Diggin’ up bones

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 27, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

Search warrant in hand, authorities on April 18 removed evidence from the home of Scott Peterson, the California man suspected of killing his eight-months pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son. That evidence was collected by forensics technicians trained to find items and substances invisible to the naked eye.

Closer to home, in the Holland village of Suffolk, evidence technicians under the direction of Joan R. Jones, a forensic crime unit supervisor for Suffolk Police, gathered information from the soil around the body of a man found lying dead in the wooded area of Buckhorn Drive. Through their investigation, a positive identification was made and the cause of death was determined to be strangulation.

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Both the investigations are typical for crime scene technicians who have been trained to uncover the facts in what can sometimes be the most ghastly and demoralizing scenes conceivable. Still, the special people who collect evidence at crime scenes have a job to do and to do it well; they must participate in constant training in order to keep up with ever-changing technology.

Joan Jones is considered across Hampton Roads to be somewhat of a master at her profession. She is dedicated to forensic science and believes education is the key to success in her field. Seeking to further improve her own skills, Jones attended a forensics-training course in Richmond. Eager to share new knowledge, she organized an intensive four-day &uot;Excavation Class&uot; to instruct evidence technicians from Suffolk, Isle of Wight County, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, and Hampton.

Assisted by Thomas E.W. Goyne, the anthropology expert and instructor who is the medico-legal death investigator for the Commonwealth’s medical examiner, Jones took the evidence techs to the deserted Navy station on Sleepy Hole Road. There, behind rusting old fences and dilapidated buildings, she would offer them a challenge; find the bodies and gather the surrounding evidence in a manner that would allow it to be used in a court of law.

Though the day was bright with sunshine, the slight stirring of an early spring breeze put a chill in the air but the excitement around two separate &uot;burial sites&uot; put enough adrenaline into the bodies of the technicians who were busy digging up the real &uot;bodies&uot; at the scene.

As noted by Goyne, site one consisted of a shallow grave containing the &uot;skeletal&uot; remains of two bodies. Actually the skeletons were plastic but they were real enough for this practice. Site two, another shallow grave, contained the &uot;body&uot; of a male, fully clothed, and another &uot;body&uot; entirely encased in plastic and secured with rope.

Beth Dunton, crime scene section supervisor of Virginia Beach Police, explained the &uot;grid,&uot; a large square of earth surrounding the scene. Twine was used to mark the square into many precisely measured and perfectly equal smaller squares. Each of those squares was thoroughly examined for any type of evidence, and all the soil around the grid and that lifted from the grave was sifted through two sets of screens.

&uot;We had to take every blade of grass from the area and then we began taking off thin layers of the soil,&uot; said Dunton. &uot;It took almost three days to get it all done.&uot;

While removing the soil may sound easy, there’s much more to it than shoveling the dirt from the hole.

&uot;We used hand trowels like you would use in flowers and in a lot of the area closest to the skeleton, we used teaspoons, dental picks and paint brushes,&uot; she said. &uot;You have to be very careful not to disturb anything so that the evidence is preserved, and it takes a variety of tools to do that.&uot;

In the grave with the skeletons, techs found spent shell casings, a handgun, coins and an old rifle. All the evidence, along with the skeletons, was planted in the field back in February just for this event. They lay there under the soil, grass re-grown on top, almost undetectable.

However, these techs knew what to look for as they entered the search area thanks to Goyne and Jones. The students were told to look for depressed areas in the grass, places where there seemed to be some slight disturbance. They didn’t have to look hard for the second site though.

Some of the techs were heard to gasp as they stumbled across what would have been a ghastly site had it been real. They found the fingers of the male mannequin sticking through the soil just enough to give away the burial site.

Taylor, an investigator with the fire marshal’s office in Suffolk, said the team also used long metal archeological rods to probe the area where they expected to find the bodies. He also said that particular care was taken in removing the covering of soil over the bodies.

Goyne said the techs were taught a lot about what to look for and how to examine the field in the first day of their training, which consisted of classroom instruction. He said they found the bodies fairly quickly but that the course focused on evidence recovery, collection and use of notebooks rather than discovery of the bodies.

&uot;If you don’t dig the bodies and evidence up in the correct way, you could loose a lot of evidence,&uot; said Dunton. &uot;This is where we fine tune our skills and learn more about the science of forensics. In the ever-changing field of forensics, you just can’t stop training. It is a constant training and learning experience.&uot;

She quickly noted that after this week, she’s &uot;good for a while&uot; since her back was about to do her in. She will take her new-found knowledge back to the 11 technicians she supervises in Virginia Beach.

&uot;I’ve been in forensics for 13 years and this is by far the most physically demanding school I’ve ever been to,&uot; Dunton added.