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?
Dr. Jane Bock is a forensic botanist and researcher from Colorado affiliated with a number of professional organizations. She has been conducting field research for over four decades and has received numerous awards including the Ralph W. Schreiber conservation award and Hazel Barnes Prize. I first met Dr. Bock while working in NecroSearch International. She has worked numerous murder cases across the nation and is very approachable for those seeking additional information. The field of forensic botany is fascinating. From looking at last meal evidence to disturbances from burial, plant material can provide great insight to an investigation. If you’ve never thought of including botanical evidence in one of your novels you might reconsider after reading this interview. Her new book Handbook of Forensic Botany will be released this year.
F4F: Historically, how long have plants been used in forensic investigations?
BOCK: Forensic botany reaches far back in Western history. Plato, in his writing (Phaedo 399 BCE), describes the suicide of his teacher, Socrates, in detail. Socrates chose to commit suicide by imbibing poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). Plato’s description of Socrates’ symptoms fits exactly the pattern of poison hemlock poisoning today in the US and Europe. Forensic botany became ‘scientific’ with the inventions of the printing press (1440 AD) and the light microscope lenses (1590 AD). Using a microscopic lens, Robert Hooke described the cellular nature of cork cells, later published in his book, Micrographia. The earliest books describing plant cell types followed shortly. Forensic botany came of age in the US in 1934 when botanical evidence was used to solve the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby boy.
Botanical evidence in courts today is accepted readily through both Frye and Dauburt examinations provided the witness shows competence in botanical knowledge. My cases have involved knowledge from three subdivisions of botany: plant anatomy, plant taxonomy, and plant ecology.
F4F: How are plants used in last meal evidence analysis?
BOCK: Dr. David O. Norris and I fostered the identification of food plant cells in criminal investigations and trials. Plant cells usually are enclosed in cellulose walls. These complex carbohydrate walls are virtually indestructible. They pass through the human digestive tract unchanged in their sizes and shapes. It does not matter if the plant was consumed raw, canned, frozen or cooked. Each food plant has cells that are distinctive in size and shape. We commonly examine plant cells from stomach contents. There is a rough time table for how long each stage of the human digestive process takes, and the time for stomach digestion usually is within a couple hours of consumption, then the material passes to the small intestine. This can be helpful in some homicides in estimating the time of death.
Identifying food plant cells from the digestive tract and feces of a homicide victim may link the victim to a certain place where a meal was taken and may link a suspect’s presence to that same place. Two recent cases involved the plant foods found in the stomach contents of people whose exact diets were known (hospital and prison). When the records of the day’s meals were compared with stomach contents, we learned which meal was the victim’s last even though a suspect claimed the person had been killed after a later meal.
F4F: What are the most common types of analysis you’re asked to conduct for law enforcement?
BOCK: Plant Taxonomy: assigning the correct scientific plant name to a plant or plant fragment. Such identification can link a victim to a suspect through plant fragments found in clothes or vehicles. Such evidence also can show a place where a victim and/or suspect visited. what residences These cases are relatively common. Plant Ecology: the relationship between plants and their environments. Here, you test ideas about where plant materials originated. In a case, a truck contained fragments from a mountain setting, but the trucker claimed the vehicle never had left the prairie. This along with other evidence led to a murder conviction.
F4F: Some of the readers may be unaware of the use of pollen, seeds, and diatoms in forensic investigations. Can you talk a little about how they may be used to link a suspect to a crime scene?
BOCK: Most plants are made up of stems, roots, and leaves, plus reproductive parts (flower parts and seeds). These all have cellulose cell walls. However, other organisms have cell walls comprised of other substances. These plant structures can fall into the forensic botanist’s purview, and include pollen, spores, and certain microorganisms. The presence of pollen in association with a cold case homicide can suggest a season when a crime took place because the shedding of pollen is highly seasonal. Diatoms have cell walls of silica and are virtually universal in all bodies of water from mud puddles to oceans. However, species distribution and relative abundances among species have given strong evidence of the source the water in a case. Here, the water in the victim’s lungs indicated that he had been in a body of water that was distinctive from the location described by the suspect.
F4F: You’ve been involved with a number of high profile murder cases over the years. Is there any one case involving plant evidence that really stands out to you and why?
BOCK: High profile cases can be difficult if the media have publicized widely their decision about guilt. For example, in the defense for the Casey Anthony case, making trips to the courthouse involved running a gauntlet of reporters and other supporters of a guilty verdict yelling my name. Also, e-mail threats for the expert if you are involved with the ‘unpopular’ side. The most renowned high profile murder case I’ve worked occurred over 10 years ago and has not been brought to trial. Therefore, it is an ongoing case and my evidence cannot be discussed here. This continues to weigh heavily on me because of what my partner and I know from our evidence. In a recent cold case in Pennsylvania where the victim was an 80-year old woman, we determined the contents her last meal. It had served as the medium for the poison that killed her. We supplied a deposition and this led to a confession of the persons who killed her. Had it gone to trial it would have been very high profile.
F4F: What’s on the horizon in forensic botany? Are there new technologies that are poised to open areas of inquiry that were previously unknown?
BOCK: A worrisome aspect of this field is that it is underutilized and under represented. The approaches described above are simple, inexpensive, and readily accepted in courts. Many more people with forensic interests must train themselves in botany. DNA can be useful in forensic botany, but our lab does not deal with it. It is not especially useful in plant identifications because there are at least 300,000 plant species., and most of their DNA patterns are not known. What DNA can do is link plant fragments from a single plant to a suspect to a victim, to a vehicle, to a place. This works well. DNA analysis is being streamlined and will become more so. Already some kits are showing up so that a major laboratory may not be required.
I am happy to discuss forensic botany with interested individuals, and also to point them to appropriate scientific literature.
There are basically two types of blood spatter; forward and back. Notice I didn’t say “splatter“. Blood spatter is caused when an object impacts a body and forces the blood to break up into smaller droplets. The majority of these droplets are then projected either forward (with direction of force) or backward (opposite the direction of force) essentially. Generally speaking, there is more forward spatter than back spatter in an incident and the blood will disperse in a “cone effect”. The amount of back spatter is dependent on both the energy of the impact and the amount of blood already present at the impact site. For example, a gunshot can create back spatter even when there is no preceding injury. This is influenced by other factors too though. Clothing can “trap” much of the back spatter depending on the type and layers of clothing and location of the wound. If the wound area is not covered with clothing (like the head) then you can see more back spatter. CSIs commonly see some degree of back spatter on the shooting hand in gunshot suicides with head wounds.
The degree of back spatter on the subject varies wildly though. A number of factors influence the deposition of the blood such as subject and victim body positions, wound position relative to subject, distance between subject and wound, the amount of energy causing the spatter, intervening objects (like shooting through a window), and the presence or absence of blood at the impact site just to name a few! The size of the resulting blood droplets varies too. Gunshots and explosions can produce very tiny droplets (with a diameter of 1mm or less) while other impact events can produce larger droplets from 2mm up to 10mm and even larger. You may find back spatter on hands, faces, ears, hair, clothing, weapons, furniture, or practically anywhere near the impact event. It can even be found on items that have been moved to another room (as in a staging). With gunshots, you may find spatter up to four feet from the impact site. In theory, you could find them even further away if there is sufficient air current such as high wind or even the close proximity of a fan.
So how would you use this in a novel? Back spatter can be washed from hands and clothing or even the victim (think of a dog or cat licking the victim). Tiny spatter is very difficult to see however. You could easily have a detective, spouse, or dry cleaner find these tiny spots on a garment, vehicle seat, or window blinds. If on clothing, consider putting the spatter on something like socks, undershirt, or underwear that would have been covered during the suspect’s version of events (or denial of events). That not only places them at the scene but could also place them in a state of undress at the time of blood loss. You get the picture. Be creative and use your imagination to produce a big plot twist.
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!
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)?
At a recent lecture I took a question from the audience regarding casting bloody impressions (footwear and fingerprints) on human skin so I thought this might be an interesting topic to bring to your attention. Bloody prints can be challenging to crime scene investigators, especially on dark colored surfaces. Most CSIs will photograph the prints (maybe IR) or try to enhance them with a blood reagent like Leuco-crystal Violet (LCV) or Luminol. The goal is to lift or transfer the impression onto a lighter material so the unique details can be easily photographed.
I’ve written about casting footwear impressions in previous posts but I don’t think I’ve ever written about casting fingerprint impressions. Regardless, the method is basically the same. I’ve actually done research with bloodstained evidence using various casting materials on surfaces such as concrete, fabric, and human skin. One of the casting materials that reproduced the greatest clarity of detail in the impressions is something you’ve probably had in your mouth; Alginate. Alginate is a common casting material used in dental offices for casting your upper and lower teeth and gums. Dentists put it in trays that you bite down on.
Alginate comes in powder form and is mixed 1:1 with water to make a pancake like batter. The material is then poured/spread over the dried impression and allowed to set for about thirty minutes. Alginate can even be used to lift latent impressions developed with color staining reagents like LCV or LMG. The downside to Alginate is that as it dries it becomes very brittle and shape distorted. That means that your character has to photograph the impression immediately after the cast is lifted from the surface. As you would expect, this material doesn’t work well on hairy areas of skin but areas like ankles, wrists, necks, etc can produce excellent results. You can also use this material to lift fingerprints developed with powders but there are other methods that are better suited for such things. I’ll male a note to do a posting on that at some point in the near future.
So if you have bloody shoe, foot, or finger impressions at your crime scene don’t fret! Your characters do have an option to collect such evidence, especially on dark surfaces like a black leather jacket or multicolored bed sheets. If you have an inexperienced CSI character you could introduce a little tension by letting them forget to photograph the cast and within a few hours they have to work with a warped/distorted and brittle cast.