Scientific Crime Fighting Before "CSI"
January 04, 2011
Real crime-lab equipment wasn't as cool as what you now see on TV crime-lab shows. For instance, the Dallas Crime Lab's second bullet recovery box was so heavy that it doubled as a reloading station.
I worked in a crime lab for 16 years, long before computers, crime-lab television, and, apparently, a certain level of cool. It started with a short entry in my résumé.
Under "hobbies," I entered "shooting and reloading." I had applied to the Dallas County Crime Lab for a job as a chemistry analyst when my university's funding for geology grad students was abruptly cut off in mid-1971. I planned to work in another field for a year or two and then resume my education.
I dropped in cold on the Crime Lab director, Dr. Morton Mason. He was cordial but said the Crime Lab and the Medical Examiner's offices, both located within Dallas's Parkland Memorial Hospital complex, had recently merged. He needed to pass my application to the chief medical examiner when he returned from travel. A week later, I got a call from Dr. Charles S. Petty asking me to come in for a chat.
We lightly covered my chemistry/geology qualifications, but he quickly zeroed in on that hobby entry. After that, the conversation was all guns and ammo. Later, I learned that I showed up only a week after the lab people discussed hiring a second firearms examiner. Petty called in the current firearms examiner, Louie Anderson, and we adjourned to the "firearms lab."
It was a cramped 10-foot square office at one end of a construction trailer, with one desk, a bookshelf, a worktable for the microscope, and a battered bullet recovery box--not exactly what I expected. Louie and Dr. Petty quickly pointed out that a new building would be completed in six months. After a tour of the new building, I felt better and accepted the job after Louie told Dr. Petty, "This guy knows more about guns and ammo than I do."
So following this strange job interview, I entered the field of forensic science with the exorbitant salary of $600 a month. Like I said, I planned to work a year or two and then resume my education. Sometimes plans change.
Life in the trailer while awaiting the completion of the new facility was primitive yet pleasant. Anyone from the front office had to hike about 200 yards to get to us, so we got a lot of work done. My first desk was an upended wooden apple crate tucked between the scope table and a rack of storage drawers full of test-fired bullets kept for reference. The drawers contained part of my training material; each box had four bullets from one gun, and I would set them up on the scope to see if I could get a match. If I thought I matched one, Louie checked my work, and I began to develop the skills required to link a bullet to a specific firearm.
The best bit of gear we had was an Oehler Model 10 chronograph. Although primitive by today's standards, it was a dream come true for this young reloader. It sported optional photocell screens that were well beyond the personal budget of most hobbyists and public employees in those days. It saw plenty of after-hours use.
The "catch box" was a cobbled-up wooden box about 6 feet long and 1 foot square filled with stringy cotton waste and card separators to make finding a fired bullet easier. Cotton was a little tough on lead bullets, but it was all we had. The new building would have a water trap, the pinnacle of bullet recovery for comparison tests, but we were stuck with low-tech for the time being.
The cotton box involved a lot of trial and error. It took a while to get a feel for where bullets stopped, and more by error than trial, we discovered you don't shoot unidentified cartridges into dry cotton. They might be blackpowder or tracer loads. Twice in six months we hauled out chunks of burning cotton in trashcans to the porch where we extinguished them with cups of water and cans of soda. You might not see that on television.
Later, I found out why the Firearms Section, such as it was, was moved to the trailers. Louie's predecessor had fired a full-house .30-06 load into the cotton box when it was in the main lab facility in the hospital basement. The bullet yawed, exited the side of the box, and, according to witnesses, chased the old examiner and a couple of lab techs around the room for a while. Not a television moment either.
You didn't have to work in firearms to have an "oops moment." Dr. Mason was distilling a volatile substance needed for a special test when the flask exploded, peppering him with a fine spray of broken glass. Safety glasses saved his eyes, and the glass shards were too small to penetrate deeply; the worst injury was to his decorum. During the obligatory, "Where were you when Doc blew himself up?" questions, Mason's longtime lab tech answered, "When the explosion started, I was standing next to Doc. When it finished, I'd almost reached the loading dock!"
The following January, we left the trailers for good and moved into new digs that housed the medical examiner's offices in the basement and on the first floor, and the crime lab and toxicology labs were on the second. The new building was neatly spliced between Parkland Hospital and the University of Texas Medical School. The firearms space was designed long before they knew they would have two examiners, but it was huge compared to the trailer. I even got my own desk.
Part of the move-in budget included new equipment, and we got a very nice floor-mounted comparison microscope with a "teaching head" that allowed two people to view the match simultaneously. It was much more capable than the 1940's-vintage tabletop scope we had. Louie still preferred the old 'scope for basic tasks due to long experience with it, so I got to use the new one most of the time.
The big news was our water trap: an 18-inch-diameter, steel tube that started in our office and ran through two floors into the basement. Big change can bring big problems; our trap was designed two years earlier without consulting anyone who had experience with such things.
No one thought about isolation barriers between the tank and the concrete, and the tank had no lid. Although the tube was 15 feet long, we could only put about 10 feet of water in it to keep the splash away from our faces. Anything larger than a .22 rimfire made the whole building ring, so we would bang the tube with a hammer before shooting to warn people. One clang foretold a minor disturbance; three clangs meant, "Hold on to your chair!"
Without a lid, the new trap required that we improvise a combination of worn-out bedsheets and heavy cardboard to avoid a thorough face washing with each shot.
The next problem was recov
ering the bullets. Whoever designed the trap came up with a heavy sheet-metal basket with a few small holes in the bottom. It had a chain to raise and lower it for bullet recovery. The first time we used it, we quickly found a problem--there weren't enough holes. It took two of us about five minutes of hard work to raise the basket because the trapped water could not pass through the holes fast enough. It was like pulling a big deer carcass up a cliff.
The maintenance man wore out half a dozen drill bits making more holes, but that made recovery a reasonable one-man job. Then, we tackled the rest of the problems.
First, we found that bullets, especially roundnose designs, tended to yaw and diverge badly in water. Even with a dead-center shot, bullets showed signs of grazing the sides of the tube, meaning they deflected almost 9 inches. We learned to shoot more test bullets to get enough undamaged ones.
That figured out, we ran into something worse. A .32-caliber lead RN bullet was the perfect size to wedge between the tube walls and the basket just after we started the lift. Anything smaller would go around, and anything larger would bounce into the basket. Imagine a heavy basket at the end of a 15-foot tube under 10 feet of water that's firmly wedged.
Being gun guys, we came up with a shooting solution to knock it free. We used either a .44 Magnum Keith-style cast bullet load or, more often, my .38-55 rifle with a hard-cast bullet to shock the basket and, most of the time, free it. Occasionally, a wedged bullet would defy even this assault, and we'd have to drain the trap to remove the weight of the water. This meant we could open the clean-out port in the basement; the maintenance man would bang a hoe handle against the basket from below while two of us tugged two floors above. Draining, dislodging the basket, and refilling could take the better part of a day and shut down operations. Again, it was not one of those high-tech TV lab moments, but it was a real part of life with a water tank designed by committee.
After moving to the new building, we used a much heavier catch box for times when the new water trap was not appropriate. It was robust enough to serve as a reloading station. By then, we'd learned not to set it afire--a fact much appreciated by those in nearby offices.
Ten years later, we added two floors to the old building, and the Firearms Unit ended up with a 1,200-square-foot suite. My new partner and I designed a horizontal tank based on visiting other labs with newer tank systems. We included a water filtration system to keep the water fresh, something the old tank lacked, contributing a certain "atmosphere" to the old office. Our new trap proved to be the right tool for the job--and without the aroma.
The Coolest Reference Material
With the first office, we had space for more stuff, and high on our stuff list was a reference collection of firearms. The Police Department destroyed all confiscated handguns that they could not return, and we knew there were plenty of interesting items going to the grinder. After months of bureaucratic machination, we were approved to select from lots destined for destruction so we could build a collection.
We quickly found that criminals did not have good taste in firearms. Most used cheap .22-, .32-, or .38-caliber revolvers with those famous low-melting-point-alloy frames. Still there were treasures; in the first selection lot, we commuted the death sentence of a very nice broomhandle Mauser and an American Eagle Luger.
The collection proved invaluable. If a gun was damaged between the time of the offense and the suspect's arrest, we repaired it enough to safely shoot it using parts from collection guns. The collection let us study the varieties of rifling styles to help investigators when they had a fired bullet but no gun. I found the opportunity to take apart and study the designs of many different firearms to be fascinating. We saw the best and worst of gun design. There was a terribly made Spanish revolver from some outfit called "CH" and sporting a crest that was obviously intended to be confused with that of Smith & Wesson. It was something close to .32-caliber, but the only caliber marking was on the barrel in awkward English: "Best American cartridges are those that fit best the CH revolver."
So You Want My Old Job?
A life of scientific crime fighting began to appeal to a number of young people within my first five years at the lab. We handled a lot of calls from students who were making degree decisions. Our lab wanted people with a bachelor of science degree in one of the "pure" sciences and would then train them in the details of being a criminalist. Training in the scientific method was paramount for effectively serving the justice system.
Looking back, I see something more important that's needed. I now realize that a person with a melancholic personality is probably not right for the job if your specialty involved violent-crime evidence. We saw awful things no person should see; I didn't even discuss my job with my children until they were adults. The job required the ability to detach from your personal feelings and treat everything--even corpses--as evidence. If you went beyond that, it could get to you.
The really effective people in our lab--this included just about everyone--were upbeat, eager to learn, and had a sense of humor. The firearms people tended to be a little crazier than the rest. Today, I realize it was our way of coping; I had to get away from it to understand this. There was a line in an old country/western song, "You've got to be crazy to keep from going insane." We chose crazy to keep our balance. I think it worked.
In future columns, I'll relate some of the more interesting aspects of my time in the lab. Oh, I should point out the best thing that came from working at the lab: I met my wife Susan there.