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State Police Crime Lab Tour: Ballistics

In this final installment of my tour of the Springfield Massachusetts State Police crime lab, we’re going to cover ballistics. Lieutenant John Crane was our guide through the world of ballistics, which was an eye opener for me and my daughters who are all gun control-loving Canadians. In fact, when we told Lieutenant Crane that we’d barely ever seen guns and had certainly never held one, he immediately handed us several different ones. Maybe not a big deal for the Americans in the crowd, some of whom consider guns a daily part of life, but it definitely was a surreal experience for us!


  • The ballistics division has three primary roles:

1) Respond to shootings, reconstruct the scene, and collect all firearms’ evidence.

2) Test evidentiary firearms.

3) Compare fired items.

  • A ballistics officer will go to a victim’s autopsy to retrieve the evidence as it’s removed from the body. This maintains chain of custody.
  • The unit responds to all suicides by firearms simply for practice and to learn new ways for bullets to behave inside the human body.
  • Springfield has a population of 150,000. There is approximately 1 gun crime/week, and 15 - 20 murders/year are gun related. This number would be higher, but Springfield is home to one of the country’s top trauma hospitals (Bay State) and they save many victims who would likely die in other locations.
  • The National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN) is the AFIS equivalent for cartridge cases. It helps identify the cartridge, but it doesn’t actually put the gun in any one individual’s hands, so it has limited use.
  • There is only a 3% chance of successfully identifying a fingerprint from a gun. It is not possible to pick up a print from the textured grip, only from the barrel or the magazine. But the hot gases produced during firing can destroy the fingerprint and will absolutely destroy any DNA that might be on the firearm.
  • The ballistics division has three different ways to test-fire a gun for comparison of either the bullet or casing to the recovered evidence:

1) The snail—a very large metal box with an inner, snail-like curl. The bullet is fired into the box and circles through the curl to fall out, spent, at the end. The bullet gets flattened and is of no use for comparison, but the cartridge pops clear, so this is an excellent method for cartridge matching.

2) The water tank—a ten-foot long metal box filled with water with a firing tube at one end. Bullets up to .50 caliber can be fired into the tank, but hollow points bullets can’t be tested since they break apart only a foot or so into the tank. Otherwise, it’s an excellent firing tool for most handguns. Most bullets only go a few feet into the tank before falling to the bottom. Advice from the ballistics officer, Lieutenant Crane—if you’re being shot at, jump into the nearest body of water because it’s like firing into cement. (Jen’s aside—Mythbusters has confirmed this).

3) The cotton box—an eight-foot long metal box filled with rolled cotton, separated in one-foot dividers of cardboard, and with a firing tube at one end. When a bullet is fired into the box, it spins through the cotton, picking up strands until it becomes enmeshed in a ball of cotton and stops. When the bullet is retrieved, it’s in absolutely pristine condition for direct comparison. This is the only way to test fire hollow point bullets.

  • The ballistics officers use a two-headed Olympus microscope with an attached digital readout for performing evidentiary comparisons (see above photo). Lieutenant Crane was kind enough to go through a comparison for us and even showed us the evidence from a fatal shooting just the week before. When comparing evidence, officers like to have two different areas of agreement, but one extremely strong area of agreement will be sufficient if that’s all they can get. A minimum of two people have to check the evidence to agree with the match.

All in all it was a fascinating tour and I definitely got some new ideas for upcoming novels. Thank you once again to Detective Lieutenant Holleran, Sergeant Heffernan and Lieutenant Crane for taking the time to introduce us to their real world forensics!

Photo credit: Jack of Spades

The Seymour Agency’s 1st Literacy Fundraiser:

We at the Seymour Agency are raising money throughout September for #LiteracyMatters. Stop by the agency blog for our auction of great prizes such as signed books, swag, professional editor calls, and manuscript critiques: http://seymouragency.blogspot.ca/; all money raised will go to support the Southwest Florida Literacy Council Gulf Coast. Bidding goes from September 1 – 30, 2014, so don’t miss out on these great prizes. I’m donating signed hardcover copies of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT and A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH. And, as an extra bonus, the lucky winner will also get a hot-off-the-presses advanced reading copy of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, which won’t be available to the general public until February of 2015. Want to find out what happens next with Matt and Leigh? Sto by http://seymouragency.blogspot.ca/2014/09/auction-item-36-jen-j-danna-books.html and bid for your chance to find out long before everyone else. So I hope to see you all bidding in September!


State Police Crime Lab Tour: Evidence and Criminalistics

It’s part two of our series based around my tour of Springfield’s Massachusetts State Police crime lab. Today, we’re talking about evidence handling in the lab as well as criminalistics. And stay tuned at the end of the post for some important information on how you can get your hands on an advanced reading copy of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, book five in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, months before it becomes commercially available.


  • Most evidence is dropped off by the investigating officer, but some municipal police departments have evidence officers whose job it is to deliver evidence. This can be problematic since the investigating officer is not present if the technician has any questions about the information on the forms accompanying the evidence.
  • Once there, new evidence labels are added and detailed to maintain the chain of custody.
  • Any drugs that come in are immediately heat-sealed before being stored.
  • All evidence is temporarily stored in the evidence room before being sent out to the appropriate lab or testing facility. Case numbers on the box or envelope are in the format of: xx(year)-xxxxxx(case number). Some cases I saw were from ‘80s or ‘90s (cold cases) but most are from 2013 or 2014.


  • For me, criminalistics was a typical wet lab, and very similar to my own.
  • They process clothing, sex assault kits, weapons, all biological samples (i.e. blood, saliva or semen), and gunshot residue. They also carry out blood stain pattern analysis on scene or on evidence brought into the lab.
  • The lab contains a separate room with several alternative light sources. These light sources can be used to visualize human biological fluids like saliva, sweat, semen which all fluoresce. Contrary to most TV crime shows, blood does not fluoresce under alternative light sources. In fact, it tends to darken and be less visible.
  • The lab has special test cards to indicate the likely sample type of biological fluids. However this can’t be used for confirmation as there are several well known false indicators. For example, the test for semen gives false positives for mold and feces; while saliva can also be found normally in breast milk and feces.
  • Blood is tested in situ in the field by swabbing the substance and transferring it to filter paper. Several chemicals are added; if blood is present, the filter paper will immediately turn blue. If there is no immediate reaction, then the substance is not blood.
  • All DNA samples are processed only at the Maynard lab location.

Next week will be the final post in this series as we delve into the science of ballistics. See you then!

Photo credit: JustGrimes and University of Michigan

The Seymour Agency’s 1st Literacy Fundraiser:

We at the Seymour Agency are raising money throughout September for #LiteracyMatters. Stop by the agency blog for our auction of great prizes such as signed books, swag, professional editor calls, and manuscript critiques: http://seymouragency.blogspot.ca/; all money raised will go to support the Southwest Florida Literacy Council Gulf Coast. Bidding goes from September 1 – 30, 2014, so don’t miss out on these great prizes. I’m donating signed hardcover copies of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT and A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH. And, as an extra bonus, the lucky winner will also get a hot-off-the-presses advanced reading copy of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, which won’t be available to the general public until February of 2015. Want to find out what happens next with Matt and Leigh? This is your chance. So I hope to see you all bidding in September!


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.