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Chronicles of a Crime Scene Reconstructionist
By Rod Englert, Kathy Passero
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Rod Englert with Kathy Passero
All rights reserved.
The fog was already getting thick before I reached the station for roll call at eleven-thirty P.M. It meant the roads would be dangerous, so I drove slowly and kept an eye peeled for the inevitable drunks behind the wheel at that hour. I was coming down with the flu, and the dampness hanging in the air didn't help. It blanketed everything with a clammy mist more typical of Seattle than Southern California.
I'd been a uniformed officer on patrol for almost two years in Downey, a bedroom community of Los Angeles, and though I was hardly a seasoned veteran, I no longer considered myself a pup. That night would prove how wrong I was. It would also change the course of my future.
No sooner had I arrived than I got pulled out of roll call to respond to a suspicious circumstances complaint: A woman suspected there might be a dead body at an apartment building in south Downey, the seedy side of the town's main street and unofficial dividing line. The guys who were going off duty at midnight could have responded themselves — technically the call came in on their shift — but a dead body takes hours of work to process, so they'd left this one for me.
The woman who'd made the call was waiting for me when I pulled into the parking lot. This was 1964, and in those days in Downey we worked solo, so I was by myself.
"He's up there," she said tersely, pointing to a dingy stairway and then retreating. It was obvious she wanted to stay as far away as possible.
As I made my way up to the second floor, the entire place seemed eerily quiet. Aside from the shabby stairs creaking under my footsteps, I heard nothing — no voices, no movements, no blaring TV sets sounded from behind the closed doors lining the hallway. Soon I found the room number the woman had given me and cautiously pushed the door open.
The apartment beyond was pitch-black and stuffy. Without stepping inside, I switched on my flashlight to get a better sense of the surroundings and saw a single room furnished with little more than a bed and dresser. As I moved the beam over the walls, the procedure I'd learned in the police academy ran through my mind: Disturb as little as possible of the crime scene, don't turn on lights because touching a switch might destroy potential evidence or blow you sky-high if there's a gas leak. And that's when I saw it.
Blood was everywhere — spattered over the walls, pooled on the floor, soaking into the sheets of the bed, smeared on the dresser and a small vacuum cleaner standing next to it. Lying in the middle of all this, half on the bed and half off, was the body of an emaciated, balding middle-aged man clad only in boxer shorts. Like everything around him, he was covered in blood.
My mind cast frantically through a catalog of possible scenarios. What could cause a body to lose all that blood? A hatchet? A machete? An ax? The man must have been murdered — and put up quite a fight, judging from the bloody handprints all over the walls.
I switched off my flashlight, closed the door, and hurried back down to my patrol car to alert the detectives. "Murder victim," I announced confidently over my radio. "Looks like he's been assaulted with an ax."
I waited until the detectives and medical examiner arrived, then left the scene. The rest of my shift passed uneventfully, and I headed home from work in the morning still fighting off the flu, but congratulating myself on a solid night's police work.
It wasn't until a few days later that I noticed the telltale grins breaking across the faces of my fellow officers whenever I walked into the room.
"What's so funny?" I demanded.
"Your murder victim," one of the detectives said, barely able to stifle his laughter. "Turns out the guy didn't have a scratch on him."
"Nobody touched him."
I stared at him in disbelief. How could that be possible? The man was soaked in blood. The whole room looked like the set from a second-rate slasher film.
"But, how ...," I began, baffled.
"Ulcers," he said.
I shook my head, still confused.
"Bleeding ulcers. One of them must have ruptured, and he was throwing up all over the room," the detective said. "It made quite a mess, as you saw."
Snorts of laughter erupted around me.
"So much for your ax-wielding madman," the detective said, chuckling.
Stupid, stupid, stupid move, I chastised myself. Why had I been so quick to announce my theory about an ax murder over the air?
Even after I learned that it had taken the detectives themselves some time to realize my "murder victim" had bled to death all by himself — most likely as a result of alcoholism — I cringed when I thought about the jokes floating around the police station with me as the punch line. The incident became infamously known among my colleagues as the Vomit Case.
Never again, I told myself. I resolved then and there to learn all I could about blood patterns in crime scenes and to make that the last time I drew such a misguided conclusion.
A Life in Blood
I've devoted much of my life and career since that night in south Downey to studying blood patterns. After the Vomit Case, I read what few textbooks there were, though the field was in its infancy then and — as I would eventually discover through investigating thousands of crime scenes — much of what you could find in print was erroneous. Early sources, for example, claimed the higher the height from which you drop blood, the bigger the spatter produced. I remember reading and memorizing that point. In truth, blood spatter reaches terminal velocity at a height of about fifteen feet. That means the droplets look different when blood hits the ground from, say, a height of one inch as opposed to a height of four feet. But there's virtually no difference between the spatter you'd see if you dropped blood from thirty feet or a thousand feet. You'd get the same-size drops. What creates varying patterns is the texture and porosity of the material the blood hits, the angle at which it hits, and the surface it's dropped from. I'll show you how these factors work in the chapters to come.
Crime scene reconstruction has become my passion — particularly when it comes to interpreting telltale clues left in the bloodshed that often accompanies a homicide — and I've developed an amount of expertise in it. I've been called in to consult on hundreds of crime scenes, including high-profile cases like Robert Blake's, O. J. Simpson's, and Bob Crane's. I've taught courses to help cops catch criminals using blood pattern analysis everywhere from rural Indiana to Scotland Yard to Bogotá. No matter how much knowledge I accumulate, I still learn something new from every case.
I've been doing this work for decades — since long before series like CSI made the average American an armchair forensics pro. One of the questions I get asked a lot these days is, "Do the TV shows get it right?" Sometimes. More often, they get it wrong. But then at times so do the experts ... at least initially. This isn't Sherlock Holmes, where cracking the case is elementary if you do the deductive reasoning. It's real life, which means it's often messy and usually muddled, but invariably fascinating.
I didn't expect to set out on a career path so filled with blood. But, looking back, maybe I should have. As a typical small-town southern kid growing up in the days of Leave It to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show, I was fascinated by everything related to law enforcement — even when I ended up on the wrong side of it.
Cotton Fields and Cherry Bombs
I grew up in Wall, Texas. The town center was so tiny, you'd miss it if you sneezed while you were driving through — just a school, a post office, a few cotton gins, and a handful of stores, most of which are now abandoned. To me, it was home and I loved it. But to most people, it was nothing more than miles and miles of sprawling cotton farms like the one where I was raised.
Everybody picked cotton when I was a kid. School gave us a week off in the fall because so many of us had to help pick cotton on our families' farms. I remember the scrape the sacks made as they dragged behind me through the fields and the sting of bleeding hands when I tried to pick the sharp-edged bolls without gloves. We went to school barefoot when the weather was warm in those days, and the land was so flat that gazing out the classroom window, I could see my family's farmhouse four miles away.
Every year seasonal workers showed up at our door, many of them African-American and Hispanic, to help pick our cotton. The one I remember best was Earl Lee Cook. As kids, we called him "Early" Cook. Early was among the most polite men I've ever met, but he stuttered so badly that getting a sentence out looked like pure torture.
If my little brother, Mickey, and I were ever tempted to make fun of Early, my father set us straight. Dad treated everyone with respect and dignity, and he made sure we did the same.
That attitude was somewhat unusual in Texas in the 1950s. There were a lot of people who took the opposite view, especially when it came to the workers on their farms. Whenever rumors started buzzing around that the immigration authorities were moving in — and they often did — more than one local farmer suddenly found an excuse not to get around to paying his workers. The "wetbacks" will soon be gone, they figured. If their wages run a little short, so what? What can they do about it? Why not save a little cash at someone else's expense?
My dad did the reverse. He made a point to pay every Mexican worker as soon as he got wind of the rumors, before immigration swooped in.
I learned a lot from my father. He taught us to treat people with compassion but never condescension. Those lessons have served me well throughout my life and my career as a police officer and a crime scene investigator.
The other person who taught me a lot was my cousin Ralph. He was six years older than me, and he was my idol. When Ralph became a baseball fanatic and set his sights on making it as a professional ballplayer, so did I. I filled my room with baseball paraphernalia and my head with dreams of pitching under the bright lights of the major leagues. Then when Ralph blew out his arm while training for the Cleveland Indians and joined the air force, I announced my plans to enlist, too. I was crushed when the National Guard broke the news that I'd have to wait to sign up until I got out of high school.
There I was, stuck on the farm hunting rabbits and raising pigs for 4-H ribbons, while Ralph headed off on grand adventures I could only imagine. The year he left, I turned twelve — old enough in Texas back then to get my driver's license, which I did. By the time I was fourteen, I was experienced enough behind the wheel to land a job driving a dump truck for the county whenever I wasn't in school, helping my dad out with the farm animals, or hauling grain with our 1946 Ford pickup.
But there was a drought around that time, and like many farm families in the area, ours ended up heavily in debt. I remember my mom and dad sitting at the kitchen table, faces taut and worried, discussing the enormous amount we owed — $10,000, which sounded like all the money in the world to me back then — and racking their brains for a way we could scrape together enough to pay it back. There was a lot of talk among the men of Wall about building an irrigation system and digging canals. Rather than wait for that plan to come to fruition and save the day, Dad got a second job driving cars for Goodyear on a high-speed track in the countryside nearby, testing their tires to see if they'd pass muster on the highway. They tested all kinds of tires there; I used to like to stand inside the colossal wheel wells of the tires used on mining equipment — massive tires fit for a giant's wagon. To be closer to Dad's second job, we moved twelve miles down the road, from Wall to the outskirts of San Angelo. Dad still drove back to Wall every day to tend the farm, and we often went with him.
With a population of seventy-five thousand, San Angelo seemed like a major city compared with Wall. On my first day as a junior at Lakeview High School, I remember thinking that I'd have a huge graduating class — forty kids — compared with Wall's sixteen, augmented now and again by an occasional migrant worker's child. We'd been driving to San Angelo to go to church all my life, so I already knew a few of my Lakeview classmates from youth group, including Jim Newsom, who would become my best pal and a lifelong friend. Still, everything seemed new and exciting. One day shortly after we arrived, a short, skinny boy named Martin Mosely showed up in the school parking lot and popped open the trunk of his car to reveal a bulging feed sack.
I joined a cluster of my classmates peering down curiously at it.
"Whatcha got in there?" someone asked.
Martin grinned and plunged a catcher's stick deep inside the bag, then drew out a long, shiny black object.
"Get that thing away from me!" cried the boy standing closest to him, stepping backward hurriedly and bumping into the people behind him.
"Rattlesnakes!" Martin announced proudly, opening the bag to reveal at least fifteen hissing reptiles coiled in the bottom of the dusty bag.
"What do you do with them?"
"Make belts out of 'em and sell 'em," he explained, describing how he drove to the outskirts of town and combed the hillsides for rattlers' dens. When he found one, he gassed the snakes inside to make them woozy and nonaggressive, then used the catcher's stick to scoop them into a bag. Later he would skin them, turning their hides into belts and their heads into buckles. The rattlers he used as embellishments for western hats.
Like everything else in San Angelo, football was different. I had played six-man football in Wall, but here at Lakeview they had a full team. This being Texas, every self-respecting male student wanted to be a part of it, so I tried out and ended up playing halfback. My dad spent all day farming, then headed straight to the track to drive until ten P.M. on weeknights, which meant that he never made it to my games. He didn't say anything to me about them, not even when I made a touchdown, but Mom assured me that he listened to every one on the radio while he worked.
When I wasn't playing football or baseball, running track, or studying, I was helping on the farm. On Sundays, mornings started with mass at the local Catholic church with my dad and ended with services and youth group at the local Protestant church with my mom.
Still, I managed to find time to get bored and cause trouble as a teenager. Our whole community was German-Catholic, which meant beer drinking was part of everyday life for us. Even my grandparents drank it. Nobody looked askance at a seventeen-year-old with a glass of beer. But getting caught sneaking cigarettes — which I did — got you a tongue-lashing and worse.
One dry and dusty summer day after my junior year, I hit upon a memorable way to liven things up in town for my friends and me. I convinced them it would be a bright idea to toss a cherry bomb into a little bar at the edge of town, a place notorious as a watering hole for the local drunks. I rounded up some friends — three girls and two guys — to pile into my pal Nelson Word's 1952 Mercury. The plan was for Nelson to pull up near the bar's front entrance and keep the Mercury running while I hopped out, yanked open the door, and chucked the firecracker inside.
The bar was housed in a narrow building about ten feet wide — long and low and dark — and when the cherry bomb exploded, it let off an eardrum-shattering bang! It literally shook the rafters.
As the sounds of panicked shouts and screams rose from inside the bar, we doubled over laughing uproariously — failing to notice that the bar's owner was standing nearby openmouthed, staring at us and still clutching the bulging trash bags he'd been emptying into bins in the parking lot. Nelson, our getaway driver, hit the gas and off we sped as the enraged owner raced to his pickup truck.
No sooner had we rounded the corner on our getaway than the engine gave a raspy mechanical cough and died. Nelson was trying desperately to restart it when the pickup roared past us and screeched to a halt inches from our fender, penning us in. The owner of the bar jumped out, slammed his door, and stalked over. By the look on his face, he hadn't found the cherry bomb nearly as hilarious as we had.
He marched us back to the street in front of the bar, where things were still in an uproar thanks to the cluster of staggering, slurring patrons who had stumbled out, all convinced someone had fired a gun and all hotly debating exactly what had gone down.
"I'm tellin' ya, Mary shot John!"
"Naw, you're way off. It was John who shot Mary!"
Ignoring them, the owner ordered us to wait while he called the cops.
Excerpted from Blood Secrets by Rod Englert, Kathy Passero. Copyright © 2010 Rod Englert with Kathy Passero. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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