By Dayna Dunteman
Posted on October 17, 2006
Photography by Rudy Meyers
How’s this for a plot? On a Thursday evening in mid-December, Deputy John Lopes of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s Crime Scene Investigation Unit arrives in an unmarked Crown Victoria at the scene of a boat burglary deep within the fog-swaddled Delta (insert suspenseful music here) . . . and leaves unable to lift a single fingerprint.
What? There must be some mistake. Where’s the Hummer? The metrosexual suit/cool sunglasses combo? The bloody torso? The infallible high-tech gizmo that will link the suspect to the crime and solve the case (which has more twists than a rod of licorice) in an hour?
On TV, that’s where—and that’s where most of it will have to stay. Despite sharing a name, the local CSI and CBS’s sleek Las Vegas cop series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” along with spinoffs “CSI: Miami” and “CSI: New York”—ratings triumphs, all—have little in common except for their methodological attention to forensic minutiae and, yes, the occasional gore. But that doesn’t preclude local CSI personnel from being hailed as celebrities, even miracle workers, because of the television show. Having CSI show up at your house—well, that’s almost worth losing your karaoke machine to a crook, judging from the enamored reactions of some local burglary victims. A theft, it appears, can be somewhat ameliorated by the acquisition of bragging rights.
“We will draw a crowd at a crime scene. People are very curious as to what we do,” says Lopes, who, being married to a schoolteacher and the father of two young girls, is more regular guy than rock star.
The popularity of the television series has spawned a dramatic upsurge in interest in working for CSI units around the country, with inquiries to join Sacramento County’s CSI coming from as far away as England, says Lt. Mike Rinelli, commander of the Sheriff’s Department’s Identification Bureau, which includes CSI. But the only ones hired for the job are deputy sheriffs already working in the agency (unusual, because many other agencies use civilians for CSI work). To qualify for the Sheriff’s Department’s CSI unit, applicants must complete two months of training in the field and 500 hours of classroom instruction.
Lopes, who trains recruits in the field, can testify to this: Suddenly, everybody wants to be Gil Grissom.
“When I first applied to CSI eight years ago,” he says, “there were five openings—they were expanding the unit—and five people applied. I think the last time we had a round of applicants, we had 25 or 30 people. We average one opening a year.”
Sacramento County has 16 crime scene investigators who work around the clock, responding to everything from household burglaries to homicides. Burglaries constitute the bulk of their work, followed by injury calls such as sexual assaults, child abuse, shootings, stabbings and car accidents. Homicides, of course, take priority, and CSI handles about 40 of those a year, says Lopes.
A crime scene investigator’s job consists of processing a crime scene in the field to preserve it for the future. Not, as portrayed in the TV series, of interrogating suspects, manipulating corpses, drawing your gun (except in rare cases) or displaying cleavage (if you’re a woman). Absent also is any air of science- or computer-geekishness—not to say that some of these cops aren’t closet geeks.Lopes doesn’t even pretend to relate to “CSI” the TV show.
“It’s probably like Star Wars is in relation to the space-shuttle program,” he says. “I watched about 15 minutes of one show one night and turned it off, and never watched it again. They’re close in how they process scenes, but you have the Hollywood effect where it’s dramatized, all for visual effect. The show I saw, they’d taken about five different jobs and put them all into one position. When we respond to a homicide scene, we’re not the detectives that interview suspects or victims or witnesses, necessarily. We don’t handle the body; that’s handled by the coroner. We don’t go into autopsies; that’s the pathologist. I don’t go in and work in the laboratory on the evidence I’ve collected; that’s the lab technicians.”
What CSI does do is locate, evaluate and collect latent (hidden) and patent (visible) fingerprints, in addition to photographing injuries of victims and suspects. CSI deputies also collect and package evidence for processing by the Sheriff’s Department’s Identification Unit lab technicians (fingerprints) or the District Attorney’s Crime Lab, which handles DNA and ballistics analysis, among other things. (And here it must be said that, contrary to popular belief, paper bags, not plastic, are the only acceptable receptacles for most types of evidence.) Crime scene investigators also photograph and videotape the scene for detectives and for use in court proceedings, and are required to provide a basic sketch of the scene and the items of evidence.
Do-It-Yourself CSI “Experts”
Now flash back to the opening scene in the Delta with Deputy Lopes. It seems some thieves helped themselves to a television set, a heater, two coats and a life vest aboard a middle-aged couple’s 28-foot cabin cruiser moored along the river. While thieving, they apparently got thirsty and drank some sodas from the couple’s mini refrigerator. The empty cans are still on the table.
With the couple looking on, wringing their hands, Lopes dusts the cans for fingerprints—there are several—but can’t find any with good ridge detail. The prints are too greasy. Another common problem with prints, he explains, is if they show up on even slightly textured surfaces, they can’t be processed (i.e., powdered, then “lifted” with tape and transferred to a card—pretty low-tech stuff) from the field. However, it is possible to process fingerprints on rough surfaces using a variety of more sophisticated methods, which is done at the lab for major crime investigations, but not burglaries. Burglaries usually don’t merit DNA tests, either; it would be too costly.
“Probably about 60 percent of the calls we go to, we don’t find anything usable,” Lopes says. “The homeowner is hoping—maybe they’ve seen ‘CSI’ or various other shows—that there’s some kind of magic we can do: some type of light, some type of laser. I would like to leave every house with at least a couple of fingerprint cards. Even if I doubt they’re the suspect’s, at least I’d feel like I’m walking away with something we can look at, that maybe there’s still that little glimmer of hope. But realistically, I know there’s not.”
Some victims of crimes who are “CSI” fans fall victim to something else: theI-watch-the-show-so-I’m-an-expert syndrome.
“They will collect their own evidence for us and place it in a Ziploc baggie,” Lopes says. “That does several things to us. We don’t see where it came from, so we can’t testify other than that we’re just collecting it from a person. If it has any biological evidence in it, that can be lost. And it can be contaminated by any bag they put it in. The best I can tell people to do is leave things alone.
“It’s standard now for us to show up at houses and the victims will immediately tell us, ‘Over here is where you’re going to get your best evidence.’ Also, we’ll get people who really want me to find something saying, ‘Well, he might have moved that over here’ or ‘He might have touched that.’ And we have to stop them and tell them, ‘OK, you have to differentiate between what you know has been moved and what possibly could have been moved.’ It kind of comes into that triaging concept: looking for the best evidence we can find in the appropriate time frame. At a standard burglary at a house, we’ll probably spend about 15 minutes.”
With forensics in the media spotlight, one would think most bad guys would develop tricks to stay ahead of the game, the most basic being not to leave fingerprints in the first place. But surprisingly, that’s not the case.
“I would expect us never to find a fingerprint on anything. I mean, for years we’ve known if you wear gloves you don’t leave prints,” says Maria Nadeau, an identification technician. “But we find prints on stuff all the time. And if they do wear gloves, and then take the gloves off at the scene, we can get prints from the gloves. So sometimes they’ll think about it, but I’ll get third-strikers who’ve gone away each time on prints and they still do it again.”
One fallacy about fingerprints generated by the TV shows is that a match can be made to a suspect instantaneously through the use of fancy software. In reality, a human must make the distinction, and there’s nothing automatic about it. I.D. technicians take a digital picture of a latent, mark it for what’s called “points of characteristics” and enter it into a computer. That gets sent to a state-run database called the Cal-ID system, which sends back a list of candidates. From that list, the I.D. tech will decide whether there’s any likely suspect, and if there is, will do a manual comparison.
They See It All
Back in the city after his foray in the Delta (he did manage to collect some evidence—a cigarette butt and a broken lock—at the scene), Deputy Lopes responds to his next call: a domestic violence situation at a Taco Bell on Madison Avenue. For this, he will use his 35 mm camera to take pictures of any injuries, or food or trays that might have been used as weapons. (Digital photography still isn’t being used widely for CSI work by law-enforcement agencies.)
Inside the restaurant, Lopes finds a woman with red marks around her neck—caused, she says, when her boyfriend grabbed her by the throat. She says he also caused some bruises on her legs. The boyfriend is in the parking lot being arrested by a patrol officer.
For a typical injury such as this, Lopes might snap one 12-exposure roll of film, compared to 12 rolls of 36-exposure film for the average homicide scene.
“There literally is not part of the human body I haven’t taken photographs of. We’ve seen it all,” Lopes says, wrapping up his photo session in the women’s restroom faster than it takes to devour a bean burrito.
He’s also seen all manner of dead bodies, from a fetus found in a margarine tub in a refrigerator to a 95-year-old suicide victim.
“There isn’t a body organ I haven’t seen,” Lopes says. “I’ve had everything from a person who died (minutes ago) to a person who’d been dead for six months. She was shot twice and taken out to a pond, tied to a log and submerged.”
According to Lopes, it takes about eight hours to process a homicide scene, with a minimum of three CSI deputies working closely with homicide detectives. (Makes you wonder how come TV’s Horatio Caine & Co. are the only ones at the homicide scene. And how come they never have anything else to do?)
Lopes tells it like it really is: “In that eight hours, there’s crime still continuing in Sacramento County, and those calls stack up and wait for us. The biggest thing I see is people calling and demanding an officer right then and there. They don’t realize how few of us there are.”
As disturbing as it is to be up-close and personal with a corpse, that’s not the worst part of the job, according to CSI deputies and I.D. techs, who also may get called to the field to process a homicide scene.
The worst part for them, aside from handling stomach-turning evidence such as pornography or rotting food, is testifying in court—which of course is never shown on the hit TV series. And the boredom is the least of it.
“[Attorneys] will say the most unbelievable things,” Nadeau says. “I testified six months ago, and there was a [defense attorney] locally who was trying to say that fingerprints are junk science. Well, how do you argue about the validity of fingerprints? Can’t I say that yes, I made the identification and it was this guy? But he kept me on the stand for two and a half hours! It was just the longest day. You just have the worst headache at the end of the day.”
Funny, you never see Grissom or Horatio popping aspirin.