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State Police Crime Lab Tour: Fingerprinting and Tread Analysis

Climbing a mountain was pretty neat, but another highlight of my recent trip to Massachusetts was a tour of one of the regional Massachusetts State Police Crime labs. Many, many thanks to Detective Lieutenant Michael Holleran for making this tour of the Springfield lab happen. Detective Lieutenant Holleran was kind enough to be my technical advisor on fingerprinting past and present when we were writing TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, and he went to the trouble of setting up the tour, and then drove all the way across the state to meet and stay with us the entire time. Once again, we couldn’t write what we do without the generous help of the officers and staff of the Massachusetts State Police!

I was going to include all the information about the tour in a single blog post. But when the ever-stalwart Ann came back to me this ‘this blog post is toooooooo long’, I decided it needed to be cut into manageable chunks because this is very dense information. So, today, we’re going to cover crime scene services in the lab, primarily fingerprinting and casting. Next week will cover evidence handling and criminalistics. And then in our final week, we’ll cover ballistics, the largest section and truly deserving of a post of its own.

Detective Lieutenant Holleran (Crime Scene Services), Sergeant Ken Heffernan (Crime Scene Services), and Lieutenant John Crane (ballistics) took us through the Springfield crime lab that serves not only the Massachusetts State Police, but also many of the surrounding municipal forces. All three men are troopers who do everything in their area of the lab—they go out to the crime scene, gather evidence, and then return to the lab to analyze it. There are currently eight officers in the Springfield crime lab that are part of fingerprinting and crime scene services, and three officers in ballistics. All biological work in the criminalistics and biologics units, and much of the other testing (drug chemistry, arson, DNA, alcohol testing, and trace evidence) is performed by civilian forensic scientists.

Fingerprinting (part of Crime Scene Services): 

  • All fingerprint evidence is handled in a designated fingerprint lab.
  • Officers use a defined flowchart of test protocols to run on each print, starting at the top and working their way down, stopping after the first successful print development. Multiple tests can be run on the same print as long as the designated order is followed.
  • UV light sources can be used to visualize prints on non-porous surfaces. Some prints can only be visualized and photographed this way; when they are chemically developed, no print appears.
  • AFIS databases are accessed using MorphoTrak software. Massachusetts is the first state to link directly to the FBI database via third party software. Sergeant Heffernan ran one of his current cases for us—a break and enter with a fingerprint picked up through the mesh of a window screen. It took nine minutes for the resulting multi-point comparison match.
  • Even after a positive AFIS result, the print must be confirmed by the human eye. In total, 3 officers must agree on the comparison for it to be considered a positive match.
  • In the past, inked fingerprints have been standard, but over the last 10 years, live fingerprint scanning has gradually spread throughout the state. Troopers have live fingerprint scanners out in the field to be able to scan prints in situ instead of having to transfer evidence back to the lab. This kind of mobile fingerprinting also allows for faster identification of any deceased persons on scene.
  • Live fingerprint scanners reject bad prints, but a good inked print will always have better resolution than a live scan, so troopers are still taught how to do classic inked prints by the Crime Scene Services officers since most troopers take their own perp prints out in the field.

Tread Analysis (part of Crime Scene Services):

  • Casts are used to identify both shoe treads and tire tracks.
  • Casts are taken using Denstone®, a dental stone used for impressions because it has only 0.1% shrinkage with drying. Due to its ability to maintain its shape and size, it can be used for direct comparisons between the cast and the actual shoe or tire.
  • Sergeant Heffernan feels that shoeprints are the most overlooked evidence and could be used much more effectively. For instance, the unique wear on shoes as well as any individual markings can be used to conclusively identify footwear present at the scene.
  • There is an extensive tire tread database available for comparison. There is also a database for shoes, but it’s expensive because there are so many different types of shoes, and it must be constantly updated.

We’ll be back next week with a trip through the evidence room and the criminalistics lab. See you then!

Photo credit: Jessica Newton Photography

The Seymour Agency’s 1st Literacy Fundraiser:

Naples, Florida (July 2014) - The Seymour Agency has announced it will be hosting a fundraiser to support the Literacy Council Gulf Coast through a national online auction taking place during the month of September. Industry editors, agents, and authors have donated critiques, phone chats, and goody packages as prizes.

Everyone deserves the time and means for the luxury of reading. Literacy Council Gulf Coast works with underprivileged youth and adults to provide quality literary education needed to function in today’s society.

The online auction will go live in phases on September 1, 2014 and bidding will end on September 30, 2014 at 11:59 p.m. with the largest bid received winning.

If you are not interested in the items up for auction, please consider a cash donation through CrowdRise. CrowdRise is a convenient way to donate money to charities.


Publishing News and the Cover Reveal for TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER!

We’re going to take a brief break from the recap of my trip to Massachusetts in June as Ann and I have some publishing news we’d like to share with our readers, as well as a new cover to show off. But don’t worry, next week I’ll be back to share what I learned during my crime lab tour.

First of all, I know it’s been a LONG time coming, but our novella, NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL, is now available on the Kobo platform. We’ve had requests about this for a while, but we’ve been up to our ears in work. Luckily, my husband stepped in and offered his time to do all the research and formatting for this platform, and we went live over the weekend. So for our Kobo readers, if you’re looking for the novella to read on your Kobo reader, you can find it here:  http://store.kobobooks.com/en-CA/ebook/no-one-sees-me-til-i-fall.

Last March we were pleased to announce that the mass market paperback rights for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT had been contracted by Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries for publication in January 2015. Now we can add that Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries has also contracted the mass market rights for A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH for publication in spring 2015:

Jen Danna with Ann Vanderlaan's A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH, the second novel in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, in which a Massachusetts state police trooper teams with a forensic anthropologist to solve a series of horrific murders, to Laura Barth at HQN Worldwide Mystery, for publication in Spring 2015, by Nicole Resciniti at The Seymour Agency. 

Last, but definitely not least, Ann and I are thrilled to be able to show off the hot-off-the-presses cover for TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER. Once again, ENC’s designers did a great job in capturing the major aspects of the murder very succinctly.

So now, without further ado, here is the cover for TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER!

Prohibition was a time of clandestine excess—short skirts, drinking, dancing . . . and death. But a murder committed so many years ago still has the power to reverberate decades later with deadly consequences.

It’s a double surprise for Trooper Leigh Abbott as she investigates a cold case and discovers two murder victims in a historic nineteenth-century building. Together with forensic anthropologist Matt Lowell and medical examiner Dr. Edward Rowe, she uncovers the secrets of a long-forgotten, Prohibition-era speakeasy in the same building. But when the two victims are discovered to be relatives—their deaths separated by over eighty years—the case deepens, and suddenly the speakeasy is revealed as ground zero for a cascade of crimes through the decades. When a murder committed nearly forty years ago comes under fresh scrutiny, the team realizes that an innocent man was wrongly imprisoned and the real murderer is still at large. Now they must solve three murders spanning over eighty years if they hope to set a wronged man free.

TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, coming in hardcover and eBook, February 18, 2015. Now available for pre-order from Amazon.com!


Setting the Scene for the Climax of Abbott and Lowell Book Five

I’m back from vacation, and we’re back from a blogging hiatus and some time away to write, plan, and figure out some potential future projects (more on that when there is more to tell…).

My daughters and I travelled to Massachusetts at the end of June with two specific book-related research projects in mind—taking a tour of one of the Massachusetts State Police crime labs, and climbing the mountain that will be featured in the climax of our work-in-progress, Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, Book 5. While the end scene will take place in December—in the middle of a blizzard—I wanted to get the experience of the actual location, even if we were out of season.

Holyoke Range State Park was our destination, just outside of Amherst, Massachusetts. But what we were specifically heading for was Mount Norwottuck, and its 1100 foot peak.

At the lower levels, the terrain mostly looks like every Ontario forest I’ve ever hiked through. I bet this area would be stunning in autumn.

But it fairly quickly got rocky and the incline started.

This picture was taken from about 300 feet up, looking northeast towards Amherst, Massachusetts. The buildings on the left are part of University of Massachusetts Amherst, better known to the locals as UMass. Mt. Orient can be seen in the distance.

This is the kind of terrain we were managing for a lot of the climb—well established hiking trails, but quite rocky and often very steep.

These are the Horse Caves, a geological formation of ledges below the peak of Mount Norwottuck. Local lore tells the story of American soldiers from Shay's Rebellion in 1786 hiding out at this spot from the Massachusetts militia.

My eldest, currently midway through her Bachelor of Arts in Photography, taking advantage of the outing for some great shots of the ledges at the Horse Caves.

Getting close to the top, the tree line suddenly changed to almost all pine trees and the footing looked like this:

Near the peak, a Golden Eagle soared overhead.

The prize at the top of the climb. This is my youngest, standing 1100 feet up, taking in the view. It was pretty incredible, even if it was a lot of work to get there!

Thanks to both of my girls for another great trip to Massachusetts. So far I’ve dragged them through a salt marsh (the body dump site for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT), through Witches’ shops and a tour of the Salem Fire Department (both for A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH), and now up a mountain and through a real life crime lab for the as-yet-unnamed Book #5.

Coming up in one of our next blog posts, I’m going to talk about my trip to one of the Massachusetts State Police crime labs. I wasn’t allowed to take many pictures (totally understandable when real cases with real evidence are involved) but I did get a few photos and a ton of really great info. So I’ll be back soon with that fascinating information.


Happy Canada Day and a Summer Hiatus

Hello and a happy Canada Day from beautiful Massachusetts!

I hear you cry—you’re in the the U.S. on Canada Day? Yes, my daughters and I are currently in Massachusetts on a research trip for the fifth book in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries. And thus begins my summer hiatus from blogging as we take some time off to travel and research, and then as I launch back into the current manuscript because my end-of-summer deadline is starting to tick rather loudly. So I’ll be taking the month of July off from blogging as I concentrate on my writing. But I’ll be back come the first week of August.

Have a great month and I’ll see you then!

Photo Credit: Jamie McCaffrey


Forensics 101: Digital Investigations and Cybercrime

The last of the forensics panels at Bloody Words XIII led us into the fascinating world of cybercrime. Our guide for the hour was digital forensics investigator Michael Perkin. Michael walked us through a couple of his cases (with all the specifics removed, of course) to give us a taste of how the bad guys were caught.

A case of defamation:

  • A string of terrible allegations of was posted in a series of blog entries.
  • The perpetrator then created a Gmail account to email the victim’s family, friends and colleagues links to the blog posts.
  • Enter Michael. The first step in any digital investigation is the forensic acquisition of data. Never work from the original but make a full copy of all drives onto brand new, blank drives. Then the analysis can begin.
  • Michael was able to analyze the email headers and trace the emails back to a specific internet provider. This is turn led back to the perpetrator, someone known to the victim.
  • A judge  issued an ‘Anton Piller’ order—the search and seizure order from the civil side of law (as opposed to a standard criminal law order).
  • The perpetrator had 30 minutes as the law allows to consult with his lawyer before the search could begin. He spent that entire time on his computer. When the computer was recovered, the desktop and documents folders on the hard drive were all blank. Except they really weren’t.
  • Michael then drew the analogy of a hard drive being like a book (it was a writing conference after all!). The book has a table of contents and information on every page.
  • The table of contents is what the computer considers the ‘master file table’—this keeps track of all the files on the computer.
  • When the perpetrator deleted all the files, all he really did was remove the table of contents—the file index—leaving the information still in place.
  • All Michael had to do was read through all the information on the drive and all the data required to convict the perpetrator was right there.

The complicated bounce:

  • A computer at a company was suddenly locked out by a remote user.
  • Michael came in to investigate, copied all the files, and analyzed the data.
  • He discovered that the computer was accessed from another computer within the organization, which was accessed through another computer within the organization… rinse and repeat through numerous bounces.
  • Michael was finally able to access the high value computer that was the actual target and discovered that data had been copied from it. But to where?
  • In the end, it was the perpetrator’s printer that gave him up. No matter where he had bounced, each connection mapped back to his networked printer. So the final link in the chain could be mapped back to the perpetrator’s printer and, from there, to his computer and to him.

Bitcoin and its potential for cybercrime:

  • Bitcoin is essentially a protocol. Just like email is a protocol to send messages over the Internet, Bitcoin is a protocol to send money over the Internet.
  • Bitcoin has an address and a key, just like email has an address and a password. Both are an extremely long alphanumeric string.
  • Bitcoin information can be stored on a computer, on a USB key, in a barcode, on a printout, or in your memory. This last is important as border crossings have a $10,000 limit to cross without reporting. But your Bitcoin account could contain millions of dollars and if you cross the border with the account and key memorized, you can circumvent reporting the money you ‘carry with you’.
  • You can access your money from anywhere in the world. You can also send any amount of money to anywhere in the world.
  • You could keep your printed Bitcoin key in a safety deposit box. Every time you deposit money into your Bitcoin account, you are essentially beaming it straight into that safety deposit box since it can’t be accessed without that key.
  • People have accessed funds when in trouble simply by finding a public access—like television—and broadcasting their Bitcoin address in a 2D barcode with ‘Send Money’.
  • Previous ID theft required a victim’s name, birthday, and social insurance number to steal your money. Now all that is required is your Bitcoin key.

Nifty facts about digital forensics:

  • There are three types of space on a hard drive:
  • Allocated space—sections of the drive used to hold files; these sections are listed in the table of contents/master file table.
  • Unallocated space—sections of the drive that aren’t in use; these sections are not listed in the table of contents/master file table, but still may hold information.
  • Slack space—Back to the book analogy: Suppose that a full page of information is deleted from the table of contents. That space is now considered unallocated. If half of that page is overwritten with new information (listed in the table of contents) the remaining half page of old information—the portion of the allocated space that is not used—is considered ‘slack space’.
  • The only way to truly destroy data on a drive is to overwrite it multiple times. Data destruction software does this by simply writing 1’s and 0’s to the drive. Military protocol demands the drive be written over 10 times to consider the previous information truly ‘deleted’.
  • If you truly need to secure your computer, take it off the internet and lock it in a room where only limited people have access through physical keys.
  • Computers silently record everything we do through printer mapping, file edits, program usage and your browsing history (yes, even when you delete the cache). A skilled investigator can trace you through any of these pathways.

Photo credit: Benjamin Doe/Wikimedia Commons