March 21-24

Not much happened at the office this week. It was unusually quiet because Teri is on a vacation so I did not get to hang out in her office. On Monday I just hung out with Dee and Gary and fetched paperwork as usual, and I was filled in and told all the details of a shooting that occurred over the weekend. On Tuesday, I did not do much again, but Gary and Mike and I went to the vigil in Cleveland Park for Officer Jacobs. Some people spoke and prayed, and the whole thing was over in about 30 minutes. After that, Gary took me back to the office to get my car and we went home. On Wednesday, I got to the office and found out I just missed Jeff and Gary leaving to go to a tanker fire where the driver was trapped in the vehicle and unfortunately burned to death. I was going to wait for them to come back to the office and get all the details, but it was taking longer than they thought so I left a little early because nothing was going on.

On Thursday, I went to Officer Jacobs’ funeral in the morning (yes I skipped school to go – don’t kill me). I did not leave school early enough to make it to the office to ride with one of them, so I just went straight there on my own. They sang a few songs and some of his friends from the police department gave tributes. The whole funeral lasted an hour, and then there was a procession to the cemetery. I did not go to the actual burial because it would have taken hours longer and it was already super crowded, so I just went back to the office. It was a good thing I got out of the funeral when I did because Gary left a little after me and was stuck in the parking lot for 2 hours. The computer system went down around 1 p.m. so we went home early because there was nothing they could do without being able to enter information or write reports or even print reports.

This next week is spring break from school so I do not have to go to the office, but I will still probably go a few days. I know I am going on Monday because there will most likely be some autopsies from the weekend and there will be a lot of things to do, so it should be interesting.

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Ballistics

The impact of a good firearms investigator is invaluable to an investigation where a firearm is involved, especially in the case of murder. The ultimate goal of ballistics is to determine if the bullet or casing in question came from a particular firearm.

There can be any amount of evidence in a case that needs to be tested. It could be anything from one bullet fragment to hundreds of casings and ammunition that came from several different firearms. In both cases, the testing done is equally important. The smallest sample can still provide clues to what actually happened.

There are two types of gunshot residue that can be looked at: the type taken from the suspect’s hands, and the type that is collected off the suspect’s clothing. The first type is used to determine if the suspect actually handled or fired the gun or not. If he did not, there will be no residue, and if he did, there will be residue left. The second type is used to determine muzzle-to-target distance, which would tell investigators how far away from the target the shooter was when the trigger was pulled.

Ballistics analysis is performed by trained professionals in labs all over the country. These professionals will look at anything from fired bullets to casings. A microscope is used so no small details are missed or mistaken. Most labs will have a method they use to discharge a weapon, then collect the fired bullet and casings. Usually this is done in  a tank of water, but sometimes a box containing cotton waste is used. Investigators can also look at the marks on a bullet collected as evidence and compare them to the grooves inside of a barrel it is suspected the bullet was fired from and determine they match or do not.

comparison pic

In this picture, two cartridge cases are being compared. One was recovered from a crime scene and the other was fired from the weapon in the lab. Note how the marks line up and are similar on both casings.

A proper and thorough examination of bullets, casings, bullet fragments, grooves in the barrel of a gun, or any other number of aspects of ballistics is extremely important to a case under investigation. The results of an examination can prove guilt or innocence, and have the power to change lives and bring closure.

Source: “A Simplified Guide to Firearms Examination.” Forensic Science Simplified. 2013. Web. 25 March 2016.

March 14-18

On Monday, I put away more blood spots from the medical examiner’s office and got all sorts of details from Teri about the calls she got over the weekend. She had two fire fatalities, a body found near a creek, and a shooting, which can be read about by following these links:

Motel fire fatality: http://www.foxcarolina.com/story/31453523/coroner-one-dead-at-greenville-county-hotel

Body found near the creek: http://wspa.com/2016/03/11/body-found-at-brushy-creek-in-greenville-co/

Shooting: http://wspa.com/2016/03/13/man-shot-to-death-in-greenville-apartment/

Teri had me fill out a property and evidence sheet for the man found near the creek. Apparently part of him had made it in the water, so she had all the items found on his person drying on a table. She left Gary with me so we could fill out the form faster and he just told me what to write on the form. We had to fill out all the decedents information, then give a detailed description of what each item was and the quantity. After that, we dumped it all in a paper bag and put it in the property and evidence room, where it can now be picked up by his family.

The next day was very slow. No calls came in while I was there, so I put away the last of Greenville County’s blood spots and helped Gary move things around in the property and storage room. We were just moving unclaimed property from 2014 into a new drawer to make room for the new things that are coming in.

On Wednesday, I got to go on another call. It was for a natural death, and I was able to go on a call with Sonny for the first time. The decedent died at home. He had been complaining about chest pain and his family called 911. Paramedics arrived and he coded soon after. They worked on him for 40 minutes but couldn’t bring him back so they called his time of death at 12:58. Sonny took all the necessary pictures, took a blood spot, and took the decedent’s fingerprints. He had me write down all the prescriptions in the room, which included the name of the medication, the instructions provided, the doctor that prescribed it, the date it was filled, and the quantity in the package. I filled almost four pages with all the medications, then we let the funeral home take him and left. After that, we went back to the office and Sonny told me about two homicides he had worked in January. One was a shooting and the other was a stabbing, so those were interesting to hear about.

On Thursday, there were a lot of people out of the office and it was only me, Dee, Sonny, Teri, and Kent in the building. No calls were coming in and Teri was caught up on paperwork, so we both washed our cars in the back parking lot because we had nothing else to do.

Friday was just awful. Not because of anything that happened to me, but because a police officer was shot and killed. His name was Allen Jacobs and he was married with two kids and a third on the way. He was attempting to serve a warrant to a gang member, who then took off and fired at the officer. Teri and I were out running errands when she got the texts from dispatch and we heard everything that was happening over the radio. At first it was an alert for a gunshot wound to the head (after he shot the officer, the gang member killed himself), then we heard that an officer had been struck and was in cardiac arrest. Teri and I were glued to our phones and the radio after that, and it was confirmed in a press conference that the officer was pronounced dead at the hospital. You can read about it here: http://wspa.com/2016/03/18/allen-jacobs-ided-as-greenville-police-officer-killed-in-shooting/

I did not know him personally, but I am sure some of the deputy coroners have worked with him on death scenes in the past. The office was very quiet for the rest of the day. It is always difficult when law enforcement officers lose one of their own. I could go on and on about what the coroners did and other details about the shooting and whatnot, but out of respect for the fallen officer I do not want to focus on everything I knew that was going on behind the scenes, but on the fact that Greenville County lost a hero on March 18. Rest easy, Officer Jacobs.

patrol car

Questioned Documents

There can be many questions about the authenticity of a document, who a sample of handwriting may belong to, or the validity of a suicide note. In all these examples, there exists specialists that are trained to examine every aspect of a document and determine if it is authentic or not. These examiners use several techniques to analyze any evidence in their possession.

  • Indented impressions – basically, this is the idea that if someone wrote a note on a pad of paper and ripped the top sheet off, the sheets underneath could be examined to look at the marks that pressed through the first sheet and onto the ones below.
  • Alterations, obliterations, erasures, and page substitutions – different types of light, such as infrared or ultraviolet,  react differently to types of inks. This can show what has been added or removed from the document in question.
  • Individual dye components – a small sample from a document can be cut and tested. It can then be matched to an ink library run by the Secret Service, which has collected all ink types produced since 1920.
  • Machine-written documents – different machines print in different ways, and can also use unique inks. Both of these factors can be looked at the determine the type of printer a document came from.
  • Seals and Stamps – marks made such as “rubber stamp impressions, embossed seals, watermarks, or other mechanically printed marks” can all be examined for any unique features or clues to where the document came from (“A Simplified Guide”).
  • Handwriting Analyzation – with a large enough sample of handwriting from two different people, a comparison can be made. No one writes the same way one hundred percent of the time, so even if someone writes very neatly, a skilled investigator will be able to pick up on differences in the writing, such as hesitation or a mistake that was covered up. The age of the person who wrote the document being examined must also be taken into account, as a sample taken from an eight year old will not look the same as a sample given from that same person a few years later at twelve years old, because their writing style develops as they age.

The results from an examination of documents can sometimes be enough to convict suspects of anything from changing the amount on a check to murder. It is very difficult to fake or change a document and get away with it without suspicion.

Source: “A Simplified Guide to Forensic Document Examination.” Forensic Science Simplified. 2013. Web. 19 March 2016.

March 7-10

On Monday, March 7, I took a prearranged absence day from school and was at the office all day. I was hoping to see some autopsies or go on a call, but none were scheduled for that day and no calls came in the entire time I was there. Teri was on call so I spent the whole day in her office reading books from her collection about serial killers and the adventures of a former CSI, eating chicken, and fetching papers from the printer.

On Tuesday more happened. A call had come in that morning and the decedent from that call was at the morgue, so Teri took me with her to try to get the man’s fingerprints. He had been dead about 10 days before his body was found, so decomposition had started. He had a green color to him and his fingers were extremely putrefied and we couldn’t get prints using the scanner or ink. Teri said if we really needed the prints, she could rehydrate his fingers, but that would take at least another two hours. Mike said that since he was still facially recognizable, we did not need to get his prints. Teri also told me that in certain cases with decomp, she has been able to peel the whole dermis of the decedent’s hand off, place it over her own hand (with gloves on of course) and get the prints that way. She probably shouldn’t have told me that because now I really want to try it.

On Wednesday, I was given the task of putting blood spots in their case files. It does not sound very interesting, but I could read the case files as I was putting blood spots away. I read all of the homicides I came across, and most of the traffic and child fatalities, along with some suicides. Most of the deaths were naturals and those were not as interesting to read. The pictures below are of the shelves the case files are stored in (I went through about three of those whole cabinets with blood spots) and what a blood spot envelope looks like. The actual sample is in the envelope, and the front of the envelope has the decedent’s name, case file number, date of death, and the medical examiner who performed their autopsy. The picture is of the back of one of the envelopes since I can’t be taking pictures of someone’s personal information.

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Thursday was definitely the most interesting day of the whole week. That morning there had been a double traffic fatality, so Teri filled me in on that and told me all the details. Then around 3 she got a call for a body that had been found floating in a pond. Jeff had been diving in that same pond previously, trying to find the body of a missing man. So we got in the car and went out to the pond and Jeff came as well. There were a ton of people there. Along with us, there were paramedics, the forensics team,  the Greenville County Underwater Recovery Unit, and about seven cops, along with the bio-care van. The man had drifted over to the side of the pond and Jeff and four deputies got in the water to keep him near the edge and shield his body from the news helicopters. They got him in a body bag and onto a stretcher, which they then put on the bank and tilted so all the extra water would run out of the bag. Then we took his body over to a tent (also to shield from the view of the helicopters and the family, who were waiting at the front of the property) and took the necessary pictures, then double bagged the body and it was put in the bio-care van. Teri and I went to make the notification to the family. We were pretty sure it was the missing man, but we couldn’t make a positive ID so Teri asked the man’s father and step-mother (the next of kin – they are always notified first) what tattoos he had and they told us exactly. They matched the ones found on the body so unfortunately we had to tell them that it was their son that had been found in the pond. Teri had me get their contact information and then they went and told the rest of the family. Here are some links to the story that were published by local news stations:

Adam Worley’s body found in Greer pond; was missing for a month

http://www.goupstate.com/article/20160311/WIRE/160319963

This has been a very interesting week, and I am looking forward to going back again. I am glad that I am trusted enough to do things like make sure blood spots get to the right file and get someone’s contact information accurately.

Arson

Arson is a destructive crime in today’s world, with the capability of destroying valuable property and causing thousands of dollars in damage. There are three types of fire starters – pyromaniacs, arsonists, and juvenile fire starters. Pyromaniacs get some sort of gratification from starting fires and very methodical about it. Arsonists set fires for specific reasons such as profit, revenge, or attention. Juvenile fire starters are under 21 years of age. They usually start fires in their homes, schools, or vacant buildings. Because they are younger, they are often gullible and can be coerced into setting fires for less than a professional arsonist can be hired for.

In any fire, there will be a point of origin, or the place the fire started or was set. The point of origin can be found by locating the spot with the greatest amount of damage. It makes sense that the point of origin will be the most damaged and the extent of damage will lessen the farther away from the point of origin it is located. Even if a structure is completely burned to the ground, a skilled investigator will still be able to locate the point of origin.

Signs of arson:

  • Irregular burn patterns: these indicate that an accelerant was used in the fire. Gasoline and lacquer thinner are examples of accelerants, which are commonly poured on a surface such as the floor and set on fire so the fire will be bigger and spread faster. The picture below is an example of a situation where an accelerant was used on a tile floor.

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  • A quickly burning fire: pine wood burns at a rate of ¾ an inch per hour. A quickly burning fire can indicate that an accelerant was used.
  • A claim of an electrical fire: less than 7% of fires are actually results from an electrical fire. Wires should be closely investigated to either back up or disprove the claim.
  • Inventory or possession shortage: often if a homeowner or business owner is planning to burn their property and claim insurance, they will remove the most valuable items. Inventory may be unusually low or the homeowner may have recently removed valuable items from the home.
  • Total destruction of a car: often if the fire begins in the engine block of a vehicle, it will not spread into the passenger compartment on its own. Other signs of arson in a vehicle include cut fuel lines, missing gas caps, or used matches. The springs from the seats of the car can also clue in investigators that the fire was a product of arson. The heat from a car fire alone will not be hot enough to cave in the roof of a car or cause seat springs to sag or become distended. Both of these situations are clues that an accelerant was used in a vehicle fire and was therefore arson. Distended seat springs can be seen below.

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In a case of suspected arson, investigators look for three things to convict a suspect – an intentionally set fire, motive, and opportunity, also called the “arson triangle.” Let’s say Bob’s warehouse burns down one night, but it was old and falling apart anyway and in need of repairs tht Bob can’t afford at the moment. Investigators found clues that an accelerant was used – there’s your intentionally set fire. Bob is trying to collect insurance on his warehouse and whatever was in it – there’s the motive. But Bob was out at a bar the night his warehouse burned to the ground – he has an alibi so he had no opportunity to set the fire. This doesn’t mean investigators won’t dig deeper to try to find out who set the fire (maybe Bob hired someone to torch his warehouse), but for now, Bob is in the clear as far as an arson suspect goes.

Arson investigation can be very involved and can take a while, but it is important that it be processed correctly and accurately. If it is not, an arsonist may get away with setting fires and destroying property.

Source: Barracato, John S. Fire…Is It Arson? U.S.A.: Aetna, 1979. Print.

February 29-March 4

Not much of anything happened on Monday except spontaneous planning. I got out of class early because it was a test day, so I got to the office early enough to eat lunch. During lunch, Mike told Gary that Parks wanted him and Teri to go to Columbia for the Coroner’s Association meeting. Later when Gary and I were in his office, Mike walked by and said that I should go with them and I said yes of course. Gary was second out this week and Sonny was first out but no calls came in on Monday, so I wasn’t doing much except for homework.

Tuesday was a lot more interesting. Gary picked Teri and I up in the morning because there was no point in all of us driving to the office at the crack of dawn just to get in one car and go to Columbia. We got there around 10 and the meeting started a few minutes after that. Everyone introduced themselves and then the next hour was arson training by Craig Collier, a SLED (South Carolina Law Enforcement Division) employee. He went over the responsibilities of the coroner in the event of a fire fatality. After that, there was an approval of minutes and some reports were given. One of the coroners went over new and old business, then the meeting was adjourned. The three of us went to a special law enforcement store after that, then went and stuffed our faces at Fatz. After that, we drove back home and got to the office around 3:30. There was nothing to do after that, so we just goofed around until 4:30 and Gary dropped Teri and I off.

The rest of the week was uneventful. One call did come in on Thursday, but it came in around 4, it was raining, and the death was a natural, so I decided not to go along. The decedent lived in a mobile home, so it would have been all cramped and uncomfortable anyway, and I didn’t want to be a nuisance with two paramedic teams, family members, two deputy coroners, and then an intern all trying to stuff themselves into a mobile home. That would not be a great situation for anyone, and then after all that was over, I would have had to be taken 30 minutes back to the office to get my car and drive home. It was in everyone’s best interest for me to just goof off at the office for another 30 minutes. Friday was much the same – we ordered Domino’s and messed around all afternoon, but no other calls came in while I was there. Teri had me put together the packets she uses when she goes on call, which consist of a coroner report, fingerprinting papers, a family assistance guide, her business cards, gloves, and blood spot papers. I put together about fifteen of those, then she put me to work cutting up blood spot forms and putting them in envelopes. It is extremely important not to get anyone’s DNA on those so the sample is not contaminated, so I had to wear gloves to cut those up. I also cut up about 50 fingerprinting sheets that are used in the morgue when the coroner takes fingerprints. The forms have to be cut into strips for the decedent to be fingerprinted properly, and it just makes the whole process easier. The picture below was my view for about an hour while I put all the packets together and cut up the blood spot and fingerprinting sheets.

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Other than that, the most exciting thing that happened was that Gary was very animatedly telling me about his high school track coach and accidentally knocked a full cup of coffee right over the edge of his desk. So then I had to run like a maniac through the office to get paper towels and I was laughing so hard I had tears running down my face.

Teri is first out this next week, and Gary is in Columbia all week for coroner school. I am taking a prearranged absence day from school on Monday and will be with Teri all day. Hopefully I will be able to see some autopsies in the morning and be able to go on a call or two, since it seems they mostly happen in the morning.