This article is written to assist those in the field to share and learn from an experience that taught me a lot about being persistent in my efforts and not giving up. Even when there are those around you who might feel that what you are being asked to do is wasted effort.
During the early morning hours of Friday April 10,1998, I was contacted by one of my Department’s Homicide Investigators. He asked me an unusual question concerning the possibility of recovering physical evidence from a vehicle. Now, a request to process a vehicle is not, in and of itself, unusual. However, in this case, there was a twist.
Based upon witness statements and some preliminary physical evidence detectives had developed a theory concerning a homicide that had occurred about 3 months earlier. Some unknown subjects had picked up the victim, a tourist in the Miami area, at the airport. It was believed that he was carrying a large amount of cash when he arrived. A short time later his body was discovered in a remote area. He had been robbed and shot. Careful investigation revealed that witnesses had seen the victim dropped off in the area, by a vehicle. As the vehicle began to leave the victim was seen trying to enter the vehicle through an open window on the passenger side. The witnesses were able to provide a partial description of the subjects involved, a general description of the vehicle, and more important, a partial tag number. Detectives pursued all possible leads but could not locate the vehicle or the subjects. The case remained open.
On April 10, 1998, a uniform officer had stopped a vehicle for a traffic infraction. When the officer ran a check on the tag he was advised that the vehicle’s tag matched a partial tag on the homicide vehicle. Homicide detectives were contacted and responded to the scene. They interviewed the occupants of the vehicle and conducted a preliminary examination of the vehicle. It was the results of this examination that led to my being contacted.
The lead detective asked, “If a struggle and shooting had occurred inside the vehicle, and the vehicle had been thoroughly cleaned and detailed, inside and out, would any physical evidence remain?” His second question was “What impact time would have on the condition and value of any evidence found?” I told him that I couldn’t give him an answer without examining the vehicle, but I was definitely interested in assisting in the investigation.
My schedule required that I be out of town for the next four days. I asked the detective to have the vehicle towed to a secure facility and obtain the search warrant. Upon my return, I would begin my examination. I returned to work on April 15, and was told to contact the detective immediately. He advised that the vehicle was waiting for me and he had the search warrant.
Comfortable work area:
In any investigation it is always preferable to work in a location that is as comfortable as possible. Normally, at a crime scene, an area is selected and designated as the on-site work area. The scene is then evaluated and a plan of action is developed and implemented. In this case the crime scene, the vehicle, was in a location of my choosing, which made my job easier.
An organized approach:
The processing of any crime scene should follow an organized approach. I began by conducting a careful examination of the vehicle. It was in an excellent condition, especially considering that it was 11 years old! It was obvious that it had just been re-painted. The interior was not just clean-it was spotless! Everything seemed new. New headliner, seat covers, carpet, and door panels. It was obvious that , if this vehicle was involved in the homicide, the subjects had gone to great lengths to remove any evidence. The complete makeover and pristine condition of the vehicle immediately eliminated several categories of evidence that I might be able to recover. The first step in an organized approach to crime scene investigation and processing, SCENE RECOGNITION, was complete.
I now began the second step, SCENE DOCUMENTATION. The steps in an organized approach to documentation consist of note-taking, any sketching needed, and photographs. I photographed the vehicle, beginning with the exterior, from every angle. This not only showed its condition, but would provide a record of the work done during the continued search for evidence.
The third step in an organized approach is EVIDENCE RECOVERY. I realized that my success in this step would require a total strip out of the interior of the vehicle. I also realized that the most likely type of evidence I would be looking for was blood. Common sense and experience told me that any liquid blood in the vehicle would have run and pooled in the lowest parts of the vehicle. There was also a remote possibility that some spattered or sprayed blood might remain in the vehicle. But, based upon the interior’s cleanliness and time frame, it was unlikely. Even so, I began by removing the headliner. Nothing!! I next went to the seat area. When I removed the plastic molding that holds the driver’s side front seat belt harness I hit pay dirt!! There was a reddish stain on the lower trim of the molding where it attached to the frame. The cloth seatbelt harness strap was also stained where it was attached to the chassis. Next, the metal trim plate inside the driver’s door, attached to the rocker panel was removed. Underneath were chunks of crusted material, dark red in color. After removing the metal trim plate I was able to lift back the new carpeting. Given the effort that had gone into redoing the interior of the vehicle. I was surprised to find that the new carpet had been laid over the original padding. At first glance the padding revealed nothing, however when I pulled it back I was pleased to see a large reddish stain. Finally, when I removed the front seat, which was a bench type, I found that the center seat belt strap was also stained red. I had carefully photographed my discoveries as they were made, and documented the locations in my notes. My next step was recovery and collection of the suspected blood.
Excepted recovery methods:
In standard crime scene procedures recovery of all suspected blood is accomplished by scraping, swabbing, or collecting the entire blood stained item. I used all three methods in this case. In all, eight items or samples were collected, and submitted to the lab.
It was not until October that I was notified by the lead detective that several of the 8 samples or items submitted was blood and they had been identified as belonging to the victim in the case. This was done with DNA analysis.
My involvement in this case began at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 8:00 p.m., when I had submitted the last item of evidence. In an organized approach to crime scene processing, a crime scene investigator is often faced with tedious and time consuming work, and even an aggressive approach may not produce the positive results desired. But when they do, the results are worth the effort expended.
special thanks to Lt. J. Slack of the Miami-Dade Police Department for his assistance in review and edit of this document.
Miami-Dade Police Department
Crime Scene Investigations