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Real crime scene investigations lack glamour of TV, movies

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Posted: Friday, March 14, 2003 10:00 pm

An "X-Files" episode depicts a body being exhumed from a graveyard.

A scene in the movie "Back to the Future II" shows a crime location with chalk markings revealing how and where bodies were found.

A female character in "CSI: Miami" wears a bright red, low-cut tank top to a crime scene and later conducts an autopsy.

Drama and crime are intriguing to many people, and best-selling murder novels and hit TV crime shows reflect that fact.

Millions of viewers tune in each week to the hit CBS show "CSI," and the hour-long drama has done so well that spin-off "CSI: Miami" began this season. Both shows are seeing success, as are older, similar shows including "Law and Order" and "NYPD Blue."

Step by step in a coroner's case
1. Fire and medical crews are called to the crime scene.
2. The coroner's office is notified and a deputy arrives. A separate company moves the body to the morgue.
3. The deputies who were on the scene make reports.
4. If it's during business hours, the deputy briefs the coroner's office. If it's after business hours, the paperwork is filled out and reviewed early the next morning.
5. The sergeant supervising the coroner's office reviews the case.
6. The sergeant then briefs the pathologist on the basics of the incident.
7. An autopsy is conducted.
8. The pathologist determines a cause of death.
9. A death certificate is prepared. If the cause of death is natural, the certificate is signed. If additional tests, such as toxicology reports, are required, a "pending" death certificate is provided so that the family may continue with funeral arrangements.
10. Once all information is received, any amendments are made so that the family may then do things such as filing for insurance and transferring titles.
11. The case is reviewed one more time to make sure all names and reports match. Then the case is closed.
- Lodi News-Sentinel

But what really happens in a real-life crime scene? Away from the cameras of a production crew, real homicides and crime scenes are different. They don't conclude in an hour-long episode, and there are no commercials to break up the painstaking investigation.

Last summer, a parking lot was the scene of Lodi's first double homicide. Two men were found shot to death in a parked car, and investigators quickly moved in, photographing evidence from every possible angle and inspecting everything for possible clues.

The investigation lasted all day and more than eight months later, it still continues. It's long past the time frame of a hit TV show, but that doesn't mean police have stopped working on the case.

Another Lodi double homicide last Sunday had so much evidence to be documented, the California Department of Justice was called to help.

Working methodically down the driveway of an East Morse Road home in which a Lodi couple had been shot to death, technicians moved yellow markers as they documented each area.

The next day, technicians were collecting evidence on Dry Creek Road, where the body of a man had been found in a shallow creek. While a sheriff's helicopter circled overhead to photograph the scene, a technician noted blood and took samples.

As far as TV shows go, "CSI" is fairly accurate, said Lodi resident Ricky Schatz, the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department evidence technician who was called to the Dry Creek Road crime scene.

The "Back to the Future II" chalk scene, however, is not realistic, he said, because technicians would never add to the crime scene. Temporary markers are sometimes used, but for the most part, technicians rely on cameras to capture the scene.

Schatz is one of seven evidence technicians who are called to all homicides and robberies. They often work other crime scenes and do things like process evidence from rape victims.

csi_030315.jpg
Law enforcement personnel look for clues in a double homicide in July 2002 at a shopping center in southwest Lodi. (News-Sentinel file photo)

At a crime scene, fingerprints are often key, but they're sometimes the most time-consuming part. Dusting for prints isn't a quick process.

The technician dips a brush into the black, magnetic powder and then slowly begins to brush it in a circle on the area where prints may be located. For best results, the technician only touches the surface with the powder, rather than the brush itself, Schatz said.

Once the print appears, the technician uses tape to lift the print, then puts it on a card that is then labeled. Back at the Sheriff's Department in French Camp, the technician looks at the prints on a screen.

If the technician finds at least eight unique points on the fingerprint, it can be run through a computer program to look for matches from anyone who has ever had fingerprints taken. In about 10 minutes, the search is complete.

Even one print from one finger can be enough to identify someone.

"This is what makes it worthwhile. It makes you feel good, when you can go out and obtain your prints and identify your suspect," Schatz said.

Fingerprints are just one aspect of a crime scene, though. Schatz, who has worked for the Sheriff's Department for 24 years and spent the last two years as an evidence technician, takes a box of tools and materials to a crime scene, but a vehicle stocked with a variety of other supplies is also available.

The back of a marked Jeep is loaded with crates containing everything from disposable gloves to crime scene tape to containers in which knives and syringes can be safely stored for evidence.

Yellow flags can be placed at a shooting scene to mark where bullet casings were found, and a black light is also stored in the vehicle. At rape scenes, Schatz explained, the black light will reveal phosphorous found in semen.

At any type of crime scene, blood and semen samples are classified as biohazardous, and the samples cannot be touched if they are to be used as evidence.

"We always want to do a controlled test," Schatz said as he demonstrated how to collect samples without contaminating them.

Placing a drop of distilled water on a cotton swab, the technician slid a protective cardboard-like material up around the cotton, then put the swab in a small manila envelope. That's the controlled part, and an evidence technician then repeats the process with the real evidence.

"Keep the (cotton) tip flat and be sure not to spin it," Schatz said as he demonstrated.

Spinning the swab could disperse the sample, he explained, and technicians try not to disturb evidence anymore than is necessary.

Each piece of evidence is placed in an envelope that is marked with the case number and the date. Neon orange stickers clearly identify the contents: "Caution, biohazard may exist."

Other kinds of evidence can be collected through other means. Even hair and small fibers can be collected with a vacuum cleaner filter.

"Vacuum a certain area, then pull the filter out," Schatz said.

In arson cases, flammable liquid samples are stored in metal canisters, and in some cases, labs can even test the liquid without ever opening the can, Schatz said.

For homicide cases, detectives can even request that evidence technicians use Mikrosil, a special casting material designed to lift prints from dust. It was originally intended for dental work, Schatz said, but investigators found that it worked just as well for crime scenes.

To lift prints from paper, technicians can use Ninhydran spray, a chemical that will actually develop a fingerprint when it is sprayed on the paper.

A crystal violet substance can even reveal prints on adhesive surfaces. For example, Schatz said, if someone uses tape to bind a victim, the suspect's fingerprints can be retrieved from the tape and lead to an arrest.

Throughout the whole process, technicians photograph their work so they can capture the scene before, during and after evidence is removed.

"It's not uncommon to use 10 rolls of film for a homicide," Schatz said, recalling one search warrant in which 14 rolls of film were used.

When farmworkers found a body buried in a Linden-area vineyard, sheriff's detectives even took photos from the air. Those photos were frequently shown to a San Joaquin County jury in the trial of Sarah Dutra, accused in the murder of Woodbridge resident Larry McNabney.

When the attorney's body was found, teams were called in to exhume it from the make-shift grave. Exhumations from cemeteries, though, are very rare - much more rare than the frequency at which they are shown on various TV shows and movies, said Sgt. Bill Fellers, who oversees the coroner's office.

Fellers has been working in the office for nearly two years, and no bodies have been exhumed from cemeteries during that time, he said.

In San Joaquin County, unlike on the TV show, evidence technicians wear uniforms and their duties are different from those of the detectives. In major investigations, the technicians are given specific tasks, such as videotaping the crime scene or dusting for fingerprints.

However, they work together with the goal of solving the crime.

"We all work together as a team; it's a team effort," Schatz said.

Fellers agreed, refusing to take extra credit for his work and referring to himself as just a "cog in the wheel."


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