Crime scene van drives FBI visit

FBI Special Agents returned to Forensic Science class for a second time this year, bringing to Archbishop Williams High School the bureau’s fully-equipped crime scene van.

The $240,000 vehicle included dozens of everyday items such as hammers, measuring tapes, boxes and a ladder; and specialized equipment including evidence bags, plaster-mold casting supplies, safety goggles, yellow crime site markers, finger-printing materials, special glues, an electrical generator with power cords, and high-powered lights to illuminate a crime scene.

“I watched a documentary about how EMT’s need powerful lights at a scene,” said senior Anna Egan. “And so it is for the FBI. With the lights, agents can see evidence clearly so that nothing is missed. It was also interesting to see that they actually conduct some lab work right from the van.”


For teacher Olivia Kennedy, “Seeing the Evidence Response Team (ERT) truck in person demonstrated how realistic our class truly is. We have touched base with most of the materials stored in the truck and are knowledgeable in how the materials and equipment are used in finding, collecting, and examining evidence. Examining the equipment stored in the truck, the class recognized how to use materials to find invisible (latent) evidence, such as luminol to detect cleaned-up blood stains,” she said.

“We are so grateful Kristin, Greg, and Scott took the time to share their knowledge and expertise in their specific fields within the FBI.” 

In January, agents Matt Walbridge ‘87, and Scott (because of the nature of their jobs, photographs and last names of the other agents are not included with this article) made a presentation about crime scene investigation to the same class. Matt is the son of Joe ‘58, parent of Matt ‘15, and brother of Kristin ‘84, Jennifer ‘88, and Mark ‘91.

For the classroom part of the second visit, the ERT agents led a discussion on terminology and methodology that the class was familiar with from their coursework, especially Locard’s Exchange Principle. That concept states that a person at a crime scene brings in, and takes out, trace elements such as fibers, hair, pollen, dirt, blood, etc. Those items can be analyzed and compared and used to place a suspect at the scene. Another important idea discussed was the Chain of Custody.

“Greg emphasized the long process and importance of the Chain of Custody,” Kennedy said. “The Chain of Custody is how evidence found at crime scenes is collected and protected through investigations. He also explained the importance of personnel at crime scenes such as photographers, sketch artists, police officers and evidence collectors, each having a specific role in solving the puzzle.”

Greg gave an example of an ERT investigation of a late night robbery at an Army Reserve building where a criminal broke into a safe which held weapons. The thief cut a very small hole - 8 inches by 12 ½ inches -  piercing various materials such as steel, wood, tar, chicken wire, etc., which all require different cutting tools to perforate. To analyze the hole, agents cut out the entire section and shipped it to the FBI’s world-renowned laboratory at Quantico, VA, where the bureau’s scientists, “truly the unseen and unknown heroes,” Scott said, analyzed sawtooth marks and trace elements. “We gather every piece of evidence we can,” Greg noted.

In that case, there was a drop of blood at the scene - the size of a tip of a pencil - which was used to identify a suspect who had a criminal record.

But some cases aren’t so simple. Kristin said that DNA can degrade if exposed to sunlight, warmth, moisture, and bacteria, providing only a partial profile of the suspect. When that happens, analysis of fingerprints, footprints and trace elements come in to play, she said. That kind of evidence, she added, can help the jury decide guilt or innocence. Though DNA analysis is not done “as instantly as TV programs show it,” she said, results can be obtained in two to three hours today compared to two to three days just 20 years ago.

Not only are DNA tests more involved than television might let on, Kennedy said, but so is the whole process, a point emphasized by the agents. “It takes time to investigate a crime scene, collect evidence, document evidence properly, and connect the evidence to potential suspects. It could be months or even years before their work is done,” Kennedy said.

Regardless of the site to be investigated, the agents reiterated that to search a scene, they must adhere to laws requiring a warrant authorized by a judge. Yes, the agents can secure a sight, and most businesses, such as the bank mentioned above, will give permission to investigate a scene, but “there is no such thing as an exception” to the law, Scott said. Senior Alex Yiming Zhang appreciated that element of the process. “It’s good that there are checks and balances before searching,” he said.

The fact that ERT agents have an understanding of multiple disciplines is important, said senior Anna Egan. “Knowing both law and science makes this field particularly interesting for people who want to go into it,” she said. Having a varied background, Scott said, is plus for agents.

Both Zhang and Egan appreciated the real-life value of their class. Zhang said the class was especially good because it is “an operational course” with mostly labs. Egan said she was “surprised by how much of what we saw in the van, we have covered in class.” 

For those students seriously considering a career in law enforcement, or the FBI in particular, “take responsibility for your actions now and in college,” Greg said. Inappropriate behavior and drug use, and poor social media use will disqualify a candidate for a job with the bureau.

“It is extremely important for students to understand an action that may seem to go unseen could potentially affect their opportunity to achieve their dream job, like becoming an agent in the FBI,” Kennedy said.

For those who do qualify, agents work a typical 40-50 hour week, and in extreme cases, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, they may sleep as little as two hours per night and work as much as 100 hours without a real break, Kristin said. That commitment impressed Zhang. “You’re not working alone, and you don’t want to let other people down,” he said. “There’s a definite sense of obligation. You’re not only working for the bureau but for the honor of the country.” Zhang said he appreciated that so many ERT’s from outside of Massachusetts came to Boston to help out with that investigation.

For applicants who do make it into the bureau, the benefits are well worth it. An FBI career, Scott said, brings great satisfaction working for “something bigger than yourself.” Agents, he added, have a “tremendous sense of camaraderie getting the job done and done right,” and when completed, they experience “a great sense of fulfillment.”