In his lab far from the scene of a crime, Skip Palenik forges unbreakable chains of evidence from dust & detritus. Let's watch the master at work.
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.
One of the fathers of forensic microscopy was Edmond Locard of Lyons, France, who, starting in 1910, performed the first systematic analytic research on dust traces taken from clothing and people’s bodies. Locard formulated what is now known as his exchange principle: Whenever two objects come into contact, there is always a transfer of material. “Ninety-six times out of a hundred, Locard could tell the occupation of industrial workers based on the dust in their earwax,” Palenik says admiringly. In the interest of scientific inquiry, Locard and members of his lab performed painful experiments on themselves, such as burning off their fingerprints with hot irons to see whether they’d grow back the same (they did). Palenik traces his professional lineage directly to Locard: He studied with a Locard disciple, the Swiss microscopist Max Frei-Sulzer, and now runs a business-Microtrace, in Elgin, Illinois-dedicated to cataloguing the manifestations, criminal and otherwise, of the exchange principle.
Palenik’s objects of study are measured in micrometers; his scopes magnify them up to 30,000 times. You could probably fit all the material he’s been asked to analyze in his 30-year career into a couple of tablespoons, he says.
Criminals may destroy macroscopic evidence-moving, burning, or burying it, carpeting it over-but the microscopic traces are less easily erased. In the simplest cases, Palenik’s task is one of comparison: He is asked to discover whether material from a victim’s body, car, or home matches material found in a suspect’s environment. Or he is asked to determine whether a suspect could have been at the scene of a crime by comparing particles from his clothing to soil from the crime scene. He may also be asked to compare soil or dust from the suspect with an “alibi sample” taken from some other place where he claims to have been.
Most of the time, though, Palenik’s task is not comparison but deduction: he is simply given a handful of dust and asked to describe where it came from. A Holmesian challenge, but one for which Palenik is well prepared. In 1974, after a three-year stint in Germany with U.S. Army intelligence, he joined McCrone Associates, the legendary Chicago microscopy lab. (Walter C. McCrone, known for proving that the image on the Shroud of Turin was formed not by Jesus’ body but by expertly applied paint, died in July at the age of 86.) Palenik recalls arriving at the office many mornings to find a mystery slide on his microscope’s stage, the word “U.F.O.” scribbled on it with a Sharpie pen. The challenge was to identify the unknown substance, which could be anything from tarantula feces to a white acrylic fiber from the tail of a Playboy bunny.
Palenik is 6 foot 4, with dark bushy eyebrows and a walrus mustache; many have noted the contrast of such a big man devoting his life to the minuscule. He almost never goes to crime scenes; instead, evidence comes to him, by registered mail, Federal Express, and courier. Sometimes it’s even hand-delivered-once, memorably, by a man who Palenik later discovered was the Israeli consul general of Chicago. Palenik would rather be called into cases earlier, but the reality is that experts like him tend to be consulted as a last resort, when the trail is growing cold or the strands of evidence too tangled. “People don’t even know they need me until the occasion arises,” he says. He tries not to form opinions about suspects or guilt, limiting his opinions to the physical evidence that passes under his microscopes, and rarely bothers to ascertain a case’s outcome once his role has been fulfilled. On occasion he’s been hired by the prosecution, only to turn up evidence that was used by the defense; the opposite has also happened. “We don’t solve crimes,” he says emphatically. “What we do is establish facts.”
Forensic microscopy is a relatively obscure field, made more so right now by the sensational results of DNA matching-which is sending criminals to jail and freeing innocents from jail-and by the success of shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which insert forensic investigators into frontline cops-and-robbers action in a way that makes Palenik cringe. “If someone ran a crime lab that way I think they’d be facing charges of some sort,” he says.
He’s not a forensic Luddite. Palenik has due respect for DNA analysis, and he owns some high-tech instruments of his own, including a $150,000 infrared microspectrophotometer, though he’s happy to use a 5-cent microchemical reagent test if it moves the work along. He complains, as an experienced physician might, that forensic science is greater than the sum of its technologies. Many of his peers, he says, do only the most expensive tests, even if they’re the wrong ones. “This is a thinking person’s lab. We don’t get results here by running something through an instrument.”
Palenik, admirers agree, is a virtuoso: He can look at a fragment of charcoal and determine the species of tree it came from. Peter De Forest, a professor of criminalistics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says the breadth of Palenik’s training distinguishes him: “We have too few people like Skip who have this generalist background. There’s a trend to make things more routine. This is why Skip is so valuable.”
The fibers found with Judi Burgin’s body displayed a striking diversity of cross-sectional shapes and diameters. There were seven types in all: one large and round, one small and round, and five others with various three-leaf-clover-like shapes. Synthetic carpet fibers are often extruded in distinctive ways that reveal their identities as clearly as a trademark. Palenik concluded he was looking at particularly cheap carpet, the kind that’s made from miscellaneous leftovers, so-called junk fibers that are cast off by mainstream carpet manufacturers, then processed into low-quality composites. Because such composites are made from whatever fibers happen to be available at a given time, each batch possesses its own signature.
Comparing the rug fibers found with Burgin’s body to the ones taken from Brown’s home, Palenik discovered that not only were the same seven types of fiber present, and the same combination of dyes used to color those fibers, but that quirky aspects of the fibers also matched. For example, one of the seven kinds of fiber had been imperfectly dyed-the color had not soaked all the way through. Not only was this true of that particular fiber in both samples, but to exactly the same degree. Another of the seven types of fiber possessed tiny bleached-out areas, visible under the microscope, where the dye had not taken; again, this was true in both samples.
The troopers had their match-and Carl Brown had met his. “Skip told us you couldn’t reproduce this carpet if you tried,” Sgt. Dallas Massie, the now-retired Alaska state trooper who was in charge of the investigation, told me. “His analysis is our case.” Brown was found guilty in 1998; his conviction was later overturned on a technicality, and in April of this year he was retried, with Palenik again acting as star witness. Brown was convicted of first degree murder for the second time.
The work of a forensic microscopist is as richly varied as the world of crime. Palenik is currently consulting on evidentiary details from a notorious unsolved serial murder case on the West Coast, as well as a recent kidnapping in California. Not long ago he analyzed an allegedly ancient bronze statuette that a New York City gallery owner intended to buy for hundreds of thousands of dollars, proving, on the basis of a single fiber trapped within its patina, that it was a fake (the fiber had been treated with a 20th-century synthetic product). Palenik is much in demand, but you won’t find him holding forth on Larry King Live, as some of his counterparts do, about his own cases or anyone else’s. His clients seek him, in part, because they know they can rely on his discretion.
Palenik’s passion began when he was 8 and his parents, a truck driver and a homemaker, bought him a 400x-magnification Gilbert microscope. A chapter in the manual called “The Vacuum Cleaner Detective” explained how much could be learned from dust. Palenik and his younger brother Mark-now a transmission electron microscopist-obsessively scoured their mother’s vacuum cleaner bags, identifying salt crystals and particles of pepper from the kitchen, talcum powder from the bathroom, hairs from various family members. (As Palenik’s mentor, McCrone, used to say, “Only two kinds of people appreciate dust: microscopists and housewives.”) “There was something fascinating to me about taking a speck of something and being able to tell all this stuff from it,” Palenik recalls. When the boys’ uncle died, they asked for his clothes so they could vacuum his cuffs. Not exactly a normal childhood, perhaps, but their parents encouraged them.
Palenik’s approach to microscopy is something of an anomaly. He was discouraged by his professors at the University of Illinois from pursuing 19th-century microchemical analysis methods, such as adding reagents to substances to identify them on the basis of the ensuing chemical reactions. Those traditional techniques had been eclipsed by spectroscopic methods involving X-ray, infrared, and ultraviolet light. Palenik learned the new methods but persevered with the unpopular ones too; ultimately he opted to skip classes and spend his days in the library, creating his own curriculum.
When I stepped on the sticky blue mat that strips dust from the soles of shoes and into the Microtrace labs, I found myself in some of the cleanest rooms I’ve ever been in. One can imagine that if the 8-year-old boy could have had the run of them he would have thought himself in heaven. Bottles worthy of Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory, with yellowed, fading labels and skull-and-crossbones symbols, peek from glass-faced cabinets-salt petre, ammonium vanadate, chloroform. Criminal evidence is strewn about: a dingo pelt (Palenik’s cases have involved the illegal trade in endangered species), the bicycle ridden by a girl who was hit by a school bus, a swath of carpet from Swiss Air Flight 111, which crashed off Nova Scotia on September 2, 1998.
But mostly I was struck by Palenik’s vast toolbox of microscopes. The hot-stage microscope can identify the distinctive behavior of a fiber or crystal by gradually heating it to its melting point. The reflected light microscope maps the surface of an opaque material by bouncing light off it from above. The infrared microspectrophotometer, which resembles a computer more than anything one recalls from biology class, excites the bonds between atoms with infrared light to elicit a substance’s chemical structure, spewing out the results as a graph. A comparison microscope enables two items to be viewed side-by-side, which can be more effective than examining them in sequence. “The human eye is good at noticing differences, not so good at remembering them,” Palenik notes. The polarized light microscope, which Palenik calls his “workhorse,” identifies fibers and crystals by exploiting the tendency of crystalline structures to manipulate light in unique and identifiable ways. In building an evidence chain, Palenik moves from one microscope to another to forge the next link.
Palenik demonstrated for me one of his most sophisticated tools, the scanning electron microscope. Looking at the machine’s black-and-white monitor, I saw what appeared to be an asteroid. “This is a grain of sand,” Palenik said. The machine reflected a focused beam of electrons off the sand grain’s surface, magnifying it 800 times to create a 3-D topographical map that revealed caves and crevices, hills and furrows. Next Palenik switched on the energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy detector, a device that analyzes the X rays that are given off when electrons are absorbed by a sample and then released. Every element emits its own characteristic X ray. This sample, the spectrometer showed, was composed of oxygen and silicon in a two-to-one ratio: quartz. But could the microscope identify where the sand originated? Debris wedged into surface crevices was revealed to be cubes of salt and the silicon shells of algae called diatoms. All of which enabled Palenik to say that this grain of sand came from an ocean beach-not a river beach or desert-where the water is salty and organic matter is common.
Often Palenik quite literally finds himself looking for the dirt on people. Soil is among the most helpful forms of evidence because time doesn’t erode its value-“It doesn’t rot, like blood,” he remarks. His first soil case, in 1974, involved a shooting at a gas station. He was able to place the shooter at the station because of some fine soil clinging to the knee of the man’s pants. If dirt originated within 50 yards of a road, Palenik knows he’s likely to find bits of tire rubber in it; if it contains pollen grains, he has a key to the local flora. In addition to seeking the composition of soil, Palenik analyzes how it was deposited. Soil from the floor mat of a suspect’s car won’t place him at a crime scene or verify his alibi because dirt from various places mingles there, obscuring origins. But soil built up in the car’s wheel wells may be stratified-a sort of sedimentary evidence deposited over time-providing a chronological record of where the car has been.
Once Palenik analyzed a clump of mud from the bottom of a dead woman’s shoe. The body had been found on a tobacco farm in North Carolina; the soil there did not, however, match the mud on the shoe, in which Palenik detected thick wool, chewed up leather, saliva, and straw. He suggested to investigators that the last place in which this woman was likely to have been standing, perhaps the last place she had been alive, was a stable. They were delighted: Their independent investigation, based on factors other than the mud, had implicated the owner of a horse farm.
I presented Palenik with a plastic bag full of dirt and asked if he could, in short order, tell me anything about its origins. After drying the sample under a heat lamp, he placed a bit of it under a polarizing microscope. He looked through the eyepiece with practiced ease-no squinting, no hunching of the shoulders. He didn’t have to stop talking to concentrate on what he was seeing. A quick application of heat and a moment’s glance at the transparent and (to me) abstract shapes under the microscope, and he told me my sample contained iron and humus, and had probably come from a grassy area or a place that received the runoff from such an area. He was right: I had spooned it from my back yard. He apologized for not telling me more, but we were nearing the end of the work day, and further tests would have taken more than the 5 minutes he’d needed to say this much.
Cleveland, December 2001. A motorist found his traffic ticket unjust. On the memo line of the check with which he paid his fine he’d scribbled: “Damn the man.” The envelope that contained the check also held a small quantity of white powder. It seemed clear the motorist wanted to scare somebody with the possibility of anthrax. Was he bluffing?
The Cuyahoga County police turned to Palenik. He was quickly able to rule out anthrax, as the long spores of the anthrax bacillus are easy for an experienced observer to recognize. Determining what the substance was, on the other hand, might require some research. Palenik’s file cabinets are packed with at least 10,000 reference samples-items he has collected with care, often by soliciting aid from the curators of natural history museums or from insider contacts at manufacturing companies. His collection includes metals and alloys (including particles that have been drilled, sawed, crushed with a sledgehammer, and so on), man-made fibers, human hairs, animal hairs of diverse species (he has an entire drawer full of camel hair), minerals, sands, wood, pollen, spores, leaves, seeds, food products (spices, grains, starches), polymers, synthetic drugs, explosives, and occupational dusts vacuumed from the clothing of laborers from various industries.
If Palenik doesn’t possess an item in a vial or envelope or as a permanent mount on a microscope slide, he consults his library, which is lined floor to ceiling with titles such as Optical Crystallography, Volcanic Ash, Cytology of the Human Vagina, Crease Resisting Fabrics, and Fur: Third Edition. Not to mention The Particle Atlas, the six-volume masterpiece on which Palenik collaborated with McCrone, which features photomicrographs of everything imaginable, from dandruff to auto brake lining, gunshot residue to pudding mix. Palenik’s son Chris, 25, a grad student in geology at the University of Michigan who’s learning the family business, is digitizing the lab’s extensive collection. It’s a lengthy process because each sample must be prepared and analyzed before being photographed. The analysis quantifies such properties as density and refractive indices, providing the user with several ways to match an unknown sample.
In the Cleveland case, Palenik was soon able to say that the substance was ordinary wheat flour. But he has linked dust to much more horrendous acts of terror. In 1985, an Air India flight outbound from Vancouver exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, killing more than 300 people. Earlier that day, a piece of luggage marked for another Air India flight exploded at Narita Airport in Tokyo. Canadian investigators went to work analyzing the residue from the Tokyo explosion. They began by washing away everything but the bomb’s active ingredients. Once they had identified those ingredients and their ratios, they were able, by consulting the recipes of major explosives manufacturers, to narrow the field to two or three producers. Then they stalled. That was when they began regretting having discarded what had seemed to be worthless components of the initial sample. By the time the Mounties contacted Palenik, all they had for him were two particles of a substance they could not identify.
Palenik knew the substance might be an absorbent material used to cushion nitroglycerine and keep it from spontaneously exploding. Any number of materials could serve that purpose, but when Palenik examined the Tokyo dust under the polarizing microscope, he felt a jolt of recognition. Several years earlier he’d been hired by RJ Reynolds, the tobacco company, to analyze a competitor’s product, a non-tobacco cigarette. That product had contained an unusual substance that after lengthy investigations he identified as cocoa shell dust. Now, thanks to his spot-on visual memory, he knew he was seeing it again. As soon as Palenik told investigators on the Air India case, they were able to identify the dynamite manufacturer and from there, trace the bomb to three Sikh terrorists, who have since been charged and are awaiting trial.
Palenik likes to quote Pasteur: Chance favors the prepared mind. The big man with the microscopes is at home precisely here: where scant evidence and awful mysteries encounter the methodical but nimble mind. Anything in the world might pass beneath Skip Palenik’s lens. When it does, he will figure out where it came from.
Gordon Grice is the author of The Red Hourglass. His second book, a memoir, is forthcoming from Dial Press. An article of his will appear in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002.
Replacing the Battery
Replacing the Battery
Replacing the Battery
Replacing the Battery
Replacing the Battery