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Real life criminalist and New York Times Best Selling author Lisa Black is back for a visit about her new book Blunt Impact. Lisa Black spent the happiest five years of her life in a morgue. Strange, perhaps, but true. After ten years as a secretary, she went back to school to get a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Cleveland State University. In her job as a forensic scientist at the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office, she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. She had her life sorted out just the way she liked it until her husband got fed up with Cleveland snow and moved them to Florida, 1400 miles away from her family and her career. Not that she’s bitter or anything. Now she works as a latent print examiner for the city of Cape Coral, Florida, police department, working mostly with fingerprints and crime scenes. Lisa has lectured at writer’s conventions and appeared on panels. In her life as a writer she’s a member of Sisters In Crime, Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers. In her life as a forensic specialist she’s a member of the American Academy of Forensic Scientists, the International Association for Identification, the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts and is certified by the American Board of Criminalistics. She has had over 741 hours of instruction in forensic topics and has testified in over 50 trials. I want to give a special ‘thank you’ to Lisa for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for the F4F readers.
F4F: In the world of crime writers you’re a bit of an anomaly in that you are a professional criminalist by day. I love your tag line murder is my day job. As a writer, can you tell us a little about your process. Is is hard to find time to write when you’re working full time and on-call as a forensic scientist?
Lisa: Yes. Luckily I write relatively fast, and I have no children and very little social life (!) so I have plenty of time. I work 12 hours shifts at the police department which means I only work 7 out of 14 days.
F4F: I’m sure your day job provides plenty of inspiration for your stories. What else do you draw from when creating scenes, characters, or story ideas?
Lisa: I poach characters horribly from movies and TV–funny, minor characters, or secondary characters who interested me. Then other ideas just pop into my head and I have no idea where they come from. It’s a huge mix of various pipelines.
F4F: Crime scene investigation can be a physically and emotionally taxing profession. You’ve got the technical side nailed down but are there any topics you find emotionally difficult to write about?
Lisa: I don’t get emotionally involved in much, but there’s a few things I’m squeamish about–I can’t do anything horrible to a child or an animal unless it’s way, way ‘offscreen’. I can’t stand days of torture and buckets of blood. I’m an incredible softy when it comes to the elderly, so I can’t say much of what I’m feeling when it comes to aging parents, even though I should tap that reservoir.
F4F: In your current novel Blunt Impact, your heroine Theresa MacLean has to face some new challenges in protecting a child who witnessed the murder of her mother. Can you give us some insight on Theresa’s character (morality). What makes her tick?
Lisa: Theresa’s got a very firm sense of right and wrong, and a very firm habit of keeping her thoughts to herself. So even though she doesn’t say so, she’s a much stricter judge of other people, and especially herself, than others might guess. People make the mistake of thinking quiet equals timid, and find out the hard way that when Theresa knows she’s right, she simply will not budge.
F4F: Blunt Impact deals with a controversial new jail as a murder scene. Can you give us a taste about what makes the jail controversial and how inter-agency relationships might impact the investigation?
Lisa: The new jail is controversial for two different sets of reasons–one, because a historial Beaux Arts building is torn down to build it, so the historians are outraged, and two because it’s designed to keep inmates safe–from each other–so civil rights activisits are outraged. But the inter-agency conflicts do not dwell on these two areas, but on the money trail and where it leads.
F4F: What’s in the future for Theresa?
Lisa: The next book, titled The Price of Innocence, will be out in November and features a quirky genius, a mysterious man and a twenty-year old college tragedy.
Blunt Impact will be available April 1, featuring forensic scientist Theresa MacLean and a series of murders surrounding a skyscraper under construction in downtown Cleveland. The first to die is young, sexy concrete worker Samantha, thrown from the 23rd floor. The only witness is her 11 year old daughter Anna, nicknamed Ghost. Ghost will stop at nothing to find her mother’s killer, and Theresa will stop at nothing to keep Ghost safe.
Also, Kindle owners can find a bargain in my new book The Prague Project, written under the name Beth Cheylan. A death in West Virginia sends FBI agent Ellie Gardner and NYPD Counterterrorism lieutenant Michael Stewart on a chase across Europe as they track stolen nukes and lost Nazi gold, hoping to avert the death of millions of people.
It’s that time of year again for the 7th Annual CSI seminar at Regis University in Denver. The seminar is October 12th and 13th and is free to those who register at this link. Here is a listing of the seminars. If you are a local crime author I think it would be well worth your time to attend.
Friday, October 12th
Doors to the Mountain View room will open and light hors d’oeuvres will be served in the new Claver Hall Cafe. Walk-ins and additional guests are welcome as long as space is available.
KEYNOTE SPEAKER: Detective Sergeant Jon Mattsen, Kings County Sherriff’s Office, Washington State
Det. Sgt. Mattsen was one of the five original members assigned to the Green River Killings case after Gary Ridgway (a.k.a. Green River Killer) was identified through DNA. Sgt. Mattsen became a lead investigator and one of four primary interviewers of Ridgway when Ridgway entered into an agreement with the King County Prosecutor’s Office. Ridgway was responsible for killing 49 females in the 1980s and 1990s – mostly prostitutes in Washington State – and dumping their bodies in and around the Green River.
Sgt. Mattsen will explore and help attendees understand the dynamics, attitudes, investigatory efforts and consequences of this violent, nationally-recognized crime.
Saturday, October 13th
More than 20 different speaker presentations will be taking place throughout the day beginning at 8:45am, 10:15am, 1:45pm, and 3:45pm. At 12:00pm, Officers from the Denver Police Department K-9 Unit will introduce their canine partner through an exciting demonstration attendees might only see on T.V. The demonstration will take place on the Lowell campus Quad, in front of the Student Center.
Also during the lunch period, an all-you-can-eat brunch featuring fresh, local foods will be available in the Student Center for $9.25 (plus tax) following the K-9 demonstration. Many great restaurants are also located near the campus (44th, 38th, and 32nd & Lowell) – just ask a volunteer for recommendations.
Former Denver Chief Deputy District Attorney, current contract Attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Criminal Justice Program and Denver’s #1 animal advocate, Diane Balkin, will be returning this year to present on the Link Between Cruelty to Animals and Violence Towards Humans.
Internationally recognized retired Denver Police Lieutenant Jon Priest offers a unique perspective and a dynamic case review as a primary investigator in one of Denver’s most violent sexual assault homicides.
Other event presentation topics include:
- Cybercrime & Computer Forensics
- Advanced investigative techniques
- First-hand survivor accounts
- Abuse and other violent crimes
- High-profile cases
- New directions in Criminological Research
A detailed schedule of Saturday’s presentations and registration will be available soon.
If you are not already on the Criminology Event distribution list and are interested in being added, please contact Melissa Piper (email@example.com).
Picking up where we left off…
F4F: What kinds of police powers does an agent have on base? For example, if a General or other high ranking officer were a suspect, could you arrest them as easily as if they were a private or sergeant?
RG: This is an interesting one to answer. In the 70′s due to inappropriate command influence from senior officers on installations, the CID Command was set aside as a separate command. It answered directly to the CID HQS (headquarters) in the state of Washington. This prevented unwarranted local command influence when investigating anyone, particularly senior officers. In restructuring the military over the past few years, that has been undone and as I understand the Command is effectively back under the control of the Provost Marshall, the senior MP on the installation, who by the way works for and answers to the local Installation Commander.
Under either system, nothing is done in the military without the chain of Command being aware. Thus if a senior officer were under investigation, someone in the chain of command (maybe as high as the Pentagon) would be aware and if an apprehension were pending, they would also know of it. Not that they gave approval, but you just didn’t trash (disrespect) the local commander by doing things and then letting him find out the hard way, particularly apprehending one of his senior officers.
So the short answer is yes. Officer or enlisted, the authority to apprehend is the same. If someone is in the act of violating the law, MP’s, MPI or CID have a duty to act. Senior officers (field grade and general officers) rarely get involved in situations that require on-the-spot apprehension (DUI might be the only true exception). It just isn’t the nature of the beast, but nothing precluded it. Younger company grade officers were a different story. I’ve seen arrogant company level officers try and obstruct on-going investigations, violating crime scenes and such. They were apprehended on the spot and not always in a way that took their rank into consideration. CID Agents used to have a simple warning for those who thought they were going to direct our operational decisions on the street based on the fact they out-ranked us: ” Sir do not mistake your rank with my authority.”
F4F: Some of the better known stories involving ARMY investigations include Lee Child’s books featuring Jack Reacher, The General’s Daughter, Basic, The Presidio, etc. What are some of the biggest mistakes you see depicting military investigations in books or on television?
RG: The single biggest mistake I think is they show CID Agents as Officers. Although at one point in time there were actually a small contingent of commissioned officer agents, that program was short lived. The majority of working (on the street) agents are either enlisted, E-4 through E-7 or Warrant Officers WO-1 through W4. The senior enlisted are still agents (E-8 and E-9) but they work at BN, Group or Command. Senior Warrants are fewer on the street, and most W-4 and CW5 are at BN, Group or Command levels as well. There is a contingent (an ever growing contingent) of civilian Agents who work in the Procurement Fraud area. They hold 18-05 positions (gun toting federal agents) but they are primarily conducting major fraud investigations at Depots or operating out of WA (the state of Washington). If you ever saw (the movie) Off Limits with William Defoe, although dramatized it represented the CID of the time (Viet Nam era) pretty well.
F4F: Does every ARMY base have a CID unit or are they limited to certain bases? Also, how many CID agents are there in the ARMY?
RG: Every post typically has an assigned CID agent. There may be some changes in that regard, due to restructuring of the military over the past few years, but as a general rule if you have a post there is at least a CID Branch Office. This might be 1, 2 or 3 agents assigned to handle that post. The BO (branch office) would be supported by either a Resident Agency (RA), also known as a CASE or TASE. All three are a slightly larger contingent for small posts. The BO might be supported directly by a Battalion or Field Office. This larger organization, the BN (Battalion) supports the smaller RA’s and BO’s and conducts investigations on the larger bases. A CID Battalion is different from any other BN in the Army. It is much smaller in terms of manpower (often the size of a large Army company) and its people are distributed in a wide geographic area of operation (the RA’s and BO’s). Larger posts such as (Fort) Bragg or (Fort) Benning have a BN supporting them. There you could find 20 or more CID agents. In some odd circumstances if there is a grouping of small installations in a relatively small area (say within 100 miles of each other), the BO would be at one post, but support all.
The total number of Agents Army wide is a number I’m not absolutely sure of. I believe it is now in the area of about 900-1000. At one point in time after the cold war there were about 1400 active duty Special Agents (not counting the Procurement Fraud Civilian Agents). But CID went through a major restructuring during Quicksilver in the late 80s as the Army itself downsized.
F4F: Military court proceedings are different than civilian courts. Can you talk a little about those differences like the judge, jury, and defense lawyers?
RG: In some ways a military court is no different than a civilian court. But in other ways they are completely different. The biggest difference lies in the type of court. A summary courts martial can be held for minor offenses by a unit. Thus the Commander acts as the judge. A company officer is the prosecutor. The types of action and punishment a summary court can assign are limited. This concept allows a commander to control minor infractions within his unit without having to drag everything up the chain of command.
A Special Courts Martial and the General Courts Martial are for more serious offenses and consist of a typical judge, prosecutor and defense counsel, with a jury of peers. The jury however is always senior to the accused in rank. In a General Courts Martial, which is reserved for the most serious offenses, the accused can also hire civilian counsel to co-represent him with the military defense counsel.
One oddity to the military system of justice is the Article 32 hearing. Think of it as a form of probable cause or a preliminary hearing. A senior officer ( and it doesn’t have to be anyone with legal experience) is assigned to hear the evidence. The Staff Judge Advocate prosecutor presents a summary of the evidence against the accused in the form of witnesses and evidence and the defense has the opportunity to cross examine. The defense may also offer witnesses at the hearing. The Art 32 Officer hears the arguments and can himself ask questions of any witness and then based upon the testimony and evidence decides if sufficient reason exists to move forward with a trial. F4F Note: I have testified as an expert witness in two Article 32 hearings and it was an eye opening experience! One oddity was that the “judge” was a high ranking officer. There was a JAG prosecutor (Major) and a civilian defense attorney. At one point the defense counsel objected to some testimony I was giving, arguing that I had not laid the proper foundation as an expert in that field. The “judge” turned to the prosecutor and asked if the defense counsel could object to which the prosecutor said “no”. I don’t know who was more shocked, me or the defense, because we both sat in silence for a few seconds not knowing how to proceed. I broke the ice and just continued with my analysis and that was that. Very unexpected.
F4F: Are there any books (biographies, true crime, or fiction) that you could recommend for someone to learn more about the ARMY CID and it’s history?
RG: There are not a lot of good books written about CID. The Command has a web site that speaks to the missions and organization, its history etc.
Thank you Ross for an informative peek inside the world of a CID Agent!
Join me over at the Crime Fiction Collective today where I discuss the difference between using a dog for tracking a live person vs a dead body. You might be surprised to find out that they are two very different things. If you plan on writing a scene using a tracking dog you can’t afford to miss this one. If you just love dogs you’ll find it interesting too :).
Forensics4ficiton has been a project close to my heart and I am so proud of all of you who visit us! We have had 100,000 visitors in the past 12 months and I couldn’t be happier. Thanks for stopping by and giving me your valuable time. Tom
Occasionally, CSIs have to respond to scenes where someone has accidentally discharged a firearm. Fortunately it’s not that often. Sometimes the victim offers colorful excuses like “I was just cleaning my gun when it went off” but other times they simply don’t practice good safety. The frequency of these mistakes can increase with alcohol, drug use, or surges in adrenalin. It is this last condition that most often causes police officers to accidentally discharge their weapons. That’s because arrests, especially after a foot chase, can be extremely stressful and cause an adrenalin rush. This reaction is called a sympathetic response. The human sympathetic nervous system is tied directly with our “fight or flight” instincts. This is important for writers because these responses are commonly encountered in high-octane thrillers and crime dramas.
This reaction can also happen when one hears gunfire. Imagine you are a police officer. You and your partner have someone at gunpoint when suddenly your partner shoots. It is possible to involuntarily jerk the trigger and fire your weapon as well following the sound of gunfire. This is one reason you don’t see police and military with their fingers on the trigger until they are ready to shoot. You can always spot an inexperienced shooter if they place their finger on the trigger while just holding the gun or moving through a scene. A good officer will rest his/her finger along the frame (side) of the weapon, never on the trigger.
Accidental discharges can also occur when an officer is either removing or replacing their weapon in the holster. When this happens the gun often discharges downwards. If the officer is lucky the bullet will embed in the ground. If not, they may get a bullet wound in the lower leg or foot. The below video shows a DEA agent who mishandles a firearms during a presentation to school kids and shoots himself in the foot right in the middle of the classroom! Now imagine that happens in your crime scene or in front of the media! It’s a very serious accident but as authors you can use this information to add some drama to a scene. During my career I kept expended bullets I found in the police parking lot walking from my car to my office. I found a total of four in five years. That means that at least four times someone discharged their weapon in the police parking lot accidentally and apparently never got caught. Kind of makes you think a little huh? What if an officer does this at a crime scene but never reports it out of embarrassment? I doubt this would happen in real life but a novel? What challenges would that potentially pose for your characters? How would they explain that “extra” bullet hole and bullet (especially if the officer collects the expended cartridge casing)?
Join me today over at the Crime Fiction Collective where I discuss the wrong way to measure a knife wound and how that may derail your scene and frustrate your characters. Hope to see you there!
I know I’m a little late here but I just finished reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (better late than never right Suzanne?). I’m pretty sure I’m the last one on Earth to do so. Anyway, I loved the character Katniss Everdeen; a strong self-reliant woman and an archer. From the tales of Robin Hood, American Westerns, The Duke’s of Hazard, Rambo, and The Walking Dead archery makes an appearance here and there in popular media. In fact, my heroine Sarah Richards will be using a bow in a scene of the sequel to The Scent of Fear. While the use of bows and arrows for hunting and warfare dates back thousands of years, technology has propelled major improvements in the last few decades. Authors who choose to include archery into their novels need to be cognoscente of these changes to maintain realism.
Projectile points (i.e. arrowheads) have also gone through major changes over the years. Prehistoric humans used arrowheads fashioned from stone, bone, and ivory with a simple two-sided design. Later craftsmen used iron, bronze, and steel. There are two important factors to consider in the construction of modern broadheads; design and weight. Some of you may have experience with archery classes in school. Arrowheads in school settings or recreation centers are typically “practice” points (dull). Recently, a man in Russia was accidentally impaled through the neck with such a point while at a recreation center. Actually, that story typifies one common mistake I often see in film and novels. That is, the arrow sticking out of a person without actually passing all the way through.
The modern broadhead is designed to inflict massive damage to tissue. It can have as many as four sharpened “fins” spreading out from the point. This gives them incredible cutting power. When one of these broadheads hits tissue, even some bone, its not uncommon for it to pass completely through the target. I guess maybe it looks better on the big screen if the bad guy goes down with an arrow sticking out but unless the arrow strikes dense bone (vertebrae or skull) then it probably won’t happen.
The other important characteristic related to the broadhead is its grain weight. This is similar to a bullet. The higher the grain weight number the heavier it is. So why is this important for authors to understand? Simply put, the weight of the broadhead affects the point of aim. A 75 grain broadhead will be half the weight of a 150 grain. So an archer practicing with a 150 grain broadhead will have a more difficult time being accurate with a smaller or larger broadhead. The same is true with bullets. If your .270 rifle is sighted in using a 100 grain bullet it’s going to be less accurate (all things being equal) when using a 150 grain bullet. So its unlikely a character can just pick up any ‘ol bow and arrow and be accurate even if they practice all the time. That’s why I was so pleased to see Katniss take some practice shots with her new bow before using it in The Hunger Games. If you plan on introducing an archer in your storyline keep in mind how broadhead weight and design might “impact” your scene.
Today I have a couple pf guest posts that you might find interesting. Over at author Terry O’Dell’s BLOG Terry’s Place I discuss my strategies for overcoming roadblocks encountered in writing (& at crime scenes). These obstacles can present some real challenges to writers but there are methods to navigate around them. I also have my regular every other Tuesday posting at the Crime Fiction Collective in which I relate a recent event that reminded me of the “radar” I developed as a CSI. CSIs and detectives are trained to spot little things that the average person may not. This is an important trait to consider when creating these characters and developing scenes in your novel. If you have some time today please drop by Terry’s place and the CFC to take a look.