www.FSRL.co.nz/blog – new blog location

This blog has moved to http://www.fsrl.co.nz/blog/ because it’s now integrated into our company webpage.

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Wildlife forensics & the UN: fighting illegal fishing

The United Nations (UN) is looking to adopt a forensic science approach to assist in managing the problem of illegal fishing. At a UN Food and Agriculture Organization workshop in Rome they discussed what techniques could assist and how: UN turns to forensic science to help combat illegal fishing. “DNA analysis can unveil the species of a suspect white fillet, for example, and chemical tests on fish ear bones reveal absorbed nutrients to pinpoint the region where they were caught, major weapons in combating unscrupulous fishers and traders who game the system to prevent over-fishing and avoid international restrictions aimed as preserving fish stocks, as well as taxes and other limits.”

I always say that there is no end to the types of casework to which a forensic science approach can be applied and this is a perfect example of this in action. Particularly given that one participant at the UN meeting described how “a group convicted of illegally trading abalone confessed that they learned techniques for destroying evidence by watching CSI: Miami. It’s that CSI effect again, only this time it’s gone really bad.

Police resources; Mt Eden taxi driver murder

A Police Alert today said, “There are now forty investigators and police officers involved in this homicide enquiry. Every available resource at our disposal is being used.” This is to try to catch the killer of an Auckland taxi driver who was stabbed to death whilst he was working last weekend.
A UK police force recently solved a murder by applying a massive amount of man power (and resources) and a man was successfully prosecuted, even though a body was not found for months after the start of the investigation: Old-fashioned police work solves case of GP killed by jealous man.
In the absence of a body, all the Police had to work on was a potentially powerful motive (jealousy) and a lack of any activity involving the missing man. Police contacted every hospital, dental surgery, supplier of gas, water, electricity, satellite, cable TV, bank and mobile phone provider in the COUNTRY to see if the missing man had made an appearance somewhere else, as well as ports and airports – but nothing. That is an enormous amount of effort, man power and time.
Police suspected that the missing man’s car had been used to transport his body so they checked petrol records to see how much fuel would have been in the car’s tank on the night he went missing so they could establish how far it could have been driven. The missing man’s car was also examined for soil and pollen to suggest where it may have been.
The Police had a suspect and so they examined CCTV footage to track the movements of the missing man’s car as well as that of the suspect (there’s a good argument right there for automatic numberplate recognition cameras and data recording). They pieced together the suspect’s movements on the relevant night and determined that he had had four hours to dispose of the body. So then they worked out how far he could have travelled in that time.  The search took them over an enormous area.
Police divers searched water bodies.
Dogs detected a scent in some woods where Police then found a wheelbarrow among the trees. Officers then spent hours sifting through photographs and videos at the suspect’s house, looking for a photograph of the wheelbarrow – and they found one. Five months after he disappeared, the missing man’s body was located in a very deep grave, dug by a man who knew how to dig holes – the suspect had been a telecomms engineer and dug holes for a living.  Overall, the Police put an enormous amount of effort into this case – it’s a gift to Hollywood just waiting to be made.
It maybe would also give hope or comfort to the family of the Auckland taxi driver that the Police resources will be enough to find the person or people who did it.

Cool science

Some of us Scibloggers were called ‘cool’ this week by the Taranaki Daily News – Cool science. It is cool indeed to be called a cool scientist.

The nasty job of identifying victims of mass disaster

How are victims of disasters like the Haitian earthquake identified if they are unrecognisable when they’re recovered from the debris? By using forensic science techniques.
As with the South East Asian tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and so many other situations, dozens of bodies need to be identified as fast as possible.
I heard a forensic dentist talk about the terrible working conditions in Indonesia where bodies were stored in unrefrigerated shipping containers (no refrigeration units), waiting to be identified – time was clearly of the essence for multiple reasons – closure for the family before the bodies rot, getting through the bodies before they rot so badly that they’re difficult to handle. Because they had such limited facilities, the dentists and anthropologists rigged up a portable x-ray machine to some school chairs they found in the debris so that they could elevate the machine high enough over the bodies so it could be operational. Bodies like these are not only damaged but often caked in mud, making visual identification not only traumatic for the family but also extremely difficult from a practical perspective and sometimes impossible.
In situations of mass disaster, relatives of the missing also provide DNA samples or are asked to bring along hairbrushes or toothbrushes of their family members so that DNA samples can be collected and compared with cadavers. Dental records are acquired where possible.
I was on a training course in July 2005 with three of the first firefighters who had attended the London Tube bombings two days earlier – they talked about the lack of air in the Tube tunnels, the ambient heat, the smell, the hours they spent down there logging the scene, searching for people and finding bodies. I talked with people whose office windows had been blown out by the London bus bomb in Tavistock Square – crime scene examiners came and took swabs from their office furniture and the roof because knowing the extent of the damage (i.e. spread of the human DNA) helps map the bomb site and determine things like location of the bomb relative to the passengers – vital for working out what happened and possibly for use in prosecution. I don’t think the people who had to go and work in that office will ever look at the walls in the same way again – even the best crime scene cleaners can’t wash away what stains the mind.
The people who go to scenes of mass disaster are a rare breed. CSI makes this job look sexy. It’s not.

Meth driving

How hard is it for a Police officer to determine whether a driver might be off their trolley because of methamphetamine abuse?  Some might say that if you see it often enough, you recognise the signs.
How hard is it for a forensic toxicologist to reconcile different driving behaviours as being attributable to meth use?  Possibly very difficult, if no blood sample is taken.  However, New Zealand’s law now allows for a blood sample to be collected from drivers suspected of driving whilst impaired through drugs (see previous posts: Drug driving and impairment testing, Roadside impairment tests; drug driving, Don’t accept the forensic science at face value).  Which is just as well, given the enormous variation in behaviours that can be exhibited by meth users.
I would expect most people in NZ would think that a driver who was on P (pure methamphetamine) would be tanking down the motorway at 150 kph with the Police in hot pursuit, as per last year’s events involving the accidental death of a courier driver who was caught in the cross-fire between Police and an armed driver. However, an article in last month’s Science & Justice shows just how varied the effects of P can be.
The article’s author, Nikolas Lemos*, writes of two separate cases involving drivers being stopped by Police.
The first case involved a relatively placid, co-operative man who drove somewhat erratically but was slow (only about 30 miles an hour) and was tail-gating the car in front. Police asked him to stop and he did.
The second case involved the Police in a high-speed car chase with a driver and a stolen sports utility vehicle. After racing along roads at speeds in excess of 100 miles an hour, the driver then leapt from the moving vehicle, leaving a female passenger to crash, along with the vehicle, into police cars. Police chased the driver and tried, unsuccessfully, to subdue him with a conductive energy weapon (which I assume means a Taser). After being Tasered (is that a real word?) another two times, he was dragged kicking and screaming into custody.
Two more dissimilar descriptions of P users you couldn’t imagine but the blood methamphetamine concentrations of both drivers were comparable as were their heights and weights. Just goes to show just how unpredictable P can be.

* As the article is behind a subscription wall, the full reference is: Lemos, N. 2009. Methamphetamine and driving. Science & Justice, 49(4), 247-249.  Abstract: Methamphetamine incidence in driving under the influence cases in the City and County of San Francisco is a significant and on-going challenge.  Two methamphetamine positive driving cases are presented herein demonstrating some similarities in observed signs and symptoms and drug blood concentrations but which are also characterised by very different driving styles and behaviours towards the police officers when encountered on the road.

The article also discusses other issues such as the field impairment tests and analytical results.

Catching a wolf serial killer

Wildlife forensics is an expanding area of forensic science – there is even a separate session in the upcoming Australia & New Zealand Forensic Science Society 20th International Symposium in Sydney this September.
Seeing as this subject is gaining wider acceptance, I thought I’d share the story of the recent arrest of an Italian man for being a serial wolf killer. Wolves have been a protected species in Europe for some time and have been protected in Italy since the 1970s. Unfortunately, a number of wolves were found killed and sometimes mutilated (the muzzle being missing from at least one) in the Genoa region. A man was eventually arrested and from him was seized a necklace of teeth. The teeth were sent to the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) where wildlife specialists extracted DNA from them.
As with any case like this, unless there is a database against which to compare results. the results can themselves be more or less meaningless. However, because of the European focus on collating information there is in fact a DNA database for wolves and other large predators that is used to assist with population monitoring. The DNA is gathered from many sources including cadavers and faecal matter (not forgetting other possible sources such as fur, skin, bones, etc., etc.).
Six separate wolves were identified from the necklace using the DNA database. Obviously not all killers wear their victims teeth – at least not usually of the human variety – but keeping mementos of hunting is not at all unusual and it makes perfect sense to use trophy items to attempt to link a possible offender with an offence. As this is totally outside my area of knowledge I have no idea how much wildlife DNA is being monitored or tracked throughout New Zealand and Australia but I assume it would be a very handy tool for Customs and MAF – perhaps I’ll be able to report more after I’ve attended the conference (particularly if someone wants to pay the AU$2500+ that it’s going to cost…).