‘CSI Suffolk’ is not for your entertainment

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 5, 2003

&uot;CSI,&uot; or &uot;Crime Scene Investigation&uot; is one of the most watched programs on CBS-Television these days, however, there are at least three people in Suffolk who find the show riddled with errors in criminal investigation.

Take the scene where one of the characters, Warrick Brown, dipped his finger into a pool of &uot;something red&uot; at a crime scene where a murder had taken place, and then he licked it trying to determine what it was. Now, that scene practically outraged Suffolk’s real Crime Scene Investigator, the Forensics Unit Supervisor Joan Jones, who angrily shook her fist as she discussed the unreality of the program.

&uot;Oh, I wanted to turn it off because an investigator would never really do something like that,&uot; said Jones. &uot;Actually, only a portion of what they portray on the program is real including the methods they use to collect evidence, the way they process it and their response to the scene of crimes. To us who do this in real life, the program is purely entertainment, nothing else.&uot;

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Jones, who came to Suffolk’s Police Department just a few years ago, recalled a recent crime in Suffolk, a murder that took place on Jackson Street.

&uot;Like any case we work, we responded to the scene immediately, wrote down the details and began our investigation,&uot; she said. &uot;When we enter a scene, we first walk through the entire scene of the crime and come back the same way, looking for anything that’s out of place, or seems unusual. We then bring all our equipment and gear into an area near the scene where it won’t contaminate the evidence left behind in the crime. We’re very careful not to place our equipment where it could leave any of our hair or other evidence in the crime scene.&uot;

Jones also explained that there are different methods used to process outdoor crimes scenes because evidence left outdoors is much more fragile than indoors.

&uot;If it’s raining, or windy, especially, you need to go on and collect that evidence immediately, as quickly and efficiently as possible,&uot; she said. &uot;Any biological fluid like blood that might be washed away must be carefully collected immediately. Of course, we take all kinds of photos including all four corners of a room, mid-range photos, and then close ups with a ruler next to items being photographed to show the exact size of the evidence.&uot;

At the crime scene, hand-drawn sketches are also an important part of putting together the pieces of the puzzle that comprises facts in an investigation. Jones explained that each and every piece of evidence is drawn into the sketch of the crime scene. It is then catalogued by a specific name.

&uot;For instance, if you find a cigarette butt, you just can’t call it that,&uot; she added. &uot;If you send it to the lab for DNA testing, it must be labeled like &uot;Newport cigarette butt-found in a specific location. That’s so when the case goes to court, it can become part of the evidence in the trial.&uot;

In fact, accurate note-taking is of prime importance in crime scene investigations. She explained that during the &uot;collection phase&uot; of the investigation, the evidence technicians constantly take notes.

&uot;At the academy, we were taught that photos, notes and sketches are the three main components of an investigation and with today’s technology, digital photography comes into play,&uot; said Jones, a native of Suffolk. &uot;In the past few months, the (police) department has really been supportive of the Criminal Investigations Section and provided us with a high tech digital camera.&uot;

Discussing the exact science of digital photography and its value to an investigator, Jones is almost excited when describing that part of the evidence gathering technique. She does, however, leave it to C.B. &uot;Bert&uot; Nurney to explain since he is considered one of the best in the field. Nurney understands that he must photograph a crime scene in a way that a jury can understand exactly what happened. He is a stickler for detail and believes in the exact science. He insists that his photography is no better than any other forensics photographer, but it’s the equipment that makes the difference.

Nurney also noted that as forensics investigators, Suffolk’s team is an extension of the Virginia Forensics system. He explained that the system makes every effort to send at least one representative of each jurisdiction to the academy, equipping them for the task of criminal investigations.

&uot;Virginia is one of the leading forensically equipped states in the country,&uot; he added. &uot;Anything we need within reason we have access to, and Virginia is one of only three forensics academies in the world. Scotland Yard has one and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has one. They only way you go to the academy is on a recommendation by a sworn officer.&uot;

Another phase in the real world of crime scenes involves collection of trash and bio-hazards like bloody evidence gloves. Jones said techs change gloves often during an investigation and each pair must be disposed of in a paper bag set at the sidelines of the crime scene specifically for trash.

A &uot;second pair of eyes&uot; is also a factor in the investigation that Jones says is invaluable. She explained that she brings in a police officer or another evidence tech to observe the scene, possibly to discover something that her eyes may have missed.

&uot;After you’ve been on the scene for a while, your eyes may be tired and you could miss something,&uot; said Jones. &uot;A second set of eyes can help in that sense.&uot;

Once every shred of visible and often invisible evidence is collected, it’s all packed up, loaded into their vehicles and brought back to the lab inside the Suffolk Police Department’s building. Tucked far back inside, the lab is virtually unseen by the public and most people don’t realize Suffolk has such technology at its disposal.

&uot;We can process a great deal of evidence right here,&uot; said Jones. &uot;We do send some things off to the forensics lab in Norfolk. Here, we can process porous and non-porous items for fingerprints, including weapons, glass, metals, and plastics. We can also process DNA by letting it air dry. We have a new piece of equipment that does that for us.&uot;

Jones added that in cases of toxicology investigations, evidence is most often sent to Norfolk’s Forensics Laboratory for processing. It can take as long as six months to get information back on evidence because the lab stays so backed up with heavy caseloads. Many items are forwarded on to Richmond, Fairfax and other localities.

&uot;CSI,&uot; the television program, may not get it right and they show some gruesome crimes, but as she said, none has matched the gruesome scene that met with investigators when they worked the case of &uot;Autumn.&uot;

&uot;I’ll never forget Autumn, and I really appreciate you all (the media) doing what you did in helping us with her case,&uot; said Jones through tear-filled eyes. &uot;Autumn, the victim became a part of this entire department, with every officer and criminal investigations working so hard on the case. Her real name was Shellie and her body was found off Baker Street on a path that goes back under the power lines right after Hurricane Floyd dumped all that water here. That case is still unsolved and we are still looking for her killer.&uot;

Shellie had been out in the elements for some time and her badly decomposed body was unidentifiable until Jones did a reconstruction of her facial features and ran the photo in the News-Herald. Through that photo, identification was made.

&uot;We found out through the anthropology examiner that she had been there since Nov. 1, 1999, and the entomologist was able to determine that she had been there since August 1999. She was so close to all of us because we wanted so badly to find who had killed her and we worked five days on that case just excavating the crime scene. We just took up the entire crime scene area.&uot;

Jones is the daughter of the late George Russell and Joanna Russell, both of Suffolk. She began in 1996 as an evidence technician.