Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My Crime Scene Analysis Sucks

By Chester Campbell

It’s a good thing my fictional sleuths are seasoned pros at their jobs. I would need a lot more training and experience to take on a case. That became obvious when I visited the mock crime scene set up for the Killer Nashville conference last weekend.

The scenario and the mock-up were devised by Dan Royse, who heads a CSI unit called the Violent Crime Response Team for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. He’s a 27-year-veteran forensic investigator. To give myself a little consolation, I was in a hurry and didn’t spend as much time as I should have in checking out the scene. I also didn’t follow Dan’s hint at one point, something that would have made a difference.

A small meeting room at the Marriott provided the setting. Several printed sheets gave all the necessary details, including everyone who had visited the crime scene. It was taped off, though we were allowed access since we were the CSI agents.

When you walked through the door, you saw chairs set up for a meeting, with a lectern in front. A few chairs were overturned. A fully-clothed body (okay, a dummy) lay on its back in front of the lectern. Blood, some kind of red stuff, anyway, discolored the shirt where a bullet had gone in. An apparent knife slash cut through the right pants leg and the leg itself, above the knee, leaving a large pool of blood on the floor (if you’re with Marriott, don’t worry—the entire room was covered with plastic).

A chair held four plastic containers with the contents of the dead guy’s pockets. An open briefcase lay on a table at the back of the setup. Several sheets promoting a self-publishing deal spread out next to it. A McDonald’s bag with wadded up burger wrappers and a receipt sat on the floor beside the table.

In brief, here’s the scenario:

The deceased had booked the room for a seminar that evening. He was seen entering the room earlier in the day, but no one reported observing him leave. Nobody heard any kind of disturbance. Late in the afternoon, a maid came in to check the room, saw the body, and freaked out. The manager arrived, saw the blood, and called 911. Paramedics came, a crime scene investigator, and a detective. Dan Royse provided the CSI’s tool box, which we were free to use. It included a small but intense flashlight, which he suggested would help find clues.

Good (for nothing) investigator that I am, I checked the pocket contents and found a small bag of white powder (aha, a user?). His billfold held lots of nice fake money. I don’t think Dan trusted us—a wise choice considering mystery writers aren’t well paid. It also included a condom and photos of small kids. The corpse wore a wedding band. A philanderer, no doubt.

Moving through the scene, I noted a pair of blue rubber gloves on the floor where they had been pulled off and dropped. A few feet from the body, beside the overturned chairs, shreds of a raw sweet potato were scattered about. Being as dense as the dummy, I had no idea what that meant. I saw one of my fellow writers shining the flashlight around the body, but he didn’t seem to find anything of interest.

I went through the briefcase next. His checkbook showed lots of payments for similar seminars at motels around the country. Leafing through the remaining checks, I noted one missing that had not been entered in the register. It had to be a significant clue, I thought.

A letter in the case detailed several lawsuits he faced from people who had paid him big money to produce books but received nothing in return. Hmm, sounded like some publishers I knew of. The authors were listed and the names of their books. Other papers indicated the scammer had operated under several different publisher names.

At that point, I had to leave to attend another panel session and didn’t make it back before the competition ended. The one who came closest to describing what had happened would win free registration for next year’s Killer Nashville conference. Chicken that I am, I didn’t try to figure it out but came back for Dan’s briefing on the solution.

As he pointed out the clues, I shook my head. I missed a large blood-stained, military-style knife lying beneath a chair. I also missed a cartridge case on the floor near the table, and Dan got down, laying his flashlight on the floor, to show how it illuminated a metal jacket separated from the lead bullet in back of the lectern. It was a 9mm fired from a semiautomatic (Dan is a firearms specialist). I had seen blood on a newspaper at the body’s feet but didn’t notice it contained the shoe print of a military boot.

The real kicker, which I never even considered, involved the checkbook. If you held up the next check and shined the light on it, you could clearly read the impression made from the writing on the missing check. It showed the amount owed to one of the defrauded writers, plus his name on the “For” line.

Here’s what happened:

The murderer came into the room, his gun hidden by the McDonald’s bag, and demanded his money. When the scammer gave a lame excuse, the pulled the gun and tossed the bag on the floor. The “publisher” said he’d write a check for what he owed. Which he did. But the writer knew as soon as he left, the guy would stop payment on the check. So he took a sweet potato from his pocket, jammed it into the gun barrel as a silencer and pointed it at the victim, who began to back away, knocking over chairs. The murderer fired a shot into his chest and he stumbled, falling in front of the lectern.

From the military clues (the guy’s book title involved Desert Storm), it appeared he was a savvy fighter. Though the victim was disabled, he wasn’t dead. The ex-Green Beret, or whatever, took out the knife, knowing exactly how to use it, and slashed the femoral artery. The scammer quickly bled out.

The killer tossed the knife on the floor, knowing it couldn’t be traced to him but the blood would be hard to explain if found on him. He unwisely left the McDonald’s bag. The receipt showed he had bought it in Lebanon, some fifty miles away, after 11 a.m., and the surveillance cameras would confirm it. He came to the Cool Springs Marriott in Franklin with malice aforethought.

As it turned out, I picked up the key clue, just didn’t pursue it. Guess I need to brush up on my forensic skills before I start writing any CSI Wherever episodes. Incidentally, Dan Royse, like most professionals, can’t stomach what goes on with the TV shows. He says it really makes things difficult when facing jurors who have unreal expectations after watching CSI shows.


Beth Terrell said...

Thanks, Chester. I saw the shell casing and figured out the sweet potato silencer, but didn't have much time to look for other clues. I was wondering what the answer was.

There was even a bullet hole in one of the chairs! The Marriott was in the propcessing of buying all new chairs of a different style, so when Assistant Producer Phillip Lacy asked if they could have one of the old chairs to shoot, the hotel said yes. They thought it was a cool idea.

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks, Beth. I forgot about that part. When the victim was backing up, he held the chair in front of him as protection. But the killer simply fired right through the chair. I think that was one reason the bullet wound up on the floor.

Cindi said...

Cool. I really wish I had been around for this part of the conference.

Beth Terrell said...

I've discovered that I'm no good at solving these things either. The only forensic clues I find are the ones I plant in a manuscript myself.

So I'll be reading a book and totally miss the fact that the hammer had blood all over the handle, but I often still know who the killer is, because of behavioral cues. For example, in one well-known novel, I knew who the villain was because the body language and stilted conversation told me her younger sister was terrified of her.

In the crime scene, I was just proud that I recognized the potato silencer!