Private Investigators And Crime Scene Investigations, Part II

Updated April 10, 2018

Welcome to the second part of "Private Investigations and Crime Scene Investigations," based on a series of classes my husband and I taught for Kiss of Death, the mystery-suspense arm of the Romance Writers of America. It's also timely as this past week we returned to investigate a crime scene for an attempted homicide charge that involved multiple vehicles. The incident occurred several months ago, yet we found physical evidence (pieces of broken parts that matched the vehicles involved) in an area not mentioned in the police report. 

As explained in the first class, PIs typically investigate crime scenes after law enforcement/others have finished their investigations and re-opened the area, returning it to everyday use.

Now, let's kick off class II with the question...

After Police Have Completed a Crime Scene Investigation, What Might a PI Do?

A PI might be called on to visit, photograph and document a crime scene after the police have processed the crime scene. During this visit, the PI might look for evidence not found/collected by the police in their work-up. Your fictional PI could easily be at the scene to look for “things not done” by the police, which is a fruitful area for defense lawyers in criminal cases to exploit when critiquing the government’s case in trial.

Tire marks (image in public domain, attribution Robert Kroft)

Tire marks (image in public domain, attribution Robert Kroft)

In one of our experiences, we re-visited the scene of an attempted vehicular assault at least a month after it occurred (btw, this is a different case from the one mentioned above). What evidence did we gather weeks after the event? For starters, the tire marks were still clearly seen on the pavement -- we photographed these marks for the attorney. We also measured the area where a complex set of vehicular maneuvers were alleged to have occurred. Additionally, we videotaped the pattern of vehicular travel at the exact speeds alleged by the police.

When Police Don’t Want to Process a Crime Scene, What Might a PI Be Asked to Do?

There are many instances where the police don’t perform testing or otherwise process an entire crime scene because to do so doesn’t help their side of the case. To be fair, the police may feel that they’ve gathered enough evidence (by perhaps taking witness statements).

In such scenarios, criminal defendants often complain because the police didn’t perform a certain test or search an area. It is an old axiom of criminal law that the police have no duty to gather evidence helpful to an accused. This often results in criminal defense attorneys retaining a PI to perform crime scene testing so as to gather the evidence omitted by the police.

Following up with an example, our agency was once retained to find slugs from bullets fired as warning shots in the general direction of, but not directly at, a couple who claimed they were the victims of attempted first-degree murder (which requires a substantial step toward a deliberate and premeditated homicidal act). If found guilty, our client faced a possible 48-year prison sentence.

According to the accused (our client), the bullets would be located on a portion of his 886-acre ranch where it would have been impossible for him to aim at the “victims” and have the slugs land. As the sheriff's office had done a cursory, on-foot search of the ranch land for these four .357 slugs, we decided to do a more in-depth search, using metal detectors. By the way, the sheriff’s office did not own a metal detector.

Meanwhile, our client was being held in a local jail in lieu of $300,000 bail.

Using our client’s characterization of the trajectory of the bullets and factoring in the nature of the load, we were able to map out a possible area approximately a half-mile from where the incident occurred. Braving cold winds, an unusually large amount of scrap metal in the ground (which kept setting off the metal detectors), and burrs that came up through the soles of our shoes, we burned approximately 24 man hours before locating the four slugs.

The first slug we found

The first slug we found

When we found that first slug, we whooped and hollered like a couple of miners who'd just hit gold. Our client's mother, who was staying at the ranch to watch over her grandkids, heard our yells and came running across the fields to us, crying as she knew our happy yells could only mean one thing: We had found the evidence that proved her son was innocent.

After the slugs were found, we carefully photographed the site. The slugs were then shipped in evidence bags to the police, where ballistic experts matched the slugs to the firearm seized from our client on the night he was arrested.

In this example, because of the evidence obtained by PIs (several months after law enforcement had finished processing the crime scene) the D.A. reduced the charges and our client was released (on Christmas Eve, after spending over three months in jail). You can imagine how meaningful that Christmas was for his family.

Postscript: A few months later, the rancher called, said he'd like to do something special for us. He visited our home and checked our roof, water heater and fence, looking for something to repair. There wasn't anything that needing fixing, but the visit was a heartwarming reunion. Soon after, he sold his ranch and moved back to his hometown in another state so he and his kids could be near the rest of their family.

This wraps up class 2.

In the next class we cover the basics of homicide investigations, from key tasks covered by law enforcement, to an overview on estimating time of death, to how a PI might be called upon to aid in a homicide investigation. We also describe a case when a criminal defense lawyer retained us to investigate a former homicide scene, and what we learned.

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of this content requires specific, written authority.

Private Investigators and Crime Scene Investigations, Part I

Four years ago, my husband and I taught a series of classes for Kiss of Death, the mystery-suspense arm of the Romance Writers of America. We focused our workshop on private investigations, a field we know well after having being co-owners of a private investigations agency for years.

This post is part I of the class on crime scenes (with some information updated). A point we make throughout the class is that PIs mostly investigate crime scenes after law enforcement/others have finished their investigations and re-opened the crime scene back to everyday use.

You'd be surprised how much evidence can still be mined days or weeks later at a crime scene—for example, this last weekend we visited a former law enforcement crime scene and took photos of a strategically placed surveillance camera, not documented in the D.A.s discovery, that provided key evidence in a legal case. Years ago, we investigated a crime scene, 800-plus acres of ranch land, that the sheriff's office had investigated and returned to everyday use two months earlier. Our goal (as had been the sheriff's office) was to find 4 bullet slugs from a shooting, whose placement could prove a man's innocence. The next class discusses this case in more detail.

Let's kick things with the question...

Why Do Crime Scenes Matter?

In some crimes there are no witnesses and in the absence of self-incriminating statements by a suspect, the only means of obtaining a conviction may be through physical evidence (such as evidence with viable DNA, a blood sample or a fingerprint). In any crime, sharing knowledge of physical evidence with suspects may loosen tongues and stimulate confessions. DNA, fingerprints or serologic evidence are tough to debate and bring many criminals to a place where their lips move easily.

Note: A comment regarding an investigator sharing knowledge of physical evidence with a suspect. Interestingly enough, private investigators work under a burden created by ethical constraints that police detectives do not labor under. While courts have consistently held that police may lie to a suspect to stimulate a confession without tainting that confession (we once saw this in an episode of the TV series The Closer), very few private investigators can credibly present statements obtained by deceptive means. By “very few” we mean in the few instances where the PI has investigated an individual who’s extremely unsavory or has committed a particularly heinous act, jurors are more likely to trust that PI’s statements, even if the PI lied to obtain them. This is great fodder for a story.

In a crime scene, the area searched and the evidence sought will depend on the crime under investigation. In crimes of violence, the crime scene tells the detective what happened but the detective has to be able to read the signs left by the evidence (signatures of crime include fingerprints, blood stains, bullets, bullet holes, tool marks, fibers, hairs, glass fragments, fingernail scrapings, DNA samples, as well as items added, overturned, removed or displaced).

Bullet casings are one signature of a crime

Bullet casings are one signature of a crime

Keep in mind that the suspect is also part of the crime scene. What does she leave at the crime scene and what does she take away from the scene? Such evidence helps to prove that she was there. If the police take her back to the crime scene after her arrest, the evidence of her presence at the scene, when presented in testimony in the courtroom, may serve only to prove that the police took her there. This may cause your fictional PI to think twice before taking a possible suspect to a crime scene.

It's important to make the distinction between what crime scene investigators for the police consider a crime scene and what the rest of us, including PIs, consider a crime scene. In the latter instance, a crime scene is really just the place where a crime happened, which has returned to everyday use. However, what police and crime scene investigators consider a crime scene is that area where, such as the space inside the yellow tape, careful protocols for evidence recording and extracting are followed.

Processing a Crime Scene

Let’s cover some important concepts about how the police process a crime scene. Your fictional PI might be called on to critique how a crime scene was processed in the course of his investigation, or he might be called on to process his own. 

The steps any investigator should follow, including law enforcement, are the following:

  1. Check condition of victim and arrange medical treatment if necessary.
  2. Secure and protect the crime scene (keep in mind the possibility of a multiple series of crime scenes).
  3. Is further search legal? If not, need consent. If a law enforcement officer, obtain a search warrant, especially if a major felony.
  4. Search, sketch and document. Precise measurements of the crime scene should include an accurate sketch containing a key, a scale and a legend noting the day, time, location and conditions (weather, lighting). Compass directions should be noted on the sketch. Remember that a measuring tape provides a wonderful standard of comparison especially when photographs or video are employed.
  5. Document the crime scene and its physical evidence. In law enforcement, a videographer typically accompanies an assigned officer on the initial walk-through. Overall as well as specific photographs are taken of the crime scene.  Close-up photographs should be taken of important items of evidence (for example, footwear impressions).
  6. Handle the evidence so as to not contaminate it.
  7. Collect, mark and catalogue evidence.
  8. Preserve the evidence in a central, organized location.

When Police Aren’t Available: What Might a PI Do?

 A PI investigating a major crime scene risks being charged with obstruction of justice and/or tampering with evidence  .

 A PI investigating a major crime scene risks being charged with obstruction of justice and/or tampering with evidence.

If a private investigator was called on to process a crime scene for evidence of any nature, he/she would follow the same above steps. However, it cannot be stressed enough that a PI would call on police to handle a major crime scene, like a murder or arson. To handle, test and collect evidence could easily result in charges of obstruction of justice and/or tampering with evidence. For that reason, any PI who wanted to avoid jail would call 911, and would scrupulously avoid touching anything at the scene of a crime other than to assess a victim’s medical condition. On the other hand, having a sleuth character charged with several crimes after exploring a major crime scene would certainly bump up the story tension!

There are times when a PI does handle evidence, and the best protocol is to collect the evidence with gloves, place it in a plastic/paper bag, seal that bag with tape and initial the bag with the PI’s initials and the date it was collected. Your fictional PI may collect evidence for admission in court when that evidence was not collected by the police (or the opposing side in a civil case) and the evidence supports his client’s case.

For example, several years back Colleen and a group of PIs from other states worked together to trap a seller selling fraudulent products via an online marketplace. The evidence collected were the products being sold (and, in a sense, the online marketplace where this buyer sold his fraudulent products was the crime scene). After Colleen purchased the products (using another identity to not tip off the seller), she’d place the products in a plastic bag, initial the bag with her name, product name and date, then seal the bag and mail it to the attorney handling the case. These products were used as evidence in a court case against the seller.

This wraps up Part I.

Link to the next class: "Private Investigators and Crime Scene Investigations, Part II."

Happy writing! Colleen

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of this content requires specific, written authority.

Book Excerpt: SECRETS OF A REAL-LIFE FEMALE PRIVATE EYE

This book is a great source of information for those wishing to become a PI. However, authors can pick up a lot of tips to make their sleuthing characters more believable and pick up tips about the work of a PI. How it is done and why it matters, Colleen’s book has it all.
— Alice de Sturler, former human rights defender, author, owner Defrosting Cold Cases blog

“As an experienced private detective and a skilled storyteller, Colleen Collins is the perfect person to offer a glimpse into the lives of real female P.I.s”
~Kim Green, managing editor of Pursuit Magazine: The Magazine of Professional Investigators

“SECRETS OF A REAL-LIFE FEMALE PRIVATE EYE is a great resource for anyone writing a female P.I. character, or any P.I. character. Filled with great tips and real-life examples, it helps clarify how things are really done. But it's particularly interesting how the book shows that a female P.I. can have a distinct advantage over a male P.I. in many situations, something for writers to think about.”
~Paul D. Marks, author of the 2013 Shamus winning noir-mystery, White Heat

Book Topics

Secrets of a Real-Life Female Private Eye kicks off with a history of the first female P.I. in the U.S., followed by the advantages and dangers of being a woman in this profession; various tools of the trade; investigative tips; case stories; links to P.I. blogs, online magazines and popular private-eye and crime fiction sites; excerpts from How Do Private Eyes Do That? and How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths; and much more.

Book Excerpt

Some Favorite Sites

Below are a few of my favorite blogs, websites and online magazines, authored by real-life P.I.s or people in associated fields.  I’ve added a few private-eye genre sites as well for those interested in reading about gumshoe writers and stories.

Defrosting Cold Cases: A blog by Alice de Sturler to explore why some homicide cases remain unsolved. Through blogging and innovative use of existing technology, she has been able to get those cases renewed media attention.  Excellent resource for articles, interviews, news and cold case investigations.

Diligentia Group: Run by private investigator Brian Willingham, CFE, who specializes in due diligence, background and legal investigations.  He writes informative articles about the art and business of private investigations. 

Handcuffed to the Ocean: One of our favorite real-life private investigators, also a fiction writer, is Steven Kerry Brown who is one of the writers for this blog. To read Steve’s blogs, click on the “Crime” category. Also check out his nonfiction book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating.

PInow.com news: News and articles about private investigations.

PIBuzz.com: Authored by Tamara Thompson, a highly respected California private investigator known for her expertise in Internet data gathering, genealogical and adoption research, witness background development and locating people.

Professional Investigator Magazine: Owned by the P.I. team Jimmie and Rosemarie Mesis, two nationally recognized private investigators, this magazine offers articles, resources and products for professional private investigators. In both print and digital, subscribers can order only one magazine or a full subscription. Also check out their investigative products site PIGEAR and their books on investigations at PIstore.com

Pam Beason: Private investigator and writer. From her website: “My books include strong women characters, quirky sidekicks, animals, a dash of humor and big dose of suspense. I love the wilderness, so many of my stories feature wildlife and outdoor adventures.”

Private Eye digital comic book:  Artist Marcos Martin and writer Brian K. Vaughan call this a “forward-looking mystery” featuring a private detective in a futuristic world where privacy is considered a sacred right and everyone has a secret identity.  The price is pay-what-you-can, and they’re planning on publishing 10 issues total.

Pursuit Magazine: What began as an informal e-zine for professional investigators, bail bondsmen, process servers, attorneys, and other security and legal professionals has morphed this past year into “a clearinghouse of information for truth seekers of all stripes, from detectives to journalists.Check it out.

The Rap Sheet: A crime-fiction blog with news about conferences, books, events and more.

Rick Johnson & Associates: Based in Denver, Colorado, Rick Johnson is a seasoned private investigator with decades of experience in the field. He’s also the founder and president of The Private Investigators Academy of the Rockies.

Sequence inc: Tracy L Coenen, CPA and CFF, specializes in forensic accounting and writes informative articles in her blog “The Fraud Files.”

Shaun Kaufman Law: Shaun is a former Colorado private investigator and current lawyer, who has nearly 30 years experience in the justice system trying cases from jaywalking to first-degree murder.  He writes about current legal issues on his blog.

Spencer Elrod Services, Inc. Mike Spencer, one of the principals of the Spencer Elrod Services agency based in Walnut Creek, California, is @SpencerPI on Twitter.  How can anyone resist a P.I. named Spencer?  Although Robert Parker would’ve preferred it spelled with an “s”

StillTheySpeak.com: Virginia Braden, a licensed private investigator based in northern Kentucky, investigates violent crimes and works tirelessly to speak on behalf of victims and to bring their families answers.

The Cold Case Squad: NYPD veteran detective Joe Giacalone’s blog with articles about cold cases, investigations and other related topics. Giacalone is the author of The Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators.

Thrilling Detective website: Kevin Burton Smith if the founder and editor of the most comprehensive website dedicated to the private eye genre on the Internet.

 

Click on banner to go to book page on Amazon

Click on banner to go to book page on Amazon