April 4-6, 11

Monday, April 4th, turned out to be very eventful, which is a little unusual for a Monday. When I first got there, Teri and I took the family of a woman who died on Saturday into the conference room to go over their options as far as funeral homes and the responsibilities of the next of kin go. After that, Gary and I went to the morgue to fingerprint one of his bodies and scan that body and one of Teri’s. His SLED password for the fingerprint scanner wasn’t working, so we were waiting for Teri to bring her scanner when he got a call for a traffic fatality. So we threw the body back into the bag (not literally, don’t freak out) and shoved it in the freezer room, then took off for Geer Highway after making a quick stop at the office and then picking up Michael on the way there. State troopers had already done their processing of the scene and Mike Ellis, the chief deputy coroner, had begun taking pictures so we did not have to at this scene. The accident was a single vehicle, with only one passenger who was the driver. He died at the scene after he drove his car off the road, attempted to correct, then hit a tree and flipped his car completely around. He had some pretty serious injuries to his body and most likely died instantly from blunt force trauma to the head. His left arm was almost completely amputated at the elbow, and the bone was hanging out with the bottom half of his arm hanging on by a flap of skin. He also had a large laceration to his torso and some other trauma to his face. We made facial ID through his drivers’ license and a hospital band on his wrist. We went through the items in his car and what had been ejected from it, and found various prescriptions, a bottle of whiskey, and a narcotics anonymous booklet, and took those in as evidence. After the scene was processed, we took the body out of the vehicle and put it in a body bag. Bio-care was on its way, so we just put the bag behind Gary’s vehicle so anyone driving by could not see it. The driver of the bio-care van got lost and somehow ended up on top of the mountain, so we were waiting on the side of the road for what seemed like forever, feeling awful because we were holding up traffic but unable to do anything about it because we still had a body to take care of. While we were waiting, a tow truck came and got the car and all the parts that were laying in the road. Finally Wes got there and we loaded the body into the van and were finally able to leave. Gary and I dropped Michael off at his truck and went back to the office to meet Chief.

The first picture below is one I was able to take of the wreck. The second is one off Chief’s camera. Gary is on the far left and I am on the far right. (News story here: http://www.wyff4.com/news/coroner-responds-to-deadly-wreck-in-greenville-county/38860198)

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Chief left the scene before the rest of us to go to the address on the decedent’s license and make the notification. No one lived there anymore, so Gary had to track down the decedent’s mother, call her, and get the number of the son. The decedent’s family lives in Black Mountain in North Carolina, so Gary asked the son if he wanted to come to Greenville so Gary could tell him what happened, or just tell him over the phone. The son said over the phone, so Chief actually made the notification and told the man that his brother had died in an accident. The family told us that the man had a husband, so Gary has to track him down too and notify him about the accident. An external examination was scheduled for the next morning, and if that was not enough to determine cause of death, and autopsy would be performed. Speaking of autopsies, I was finally able to take some pictures in the morgue of what the room where the autopsies are done looks like.

The long table is where the body is actually laid. After it is cut open, the organs are taken to the smaller table to be weighed and examined by the medical examiner. During the autopsy, there is a saw laying under the table that is used to cut the rib cage and skull open, and various other tools that are used to take samples and cut the organs up so they can be examined on the smaller table in the back.

On Tuesday, Gary and I went to the hospital to talk to the brother of the man that died in the traffic accident the day before. We were over there for over an hour answering all his questions and explaining the legal process and responsibilities involved in being the next of kin. After that, we went back to the office. Around 6:30, we got a pre-alert for a vehicle vs. motorcycle accident. We headed that way and by the time we got there, the man had been pronounced and the passenger was taken to the hospital with a trauma score of 6, but she died three days later. The operator was wearing a helmet but the passenger was not, and the driver and passenger of the van were not injured. Michael met us there and took pictures of the scene. He started farther out and gradually got closer to where the motorcycle was laying. Highway patrol had already been there and marked the location of the bike and van. The body was a little ways away from the bike where the medics had moved him to work on him and get him out of the gasoline leaking from his bike.

We held up sheets so the bystanders could not see the body and got the decedent’s wallet out to make an identification. He was facially recognizable so that is how we confirmed his identity on scene and learned his name. After that, we just had to wait until bio-care got there to load the body up. Before they got there, we took pictures of the actual body. Gary had me move the decedent’s head for the pictures and go through his pockets for his belongings. I found a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, cell phone, and key ring and put those all in a bag for the family to come by and claim later. After that, I helped hold sheets up again so the bystanders could not see the body and Gary and a fireman got the body in the bag and put it on a stretcher, then loaded it into the back of the bio-care van to be taken to the morgue.

The pictures below are of the condition the bike was in after the accident and the cross Chief painted on the road before we cleared the scene. The orange marks in the first picture were made by highway patrol and you can see the bumper of the van that the motorcycle hit. The link to the news story is here: http://wspa.com/2016/04/05/1-dead-1-in-critical-condition-after-greenville-co-motorcycle-wreck/ and if you look closely in the first picture you can see me in the middle. I am very proud of that picture and I have it saved everywhere, and also included it below. The final picture is of me going through the decedent’s pockets and getting his belongings for property and evidence.

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The next day, I had a prearranged absence day. I went to the morning meeting after absconding some coffee from the kitchen. They just went over the traffic fatality from the previous day and the passenger who was still in the hospital. Gary and I went to the morgue around 10 for the external review of the decedent from the motorcycle fatality. His cause of death was ruled blunt force trauma to the head (he had a cranial fracture) and the manner of death is accidental. Blood and vitreous humor were taken, and those will be sent off to the lab to be tested. He did have a broken leg, but that did not contribute to the cause of death. There was only one other death that day, and it was a natural, so Gary was able to take it over the phone. Other than that, Gary boxed up some blood to be sent to SLED for toxicology and we put together fingerprint sheets from the two traffic fatalities. I also did a P&E sheet for the belongings I got off the decedent in the motorcycle accident and his son came to pick those up. We went home a little early because everyone else had already left and all his reports were caught up, so we really had nothing to dowas (sadly) not able to go to the office on Thursday because of a concert or on Friday because of my senior prom. Not much happened while I was gone, so that was fine with me. The following Monday, Gary took me to the morgue to fingerprint a homicide victim (news story: http://wspa.com/2016/04/11/greenville-man-shot-dies-on-old-buncombe-road/) and the passenger from the motorcycle accident that died 3 days later (news story: http://wspa.com/2016/04/10/coroner-identifies-woman-killed-in-motorcycle-crash-in-greenville/). We also had an interesting experience when we went into the refrigerator room to get the bodies and someone in the far corner stood up. In a room where everyone is supposed to be dead, people aren’t supposed to just be standing up and moving around, so Gary grabbed his gun, I let out a few choice words, and both of us tried to get out the door at the same time which resulted in me tripping and the lab assistant in the corner having a good laugh at how scared we got. Gary showed me the “basement” where bodies are put when the room in the morgue gets a little too full. That room was pretty rank because some of those bodies have been in there for months. While I was printing the decedent from the homicide, Gary told me I would do well as a deputy coroner, so of course that made me extremely happy.

This is my last internship post on this site. Senior year is coming to a close, and so are senior projects. I will continue to go back to the office sometimes, I just won’t be posting about my adventures on here anymore. Thank you for taking the time to read about and share in my experiences. This project has changed and influenced my life more than anyone will ever know and everyone’s support of me has been invaluable.

Footwear and Tire Tracks

Tires and shoes have one thing in common – they both leave patterns when they are used. A tire can leave a pattern in the dirt next to a house, or a shoe can leave a transfer of blood when a criminal leaves a crime scene. The patterns left by tires and shoes are often unique and can be examined to help investigators narrow the field of suspects.

Investigators look at 3 main characteristics when examining a pattern or imprint left by a shoe or tire: class, wear, and individual characteristics.

-Class characteristics: These are results from manufacturing. General class characteristics include the make and model of a tire, and limited involved the specific mold used to make a certain tire.

-Wear characteristics: As a shoe or tire is used more, more of it will change depending on how long it has been used. A tire 500 miles old will be very different from a tire that is 45,000 miles old. Shoes will wear differently based on how the owner walks and how long the shoes have been used.

-Individual characteristics: These are characteristics that are not a result of the manufacturing process. For example, if I stepped on a nail and it went through the bottom of my shoe, the mark left by the nail would be considered an individual characteristic.

According to Forensic Science Simplified, an accurate examination of a shoe or tire can give investigators clues such as “where the crime occurred, the number of parties or vehicles present, the direction a person may have traveled before, during, or after the crime, whether a person was on foot, and other crime scenes connected to a perpetrator.”

Prints are divided into 3 categories: visible (such as a blood shoe print), latent (not visible to the naked eye, such as a print on a sidewalk), and plastic (such a shoe print in the mud). Casting is often used to collect plastic prints, like a shoe print left in the mud. Lifting techniques can also be used – and there are several of those that can be used as well. These techniques include adhesive (adhesive is placed over a print commonly dusted with fingerprint powder then lifted off), gelatin (less sticky than an adhesive lifter, so it can be used without tearing fragile materials that a print may be on), and electrostatic lifting (particles are electrically charged and can then be attached to lifting film).

In this picture, investigators are inking a tire and driving over paper so that prints can be compared.

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Investigators carefully examine any evidence they receive for clues to where it came from and who could have owned or wore the item that made a certain print. There are databases full of prints from tires and shoes that can be used to make comparisons. It is important that the examination is made precisely and carefully, or a valuable clue could be missed and a perpetrator could get away with a crime.

Source: “Footwear and Tire Track Examination.” Forensic Science Simplified. 2013. Web. 9 Apr. 2016.

March 28-April 1

This week was spring break from high school and college, so I took full advantage of that and was at the office all day every day. Sonny was first out and Gary was second. On Monday, there was not much going on, and no calls came in all day except for natural deaths. The running joke of the office was about a woman who showed up to get the BRT for her brother and haul his body away in a taxi. Dee and I were laughing about that all morning. Other than that, Gary and I had to track down the next of kin for a man who was found dead in Florida. He was homeless, so they did not have many records for him and the only name they found in connection with him was for a woman in TR. We went and talked to her and found out that she was his ex-wife, and she gave us the name of their daughter so we could notify her. After that we had nothing else to do, so we went and visited Gary’s old fire department (you can follow their department cat at flamethearsoncat on Instagram). The alarm went off while we were there for a structure fire, so we jumped in Gary’s car and took off with lights and sirens to the Fleetwood apartments. It ended up being just a smoking appliance, so we cleared out of there soon after and went back to the office until the end of the day.

On Tuesday there was a lot more action. There was a call a little after 10 for a traffic fatality, so Gary and I went out to that. It was a single vehicle accident and the car went around a curve and did not straighten out, so it continued straight until it hit a concrete barrier on a side road. The driver was not ejected, but he had some pretty serious trauma to his body. Highway patrol came and reconstructed the scene, then a fire crew pulled the body out of the car. That took awhile because they literally had to cut the car up to get him out. A piece of metal in the dashboard hit his knee and split it in half, so they had to cut far enough into the dashboard to get his knee out of the metal, which does not seem difficult until you take into account that there were five firefighters trying to squeeze around a very small car on its side. After the body was extricated, it was placed in a clean white body bag and biocare took it to the morgue. Gary and I went to make the notification to the family of the decedent and stopped by the office to get Michael, another intern, and take him with us to make the notification. As we were picking him up, Jeff sped out of the office and down the road, so we went to find out what he was responding to so quickly. It ended up being a hanging about a minute away from the office in the woods across from the hospital. (News story on the hanging: http://wspa.com/2016/03/29/body-found-in-woods-near-greenville-memorial-hospital/)  Michael decided to stay with Jeff at that scene, so Gary and I went out to the address on the man from the traffic fatality’s license. No one was there, so we went back to the office to research the decedent more and find the next of kin. His brother actually called the office and told Gary his dad lived in Piedmont, and the father was technically the next of kin. The father was a little older so Gary wanted the brother to come with us to make the notification just to be there for his father. While we waited for the brother, I filled out the property and evidence sheet for the decedent’s belongings. The decedent’s brother drove out to the office and Gary and I followed him out to the father’s house. We made the notification, which was not fun at all – notifications are the only aspect of being an intern that I do not like. I have only been with the deputy coroners to two of the notifications, but both of them were really rough. From all the information we gathered about the decedent from witnesses, family, and his doctors, we concluded the decedent had a seizure when he went around the curve and continued straight until he hit the barrier. The manner of death was ruled accidental and the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. News story: http://wspa.com/2016/03/29/fatal-crash-on-hwy-20-in-greenville-co-vehicle-overturned/

On Wednesday, I got to go with Sonny and Jamie, a part time deputy coroner, to see the autopsy from the man who hung himself the day before. An autopsy was going on right before for the victim of an officer-involved shooting, which I did not go to because a bunch of SLED investigators and other officers were there. It was not an officer that died, but officers shot the decedent, so of course the investigation will be very involved and lengthy. (News story: http://wspa.com/2016/03/29/one-killed-in-greenville-co-officer-involved-shooting/) Anyway, the autopsy for the hanging was basically to make sure that the findings in the autopsy were consistent with a ligature hanging and there was no foul play involved. Before the autopsy, Sonny let me fingerprint the body from the hanging and another body from a death that happened during the previous night. Both of them were still in rigor, so I had to break that and uncurl their fingers. Jamie held the fingers uncurled for me and I rolled the ink on and took the prints. They turned out so well that even Sonny was impressed by how good they were, so I was extremely proud of my fingerprinting abilities. After that, we went and put on all the garb for the autopsy and that was over fairly quickly. The marks and condition of the body were consistent with a ligature hanging, so the manner of death will be ruled suicide. The whole office thinks I am twisted now, because during the autopsy I was really hungry and my stomach was growling, but when we got back to the office I was not hungry anymore, so Sonny went and told everyone that dead bodies make me hungry. Sonny let me read the case files he had in his office from current cases, then Teri took me and a paramedic in training out to get food and go to the law enforcement center. We had to go to the law enforcement center to get evidence and get Teri’s new ID made because her last name changed when she got married. She showed us the 911 dispatch room, then we went to get the evidence. They ended up giving us all the evidence they had for the coroner’s office, so we were walking through the halls with bags of clothes and boxes of fenders that were tested for DNA evidence. We went and got her ID made, and then went back to the office. By that time it was 4:15, so I finished reading a case file and then we all went home.

Not much happened on Thursday. I went to the morning meeting, ran a few errands with Teri, and helped her print some papers. After that, I went with Gary to the morgue to give them a BRT permit and fingerprinted a woman from a call Gary ran that morning. After that, we went back to the office and updated case files. We were going to go out to Mauldin to give the woman’s family her wedding band, but they were not answering the phone, so we went to get a part for Gary’s AR-15. We updated more case files after that and went home. On Friday, Gary and I went in the morning to another autopsy. I did not even know anything about that decedent, but I went to the autopsy anyway and after it was over Gary let me fingerprint him. We also fingerprinted a woman who had died during the night and took a blood spot from her. Her death was ruled natural because she had a good number of heart problems. After that, we went back to the office for a little while and then went back out to get food, then back to the office and did more paperwork during the afternoon. I managed to escape most of the April Fools’ pranks that were going on with the exception of one that Gary pulled on me.

We do not have long until senior year is over, but that does not mean I have to stop going back to the office. I will keep going until they kick me out. Most people do not understand why I think dead people are so interesting, but I find the job of the coroner fascinating. Yes it may be gross and smelly and at times emotionally draining, but I would have no problem pursuing it as my career in the future.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.