Monthly Archives: July 2012
MM: I worked a cold case that involved a sexual murder. The body was tied in an unusual manner. The knots demonstrated sophistication but were quite honestly out of my realm of experience. Our suspect was an enlisted sailor. We found an expert within the Navy on nautical knots and lashings. He was able to examine the bindings and his conclusions were very helpful. He was able to demonstrate that the knot binding her wrists could be tied one handed by someone familiar and skilled with it. Our original assumption from its complexity was that she was either unconscious by this point (though that did not fit the MO) or that he would have had difficulty controlling her with both hands busy on the knot. This working theory of ours was quickly changed. Of further interest was his identification of which rating (military specialty) the sailor that tied these knots would have had as well as his experience level. He noted subtle irregularities (a right over left, instead of left over right) that allowed him to offer the opinion that the sailor was likely near the end of his first enlistment but not established in his second 4 years at the time this was tied. This matched our suspect to a “T”.
F4F: How large is the NCIS? Are there a lot of offices and laboratories or is it pretty centralized?
MM: NCIS has about 1400 Special Agents, about 70 are Marine Special Agents, additionally there are intelligence analysts and support staff. The NCIS is broken down into field offices with a headquarters in the Washington DC area. They recently moved from the Navy Yard (of the TV show fame) to Quantico Virginia where they are co-located with the other military investigative organizations. NCIS uses the US Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory at Fort Gillam in Atlanta. During time of specialized forward deployment special labs have been set up such as in Iraq to expedite forensic processing in the region. There are fewer than 20 field offices. A field office typically covers a large geographic region such as the southeastern US or Northwest US. They may also cover Europe, Japan, and other foreign regions such as the Middle East. Field offices are led by a Special Agent in Charge (SAC). Each Field office has NISRA’s assigned under it. These are Resident Agencies that are led by a Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) and serve a particular military base or command. The strength at each NCISRA is dependent on their mission and coverage.
F4F: Can NCIS agents arrest any military officer, even a high ranking officer (such as an Admiral) or do they have to go through a special process?
MM: Generally the jurisdiction lies initially with the location of the crime. When a suspect is identified it shifts to the suspects military commanding officer and the Military Investigative Office (MIO) that would serve them. For instance, a Soldier that kills a sailor on a Marine Base certainly poses some issues. Ultimately the soldier would be formally charged and tried through his/her chain of command so the Army CID would have the investigation at that point. Initially The NCIS would work this as the crime occurred on their base and a suspect is normally not instantly identified. In short, all of the MIO’s have a great working relationship as we so often overlap. It is also important to have these with the local and state police as often the crime is in their jurisdiction and we assist.
F4F: Tell us a little about your new text book Death Scene Investigation
MM: The foundation for Death Scene Investigation actually came about when I helped author a crime scene field guide for NCIS. Don Housman and I worked on that original project along with input from quite a few Special Agents. That guide was so helpful to me that I hoped to put out a civilian version. By some twist the Death Scene Investigation Procedural Guide actually was finished before the civilian Crime Scene Investigation Guide (which I am co-authoring with Don Housman). The Death Scene Investigation Procedural Guide is a spiral bound, 260 page guide book meant to be carried in your cargo pocket to the scene. It suggests step by step procedures for almost any death scene you might encounter (if you think of one I missed, let me know, I’ll get it in the next edition). The guide starts with a simple decision matrix that allows you to evaluate the evidence in context and determine an investigative direction. It emphasizes “red flags” for when an accident isn’t an accident etc… From recovering bodies from shallow graves, fields or water to determining approximate time since death, collecting evidence, processing fingerprints from the body (the bad guys) to collecting maggots and footwear impressions. An easy to follow procedure is laid out.
MM: NCIS Special Agents investigate felony level criminal offenses that occur within the department of (US) Navy to include the Marine Corps. This includes crimes that occur aboard ship, at operational combat bases, in the field, or at any of the USN bases or facilities world-wide. In many instances NCIS shares jurisdiction with state, or even foreign nations law enforcement organization. Part of being an NCIS Special Agent is demonstrating the ability to garner positive working relationships with all law enforcement agencies they may encounter. Though a US Warship docked in a foreign port is US govern property, the dock, pier etc… are not and often the criminal element that may threaten US forces come from these areas. This might include those wishing to facilitate drug trade or trafficking, those targeting sailor for criminal purposes or terrorist opposed to the US presence in their area.
MM: NCIS Special Agents are Federal Law Enforcement Officers and have police powers in civilian controlled jurisdiction. In foreign countries the degree of law enforcement power off base is carefully delineated through understandings with the host country. NCIS is mostly a civilian law enforcement agency (as differentiated by having military members). There are military members from the Navy and Marine Corps within our intelligence analysis sections as well as Marine Special Agents. These Agents work side by side with Civilian Special Agents and are all but indistinguishable from their civilian counterparts. There are some restriction on a Military Special Agents interaction with law enforcement arrests of purely civilians, this is covered under the Posse Comitatus Acts which was originally placed to prevent our military from being used as a domestic police force.
MM: I was assigned to work with the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia investigating the Sbrenicia Massacre that occurred in Bosnia after Dutch Peace keeping Forces were forced out by the Serbs. Approximately 10,000 men were executed in a series of locations, mostly schools and civic auditoriums. Two of these scenes were close to pristine, in that the Serbs removed the bodies, chained the doors and walked away. In the two sites I was involved in about 500 men were executed at each location. The forensic challenge was we could only take the processing gear we could fit in a single European style van that also had to hold all of our personal effects. The second challenge was that once we left a site and it was identified as part of the investigation it would likely be dozed to the ground. So, with limited equipment, time and sleep our four man team processed two sites, a theater and warehouse where about 500 people were killed in each. Unusual to say the least even in the highest crime neighborhood in the states.
While in Haditha Iraq we met with similar challenges. Investigating the “Haditha Massacre” we would leave our safe base, travel into Haditha (called a denied area, military euphemism for not safe) and process three houses and a roadside shooting site where in all 24 civilians were reportedly massacred. Learning from Bosnia and other foreign adventures we developed a specialized method of processing the scenes, SWAT team style. Hitting fast and hard we could collect the evidence and document the scene in under twenty minutes (approximately the time necessary for the insurgents to respond to our presence). Processing a scene in full combat gear at my age was to say the least a physical and mental challenge. We completed the scenes and the evidence was later used to exonerate several of the Marines from wrongdoing as the Iraqi’s version of events was clearly not supported by the forensic findings. We did get a little greedy and stayed on one scene longer than we should have, finally the Marine in charge of our security rushed us out after IED’s and other insurgent activity increased sufficiently against our position. How were we distinguished from the Marines? In my case I made a much larger target than most Marines and on our load bearing vests though we carried plenty of ammo we also had at least 8 or 10 sharpie pens!
I’ll post the second portion of this interview in a few days so be sure to check back!
One of the most eye-opening things I came to realize during criminal investigations is that family members can make lousy “witnesses”. Whenever someone is murdered the police will interview family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers in an effort to better understand the victim’s habits and character. The more we know about the victim the better able we are to understand the conditions of the crime scene. What is normal, what looks out of place? How would they react to a stranger? Do they have any “blind spots”? A blind spot is a weakness or condition in which they would let their guard down. For example, if they are an animal lover they might be more willing to open the door to a stranger seeking help in finding their lost dog?
Over the years I have found that almost all family and friends believe they know the victim quite well but few actually do. The fact of the matter is that everyone has secrets. Some are old and some are new but they are there. When I wrote The Scent of Fear some of my family members were shocked to learn that the story was inspired by real cases in my career. Some had no idea I’d been involved in such cases and most will never know the full extent of my involvement and case work. It’s just not something I talk about.
In some ways, perception of a victim is like an eyewitness account. There are parts that may be true and other parts that aren’t. Some family members project experiences from years past and presume that the same conditions are true today. For example, the victim may have loved cats when she was 13 but now can’t stand them. But the parent or sibling only remembers the victim loving cats. It’s normal for friends and family to grieve a death. At times they feel remorse or guilt for not being closer and then they feel a responsibility to help “solve” the mystery for the police. This can be beneficial but more often than not it introduces a lot of misinformation that we have to deal with.
Because this misinformation affects real police investigations I thought it would be insightful to conduct your own experiment as an author. It can be kind of fun too. So here is what you do. Make a list of ten or twelve general questions about yourself. I will make a general list below that you can use to get the ball rolling. Once you have completed it send the questionnaire to at least a dozen family, friends, even neighbors or co-workers if you can. Ask them to take it seriously as if they were talking to the police. Then take a look at the answers and see what, if any, differences you might find.
This is basically the same thing the police will do (in person). We will interview all these people and sometimes we get answers back that are completely contradictory. It can be a real challenge to try and figure out which “witness” should be trusted more. Anyway, try it out and have a little fun with it. If you want, please comment once you get things back and tell us how they all did. If you have the time try answering the same questions about your family members and then see how many questions you get right.
- Do I normally lock my windows at night?
- Do I own a gun or know how to shoot one?
- What kind of beer/wine do I normally drink?
- Describe my daily routine. Do I have a predictable schedule?
- If unmarried, am I dating anyone serious right now?
- Do I have any phobias?
- What are my favorite hobbies?
- Wold I open the door to a strange woman?
- What did I do last weekend?
- Have I ever had any major surgery?
- Have I ever been arrested?
- What time do I typically go to bed? Get up?
This is a great question that comes up from authors now and again. Usually it refers to broken glass at what we call the “point of entry”. This is the location where the crook breaks into the residence, business, or vehicle. There are a lot of ways to break glass. You can use a tool like a glass cutter, hammer, or simply throw a rock through it. So when a CSI responds to a crime scene and finds a broken window one of the questions that we must try to answer is “was the glass broken from the inside out or the other way around?” Now if you see a huge rock sitting in the living room surrounded by broken glass it’s a pretty easy call. But what if the tool isn’t present? One thing to consider is where the glass fell. There is a more definitive examination we can do but I’ll cover it in a future post. For now let’s just consider the issues of glass being inside or outside.
A lot of authors (and police) believe that if a majority of the glass is inside the point of entry then force came from the outside. If most of the glass is outside then the force came from the inside and might suggest staging. One of the important aspects to consider is the type of glass. Generally speaking the glass will be either “plate/sheet” (also called pane or flat glass) or “safety”. Plate glass is not typically found in new US homes as most local codes call for safety glass. Safety glass is also required in all new vehicles. Plate glass can be commonly found in older windows (1980′s and earlier). There are a number of manufacturing processes but CSIs are more concerned with how it breaks. You’ve probably all seen this but when plate glass breaks it tends to form large (sharp) irregular pieces. Safety glass on the other hand is designed to shatter into small thumbnail sized fragments. You may have seen these at the scene of an auto accident or vehicle break in. Safety glass generally produces more glass fragments (that more easily fall away from the window plane) that may be found at the point of entry.
The other major consideration is how entry was made. Did the suspect break a window and crawl in? Did the suspect break door glass and reach in to unlock a door? If so, which way does the door open? Consider a theft from a vehicle. Your bad guy breaks a small portion of the window out and reaches in to unlock the door. Some of the glass will undoubtedly fall inside on the seat and floor. But what happens next? He opens the door to the outside. Now any glass that falls will land on the concrete “outside” the point of entry. Finding a majority of the broken glass outside the vehicle may falsely suggest to some that the force came from the inside. So while common sense suggests that more glass will be found on the side opposite of force that may not be the case because the event of falling glass is not strictly limited to that moment in time when the window is broken. Other activities like opening the door or even brushing past it may cause additional (even a majority) of the glass to dislodge and fall. Remember that suspects may have to make several trips through the entry way to move stolen merchandise or in their general search of the premises.
Good investigators know this but a rookie or private investigator may not. As authors you may choose to use the “dominant” glass position to pit different characters and theories against each other. One camp can argue staging while the other thinks it’s legitimate. Just don’t make the mistake of concluding direction of force from the position of glass fragments alone. I’ll post an article soon on the physical examination of glass fragments in the lab (and field) to verify the true direction of force.
Do you know anyone who wants to be a CSI? Do you have a student, child, or relative that wants to pursue a career in the forensic sciences but doesn’t know where to begin? If so, I have something that may help. Over the years I have been contacted by thousands of students wanting advice on how to become a real CSI. Those calls were the genesis of my latest e-book Planning Your Career in Forensics. I have helped numerous law enforcement agencies select new employees for their crime labs and I bring that knowledge to the pages of this guide.
- Self evaluation
- Selecting the right position
- Choosing the best university
- Designing resumes and portfolios
- & much, much more!
- Appendix covering recommended university programs, research project ideas, and sample interview questions are included as well.
Planning Your Career in Forensics is an invaluable reference for students, teachers, guidance counselors, parents and anyone who wants to pursue a career as a CSI or knows someone who does. Click here for a free Kindle reader if you need it.
Starting tomorrow (July 6th) the e-version of my debut novel The Scent of Fear will be free at Amazon.com through the weekend. This novel has been a labor of love for me over the years and I am busy working on the sequel which I hope to have finished by year’s end. I want to thank everyone who has supported me and this blog over the last year! I am having a lot of fun writing these posts and I hope you’re getting some useful information for your stories! If you have any friends or family that enjoy crime thrillers please pass the link on to them. If you don’t have a kindle reader you can download it here. Thanks again and have a great weekend!
Hi everyone! Today I’m over at the Crime Fiction Collective discussing some of the major challenges facing cold case investigators. I have worked my fair share of cold cases over the years and they can really suck! We can throw all the latest forensic technologies at them but, if the foundation isn’t there it’s like nailing an egg to a tree. Delving into a forty year old case file really opens your eyes to the challenges that can hamper an investigation. I’ll bet there are challenges you never considered as an author. If you’re writing about a cold case investigation you should check this out to see what your characters might be facing. See you there!