Locard’s Exchange Principle for Mystery & Thriller Writers

If you’re a mystery & thriller writer, at some point in your story you’ll have to deal with the evidence. I once heard a judge say, “There’s nothing more unreliable than eyewitness evidence.” There’s a whack of truth in that statement, and that’s why detectives and crime scene investigators always look for the best evidence—hard and indisputable physical evidence, especially trace or fragmentary evidence. They’re well aware of Locard’s Exchange Principle, and you should be too if you’re going to write convincing mysteries & thrillers.

What’s Locard’s Exchange Principle, you ask? Well, it’s fundamental to crime scene investigation or physical evidence processing. Locard’s, as it’s called in the biz, is the cornerstone of all forensic science; the basis as we know forensic science today.

Locard’s Exchange Principle states that in the physical world, whenever criminal perpetrators enter or leave a crime scene they leave something behind (trace evidence) that links them to the scene, and they take something away with them that also connects them to the crime. Trace evidence is the linkage of persons or objects to the scene. Locard’s is best put as, “Whenever two objects come into contact, a mutual exchange of matter will take place between them. The transfer may be tenuous, but it certainly will occur.”

I learned about Locard’s Exchange Principle in the police academy. It’s that elementary—Crime Scene 101. You can take it to the bank that in every crime, digital online offenses included, there will be some form of physical evidence no matter how microscopic.

Dr. Edmund Locard was a French scientist from the early 1900s. He pioneered modern crime scene processing and was known as the real Sherlock Homes of scientific sleuthing. Locard’s mantra was, “Every contact leaves a trace.” This simple phrase was so profound that famed criminalist Dr. Paul. L. Kirk of the National Academy of Forensic Sciences put Locard’s this way:

Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these, and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.”

Trace evidence is also called fragmentary evidence. Trace evidence takes many forms. Sometimes it will be outstandingly unique to a specific scene such as metal filings from a knife sharpener that put a criminal I knew in jail for a long, long time. Common trace evidence examples are hairs, fibers, body fluids, organic compounds, glass shards, mineral deposits, paint chips and smears, sawdust, and fire debris like charcoal, soot, and chemical accelerants.

Writers should know fragmentary or trace evidence generally falls into the circumstantial department rather than direct proof. Individual evidence like DNA matches and fingerprint identifications are hard, solid, and indisputable facts that directly link a perpetrator to the crime. Trace evidence, on the other hand, is part of what’s called corroboration which backs up other factors, adding probative weight to the overall case.

A good example of individual evidence is an accused’s fingerprint in the victim’s blood found at a crime scene. It would be impossible for the accused to deny this or really tough to give an alternative explanation of innocence. Trace evidence such as glass fragments in the suspect’s shoe treads that were consistent with broken glass from the crime scene’s point of entry would be circumstantial and deserve an expert’s opinion or conclusion of the evidence’s value.

Crime scene examination and trace evidence conclusion categories are uniform in the western criminal investigation field. Trace evidence probative value is rated on a conclusion scale set forth by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board and ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board / FQS. The Scientific Working Group for Material Analysis (SWGMAT) supplies a conclusion scale definition which forensic evidence specialists use to assert their trace evidence findings. The Trace Evidence Conclusion Scale is this:

Identified (Type I Association) – A positive identification; an association in which items share individual characteristics that show with reasonable scientific certainty that the items were once from the same source.

Very Strong Support – An association in which items are consistent in all measured physical properties or chemical properties and share highly unusual characteristic(s) that are unexpected in the population of this evidence type.

Strong Support (Type II Association) – An association in which items are consistent in all measured physical properties or chemical properties and share unusual characteristic(s) that are unexpected in the population of this evidence type.

Moderately Strong Support (Type III Association) – An association in which items are consistent in all measured physical properties or chemical properties and could have originated from the same source. Because similar items have been manufactured or could exist in nature and could be indistinguishable from the submitted evidence, an individual source cannot be determined.

Moderate Support (Type IV Association) – An association in which items are consistent in all measured physical properties and chemical properties so could have originated from the same source. This sample type is commonly encountered in our environment and may have limited associative value.

Limited Support (Type V Association) – An association in which some minor variation exists between the known and questioned items that could be due to factors such as sample heterogeneity, contamination of the sample(s), or the quality of the sample. The items may be associated, but other sources exist with the same level of association.

Inconclusive – No conclusion can be reached regarding the association between the items.

Elimination – The items are dissimilar in physical properties or chemical composition and did not originate from the same source.

There’s a common misconception in trace evidence evaluation that every, and any, tiny piece can always be “matched” directly to an individual object. This is what’s sometimes called The CSI Effect where crime shows set unrealistic parameters and expectations from trace evidence probative value. This effect can be dangerous in court cases where jurors expect forensic science to be completely conclusive, and smart defense lawyers plant the seed of doubt in twelve panelists’ minds.

“What do you mean his DNA wasn’t found at the crime scene? Then he couldn’t possibly have been there and done it. Acquit!”

Something writers should also know about trace evidence is how it’s collected. There’s no exact right or wrong way, as variables at the crime scene and what type of trace evidence investigators are dealing with have strong bearings on the collection and examination process. The best scenario is to collect evidence at the scene, package it to prevent loss and cross-contamination, and take it to the lab where examination occurs under controlled and clean conditions.

That’s in the perfect world. Often, crime scenes are cold, wet, dirty, and bloody places. You deal with what you got as a CSI technician. But, for the most part, trace evidence processing is done with these methods:

Visual Inspection — There’s nothing like the human eye to spot something and make a judgment as to its evidentiary and probative value.

Light Amplification — High intensity and alternative scales are amazing amplification tools for spotting fragments like hairs and fibers.

Manual Collection — This involves good old tweezers to pick up something like a cigarette butt and place it in an evidentiary bag.

Vacuum Collection — High-tech shop vacs (with clean bags) are exceptionally efficient at sucking up fines like sand, pollen, and splinters of glass.

Taping — Fussy trace materials like drug residue, cosmetic powders, and costume glitter are easy to lift by using common adhesive tape.

Microscopic Examination — This is where the real CSI science kicks of when the examiner puts trace evidence through a comparison or scanning electron microscope.

Chemical Evaluation — There’s a decades-old process called Gas Chromatography—Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) that analyzes trace evidence and produces its molecular signature.

Forensic science’s ultimate goal in collecting, analyzing, and reporting trace evidence (obtained through Locard’s Exchange Principle) is to have it accepted or admitted into criminal trial proceedings. To start with, trace evidence has to be legally obtained. The CSI team must have a legal right to search for and seize whatever the evidence is. This usually is covered by a court-ordered search warrant as opposed to common-law grounds.

The evidentiary test at trial is then threefold. Trace or fragmentary evidence has to be relevant, have probative value, and not be prejudicial to the accused person or to the proceeding itself. Relevancy is a straightforward concept. The trace evidence has to someway connect the accused to the crime. There has to be a nexus that’s relevant.

Probative and prejudicial are a bit more complicated. For the best explanation of these legal concepts, I turned to the best explainer. This material is sourced from a trial lawyer’s blogsite:

PROBATIVE VALUE

The probative value of evidence is the degree to which it proves fact(s). The more a piece of evidence proves a fact, the greater it’s probative value. Greater value means a greater potential impact on the outcome of the case.

Probative value considers four main factors:

Inference: What inference can be reasonably drawn from the evidence. Circumstantial evidence such as DNA, forensics, and expert witnesses can infer that a person is linked to specific criminal activity.

Weight: The weight of the evidence measures how persuasive or believable it is. The greater the weight, the more impact it may have on proving facts and/or contributing to the final verdict.

Reliability: The more reliable the evidence, the greater its value. Testimony from a police officer who witnessed a crime, for example, would be more reliable than witness testimony from an untrained civilian.

Other Evidence: Whether other evidence is available to prove the same fact(s). While more supporting evidence can be beneficial in proving a fact, if there is other evidence available, low probative value evidence could be dismissed.

PREJUDICIAL

While both probative and prejudicial evidence can affect the outcome of a trial, they significantly different. Prejudicial evidence is that which negatively impacts the fairness and integrity of the case. This can include evidence that is misused, confuses issues, wastes time, or simply takes up too much time.

Just because a piece of evidence is damaging to the defendant’s case does not necessarily qualify it as prejudicial. The factors that determine it are based on three grounds— Moral, Logical & Time.

Where these factors may create an unfairly prejudicial effect, it is possible to have them excluded. Examples of when this may occur include:

  • Where prejudicial evidence threatens the fairness of the trial.
  • The evidence lacks adequate testing, or cannot be challenged properly
  • There is a significant risk of misuse by the jury, or the use of the evidence may lead to an inability to properly assess the evidence. This can occur where the evidence in question is too misleading, confusing, or distracting.

BALANCING PROBATIVE VS PREJUDICIAL

In determining whether or not to allow evidence its probative value is measured against the potential prejudicial effect. To be admitted, the evidence must have greater probative value. The probative vs prejudicial analysis is constantly occurring during criminal trials.

That does not mean it is difficult for evidence to be admitted. Judges and courts typically weigh more favorably on the side of admission of evidence. The prejudicial effect must be significant to be dismissed, and even then is sometimes allowed with certain restrictions.

The balance is not always consistent across the board. Some evidence is more probative on one count and more prejudicial on another. Where this occurs the court may limit the jury’s use of the evidence rather than exclude it outright.

There’s a lot more to Locard’s Exchange Principle than meets the common eye. In criminal investigation and crime scene examination, Locard’s is as certain as gravity, death, and taxes. For the crime writer—mystery & thrillers—there’s a lot to be learned from understanding how Locard’s applies and the ramification in storytelling from using Locard’s correctly. The takeaway? Every contact leaves a trace.

Kill Zoners — Were you aware of Locard’s Exchange Principle? Have you referred to it in a story? And what creative trace or fragmentary evidence have you cooked up? Real or imagined.

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner processing forensic evidence in death investigations. Now, Garry is a crime writer and indie publisher with sixteen books to his credit. His latest in the Based-On-True-Crime Series by Garry Rodgers is Beyond The Limits where Locard’s Exchange Principle led to a first-degree murder conviction.

Be sure to check out www.DyingWords.net which is Garry Rodgers’s popular blog with over 400 posts that provoke thoughts on life, death, and writing. Garry lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at the Canadian west coast. He frequently opens his Twitter account at @GarryRodgers1. Be sure to follow.

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How To Get Away With Murder

Murder. It’s forever been the stuff of books, movies, poems and plays. Everyone from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie told foul-play murder stories. That’s because, for gruesome reasons, murder cases fascinate people.

I think murder is the great taboo. It’s also the great fear of most people except, maybe, for public speaking. Jerry Seinfeld quipped, “At a funeral, the majority of people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

Yes, murder is the ultimate crime. In mystery books and Netflix shows, murder cases are solved and neatly wrapped up in the end. This leaves the reader or audience with the satisfaction of knowing who done it and probably why.

That’s not always the truth in real life. Many murders go unsolved for a long time. Some go cold and are never resolved. Statistics vary according to region, but probably a quarter of murders never get cleared.

Thankfully, most murders are easy to solve. They’re “smoking guns” where the killer and victim knew each other, the killer left a plethora of evidence at the scene or took it with him, witnesses saw the murder take place, or the bad guy confessed to the crime. That’s really all there is to getting caught for committing a murder.

So, why do roughly twenty-five percent of people get away with murder? It’s because they don’t make one of these four fatal mistakes. Let’s look at each in detail and how you can get away with murder.

Leaving Evidence at the Scene

Did you ever hear of Locard’s Exchange Principle? It’s Murder Investigation 101. Dr. Edmond Locard was a pioneer in forensic science. Dr. Locard held that at every crime scene the bad guy would leave evidence behind that would connect them to the offense. Locard summed it up this way:

“Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these, and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.”

Dr. Locard was absolutely right—most of the time. That quote was from the early 1900s. It was long before the sophistication of DNA profiling and amplifying light to find invisible fingerprints. Today, trace evidence shows up at the micro level, and there’re ingenious inventions used to find it. But… not always.

I’m familiar with a high-profile and unsolved murder case from 2008 where two killers enticed a female realtor to a house and savagely stabbed her to death. It’s a long story. A complicated story. And, so far, they’ve got away with the murder.

The victim was totally innocent. She was set-up as a sacrifice to protect someone else who was a police informant. The police know full well who the killers are—a Mexican man and woman from the Sinaloa drug cartel—but they’ve never been charged. It’s because they left no evidence of their identity at the scene. They’ve also never broken the other three murderer-catching rules.

There’s more to scene evidence than DNA and fingerprints. There are dozens of evidentiary possibilities including hairs, fibers, footwear impressions, chemical signatures, organic compounds, match heads, cigarette butts, expended shell casings, spit chewing gum, a bloody glove or a wallet with the killer’s ID in it. (Yes, that happened.)

Removing Evidence from the Scene

The flip side of Locard’s Exchange Principle is the perpetrator removing evidence from the scene that ties them back to it. This can be just as fatal to the get-away-with-it plan as left-behind evidence. And, it happens all the time.

Going back to the unsolved realtor murder, there’s no doubt the killers left with the victim’s blood on their hands, feet and clothing. This innocent lady was repeatedly shived. The coroner report states her cause of death was exsanguination which is the medical term for bleeding out.

For sure, her killers had blood on them. But, they made a clean escape and would have disposed of their blood-stained clothes. That goes for the knife, as well. Further, the killers did not rob the victim. They didn’t steal her purse, her identification, her bank cards or even the keys to her new BMW parked outside.

The killers also didn’t exchange digital evidence to be traced. They used a disposable or “burner” phone to contact the victim to set up the house showing. It was only activated under a fake name for this one purpose and was never used again. The phone likely went the same place as the bloody clothes and knife.

Being Seen by Witnesses

I once heard a judge say, “There’s nothing more unreliable than an eyewitness.” I’d say that judge was right, at least for human eyewitnesses.

Today’s technology makes it hard not to be seen entering or exiting a murder scene. There’s video surveillance galore. Pretty much everywhere you go in an urban setting, electronic eyes are on you. You’re on CCTV at the gas station, the supermarket, the bank, in libraries, government buildings, transit buses, subways and on the plane.

In bygone lore, the killer often wore a disguise. That might have fooled human surveillance, but it’s hard to trick cameras that record evidence like get-away vehicles with readable plates. It’s also hard to disguise a disguise that can be enlarged on film to reveal uniquely identifiable minute characteristics.

Back to the unsolved realtor slaying again. The killers were seen by two independent witnesses when they met their victim in the driveway outside the show home. One witness gave the police a detailed description of the female suspect and worked with an artist to develop a sketch. It’s an eerie likeness to the Mexican woman who is a prime person-of-interest along with her brother—a high-ranking member of the El Chapo organization.

Unfortunately, there’s just not enough evidence to charge the Mexicans. They left no identifiable trace evidence behind at the crime scene. Whatever evidence they might have taken from the scene hasn’t been found. There was no video captured and the eye-witnesses can’t be one hundred percent positive of visual identity.

There’s also the fourth missing piece to the puzzle.

Confessing to the Murder

Murderers are often convicted because they confessed to the crime. Sometimes, they confess to the police during a structured interrogation. Sometimes, they confess to a police undercover operator or paid agent during a sting operation. Sometimes, their loose lips sink their ship by telling an acquaintance about doing the murder. And sometimes, they’re caught bragging about the murder on electronic surveillance like in a wiretap or through a planted audio listening device—a bug.

Police also arrest and convict murderers after an accomplice turns on them and decides to cooperate with the investigation in exchange for a lesser sentence. Then, there are the revenge situations. The murderer has confessed to an intimate partner who they thought they could trust and couldn’t.

That has yet to happen in the unsolved female realtor murder. There is no doubt—no doubt—that a group of people know what happened in her murder. It’s known, with probable certainty, who the Mexican pair are. It’s also known, with probable certainty, who the real police informant was and who conspired to protect them by offering the innocent victim as a sacrificial slaughter to appease the Sinaloa cartel’s “No-Rat” policy.

This murder case can be solved once someone in the group decides to reveal evidence implicating the killers. That likely won’t be anything in the Locard arena or in the eye-witness region. It’ll be an exposed confession that will solve this case.

Someone will eventually talk. The current problem is that everyone in the conspiracy circle is connected by being blood relatives, being a member of the Hispanic community and being involved in organized crime. Their motive to talk is far outweighed by their motive to stay silent.

Takeaway for The Kill Zone Gang

If you’re a mystery/thriller/crime writer, always consider these four crime detection principles when working your plot. No matter how simple or complex your plot may be, the solution will come down to one or more of these points. If it doesn’t, then your antagonist is going to get away with murder.

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner, now an investigative crime writer and successful indie author. Garry also hosts a popular blog at his website DyingWords.net and is a regular contributor to the HuffPost.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s west coast. He’s a certified 60-Tonne Marine Captain and spends a lot of time around the saltwater. Follow Garry on Facebook, Twitter and BookBub. He has stuff on Amazon, Kobo and Nook, too.

 

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A Day in the Life of a Coroner

My last piece on The Kill Zone was about a day in the life of a detective. I was a criminal investigator for Canada’s national police force, the RCMP, and retired after 20 years of service with the Serious Crimes Section. We mostly concentrated on murder files, so I had a bit of contact with cadavers.

I left the detective business to take an appointment as a coroner. That gave me another investigation career as the guy no one wants an appointment with—Doctor Death. It was a smooth and fitting transition. I have to say I enjoyed the challenge.

People often wonder about the difference between a coroner and a medical examiner (ME). Simple, I say. It’s a lot cheaper to hire a fee-for-service coroner to do life’s dirty work than employing a full-time physician or pathologist.

The two death investigation systems, MEs and coroners, are used all across the civilized world. It depends on the region and the history as to what form the death investigation office holds. Coroners originated in Jolly Old England where the “Crowner” was appointed by the King or Queen to make sure no monkey business happened with royal subject bodies before due death taxes were collected.

Moving forward to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the coroner service served its purpose in smaller areas with low-volume death loads. It was usually a good ole’ boy in the community who got the coroner nod, and he was trusted to be fair and impartial when ruling on death causes. It didn’t always turn out that way.

As medical and forensic processes evolved, so did the need for specialized skills and knowledge. Look at it this way. The medical examiner is a highly-trained professional who employs field investigators and in-house technicians. It’s ideal for big city areas because of body counts. Coroners were appointed as fee-for-service retainees on a case-by-case basis in low-volume sites.

It’s much more economical to pay a coroner $80K per year to do death investigations and write rulings than it is to keep a forensic pathologist on staff at $200K-plus. Then, there are employee expenses where medical examiners keep payroll workers with overheads whereas a coroner sub-contacts undertakings like autopsies and toxicology examinations. Coroners pretty much go it alone.

It’s all about money. I can’t say one system is necessarily better than the other. We used a coroner service where I worked near Vancouver, British Columbia. You might note the term “British” as this place was settled by the Brits who evoked their coroner system. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so it stayed.

Before getting on with what a coroner does in a typical day, let me tell you how I snagged a coroner appointment. You don’t apply to become a coroner and there’s never a job posting. It’s a secret society. Masons. Skull & Bones. Illuminati.

You’re carefully scrutinized, then cautiously invited into the service because you have something valuable to offer and no skeletons in the closet. That’s either investigation experience or medical knowledge. It’s no coincidence the vast majority of coroners I worked with were cops and nurses who took early retirement to double-dip pensions. I had no problem with that.

It sounds like an old boys club situation, right? Well, in my case it was the old girls who took a chance on me. I knew Rose when I was a cop and she was a field coroner. She moved up the ladder to be the boss and it seemed she thought I was a good fit.

The other good ole’ girl was Barb. She was a rare bird who didn’t come from the usual suspects. Barb was a high-profile, investigative crime reporter. I was her snitch, er, ah, contact inside the police department. We were also good friends and, when Barb got settled into a coroner appointment, she vouched for me.

Coroners in Canada get judicial appointments—we’re not elected. And, there’s immense power in a coroner’s hands. We’re essentially independent Supreme Court Judges whose rulings on death cases stand, except for a very tough appeal process through the federal justice minister. As coroners, we signed our own warrants like being able to search any place at any time or go out and exhume the dead.

Okay. That’s the deal of how I got the job. For this piece, I looked in my journals to find a typical day where interesting stuff went down. Many days in a coroner’s life are routine but this Tuesday in June certainly was not. It was the day we autopsied Mister Red Pepper Paste Man.

It started the day before. I got a field call of a sudden death in an apartment block. The cops were the first on the scene, and they didn’t have any valid foul play concerns, but the place was a slight mess with things knocked about. They also told me the neighbors reported a short screaming fit coming from the dead man’s apartment which they said sounded like someone skinning a live cat.

In death investigations, we focused on a triangle of information. One was the body and what its condition told us. Next were the scene and the general or specific details. Third was the medical history of the deceased. In other words, was this a medical time bomb waiting to explode?

That didn’t seem to be the case with Mister Red Pepper Paste Man. Here was this skinny old guy lying on the floor in the fetal position. He was in the kitchen, and it was relatively tidy except for a few items like an overturned chair, some dishes on the floor and some partially-eaten food.

The first thing I looked for was his meds. Time bombs usually have a pharmacy stored somewhere. That wasn’t the case with Mister Red Pepper Paste Man. I couldn’t find a thing—certainly nothing to identify a family doctor who could say he was long past his best-before date.

Then, there was the neighbor information that indicated he’d gone into some sort of painful distress. Myocardial infarctions and brain aneurysms will do that, so I suspected a jammer or a cerebral bleed. I bagged Mister Red Pepper Paste Man and hauled him back to the morgue.

That was Monday. There was a vacant postmortem spot for first thing Tuesday morning. I got there early and had a chat with my pathologist friend, Elvira. I told her about the scene and commotion. She just shrugged and said, “Let’s see”.

Elvira and the diener, or morgue attendant/autopsy technician, did the usual incisions and ruled out the heart and brain. Then she opened the stomach. “Whoa! Look at this!”

Even Elvira stepped back. The stomach contents were alive. They were positively moving in a mass of reddish pasty mess.

“Go back to the scene,” Elvira instructed. “Look for anything he’d been eating and bring it to me.”

I left Elvira and the diener to sew-up the man and put him back in a drawer. The apartment wasn’t far from the morgue so I was back there in about ten minutes. I saw right away what I hadn’t noticed before. There, on the kitchen counter, was an open jar of red pepper paste. There was also a knife, a toaster and a part-eaten sandwich.

I looked in the jar. It, too, was alive with a pathogen culture. Like, it was squirming as if trying to leave. With double gloves, I put the nearby cap on, put the bio-hazard in a container and took it back to Elvira.

“I thought so.” Elvira also double-gloved. She wore a Hazmat-rated respirator as she cultured a slide and put it under the microscope. “Botulism.” Then she looked at me and kind of smiled. “You know they make Botox out of this shit, don’t you?”

That was the story about Mister Red Pepper Paste Man, and he must have had an excruciatingly painful death. Another file I had going was this strange series of disarticulated feet stuffed inside running shoes that sporadically washed up onshore. Our city across from Vancouver was the center of Pacific tidal waters that merged the huge Fraser River drainage with the saltwater basin that extends through Puget Sound to Seattle. Around us was a breakwater of islands, small and large.

For the last three years, there was something strange in the neighborhood. These stupid severed human feet in runners kept popping up, and it created quite the stir. Major media outlets loved the story. They speculated anything from a serial killer with a foot-fetish to a weirder-than-normal satanic cult was behind it.

We, in the coroner service, liked to rely on science more than sorcery. It was Barb who first thought these floaters were from suicide bridge jumpers in the Fraser Valley. Barb theorized the jumpers would go into the cold Fraser freshwater and sink, then get dragged along the bottom out to the warmer seawater. Here, nature’s decomposition action, along with marine life caused the ankles to disarticulate and the foot-encased shoes would bob to the surface.

But why did this start happening now? We never heard of this before. Barb loved jigsaw puzzles. She always had one on the go in her office, and I think she saw the floating feet like a puzzle. She sniffed and she snooped and she solved the mystery.

Barb found it was simply a chemistry advancement compounded with economics. One thing all the shoes had in common—thirteen feet in total—was they were Chinese knockoffs sold in discount stores. To save production and shipping costs, the shoe manufacturers switched to a high-tech, lightweight polypropylene sole that floated like cork. The files remained open while we tried to make DNA matches to missing people.

In The Attic – A Psychological Thriller Based on a True Crime Story – is available PERMAFREE on Amazon

My cell toned. It was a cop from one of the Gulf Islands which ringed our area like a fence. He said they had a death to report, but he didn’t know the cause. He was following protocol as all sudden and unexplained deaths, by law, had to be reported to the coroner.

“Any sign of foul play or accident?” I immediately asked this to qualify if I should attend the scene. This island was a half-hour ferry ride each way and attending unnecessarily would take a chunk of what was left in the day. I’d only go that distance if there could be trouble down the road like criminal charges, lawsuits or a public inquest.

“Nope,” he replied.

“What’s the circumstances?” That was always my nest question.

“Looks natural to me.” The officer had no concerns. “It’s an elderly lady discovered dead in bed. Found by her daughter who said they’d long expected it. Her prescriptions cover the usual for the aged.”

“Have you got the family doc’s name and number?” I knew this was shaping up to be a Coroners Act Section 15 case where I had no jurisdiction in a natural death—only in homicide, accident and suicide. Here, the family doctor was responsible for determining the medical cause of death (MCD) and sign the death certificate (DC).

I copied the info, then asked the officer to take some scene photos and email them to me. “If there’s nothing weird,” I said, “like a screwdriver in the back, then you’re okay to remove the body.” Legally, no one can touch a dead body without a coroner’s approval.

I called the doctor and had her sign off. There was nothing weird in that case, and there’s nothing weird in most cases. Except for this one.

I had an open file waiting for toxicology results. It wasn’t the cause of death I questioned. That was obvious. It was what drove someone to commit such a horrific act of suicide.

I never saw anything like it. Not in my detective days. And, not in my days as a coroner.

I attended a death scene like no other. A sixty-six-year-old grandmother with no known history of mental or other illness—certainly not suicidal tendencies—had phoned her daughter to come and pick her up to go shopping. The daughter arrived with the eight-year-old granddaughter and couldn’t immediately find the senior. They walked about the house and heard a buzzing sound coming from behind a closed bathroom door. So, they opened it to find the mother/grandmother had slit her own throat from ear-to-ear with an electric carving knife. The tool was still running and spattering blood.

There was no way this was a homicide set-up although we investigated it as a crime scene. We found the senior was self-diagnosing and medicating on the internet. She’d ordered and taken gabapentin which is a veterinary anti-seizure medication. Once the tox report came back with the blood concentration, I’d be in a better position to determine if the consumption amount caused a psychotic episode.

I spent the day’s remainder writing two Section 16 judgements. Those were in my jurisdictional wheelhouse. One was a motor vehicle accident death, and I knew the family wasn’t going to like my finding. The other report was for an in-house complications-of-surgery case which had malpractice lawsuit written all over it.

It was four-thirty. I finished the drafts and closed my laptop. I left my little office that I squatted in at the morgue and went home. My wife was there—our kids were grown and gone—and she played Words With Friends on her iPad.

I joined her in a pre-dinner glass of wine. White. Not red. Normally, I’d have a few fingers of Scotch over frozen rocks. But, I was on-call, after all, and no one wants their dead body examined by a half-cut coroner.

   *   *   *

Garry Rodgers has lived the life he writes about. Garry is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner who also served as a sniper on British SAS-trained Emergency Response Teams. Today, he’s an investigative crime writer and successful author with a popular blog at DyingWords.net as well as the HuffPost.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s west coast where he spends his off-time around the Pacific saltwater. Connect with Garry on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his biweekly blog.

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A Day in the Life of a Detective

Most people think a detective’s life is action-packed. You know—the shoot-‘em-up and kick-‘em-down thing. That happens from time to time, but a typical day in the life of a detective involves major case management, amassing admissible evidence in serious crime investigations and a lot of networking. It’s not that exciting.

For my debut post on The Kill Zone, I thought I’d give you a look at what really goes on behind the screen in the detective world. It’s not like you see in CSI shows and Netflix specials. Most detective work has long periods of painstaking procedure with only short spurts of adrenaline.

I liked it that way. I spent a career with Canada’s national police force, the RCMP, where I served as an investigator with the Serious Crimes Section. We mostly dealt with homicide cases because murders take a lot of time and you can’t mess one up. That’s a sure-fire way to end up writing traffic tickets.

I looked back in my notebooks and picked a particular day that was somewhat routine but had enough going on to interest you. It was a Thursday in the summertime. I was on dayshift in a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, and my schedule was 8 am to 4:30 pm.

I got into the office just after 7. With coffee in hand, I checked our internal email server to see what floated in since last shift. For a change, not much was there. I opened Outlook, and then set priorities for the day. Those were four squares of “Must-Do”, “Should-Do”, “Might-Do” and “It Don’t Matter”. I learned this organizational technique from a Franklin Day Planner my daughter gave me for Christmas.

The system works. This day, my top priority was furthering a recent death case where we’d found a decomposing body dumped down a wooded bank beside a rural road. It turned out to be the most bizarre and baffling homicide case of my career.

The corpse looked like a zebra-zombie with a wild-looking stripe pattern across his bare torso. Gaps in the trees allowed a part-on-part-off sun scorch which left him partly mummified and partly putrefied like an ebony and ivory piano key of human breakdown. The autopsy showed he was gut-shot, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

At 7:45, Harry showed up at the Serious Crimes office. It looked like she was hungover. It was hard to tell with my partner, Harry. Harry was a large lady with large hair and an even larger personality. Her real name was Sheryl Henderson, but we called her Harry after the Bigfoot in the movie Harry and the Hendersons.

Our squad consisted of four teams of two detectives each. Because two heads are better than one (most of the time), we found pairing was the best way to investigate complicated cases like murders, attempted murders, rapes, armed robberies and the occasional kidnapping or extortion that happened in the drug world. Pairing is also safer when we’re on the street, and it’s more credible when we’re in court.

This morning, Harry “had court”. That was the universal cop-term for being subpoenaed as a witness. It meant having to hang around the courthouse and wait to see if we’d be called to testify. Or not.

There was a lot, and I mean a lot, of time wasted at the courthouse. But, they were the end to our means, and what we delivered as evidence packages suffered tremendous scrutiny. There’s nothing worse than being “on the stand” and having to explain why you messed up.

Back to the day.

I was on my own, doing follow-ups on our man from beside the road. Harry got her lies straight, and she left to meet the prosecutor. Once she was out the door, I took-on my top priority. That was trying to figure out who the hell this dead and rotting guy was. From that, I hoped to solve what happened to him.

Brian MacAllister beat me to the phone call. Brian was the senior firearms examiner at our crime lab. He was also a good friend outside of work.

“This one’s weird.” I knew Brian was shaking his head. “That twenty-two bullet from your guy beside the road? There’s no rifling or striation marks on it. Like it was never fired… like he swallowed the damn thing.”

“Serious?” I’d seen the bullet when the pathologist plucked it from the viscera. I looked at it with my naked eye and, yeah, it seemed smooth as a baby’s butt. But, then, I couldn’t see what Brian could see with his scanning electron microscope.

“Never seen this before.” Brian paused. “I’m thinking a slick bore like an antique dueling pistol. Or, it could be the tip of things to come. A Three-D laser-printed pistol downloaded from the dark web.”

“Any chance of making a match?” I sensed Brian was perplexed, but he was a competent expert and knew his stuff.

“Hmmm… dunno. We rely on rifling and engraving. None here. Might have to get Chemistry Section involved and do bullet-lead composition analysis or neutron activation. Leave it with me.”

I got off the phone and took another call. This was from Honey Phelps, our coroner. Love that name, Honey. She fit the part.

Honey updated me on our entomology evidence where we used insect remains to establish an estimated time of death. She said the forensic entomologist, who we privately called “The Bug Bitch”, gave a two-week period. Seems our mystery man lay stinking beside the road for around 14 days before we found him.

My next stop was down the hall to the Forensic Identification Section. At the autopsy, the pathologist clipped each finger and thumb tip from the cadaver and placed them in individual vials of formalin. The idea was to turn what was left of the skin into a malleable or rubbery substance to raise fingerprint detail.

Sergeant Cheryl Hunter was my go-to in the CSI department. Cheryl dashed my hopes of anytime soon by telling me she needed more time finger-fixing before she could try for an ID. In the meantime, I was stuck with not knowing who this John Doe was.

I got another call. It was our Street Crew team, and they wanted to talk to me. I met them in their hovel of a basement office.

For some reason, lots of cops get nicknames. My boss was “Leaky” Lewis, and he earned that handle from chronic post-urinary drip. The Street Crew pair were “Beefcake” and “The Inseminator”. Beefcake looked like Fabio from Harlequin Romance covers and The Inseminator was a weasely little sex addict.

Beefcake did the talking. “We got intel that a hooker beaked to a John that she knows your dead guy. Problem, though. We don’t know who the hooker is. Just that she goes by the trick name Amber.”

I felt a rush. This was the first time since we found Beside The Road that anyone on the street talked. Up till now, there was zero—zilch—nuttin’—being said. That made the case more peculiar.

Beefcake said they’d dig into this. The Inseminator vigorously nodded. I had no doubt they would. In the meantime, I went back to my office and found mail on my desk.

One letter was from the Federal Justice Department. They had a wrongful conviction application from an inmate who now decided he didn’t do it. I looked at the name. Yeah. Yeah. He spouts off in a motel room to a couple hippie chicks and confesses to a murder including giving out key-fact or holdback evidence that only the killer and the investigators know. I’ll get to this when I get to it.

The other letter deserved attention. This was from the National Parole Board who needed victim impact statements from the family of a murder victim. The case happened before my time, but I sure knew about it. So did pretty much everyone. Twenty-five years had passed, and the animal wanted loose from its cage. I moved this to Box-B.

I was about to tap into the CPIC database. That was the Canadian Police Information Center, and it held a lot of mineable stuff to help identify my latest murder victim. The phone toned again.

It was a reporter from Global television who I had an on-and-off-again relationship with. Professionally, I mean, although she was a knockout brunette with teeth that should be licensed. J’Anna had a tip for me. A viewer called-in about Beside The Road, and it sounded good.

The murder victim was a carnie, the tipster said. He was a carnival worker who disappeared from the traveling circus right when The Bug Bitch estimated time of death. J’Anna gave me the name. I plugged it into CPIC. Everything fit. All I needed now was some prints, so I ordered them.

It was noon.

I met a dear friend for lunch. Sharlene Bate outranked me, but I’d known her since she was a gangly teen with a pimple problem. Now, she was Inspector Bate from the regional force called I-HIT, the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team.

I don’t know if I have a thing for women with great teeth, but in a dental war, Sharlene and J’Anna would have fought to the death. Sharlene, though, had a common mentor with me—Detective Sergeant Fred Mahle—who gave her the nickname “Chicklets”. Good old Fred…

Sharlene and I talked a bit of shop. Some included who topped the upcoming promotion and transfer list. Mostly, though, we talked about her daughter—our God-daughter’s—medical problem and Sharlene’s postponed re-marriage plans.

I got back to the office around 1:30. There was a note on my desk to call the Emergency Response Team leader. ERT is a secondary duty secondment for some police officers, and I was part of that alumni. I was too old now to dress up and play army, but I still helped in training programs.

Another secondment was lecturing at the Police College. I had a specialty in effective interviewing techniques and often resourced in seminars to share skills with other investigators. There was an email confirming a lecture date for the fall, and I banged out a quick reply.

I moved off Beside The Road’s file for the day. It’d be nice to carry one file at a time, but reality in the detective business is each investigative team has around twenty open dossiers. Some require urgent action, like figuring out Beside The Road. Some were solved cases pending in court. Then, there were cold cases that still needed “Diary Date” entries to keep them from freezing right over.

I spent the afternoon on Box B and Box C, then called ‘er quits. It was 4:45 pm. I phoned my wife, got dinner directions and stopped at Thrifty Foods for supplies. At 5:30, I parked my unmarked Explorer in our driveway, went through the garage, put my Sig Sauer in the laundry room locker and walked into the kitchen.

My wife was at the table, playing Words With Friends on her iPad. I gave her a kiss, heard about the crazy day at her work and we had small-chat about our grown-up & gone kids.

Then, I reached into an upper cabinet, pulled down a bottle and poured two fingers of Scotch over frozen rocks. She sipped her glass of white wine as we sat in a relaxed, pre-dinner silence.

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Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a forensic coroner. Now he’s a crime writer and host of a popular blog at www.DyingWords.net as well as being a regular contributor to the HuffPost.

Garry lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s southwest coast where he spends off-time cruising around the saltwater. Connect with Garry on Twitter and Facebook.

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