The burglar may be safe at his home, smiling as he looks over the loot just stolen from a local business.
The killer may think he has covered his tracks so well he will never be caught.
But criminals like these better not rest too easy because specially trained lawmen like Jason Cooley and Josh Davis of the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office are always hot on their trail, using their scientific bloodhounds to track them down and help bring them to justice.
Cooley and Davis man the Evidence/Crime Scene Department of the sheriff’s office, where their investigative efforts are frequently the icing on the cake that makes sure lawbreakers pay for their crimes.
“We work really good with the detectives in this office,” Davis said, “and we know they’re out there doing everything they can on their end. Jason and I don’t want the failure of an investigation on our shoulders so we’ll do anything and everything we can to help solve a crime.”
Sometimes their contribution is finding and identifying a fingerprint that brings a criminal to justice. Other times it may be more complicated DNA evidence, or then again, perhaps a shoe print, tire track or pry mark left at the scene may crack a case wide open.
Cooley and Davis can quickly point to cases where such evidence was critical.
“The church burglar,” for example: “In between the two buildings at the crime scene, we found a footprint that was Chuck Taylors (a brand of basketball shoe),” Cooley said. “When we found the suspect that pawned (the stolen items), he still had his Chucks on. So there it was, just like a fingerprint.”
Added Davis: “I don’t remember exactly, but there was something about the bottom of his shoe — the way it was wore, (so) it was pretty easy to tell that those were his shoes.”
If they can get a shoe impression from a residence or shoe markings on a door, “once we have a suspect, we’ll try to get hold of that suspect’s shoes, either through the detectives or if they wore them to jail,” Davis said.
The sole of every shoe, he says, usually leaves a unique print. “Maybe where they’re wore down on the heel, or a certain part of the sole is wore down because of the way they walk,” he said. “You can see it from the print we find at the scene compared to the suspect’s shoe — maybe they had stepped in gum and the pattern’s going to be altered, or they had stepped on something sharp and cut the sole on the bottom.”
A new pair of shoes that has never been worn will make the same print as another brand new pair, “but once you start wearing them, the wear pattern’s going to be different for each person, and a lot of times we can match their shoes to an impression found on the scene,” Davis said.
Tire tracks work on the same principle. “Each tire’s going to have different wear patterns,” Davis said. “You might get a rock stuck in your tire or you might have a big chunk out of your tire, so when you’re rolling through the mud, it’s going to leave that unique impression.”
Documenting the scene is crucial
Of course, every crime is different, so a careful collection and preservation of the evidence in the same methodical way each time is crucial. Cooley and Davis have taken hours and hours of specialized training to learn how to analyze what they discover at a crime scene.
Once they receive a call about a crime, their work usually starts before they even reach the scene.
“You’ve got to get pictures of everything,” Cooley says.
“We start with the philosophy that you can’t take enough pictures,” Davis says, “so what me and Jason will do, we’ll start …”
“… along the roadside that the house is on,” Cooley interjects.
“We’ll start taking pictures as we are driving in, the mailbox and then a bunch of overalls (of the entire scene),” Davis explains. “And then when you go inside — all four walls, floor, ceiling, you pretty much go over every inch of the house as far as taking pictures. Then you’ll kind of zone in. If it’s a homicide/suicide, you focus on that certain area where the incident took place and do a lot of close-up pictures.”
Cooley says “it’s nothing for us to come out of a crime scene with 2,500 photos.”
Sometimes that means staying at a crime scene for eight to 12 hours, or even longer. “Our last homicide scene, there was actually three of us and a GBI intern working the scene,” Davis said. “You’ve got somebody taking pictures, somebody else documenting everything we’re doing, somebody else collecting evidence. One person could do it, but it would take a lot of extra hours.”
The process involves a lot more than just taking pictures and videos of the scene, however. They’ve got to make sure the images explain what they found at the scene as accurately as possible.
“There’s so many variables that get drawn into each different scene,” Davis said. “The biggest thing is how big is your scene? If the crime is just contained to one room, it’s not going to take you that long at all, but if you have it spread out through the whole house into the yard and the vehicles and it spills over into the neighbor’s property and something has taken place in every room, we have to go in and get all the measurements for every piece of evidence, where it was located, how it coincides with maybe the weapon used or the victim’s body. There’s a lot of measuring and a lot of scaling out.”
One important key is maintaining the scene just as they find it at the beginning of the investigative process. “The way the scene is when we get there,” Davis said, “it’ll stay that way. If a radio is blaring, TVs are on, whatever’s going on when we first get there, it’ll stay that way until we’ve completed everything around the source of the noise, then we’ll turn it down, turn it off. On a major scene, we’ll go through there and videotape as it was and then also digitally photograph it, too.”
Says Cooley, “You want the pictures to look exactly like it was when you got there, because that’s the first thing they ask you when you’re on the stand — is this a representation of what it was like when you first arrived on the scene?”
Investigation is a tag-team effort
Sometimes when Cooley and Davis are documenting a scene, at first they may not even be aware a crime has been committed. That’s why it is critical to treat each scene with the same attention to detail until they know for sure what happened.
To analyze a scene, some cases might involve the use of high-tech equipment like a laser trajectory kit that can determine the angle of the bullet or blood pattern analysis, “where we can determine the position of the body and about where the victim was when the blow was made or the strike was made or how far off the floor he might have been, if he was standing or kneeling, kinda which direction it came from,” Davis said.
As the investigating detectives unearth information, they’ll relay it to Cooley and Davis to help in their documentation of the scene in a tag-team effort to solve the crime.
“While we’re on the scene, we’re getting information from our detectives who are out canvassing and talking to people,” Cooley said. “They might tell us, hey, you might want to check this … look for something like this. Then we’ll start looking and we’ll find it. Or we might find something ourselves on the scene and call the detectives and say, ‘Hey, this is what we found. We don’t know if it has anything to do with it yet or not, but then somewhere down the road it might. It’s kinda weird because some things that you don’t think have anything to do with the crime will play a part in the actual crime scene.”
Putting a finger on the suspect
Fingerprints can play a key role in the investigation of a crime. “We’ve both had success on burglaries lifting fingerprints and getting a suspect’s name,” Davis said, “and then in turn finding out, yeah, they are the one that’s been breaking into houses and cars.”
“You find a fingerprint and lift it and bring it back here and run it through our system and say, oh, we know who it is now,” Cooley said. “Then the detectives can go out and start interviewing people.”
Davis said it’s a pretty good feeling “to have a case that’s dead in the water — we don’t know which direction to go in — and then we get a fingerprint or find something in the pawn shop database that’s been pawned and then we are able to go down the hall and say, ‘We found John Doe’s fingerprint on the outside of the window.’ Then the detectives start looking at John Doe and come to find out, he had no business being at Sally Mae’s house, so we can look at him kinda hard and try to track him down and interview him for doing it.”
Identifying a fingerprint isn’t as easy as just entering it into a computer.
The process starts with locating a usable print, in the first place. On metal, glass, a door, wood and countertops, the best way is to brush standard black powder onto the surface and see if it sticks to the oil left behind from someone’s fingers. If a print shows up, it’s saved by transferring it to clear tape. On paper and envelopes, lawmen will use either iodine or ninhydrin spray to bring prints to the surface.
Ironically, an old refrigerator has proven to be a very effective tool for these lawmen, too. “That refrigerator there is our best friend,” Davis said. “We’ll take Coke cans, bottles, drug bags, anything we can fit in there, and then we’ll put hot water in a bowl and superglue on a hot plate and the fumes will mix inside the refrigerator with the vapors from the water and they’ll adhere to the fingerprints left behind and leave a white, frosty outline of a fingerprint. It just makes it easier for us to see it and powder it and lift it. We have more success out of this refrigerator here than we do anything else. They make chambers that cost thousands of dollars for the same purpose, but this works just fine.”
Another more high-tech tool is a chemical called SPR, which is helpful when prints have been exposed to rain.
“Say a car got broke into at a store and it was pouring down rain,” Davis said. “‘Well, durn, I can’t get no fingerprints because the rain is gonna wash them off’ is what the general public thinks, but that’s not true. We can spray SPR on there and it’ll do the same as powder; it’ll show the print.”
Whitfield part of national fingerprint database
Once a print is obtained, it’s scanned into a computer linked to AFIS, or Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Cooley or Davis will use their skills to tell the AFIS computer several identifying factors about the print to help narrow the search down and thus speed up identification. The results of the search usually take less than an hour to come back, depending on the time of day, though one recent demonstration took less than five minutes.
But the computer doesn’t come up with just one possible ID.
“They’ll send us back the best 20 matches the computer thinks could be them,” Davis said, “and then it’s up to us to filter through those 20 and either say, no, none of these are exactly the same or yeah, No. 9 is the guy I’m looking for because everything matches up on his print. They say that nobody’s fingerprints are exactly alike, and it hasn’t been proven different yet. So the world still goes off that theory.”
And EVERYTHING must match up to make a definite identification from a fingerprint, he emphasized.
“The thing with fingerprints is you’ve got to be 100 percent dead-on,” Davis said. “You can’t use ‘I think it might be’ or “it could be.’ It either is or it isn’t — there’s no gray. If you create the gray, then you pretty much might as well go find another job because your credibility is gone. Anything you ever do from that point on, once you’re wrong, it’s done.”
But fingerprint identification is not a perfect system even with the utmost caution.
“It’s hit or miss to be honest with you,” Davis said. “I’ve had some prints that were just perfect and you’ve got a good idea of a suspect they belong to, but then you strike out because it’ll turn out to be the homeowner’s print or their 4-year-old nephew that likes to run up to the sliding glass door and put his fingers all over it.”
Then there are times when the criminal wears gloves and doesn’t leave fingerprints behind at all. However, Davis points out that even gloves will leave their own special prints that can sometimes be detected with special equipment.
“The crime lab can match up fabric impression marks. If we thought you stole this or did this damage, we could lift a fabric impression the same way we do a fingerprint,” Davis said. “If we arrested you with gloves in your back pocket, we could send them off with the fabric print to the crime lab, and they could say, yes, this was the pair of gloves that was used.”
If they do identify a possible suspect through a print, “we’ll go to the victim and ask them, ‘Do you know a John Smith? Would he have any reason to be at your house?’ If they draw a blank and have no idea who that is, we can narrow John Smith down to being a suspect. Why was he there?”
And as of late June, the AFIS database now includes fingerprints and palm prints.
Sometimes they find the hidden
All their work isn’t always done at the crime scene. Cooley and Davis have a special bay at the jail where they can pull a vehicle inside and literally dismantle it looking for evidence if they think there’s good reason.
“We’ll bring cars in here and do everything from fingerprinting them to taking them apart,” Davis said. “We’ve had cars in here for the DNA process looking for bodily fluids from within the car, maybe from a sexual assault or blood stains from an assault that’s went on inside it. We’ve taken cars all the way apart looking for drugs for the Drug Unit. One of the most recent cases, we didn’t find the dope in there, but we did find their hidden compartment. The radio itself, you pushed a button in the dash, and the radio would come out and flip down and you could reach your hand in under the dash and store the dope that way. There wasn’t any in there, just residue, but we have found it before hidden in the tail lights, compartments in the fender wells …”
Keeping up with the evidence
Someone has to take care of all the evidence gathered by law enforcement officers, and that task falls to Cooley and Davis.
Using a bar code system, they keep up with everything from guns to illegal drugs to baseball bats to axes to weedeaters to gambling machines.
Some of the evidence or recovered property will find its way back to the rightful owner, while some of it will be destroyed after the cases have been decided in court and all appeals have been exhausted. But some of it, packed in boxes stacked along the so-called “death wall,” the back wall of the evidence room at the correctional center, will be kept forever in hopes of one day solving murders and other serious crimes that have gone unpunished..
“We have stuff from as far back as the 1970s for unsolved murders,” Cooley said, “which we keep forever. We have sexual assault kits that stay here until the DA tells us we can destroy it.”
To keep the evidence room from overflowing, eventually they have to get rid of the evidence in the majority of the cases.
“What we usually do is put everything on a court order that needs to be disposed of,” Cooley said, “and once a judge signs off on it, it gives us the right to destroy it. We’ll take truckloads at a time; most of it goes in the landfill and is crushed. The drugs are disposed of by DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) standards, which is basically by incinerating them.”
Such regular housekeeping is necessary since the department has 2,500 pieces of evidence at any given time.
They try to go through serial numbers and vehicle identification numbers or descriptions of stolen property to see if they can locate owners of recovered property and suggest to local residents that they take the time now to mark all their property not with their Social Security number (because of identity theft issues) but with the same short series of numbers or letters that would make it easy for them to identify items if ever stolen and recovered by lawmen.
“I wouldn’t put my Social Security number on it,” Cooley said, “but say, if you put ‘1223’ on it and when we call you and ask can you identify it you can say, ‘Yeah, I engraved 1223 on the bottom of it,’ so you can identify it without even looking at it and say, ‘Yeah, that’s mine.’ A little planning ahead and hoping you don’t ever have to use it.”
TV shows don’t reflect reality
Davis says he likes watching popular TV crime shows like NCIS as much as anyone, but their quick turnaround on things like DNA identification is just not possible in real life.
“It’s nowhere near that quick,” he said, “and with crime lab budget cuts … used to we could take a cigarette butt from outside an auto and send it down for DNA analysis and they’d do it. But since the budget cuts across the state, they’re touch-and-go whether they’re going to spend the hundreds of dollars it takes to process DNA. If it’s just an entering auto where a cigarette butt was found and the only thing taken from the car was a CD case, the crime lab’s not going to spend hundreds of dollars to try to figure out who stole the CDs. It’s just for budget reasons. It’s unfortunate in one sense, but it makes sense in another.”
So-called touch DNA requires very small samples, as few as seven or eight cells from the outermost layer of skin.
“The crime lab used to accept a lot of touch DNA, which is probably the most expensive thing they do down there as far as processing,” Davis said. “They would do it for pretty much any kind of crime, but now it has to be a home invasion, homicide, rape for them to do it. They won’t accept touch DNA on a standard burglary; it has to be beyond that — has to be a very, very serious crime in nature.”
Even if the sample is accepted by the crime lab, it doesn’t take just minutes to get the identification, the way TV depicts it.
“The public doesn’t understand that,” Davis said. “People will say, ‘Well, I saw it on TV last night; why can you not do that right now?’ It’s hard to get people to understand that it doesn’t necessarily work out that way.”
Depending on the severity of the case and the backlog at the crime lab, it could take as long as six months to have DNA evidence processed.
“There are a few private labs throughout the state, but for the most part, the GBI Crime Lab is doing it for the whole state of Georgia,” Davis said. “A few of the larger cities and counties have their own mini-labs that they process a lot of their own stuff in, but other than that, it goes to the crime lab.”
Despite the delays, it’s definitely not cost-effective for a small agency like the local sheriff’s department to try and open a lab of its own, Cooley said.
“By the time you paid the salaries of the staff — most of them have chemistry degrees — and bought the equipment, which costs millions of dollars, and then paid the constant upkeep on the equipment, you just can’t afford to do it yourself,” Cooley said.
Fortunately for Whitfield County, time is usually not a critical factor since virtually all of its major cases are not totally dependent on DNA evidence for prosecution.
“We’re kind of fortunate on homicides that solving the case has not come down to the science part of the investigation,” Davis said. “Our homicides, we usually have a suspect in custody and have enough evidence to charge prior to the science end of it. The stuff we’ve collected — the DNA and fingerprints at the scene — is just icing on the cake. As far as being a case-breaker, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any cases. Our work usually just seals the deal on the case.”
They’ve seen it all through the years
Cooley and Davis have been working in various capacities for years for the sheriff’s department, so they’ve been around long enough to have seen just about everything — some of it humorous.
“We’ve had people call in and say their drugs have been stolen,” Davis says.
“And we’re not talking prescription medicines here, either,” Cooley adds with a laugh.
“By their own admission,” Davis says, “they’re saying they were in possession of illegal drugs.”
Cooley even remembers having people call and say that they had gone to buy drugs and the person sold them fake drugs, and now they want the sheriff’s department to get their money back.
“It never ceases to amaze me,” he says. “A lot of crime scenes are odd. You don’t know what’s running through that person’s mind when they commit the crime. Is it odd? Well, each crime’s different. Each one, you’re going to find stuff and think, why is that there? Why would they put that there? It doesn’t make any sense.”
But it’s up to Cooley and Davis and their fellow law enforcement officers to figure it out and solve the crime, something they do on a regular basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
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