – Based on a factual error, to void a sentence and then remand it back to the original court for re-sentencing.

Waive – To validly give up a right, such as a right to trial or the right to remain silent.

Have you ever read what you thought was a fantastic book, the kind that forces us to read into the wee hours of the morning, not wanting to stop because the writing is so doggone good? But then on page 1,617, well, there it is, the sentence that makes us scream like the shopper on Black Friday who lost the last 100-foot-flatscreen Kawasaki Supersonic television to the old lady with the great left jab who immediately zipped over to the checkout counter on her suped-up Hoveround with YOUR TV strapped to her back.

Yeah, you know those books. The stories written by the author who figured no one would notice that he didn’t know the difference between a revolver and a semi-automatic pistol. Or that cordite hasn’t been used in the manufacturing of ammunition since the last days of WWII. Yep, those books.

We’ve all heard (over and over and over again) about fake news, right? You’ve even heard me mention the nonsensical reporting so often seen floating around the internet. Well, the use of incorrect firearm and other forensic terminology and information has the same stink to it as does the news reporter who kneels down in a shallow puddle of water to make it seem as if he’s standing in raging floodwaters.

So let’s have a fresh start today and we’ll do so by clearing a bit of the stinky faux pas from our writing. We’ll begin the funk-cleansing by quashing a few details about blood evidence. First, up …

Some writers have their crime-solvers rush into a murder scene while soaking the area with a luminol-filled power washer. They spray and spray until every surface—walls, ceilings, and even the family dog and Ralph the goldfish are dripping with the glowing liquid.

Others, well, their detectives have the uncanny ability to merely look at blood droplets and immediately know its type and what the bleeder had for dinner and the exact time the red stuff spattered the family portrait hanging above the mantle.

You put your left eye up, you put your left eye down.

You put ’em both together and then you look all around.

That’s what it’s all about!

~ Sung to the tune of The Hokey Pokey.

So, as the peppy little jingle above indicates, investigators should always examine a scene visually before taking the first step inside. This includes looking up. See if there are bloodstains there. Any brain matter? Bullet holes? Insects?

Next, the walls and for the same items of evidence and/or clues.

The floor and the body, if that’s where it was found. Of course, the victim should be the first concern. After all, he or she just might still be alive and need prompt medical attention. Oh, and a quick check for the suspect is always a good idea. No need to take a bullet or stab wound in the back if not absolutely necessary. Priorities!

Then look all around, and do examine the smallest of details. Evidence, as any seasoned investigator will tell you, is sometimes found in the most unlikeliest of all places.

Crime-scene searches must be methodical and quite thorough. Every single surface, nook, and cranny must be examined for evidence, including doors, light switches, thermostats, door knobs, etc.

For example, removing the plastic light switch or receptacle covers reveals an ideal hiding spot for small evidence.

First responders can be a homicide detective’s worst nightmare!

Was evidence disturbed or altered when first responders arrived at the scene? Did they open or close windows and doors? Did they walk through blood or other body fluids?

Investigators must determine if the body has been moved by the suspect. Are there drag marks? Smeared body fluids? Transfer prints? Is there any blood in other areas of the scene? Is fixed lividity on the wrong side of the body, indicating that it had been moved after death

Does the victim exhibit signs of a struggle? Are there defensive wounds present on the palms of the hands and forearms?

Okay, back to the blood found at the scene. Your detective has detected a bright red and wet substance spattered across a bedroom wall. The victim ju jour is spread eagle on the floor beneath, obviously dead due to a large gap between the eyes. Therefore, the reasonable assumption is that the material dotted and smeared across the wall is indeed blood. But this must be verified.

The procedure for identifying the red, wet substance is not like we see on television.

Officers do not dig through their crime scene kit to pull out a UV light, shine it on the red drops and drips and then turn toward the camera to say, “It’s blood. Type O. She consumed orange juice and a ham sandwich three hours before a left-handed shooter, probably the waiter at the Golden Horseshoe Lounge, popped a cap into her oval-shaped head. I know this, TV viewers, because I magically saw the DNA and it’s a match for all of the above. I’ll be available for autographs later tonight in the lobby of Bucky Bee’s Motor Lodge out on Route 66.”

For starters, unlike saliva and semen, blood doesn’t fluoresce under UV light. Instead, the appropriate light source for viewing (and photographing) blood evidence is an infrared light source. Infrared light is at the wavelength between visible light and microwave radiation. It is invisible to the naked eye.

To avoid altering, contaminating, or destroying blood’s usefulness as evidence, a savvy detective must first determine the reddish-brown substance is blood and not spilled, leftover pasta sauce. To do so, investigators conduct a simple presumptive test such as the Leuco-Malachite DISCHAPS test. This is a field test kit that contains chemical filled ampoules that, when exposed to the evidence, displays an intense blue/green color reaction in 3 seconds if blood is present.

Remember, swab a small sample for testing. Do NOT destroy the entire piece of evidence by exposing it to the testing material. Test only the swab!!

Now that your protagonist has determined that blood is present, the next step is to photograph the evidence/area where blood was found.

Luminol, the chemical used to detect blood at crime scenes, reacts with the iron in hemoglobin. It emit a blue glow that can then be photographed as evidence. It’s helpful with locating the presence of blood even after the place has been thoroughly cleaned. However, it has its limitations because the chemical dilutes blood to the point where DNA is destroyed.

The use of various filters on infrared cameras helps to reveal evidence that can only be seen with specific areas of the infrared spectrum. For example, when capturing images of blood, filters coated with a protein that is found in both egg whites and blood plasma—albumin—are often used.

Other filters are available to detect drugs, fingerprints, and explosives.

Bone fragments and teeth are visible using both UV and blue light. Crack cocaine also fluoresces under blue light.

Those of you who attended the fabulous presentation by Sirchie at the 2018 Writers’ Police academy saw the use of these demonstrated in real time.

To recap in simpler terms:

  • Examine the crime scene visually before entering.
  • Visually inspect the areas above, below, and around so as to not miss evidence that may otherwise go undetected. Looks in odd places!
  • Conduct your search in a methodical manner. Be patient.
  • Identify possible bloodstains
  • Use presumptive test kits to determine if stains are indeed blood and if they’re from a human.
  • Do NOT destroy am entire stain during testing. Use a swab to capture a small sample and then test the swab, NOT the entire stain.
  • Make certain to preserve portions of the blood sample for other testing—DNA, etc.
  • Use proper light sources for locating and photographing blood.
  • Blood does not fluoresce under UV light.
  • The appropriate light source for viewing (and photographing) blood evidence is an infrared light source.
  • Filters coated with albumin are used for photographing blood. Other filters are also available.
  • Sirchie is the Global Leader in Crime Scene Investigation and Forensic Science Solutions; providing quality Products, Vehicles, and Training to the global law enforcement and forensic science communities.

*Remember the name “Sirchie” because you’ll soon be hearing more about them. Very, very soon. The news is exciting!

 

 

Since relocating to the upper tip of Delaware, Denene and I are currently residing in an extended stay hotel, where we’ve been since we left the Writers’ Police Academy. We will remain here until closing on the new house.

Yes, we finally found a home this week and made an offer on it, after an exhausting search. We reached an agreement with the sellers just yesterday and we now have signed documents in hand. Unfortunately, the owners are unable to vacate the home until early October. But, the property is extremely nice so it should be worth the wait. In the meantime, though, we’ll remain in the hotel.

Our room here is nice and features a mini kitchen and a large work station that accommodates our computers and other necessities.

Now that we’re here, though, I have no yard work or other home project to occupy the little spare time I have during the evening hours—the time I spent feeding the birds and watering and caring for the plants in our yard. The time that took me away from everything. It was my escape. The time to allow my mind to focus on nothing but the little creatures and flowers and blue skies and the combined scents of eucalyptus and citrus trees and roses … and the smoke from all the wildfires.

Therefore, now that I do have a bit of spare time, I’ve been able to read a bit, mostly at night using my Kindle Paperwhite. I love the device because it’s small and the backlit screen allows me to peruse the “pages” without waking Denene, who, by the way, started her new job last week. She’s still teaching microbiology and cool bioterrorism stuff, but as a professor at another university, in the department of Medical & Molecular Sciences.

Anyway, to get to the point, while reading current novels and blogs and news articles, I’ve run across the misuse of various terms and information. As a result, I decided to compile and post a bit of information to help set things straight.

I hope this helps somewhat in your quest to …

Write Believable Make-Believe

Defendant: Someone who’s been accused of a crime and is involved in a court proceeding.

Defense Attorney: A lawyer who represents a defendant throughout their criminal proceedings.

Departure: A sentence that’s outside the typical guideline range. Departures can be above or below the standard range; however, the most common departure is a downward departure, a sentence reduction solely based on the defendant’s substantial assistance to the government. For example, a defendant who spills the beans to law enforcement about the criminal activity of someone else for the sole purpose of obtaining a lesser sentence. In jailhouse/layman’s terms, “a snitch.”

Diminished Capacity: A defendant is eligible for a downward departure (reduction of sentence) if they can successfully prove they suffer from a significantly reduced mental capacity, a condition that contributed substantially to the commission of the offense of which they’re charged with committing. Merely having been under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the offense is typically not considered grounds for diminished capacity.

* This applies to the defendant only, not the defendant’s attorney, judges, or police officers. Their sometimes reduction in mental capacities is fodder for another article.

Duress: The federal sentencing guidelines allow for a downward departure if the defendant committed the offense because of serious threats, coercion, or pressure. An example is the person who’s been forced to commit a bank robbery by crooks who’re holding his family hostage until/unless he carries out the crime. The courts could/would show leniency by granting a downward departure (or complete dismissal) based upon the fact he was under severe duress at the time of the robbery.

Extreme Conduct: Here, an upward departure from the guidelines range may be appropriate if the defendant’s conduct during the commission of a crime was unusually heinous, cruel, and/or brutal. Even degrading the victim of the crime in some way may apply and earn the defendant a longer sentence that’s typically called for within the sentencing guidelines.

Brutally maiming and murdering federal agents simply because they dared to ask questions (revenge), well, that may be a crime that warrants an upward departure from the typical sentence.

 

Felony: An offense punishable by a term of imprisonment of one year or longer.

Felony Murder: A killing that takes place during the commission of another dangerous felony, such as robbery.

To get everyone’s attention, a bank robber fires his weapon at the ceiling. A stray bullet hits a customer and she dies as a result of her injury. The robber has committed felony murder, a killing, however unintentional, that occurred during the commission of a felony. The shooter’s accomplices could also be charged with the murder even if they were not in possession of a weapon or took no part in the death of the victim.

Hate Crime Motivation: An increase of sentence if the court determines that the defendant intentionally targeted a victim because of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability or even due to their sexual orientation.

Indictment: An indictment is the formal, written accusation of a crime. They’re issued by a grand jury and are presented to a court with the intention of prosecution of the individual named in the indictment.

Misdemeanor: A crime that’s punishable by one year of imprisonment, or less.

Obstruction of Justice: Obstruction of Justice is a very broad term that simply boils down to charging an individual for knowingly lying to law enforcement in order to change to course/outcome of a case, or lying to protect another person. The charge may also be brought against the person who destroys, hides, or alters evidence.

For more about obstruction, see When Lying Becomes A Crime: Obstruction Of Justice

Offense Level: The severity level of an offense as determined by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines are rules that determine how much or how little prison time a federal judge may impose on a defendant who has been found guilty of committing a federal crime.

To learn more about these guidelines, go here … So, You’ve Committed a Federal Offense: How Much Time Will You Serve?

Parole: The early and conditional release from prison. Should the parolee violate those conditions, he/she could be returned to prison to complete the remainder of their sentence. Parole, however, was abolished in the federal prison system in 1984. In lieu of parole, federal inmates earn good time credits based on their behavior during incarceration. Federal inmates may earn a sentence reduction of up to 54 days per year. Good time credits are often reduced when prisoners break the rules, especially when the rules broken are serious offenses—fighting, stealing, possession of contraband such as drugs, weapons, or other prohibited material.

Federal prisoners who play nice during the course of their time behind bar typically see a substantial accumulation of good time credit and will subsequently hit the streets much sooner than those who repeatedly act like idiots.

Due to earned good time credit, federal prisoners who follow the rules are typically released after serving approximately 85% of their sentence.

* Writers, please remember this one. There is no parole in the federal system. People incarcerated in federal prison after 1984 are not eligible for parole because is does not exist. I see this all the time in works of fiction.

By the way, this regularly occurring faux pas (incorrect use of parole in novels) brings to mind the dreaded “C” word … cordite. I still see this in current books. Your characters, unless in works of historical fiction, cannot smell the odor of cordite at crime scenes because the stuff is no longer manufactured. In fact, production of cordite ended at the end of WWII. Please, please, please stop using the stuff in your books.

Please read this:

Once Again – Cordite: Putting This Garbage In The Grave!

 

Never start a story with the weather. I’ve heard this many times over the years. In fact, once, in a moment of desperation and frustration, author J.A. Konrath begged writers to not do this “unspeakable” act.

Elmore Leonard begins his “Don’t-do-it” list with weather.

  1. Never open a book with the weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control!
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Same for places and things.
  10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

Elmore Leonard said it’s taboo!

Even our wonderful friend and writing teacher extraordinaire, Les Edgerton, has a few of his own rules regarding opening page blunders. In fact, he generously assembled those in his excellent book, Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers At Page One.

Edgerton’s list of Do-Nots:

  • Opening With a Dream
  • Opening With an Alarm Clock Buzzing
  • Being Unintentionally Funny
  • Too Little Dialogue (first few pages)
  • Opening With Dialogue

For details regarding each of the above points please click here (Writer’s Digest article).

Now, with that said and with an absolute clear understanding of the rules—NO Weather!—let’s get on with the show … today’s article. And it starts like this …

It was a dark and stormy night in our county. A sideways rain driven by the type of wind gusts that TV weather reporters are seen battling during live shots of hurricanes, the really big ones that send trees toppling and waves crashes onto houses far from the shoreline.

While on patrol I’d noticed a car parked approximately thirty yards off a dirt road next to a river. The vehicle was situated in the clearcut section along a power line. The driver’s door was open and what appeared to be a person was half-in and half-out. The upper portion of the body was the out section, and he or she was getting soaked.

So, in spite of the downpour, thunder, lightning, and the hairs on the back of my neck standing at attention (the cop’s sixth sense was in full overdrive), I had to get out to investigate.

I scanned the area carefully, using the spotlight mounted to my car, making certain this wasn’t an ambush, and then stepped outside. After another look around, I plowed forward while the winds drilled raindrops into my face and against my lemon-yellow vinyl raincoat, the one I kept in the trunk of my patrol car just for times like this one. The sound of those oversized drops of water was that of small stones striking at a pace equal to the rat-a-tat-tatty rounds fired from a Chicago typewriter.

As I stated earlier, the storm that night was brutal. It was a fight to walk headfirst into swirling, stinging winds that tugged and pulled and pushed against my rain coat, sending its tails fluttering and flapping, exposing my brown over tan deputy sheriff uniform. It—the uniform—was not waterproof. Not even close.

The ground at the crime scene was extremely muddy and with each step my once shiny brown shoes collected gobs of thick, wet soil until it felt as if gooey bricks were tied to the bottoms of my feet.

These were the deplorable conditions in which I met the crying dead woman.

Raindrops the size of gumdrops pelted the victim’s face, gathering and pooling at the corners of her eyes, eventually spilling out across her cheeks like tiny rivers that followed the contours of her flesh until they poured from her in miniature waterfalls.

It was one-on-one—me and the victim.

Passenger door open.

She’s lying there, bottom half in, top half out.

Her face aimed at the sky.

Rain falling into her open mouth.

Cheap dollar-store tennis shoes and half-socks, the socks her youngest daughter—the seven-year-old—called baby socks.

Her hair, mingled with mud, rainwater, sticks, and leaves.

Power lines crackled and buzzed overhead.

The creamy light from my flashlight showcased her dim gray eyes.

No life,

No recollections,

No dreams.

Not a flicker.

Tire tracks.

Different pattern than the rubber on her Chrysler.

Driver’s window down.

Three rounds—one to the head and two to the torso.

Five empty casings.

Pistol.

Not a revolver.

Half-empty wine bottle.

Cheap.

Not her brand according to the ladies in her church group. “Oh we don’t drink. Neither did she. Except on special occasions. Yep, it must have been something or somebody really special for her to drink that stuff.”

“Was there a somebody special?”

Eyes cast downward.

Blushes all around. “Well … she did stay after Wednesday night preaching a few times. But they were meetings strictly about church business. After all, he is the Reverend. A good man.”

More blushing.

A stammer or two.

A good man.

The rain comes harder, pouring across her cheeks, meandering through her hair.

Droplets hammer her open eyes.

She doesn’t blink.

A dead woman crying.

Footprints.

Two sets.

One walking.

Casually?

A sly, stealthy approach?

The other, long strides.

Running away, possibly.

Zigzagging to the woods.

Bullet lodged in base of a spruce pine.

One round left to find.

Water inside my collar, down my back.

Shivering.

Cloth snagged on jagged tree branch.

Plaid shirt material.

Blood?

Still visible in the rain?

The missing fifth round?

Maglite never fails, even in torrential rain.

Cop’s best friend.

Light catches shoe in underbrush.

Shoe attached to adult male.

Dead.

Bullet in back.

The fifth round.

Coming together nicely.

Church meetings.

Reverend.

Two lovers.

Special wine for special occasion …

A good man.

Sure he is.

~

Morning sunshine.

Tiny face peering from window.

Waiting for Mama?

Police car,

Parks at curb.

Scent of frying bacon in the air.

Door swings open.

Worried husband.

“No, she didn’t come home after church. Called friends and family. Nobody knows.”

Husband, devastated.

Questions unanswered.

Children cry.

“Yes, I have ideas. 

And I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Tire tracks match.

Pistol found.

Preacher hangs head in shame.

Special occasion.

To profess love.

But …

Another man.

Another lover.

Angry.

Jealous.

Handcuffs.

Click.

Click.

Murder.

No bond.

I seal the deal with a single, odd, plant seed found stuck to the killer’s brake pedal.

Bingo!

I could definitely place him at the scene.

Prison.

Life.

No parole.

Today, there’s no rain in California. Not a drop.

But the lack of moisture falling from the skies doesn’t stop me thinking of the crying dead woman and her kids, her loving husband and, of course, baby socks.

Special occasion?

Good man?

Yeah, right.

The world’s filled with good men … and battered, hurt, and dead women who cry in rain.


Les Edgerton has a brand new book coming out in november 2018. I have an advance copy and it’s a killer! So today, I’m officially issuing a BOLO (Be On the Lookout) for Adrenaline Junkie.

In the meantime, don’t forget to pick up a copy of Hooked!


*Top photo – Writers’ Police Academy – Shallow grave investigations