Category Archives: General
The art of observation is critical to every CSI. We have to be able to see things that others can not. Contrary to popular opinion we don’t always “see” everything that we see. To steal an example from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; close your eyes and say out loud how many steps it takes to get from your bedroom door to your kitchen. Easy right? I mean, you probably walk that route several times a day don’t you? Why would you have trouble describing the number of steps it takes? It’s the difference between “seeing” and “observing”. We may see things but we may not observe them.
As authors, we have to describe scenes for our readers. We have to do it in such a way that they feel a part of the scene. This is easier when we feel a part of it ourselves. I’m sure you’d agree that your writing is much better when you’re describing a place you’ve actually visited. But even if you’re familiar with the setting…how well do you really know it? Here is a simple exercise to help you develop your skills of observation. The more you practice such exercises the more vivid and detailed your scene writing will likely become.
Where ever you are right now, get a sheet of paper and a pen. Pick a room on the other side of your home (or your office). Imagine yourself standing in the doorway facing into the space. Now I want you to describe the room. Start on your left and begin writing down everything I would see if I were standing where you are. Spare no detail. Give yourself ten minutes to complete the task. Then try to draw a “birds-eye” diagram of the furniture in that space. When you’re done, take the notes and diagram to the room and see how you did. Did you capture all the detail? The colors…the sounds…the smells?
If you live in a dorm room or one bedroom apartment you can try something a little different. Think of a picture in your place of employment or relatives house. Got it? Now describe it and draw it. What are the colors? How many elements (people, animals, buildings, etc.) are in it? What color is the mat board? How about the frame? Where is it on the wall?
I’m not suggesting that CSIs have photographic memories. We don’t observe everything either but, we develop our skills of observation to “see” more than the average person. I’m betting that, as authors, you see more than you think; more than most others. Exercises like this are what we use to train new CSIs to observe details others may miss. I hope that you’ll find it an interesting first step in enhancing your observation skills.
I love being out in the woods. I don’t mind walking established trails but it takes no convincing to get me “off trail”. One of the reasons I love getting off the beaten path is that I get to see things most people don’t. Wild critters, small brooks, or hidden canyons. I sit and wonder how long it has been since another person was seeing what I’m seeing.Most of the time I’m not that far away from the rest of those enjoying the outdoors. Maybe just over a hill or around a bend but, it makes all the difference in the experience. I often think “wow”, I would have never seen that bear, bobcat, or elk if I hadn’t come this way.
In the modern world we’re conditioned to follow certain paths. Sidewalks, roads, green belts, subways, etc. Think about it…don’t you take the same path to work everyday? What about the grocerie store, gas station, or your child’s school? Partly this is because we’ve determined the easiest, most efficient, route. But even when you’re going somewhere new you generally stay on some kind of path right? Don’t most of you hesitate to cross open space unless there is a trail? Even then, if there is a sign prohibiting it, most people won’t. This type of thinking limits the world we see and experience. Criminals aren’t restrained by thinking.
One of the toughest things to learn as a new CSI is to stop thinking like everyone else and start thinking like a criminal. You have to divorce yourself from even the most basic and accepted thoughts. Criminals have to conduct their “business” and get from point A to point B but, some of them don’t want to draw attention to themselves (just like animals). At least the successful ones don’t. They like to conduct their business in the “shadows” or “off the beaten path”. There is a whole world of activity going on right now…off that beaten path. These are worlds within worlds and it is the job of the CSI to find them (at least as they pertain to criminal activity).
These are places where most of us have no reason to go. Culverts, abandoned buildings, tunnels, and over grown gulches. Sometimes these places are right under our noses. I remember being a young officer and getting a call about a “satanic” alter being found at a movie theater. Turns out there was a “hidden” room above the concession stand but below the projector room. In the old days they used the room to cut film reels. It hadn’t been used in decades for that reason but someone was using it now. There was no way to tell how long it had been in use but that’s not my point. The point is that the activities were going on right under everyone’s noses because no one ever had reason to go in there. The room was “off limits”.
Don’t forget about these “hidden worlds” in your writing. I’ve made it a point in my novels to include such places and I think it adds a powerful layer of mystery to the settings. These places are even more frightening when your characters stumble upon them for the first time. It may be a detective, teenage runaway, or concerned parent. The possibilities are endless and can be driven by the structure itself. The video below is apparently from an old missile silo. Imagine the types of crimes that could be going on in such a place and how hard it would be for someone to stumble upon it? Might be a good idea for a novel eh?
Real life CSIs sometimes have to find innovative ways to capture evidence. There are a ton of commercial products available for nearly every type of evidence but Murphy has a tendency to rear his ugly head at the most inopportune times (like a homicide scene). Cameras break, your partner forgot to re-stock supplies, or you simply run out. In most cases you can’t just run down to the local Walmart and pick up exactly what you need. Good CSIs learn to develop alternative methods of collecting and preserving evidence (if possible) in the event you need to have a fall back plan. Some purists may scoff at such an idea but in my opinion it’s better to have something collected than nothing collected. The need to use unconventional collection methods is probably more likely for your private detective or amateur detective character. These folks may not have an impressive array of CSI gear because they don’t have to concern themselves with those matters often.
I’ve noted before that footwear evidence is one of the most commonly overlooked categories of physical evidence at a crime scene. Some of that is due to a lack of training, lack of awareness, or simply not having the proper equipment. In real life, the crime lab isn’t called to every crime scene. Usually we just go to the major scenes. Patrol officers don’t carry around electro-static dust print lifters, alternate light sources, and other specialized equipment so sometimes footwear evidence gets overlooked. One of the better surfaces to find two dimensional footwear impressions at crime scenes is paper. Paper may get scattered on the floor during a ransacking or it may just be trash on the floor (like in a warehouse). You can even find these dust prints on broken drywall, carpeting, or doors that have been kicked. Either way it can hold valuable clues. These impressions can be latent (invisible) and need some degree of processing to make visible again.
So what is your amateur detective to do when he/she spots a sheet of paper at the crime scene and thinks there’s a footwear impression on it? One simple process is to use blue carbon paper to make a lift. For some reason, black carbon paper isn’t as good. The process is really quite easy. You start by taking the paper evidence and securing it to a hard flat surface. Taping the corners works well. Then you lay a sheet of blue carbon paper down over the area you think may hold the dust print. Cover that carbon sheet with a manilla file folder or pad of paper and use a 4″ rubber roller to “press” the dust print onto the blue carbon paper. Simply roll the rubber roller firmly back and forth over the area a few times to transfer the image.
Once that is done the detective can flip over the carbon paper and use a strong oblique light (like a flashlight) to see the image in a darkened room. Any windowless room (like a powder room) works well. Voila! The invisible shoe print is now visible. It may be possible to individualize an impression to a particular shoe but even knowing the make and model of the shoe can be helpful in an investigation. If your prime suspect only wears Nike and the shoe in question is a cowboy boot you may need to search for another suspect right? In the end, a professional CSI would probably get better results using a gel lifter or ESDL but keep this trick in mind when writing your scenes. If your “detective” is unprepared then this might be a good option to recover evidence others may have missed.
Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been a bit absent lately. I apologize but I’ve been up to my ears trying to get everything ready for the release of the next novel. I will get a new F4F post up soon! It has been a labor of love to write this series and I am already busy at work on the third and final installment of this story (although Sarah & Co. have many more adventures to come)! I don’t want to give any spoilers but Sarah and friends will be tested in new and exciting ways as they try to bring someone to justice for the sniper killings in The Scent of Fear. If you haven’t read the first book, don’t worry. Bloodlines was written to stand on it’s own. Of course, it helps to have some of the back story but I think it’s still enjoyable and easy to follow. You’ll find some really interesting tidbits about Art and some layers of Daniel’s mysterious past will be peeled away. I hope you enjoy it and thanks again for all of the support.
I have to give special thanks to my new editor Brittiany at Written Dreams. She has been such a professional! She worked hard to maintain my voice and gave me a lot of great advice on shaping the characters and scenes. If you’re looking for a great editor I highly recommend her and her staff. I also want to thank Jerry Dorris with Author Support for another great book cover. I can’t imagine anyone better to work on my book covers. As I stated in my last post I add a lot of symbolism in my covers and Jerry has been very patient with me in getting all of my elements “just right”. Lastly, I want to thank Kevin MacLeod with Incompetech for providing a great selection of music to use in my trailer. He is very talented.
I hope to have Bloodlines available by mid-April. In the meantime, here is the blurb. More information to follow soon…
CSI Sarah Richards is back in the heart pumping follow up to The Scent of Fear. Months after the assassination of Governor Hoines, a determined genealogist stumbles upon a conspiracy that threatens to expose a plot to reshape the nation by a rich and cunning family in Colorado. Now the Gerovit, an elite group of Russian assassins returns to destroy any evidence of the conspiracy. As Sarah’s mentor and his nephew Daniel crisscross the nation trying to unravel the genealogist’s coded journal, Sarah must discover how two double murders separated by a century are connected to the most powerful man in Colorado. But with enormous political forces, a team of killers, and her own department working against her, can Sarah unravel the clues before she becomes a part of history herself?
This is a common question CSIs must address with each crime scene. Why this house? Why this victim? Why me? (just kidding!) We don’t always figure it out but understanding what may have attracted the criminal may provide insight into the type of criminal we’re looking for. Of course, each crime is different. The location may be incidental to the victim but, for the sake of this discussion, let’s just focus on location. To answer this question I generally begin by breaking down my options into two categories; Intelligence and Opportunity.
Intelligence doesn’t relate to IQ. By Intelligence I mean information. This may tie in to what is stolen. I remember a residential burglary once where the owners reportedly had several thousand dollars in cash taken. When I asked where the money had been kept the man took me to the master closet and showed me an older sport jacket (among dozens) that he used to stash the cash in. There were no windows and so it was immediately obvious that whoever had stolen the money knew it was there. Nothing else was disturbed and the odds of a burglar stumbling on the right jacket were astronomical! Turns out his teenager had disclosed (bragged about) the information to some “friends” at school. The point is that they knew what they were looking for and where. The same may be true for drugs, guns, counterfeit money, etc. If your victims are professional criminals (sometimes they do call the cops) they will be less than truthful about what was really stolen. They just want the CSIs to figure out who committed the crime. Criminal locations targeted may include rival drug houses, prostitution rings, money launderers, etc.
Is the home adjacent to a greenbelt or park and lacking blinds or curtains? Can the burglar easily “case” the house at night with the lights on? Does the victim have a predictable routine or habit that is easily observed? Is this the only house on the block without an alarm sign in the front yard? Are they the only ones without a large dog? What makes this house or business more appealing than the one next door? Of course, businesses are somewhat different than homes. They type of business may have everything to do with selection. A gas station or pawn shop is more tempting to a robber than a dental practice. Unless, of course, the dental office is a front!
Opportunity is another factor to consider. Most burglars don’t like to enter occupied structures. So they may be on the lookout for evidence of vacancy. Are there newspapers piled up outside? Solicitor advertisements on the door? Have the trash cans been left on the curb when all the other neighbors have brought them in? These are all passive indicators that no one is home. Sometimes criminals will enter a home. This is more tempting when access is easy such as when the garage door is left open. Some people will leave ground floor windows open as well which are very easy to bypass. Some criminals are even bold enough to ring the doorbell. If no one answers (and they don’t hear a dog) they just go around to a secluded spot and force entry.
So why is any of this important to you as an author? Because readers want to understand the “why” of the scene. Why this house? Why this window? Why this victim? It provides a reasonable explanation to the reader for the actions and motives of the characters. So, knowing how to describe and set up the revelation may bring your reader into a deeper appreciation of the scene. This information can be given in any viewpoint, dialog, or observation of the character. The “how” is not nearly as important as the “why”. So when you’re developing a scene try not to just toss out random elements. Ask yourself why your criminal decided on this particular location and then reveal that in some way to the reader. I guarantee you they are dying to know!
Blood evidence is a powerful tool for the crime scene investigator. Whether testing for DNA or examining the bloodstain patterns to reconstruct the events of a crime blood is a powerful witness. This fact is not lost on the criminal. This knowledge is rooted in the old saying “caught red-handed” in which a criminal with blood on his hands was thought to be guilty. So criminals have learned to clean crime scenes and evidence and CSIs have learned ways to recover it. Without getting too deep in the forensic weeds; cleaning efforts usually result in either diluting the blood or masking it. Using a washing machine is an effective way of diluting bloodstained clothing. Criminals also have easy access to washing machines so it’s not too surprising that they may utilize them to wash away evidence.
Some of you may already be asking “why not just throw the clothing away?” It’s a god question but to understand it you have to understand a criminal and what they value. A t-shirt may get thrown away like garbage but if the item is their favorite jacket, sports jersey, athletic shoe, or ball cap then they may just roll the dice. One key thing to remember about all criminals. They will clean a crime scene to a point they do not see the evidence. That doesn’t mean the evidence is gone, it’s just beyond the abilities of the criminal to see it. So…will washing clothes destroy blood evidence? Sort of.
I won’t reveal the current state of DNA detection, suffice it to say that researchers are making breakthrough’s all the time. I’ve written before about the durability of DNA evidence and some of the current case studies and research might blow your mind. On the matter of dilution there are some amazing reagents like Luminol that may detect blood at one part per million. Several years ago I conducted a study to see if we could detect bloodstain patterns on washed clothing. I didn’t have high hopes but I thought it may be possible. The long of the short is that a number of cotton shirts were stained with various bloodstain patterns and then subjected to a series of alternating wash and dry cycles. I used washing detergent with bleach and dried the items in a hot-air clothes dryer. The long of the short is that I was able to detect blood on the clothing after five alternating cycles of washing and drying. At the time I used horse blood and DNA testing wasn’t as inexpensive as it is today so I didn’t address that issue. I just wanted to see if the bloodstain patterns could be detected.
You may want to keep this in mind as you’re developing your story. If your bad guy washes his/her clothing you may want o have your good guy find it. This would also work with victim’s clothing that has been exposed to rain, submersion, etc. If you develop a DNA profile all the better! I certainly won’t criticize you for it.
It’s not uncommon to come across some really interesting bloodstain patterns when investigating violent crimes. It’s much less common to come across a single drop that throws you for a loop. This phenomenon was discovered by a friend of mine and has stumped a lot of examiners. Take a look at the picture of the blood stain and see if you can tell how it was formed. This is a single blood drop; the kind you might expect to drip from a bleeding hand. The stain diameter is probably around 12mm-15mm. Can you figure out how this stain was formed? Let the analyses begin…
UPDATE: Okay, looks like a few of you have given it some thought. Some were in the vicinity but, no one quite figured it out. One of the key aspects of any bloodstain analysis is what we refer to as the target surface. That’s the surface the bloodstain is resting on. In this particular case it is a coated mat board that is off-gassing ever so slightly. As the blood dries from the edges in, the gas is trapped and “funneled” into the middle where the blood is forced up. Pretty cool huh? FYI…we’ve never seen this phenomenon at a crime scene; only in experiments.
F.L.I.R., or forward looking infra-red is process in which a camera, or imager, can detect infrared radiation. It is sometimes referred to inaccurately as “night vision” and has become increasingly popular in movies, television, and novels. More accurately it can be referred to as “thermal imaging”. You’ve probably seen thermal imaging footage from police helicopters or military operations replayed on the nightly news. These cameras are very useful in police operations for tracking suspects at night or in bad weather. You see, infrared cameras do not require any natural or artificial light like night vision goggles. They are also not affected by fog, cloud cover, or smoke. This makes them ideal for operations in nearly any environment. While they are used for certain civilian projects, these cameras are most valued by law enforcement and the military.
These cameras work by detecting temperature variations between objects (like a suspect and his surroundings). These differences are technically changes in the wavelength of the infrared frequency. Cameras can be mounted anywhere but are most often attached to aircraft (helicopters/fixed wing aircraft), ships, or vehicles. They even make hand-held cameras about the size of a camcorder but they are not as common. A camera “operator” monitors a video screen while operating the camera and its settings. In most cases, intensity of “heat” or temperature is represented by a gradient of white light. The hotter the object (like a car engine) the brighter the representation on the video monitor. The “colder” the object the darker it appears on the screen. Some cameras can detect very minute variations between objects created by heat absorption.
F.L.I.R. cameras are most often used in law enforcement to search for fleeing suspects or during high risk arrests and SWAT deployments. They can even be used to look for changes in temperatures of power lines or structures where occupants are conducting illegal marijuana “farms”. However, these cameras can sometimes be used in forensic investigations too. I have been involved in cases where vehicle mounted F.L.I.R. has been used to search for clandestine grave sites. You see, when a grave is dug and then refilled the soil will be less compact. This change in compaction means that the soil will absorb and retain heat differently than the surrounding compacted soil. The theory is pretty straight forward but the application is much more difficult. It requires an operator with extensive experience because the temperature variance may be only a few degrees (shades of grey). These differences may go unnoticed by less experienced operators.
F.L.I.R. cameras are being used by law enforcement more and more each year. This means it’s more likely than ever that your fictional agency or character can avail themselves of this technology. It may be from a vehicle mounted system or a hand held camera but the potential uses are quite extensive. Some possible uses in your novel may include locating buried bodies, secret compartments, hidden passageways in walls, or anything you can dream up that would produce a significant change in temperature. Don’t forget that heat or cold can be directed through ducting and shafts. Your character might see the heat coming from a ventilation duct or window instead of a body. Use your imagination and have a little fun with it.
One of the challenges for any bloodstain pattern analyst is determining the origin or source of a bloodstain pattern. Many bloodstain patterns associated with violent acts are the result of a breech to the human circulatory system. This can include gunshots, sharp force injuries, blunt force injuries, expectorate, and others. When examining bloodstains at a crime scene the analyst must take into consideration a number of factors including;
- Pattern area
- Stain size/orientation
- Location of bloodstains
- Evidence on scene capable of producing stains
One type of impact spatter has historically been classified as “high velocity” and described as bloodstains measuring less than one millimeter in diameter. These types of stains are sometimes associated with high energy events such as gunshots and explosions but may also be reproduced by other actions which tend to break up the surface area of the blood droplet. I remember early in my career when an instructor made similar stains simply by “flicking” bloody toothbrush bristles to recreate similar sized stains (albeit in an unusual pattern).
CSIs must also consider other “non-criminal” actions which may create additional bloodstains at a crime scene. One such activity is the creation of “fly specks”. Fly specks can actually be created by two separate and distinct acts. Each act will result in very different looking stains microscopically but can be misinterpreted by the casual observer. One type of “speck” is the transfer of wet bloodstains to a non-bloody surface by various body parts of the fly. Most often this is from the feet but may also include the abdomen. More commonly, fly specks are the result of regurgitation. This regurgitation may look like impact spatter but is commonly associated with a “tail” that does not align with the long axis of the stain and is curved. Though, this may not be easily discerned on clothing. Fly specks are typically not created immediately following death. That is within hours (although a few may be). Generally speaking, the longer the body is associated with insects (days/weeks) the more one may find these types of patterns.
CSIs suspecting insect activity as the blood source usually consider two main factors. The first is location. Flies tend to congregate near light sources. This may be a lamp, window, or even a door crack. Investigators that find numerous small bloodstains in such locations should always consider insects as a possible mechanism. Another related aspect is the absence of any other bloodstain patterns. For example, if one believes that a pattern of small “speck” bloodstains are the result of a gunshot wound then it is very likely that there should also be other bloodstain patterns (pooling, contact transfer, etc.) in the same location. Obviously the victim should have a gunshot injury as well. With regard to lamps and shades; if one finds tiny blood spatter on the bulb or inside surface of the lamp shade, but not on the outside surface, then they might consider flies being the source of the blood pattern. Incidentally, it is common to find dead adult flies in window sills and near light sources in cases of prolonged exposure (weeks/months) in indoor settings where access to the outside is limited (no open doors or windows).
I bring this up because these “non-criminal” mechanisms of bloodstain pattern creation can really throw a curve ball to your characters. Although I chose to focus on flies; other actors include cockroaches, beetles, rodents, and even pets (imagine a dog rolling in a pool of blood, going home and then shaking it off). As an author, consider whether these types of events might create a roadblock or diversion for your characters and plot line. Will these patterns generate a red herring or simply add tension to your character relationships (opposing views)?
There is an age old tradition in some cultures to fire celebratory shots into the air on certain anniversaries, events (weddings), or accidents. In the United States this activity seems more concentrated around our Independence day and New Year’s Eve (although pretty rare overall). For the purposes of this posting we’ll just consider bullets fired from small arms as opposed to artillery shells. Bullets falling from the sky are no laughing matter. They can cause serious injury including death. But, there are some misconceptions surrounding the lethality and velocity of bullets returning to Earth.
One of the most common misconceptions is that small arms bullets will return to the ground at the same, or greater, velocity than when emerging from the muzzle of the weapon. Now bullets come in a variety of sizes (caliber) and shapes. Basically they are conical in shape but the nose can be flattened or rounded as can the base (to a lesser degree). Believe it or not a number of studies have been conducted on this issue since at least the early twentieth century. It was found that some common rifle calibers such as the .30-06 attained a muzzle velocity of 2700 feet per second and gained an elevation of 9,000 feet. When a bullet is fired straight up into the air it will continue on it’s flight path until it is overtaken by gravity and begins to free-fall back to Earth.
During this fall the bullet will be affected by air resistance. Now it is theoretically possible the bullet can return one of three ways; nose first, base first, or tumbling. Of the three, a nose first return from a near-vertical trajectory is the least likely. It is much more likely that the bullet will tumble or fall back in generally the same orientation (so base first) especially if it retains any of the gyroscopic spin imparted from the barrel (rifling). Tumbling creates the greatest amount of air resistance so the bullet’s terminal velocity will be lowest in this condition. Regardless, most lead core bullets will return to the Earth in about 45-55 seconds. The falling velocity will be determined by a number of factors including the air resistance and bullet weight. Generally speaking, a smaller bullet like a .22 short will have a lower free falling velocity than a larger one like a .30-06.
While the muzzle velocity for most small arms can average around 1,000 feet per second that same bullet may only reach a free-falling velocity of 150-250 feet per second. If you consider that a bullet needs to reach a velocity of approximately 200-330 feet per second to perforate human skin in a nose first orientation you can see how these falling bullets may not cause a fatal wound. The key words being “may not”. There are plenty of case studies of people being killed by downward arching bullets (though some are not at near vertical falling angles. They can still be very dangerous and cause serious injury. They will typically cause less trauma than one fired at close range however.
Reconstructing the original trajectory is nearly impossible because of all the conditions (wind, air resistance, tumbling, original load conditions, etc.) during flight that can alter the bullet path. So if you are thinking about using a falling bullet in your novel you might want to keep some of this in mind. A falling bullet might only pierce the skin or in some cases just create a bruise. In other cases it may actually cause death. The important thing to remember is that they are not traveling at the manufacturer’s listed muzzle velocity. It should go without saying that you should never attempt to conduct this type of research or experiment. All of the published studies I am aware of were conducted by the military on large scale controlled firing ranges. Do not try.