The small, half-decomposed body came in for autopsy swathed in champagne-colored sheets, the way it had been found in a mound of leaves. Two sheets were wrapped more or less evenly around the body. A third, the innermost, was bunched around the woman's head, which had been shattered with repeated blows from a blunt object-perhaps a baseball bat. Within this gruesome bundle was a potential clue: a 3-inch-long tuft of red carpet yarn, along with stray orange and pink fibers. Nestled as these strands were within the sheets, investigators surmised they had become entangled as the body was being wrapped at the murder site before it was dumped near a creek in the Alaskan woods.
The dead woman was soon identified as Judi Burgin, 34. She had spent much of her adult life as a free spirit, a poet who kept no fixed address, working when she needed to as a deck hand or cook on commercial fishing vessels out of Kodiak or Dutch Harbor. Things had not been going well for Burgin. She had a boyfriend named Carl Brown who kept her supplied with cocaine and heroin, a man she told friends she feared. Just before her disappearance, a little money came her way; Burgin told friends she was going to Hawaii. Then she vanished; her body was found four months later.
Police learned that a week after Burgin's disappearance, Carl Brown replaced the carpet and part of the carpet pad in his bedroom. When investigators took up the new carpet, they found fragments of the old underneath-the same eccentric mix of red, orange, and pink as the strands within the sheet. A promising find, to be sure, but the same sort of carpet might be common to other local homes. The troopers needed to establish an exact match-one that would have to survive, as it turned out, not one murder trial but two.
The Alaska State Crime Lab turned to Skip Palenik, 56, a Chicago-area microscopist who's worked on dozens of high-profile investigations in the past two decades-cases as diverse as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado, the Unabomber terror, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Palenik has exposed fake art and examined some of the notorious 2000 presidential election ballot chads from Florida; within the past year a Canadian oil company has asked him to evaluate whether terrorists were responsible for an explosion at one of its pipelines in Yemen. He has consulted for Scotland Yard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the FBI; he's helped crack cases that turned, in part, on the most insubstantial stuff: cocoa shell dust in an airline bomb, paper fibers from the backing of a photograph, the hairs of a Doberman pinscher, a type of sand peculiar to the environs of Pike's Peak. One of perhaps 200 forensic microscopists in the United States, Palenik has made his life's work advancing the scientific understanding of how small things tell big stories. He is the master of the overlooked clue.
Not a man you want on your evidence trail, in other words, if you're a murderer who has failed to notice a wispy strand of carpet fiber on your victim's body.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.