Crime Lab:Let Evidence, Not Rumor Speak The Truth

Rumor can be bad whenever it rears its head.

Alignment of scuff marks on the muzzle and slide of a police officer's .45 ACP pistol showed it was locked open (left), not jammed (right), when it was thrown at a suspect.

When I was a crime lab firearms examiner, I worked a shooting in the mid-1970s where the "Police Rumor Mill" complicated an already complex investigation and caused a fine officer months of mental anguish.

Two Dallas officers approached a suspicious vehicle at a gas station, not knowing it had been stolen minutes before. When they asked the driver to get out, he started shooting. When it was over, one officer was dead and the other was wounded. The suspect, also wounded, escaped briefly before being overhauled several miles down the highway. He opted to fight it out with a .22-caliber rimfire rifle against five Dallas officers and an FBI agent. Twelve gunshot wounds ended his criminal career.

The wounded officer approached the driver's side; ejected cases showed that the officer who died was on the right rear. The officer on the left took a .25 Auto bullet in the lower right abdomen and returned fire with a .45-caliber Colt Combat Commander. He was using very old ball ammo and had a short-stroke; he cleared the jam and continued shooting--hitting the suspect once in the arm--until he thought the pistol was empty. At this point his injury caused his right leg to crumple, and he fell on his back, facing the assailant. The suspect aimed at the officer's head. In a last-ditch effort to survive, the officer threw his Commander at the bad guy.

This action absolutely saved the officer's life. The suspect turned to pick up the Commander, and the officer found the strength to escape and find his partner. He ran to the gas station's garage and turned to see his partner crouched by another car. Bullet matching later showed the second officer fired a magazine of ball ammo into the suspect's car, grazing the suspect across the back before retreating to cover to reload.

The wounded officer saw his partner slam a fresh magazine home (both had matching Commanders). At the instant his hand met the bottom of the grip, the second officer jerked back and fell with a fatal through-and-through gunshot wound to the head.

Here is where the cruel rumors started. Armchair ballisticians in some local agencies pontificated that a .25 Auto could not produce a through-and-through wound to an adult male skull. Therefore, they concluded, the wounded officer had thrown a jammed, not empty, pistol at the bad guy, who cleared the jam and used one officer's pistol to kill another.

The next day I was sorting a pile of evidence related to the shooting when I heard the sound of clinking bottles and rollers in the hall. The wounded officer had walked from his bed at Parkland Hospital (to which our building was attached) pushing his IV stand with him. Word had already reached him that he'd thrown a jammed, loaded gun at the suspect. I will never forget the mental stress showing on his face. "I have to know!" he pleaded.

We removed his pistol from the evidence bag, and I tried to find something that might hold an answer. I found a fresh scrape on the left side of the muzzle and another on the left front of the slide. The officer confirmed the scrapes were not there before the shootout. Both marks were running the same direction, roughly front to rear, but something else stood out.

If I locked the slide fully rearward as it would be when the gun ran dry, the planes of the two scrapes coincided perfectly. If I jammed the slide partially forward, as it would be in a misfeed, the scrapes could not coincide. I told the officer, "Unless some earth-shaking fact to the contrary rears its head, I'd testify that this pistol hit the pavement fully empty and locked back." This seemed to give the officer some peace but not closure.

The faint trace of a crimp groove (arrow) in an enlarged crime scene photo helped end a months-long investigation.

In an officer-involved shooting like this, several teams always investigated. Homicide was always there, plus our lab and Police Internal Affairs. To this officer's benefit, Dallas PD had one more team on the case: the Inspections Division, which was mandated to see if an incident was caused or aggravated by existing department policies and procedures. Whether a car wreck or a shooting, Inspections carefully looked to see if following published policy and procedure got an officer in trouble.

A detective sergeant, Don Flusche, who was one of the finest and most caring men with whom I had the pleasure of serving, was the Inspections man on the case. Flusche was a street cop at heart and began working with me for months to stop the rumors that were still flying in spite of the scratch mark evidence.

Flusche had hundreds of crime scene photos in the department files, and I had plenty of physical evidence. We revisited the shooting scene to see if any .25-caliber bullets or impact marks were missed in the initial investigation. We found none.

Months later, Flusche came to my office, carrying a bunch of huge photos. It turned out that the crime scene people used two types of cameras instead of the usual one. A 35mm SLR with color slide film was the norm, but someone also grabbed a big German twin-lens reflex camera that produced negatives with over six times the surface area of the 35mm. Today, its equivalent would be an expensive digital camera with a high mega-pixel count.

One of the prints showed a pool of blood where the officer died. Flusche asked his photo lab to blow up that area over and over; the details held up. He pointed to it with a pencil. "What does that look like to you?" he asked.

There was an elongated bump under the blood, curved at one end and square at the other. "That's a bullet!" I exclaimed.

The bullet had apparently exited at very low velocity and fell where the officer fell. Missed by the initial crime scene team, it was washed away when the station owner was allowed to hose off the pavement and reopen his business.

However, nothing in that print hinted at the bullet's size or type. Then Flusche pulled out another, more enlarged print. "There's something else on that bullet that I can't identify," he said, pointing to a spot where the reflections off the wet blood covering the bullet were disturbed.

I stuck the photo under a low

-power microscope and cranked up the light.

It was a crimp groove running across the bullet. No .45 ACP bullets used by either officer at the gas station were grooved. However, almost all .25 Auto FMJ bullets at the time were cannelured, including the brand fired by the suspect. The cannelure absolutely ruled out either .45 ACP. Had the picture been taken with a different camera, from a different angle, or a few minutes earlier or later, we would not have been able to close the case. To us, the most rewarding aspect of that case was easing the mind of a fine police officer who needed truth, not speculation.

I get emotional writing about this over 20 years later. To the faithful servants who stand between us and chaos I say, "Don't let speculation take the place of evidence." In this case rumors made a terrible event much worse. Someday it could be you who feels this pain.

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