Forensic investigation grows ever more scientific, but when crime-scene veterans swap stories over coffee, the Can you top this? banter often turns not to the minutiae of evidence recovery but to the simpleton blunders of criminals who probably consider Dumb and Dumber a difficult but inspirational film.
Confronting idiots, investigators find that the crudest pantomime of investigatory technique can crack a case. In Horn Lake, Mississippi, for example, police brought a suspected motorcycle thief in for questioning. Earlier that evening, a patrol unit responding to the theft report got close enough to recognize the rider on the cycle (a well-known local troublemaker) before breaking off the chase. Later they spotted the man driving his own car, pulled him over, and found a motorcycle exhaust pipe on the backseat--still warm. The driver claimed that the tailpipe came from a friend's cycle that he was repairing and denied being on any motorcycle that day.
At headquarters, Lieutenant Lynn Brown asked the suspect whether he watched CSI, whether he'd ever seen them use those special blue lights that reveal invisible evidence. Brown brandished a tiny laser light he'd taken off a key chain, and a pair of safety glasses used on the police firing range. He explained that if, in fact, the man had been riding a motorcycle that day, the light and glasses would enable Brown to see the impression the grips left on his hands, right down to the imprint of the motorcycle's brand name. Brown shined the toy laser on the suspect's hands, then turned to a colleague and said, "Well, the only decision now is what we're going to charge him with."
At which point, says Brown, the tough guy "immediately grabbed my arm, said, 'Can't we talk about this?' and confessed to everything." (Federal law allows police interrogators to bluff in this manner--so long as their deceptions don't involve false promises.)
Following a recent gang killing, Houston crime-scene investigator Christopher Duncan dusted the outside of a vehicle in which the victim had been sitting. Dusting is routine, of course, though Duncan says that "with all the forensics on TV, I'm always amazed when they're dumb enough to leave fingerprints." What he found in this case was a personal record: 55 sets of finger or palm prints from the
"The shooter must have been trying to terrorize the guy. Before he pulled out his gun, he beat on this car, open- handed, all the way around." Apparently it did not occur to the killer that this sort of handiwork might be better done with gloves. The result was a magnificent example of evidence overkill--the first set of prints alone was sufficient to match the gangbanger to a set in the national Automated Fingerprint Identification System database.
When Detective Timothy Carnahan of the Boone County, Kentucky, Sheriff's Department reran the surveillance tape from a recent gas-station robbery, he noticed the thief throwing something in the trash on his way out of the crime scene. In the garbage can Carnahan found a crumpled job application. The clerk confirmed that the man had asked for an application and dawdled over it while waiting for several customers to clear out. The address on the application was genuine, but Carnahan couldn't believe the robber had supplied his own home address. "So instead of going directly to the house to see if the guy is there, we burn his picture off the surveillance tape and take it to one of the previous employers listed on the back of the application." The employer not only recognized the man but also confirmed that all the pertinent information on his application was correct.
Crime-scene investigator Jeff McCarter worked without the advantage of surveillance tape at a recent church break-in scene in Sevier County, Tennessee, but found that the criminal had kindly supplied images of his own.
As McCarter moved from room to room, he noticed a Polaroid camera and photo on a Sunday school table. The picture--an arm's-length self-portrait--didn't look like that of your typical Sunday school teacher. "Right about then," recalls McCarter, "I get a call from a patrolman outside saying he's stopped someone walking down the road." McCarter went to look at the apprehended man. "Sure enough, it's the guy in the picture." Confronted, the mug admitted to the break-in.