Team relies on hard work, luck
Case Closed Never mind CSI. Hard work and luck are still the tools of the crime-scene trade
Story by Tony Bridges | FDLE Crime Lab Photos by Nikki Ritcher
Detectives on TV have it good.
The murder case is a stone-cold whodunit? No problem – just call in the CSI team. The investigators will find a hidden fiber, use it to recreate the crime in digital 3D, and solve the case.
From sweltering Miami to decadent Las Vegas, these hunky crime-scene techs wield an amazing scientific expertise. They’ve cracked the mysteries of DNA, memorized an encyclopedia’s worth of tool marks, and mastered complex ballistics tables.
No matter how minor the crime, the team will field unlimited resources to analyze every piece of evidence. Give them the span of a commercial break, and they’ll have the tests completed and the perp fingered. All while maintaining perfect hair.
You can see them do it almost every night in a TV genre dominated by the “CSI” franchise, which airs on CBS and replays constantly on primetime cable. Millions of viewers eat it up, making “CSI” and its crime-scene cousins some of the top-rated shows on television.
The fans apparently love the “CSI” series so much, in fact, that they shape viewers’ perceptions of police work, carrying over into the real world of murder scenes and courtrooms.
It’s too bad that “CSI” and the rest have very little basis in fact.
Real crime-scene investigators don’t dip their fingers in blood to taste it. They don’t question suspects and run down witnesses. They almost never go undercover.
The truth is, the work actually can be kind of boring. And cases are rarely solved by unique fibers or tiny deposits of exotic soil. It just comes down to the plodding investigative process – and hoping that somebody, somewhere, slips up.
“In real life, while the science is getting more exact, it hasn’t changed much in the last 10 or 15 years,” said Sgt. Tony Drzewiecki of the Leon County Sheriff’s Office. “Most crimes are going to be solved by witness statements and footwork.”
Want to see the difference between “CSI” and a real homicide investigation? Try Drzewiecki’s first case.
Monique Washington was 18 and a newcomer to Tallahassee in the fall of 2000. She had moved here from Wakulla County to go to school and enjoy life in a bigger town. But the city adventure ended that September when she disappeared while moving from one apartment on Ocala Road to another that she planned to share with a roommate.
Her worried mother called the Sheriff’s Office. A check failed to turn up the young woman – or her car, a 1999 Honda Accord.
Detectives and crime-scene investigators searched the old apartment. It was in disarray, but that wasn’t unusual for someone in the middle of moving. There was nothing that suggested foul play.
Still, it was completely out of character for Washington to take off without contacting her mother or letting friends know where she was going. Drzewiecki continued to search for clues.
Washington hadn’t been in Tallahassee long, and didn’t have many friends here, so he started with her roommate. Drzewiecki spent an entire afternoon driving around with her, looking for places she had visited with Washington.
One was the Carolina Square Apartments, where the roommate told Drzewiecki they had stopped to see a woman named Mika and two brothers, David and Elvis.
The next day, Tallahassee police stopped at a Carolina Street townhouse to check on a complaint about a car abandoned in the parking lot. It was Washington’s Honda. At the scene, Drzewiecki realized he could see Mika’s apartment building.
He tracked her down. Her name was Tamika Jones, and she turned out to be Washington’s girlfriend. Jones lived with the brothers, David and Elvis Frances. The three of them told the detectives they hadn’t seen Washington for some time and had no idea where she may have been.
Less than two weeks later, a family out for a walk found the body of a woman nestled among cypress trees in rural Wakulla County. The body was wrapped in a comforter and left in a shallow depression in the ground, now partially filled with water.
Heat and scavengers had reduced it to little more than bones. Nevertheless, part of a red hair weave – one the same color as Washington’s – remained.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement dispatched crime-scene analyst Shawn Yao, who has spent 11 years in FDLE’s crime section. He never has grilled a suspect or busted in a door with the SWAT team, and definitely doesn’t wear designer suits to murder sites. Instead, he earned a degree in microbiology from Auburn University, and another in criminology from Florida State University.
He spends a lot of time on his hands and knees, examining bones in the dirt.
At the scene, Yao walked into the woods, in an area apparently used as a trash dump by the locals, to where the body lay near the rain pool. The lower part of the body was contained in a pair of pants. Bones from the upper portion were scattered in two directions around the comforter, pulled there by animals looking for food. Yao photographed the scene carefully, then began to cut away the underbrush to expose as much ground as possible.
His next task was an inventory of the bones. There are 206 of them in an adult human body. As a crime-scene tech, it’s Yao’s job to know all of them so he can figure out which ones might be missing.
He searched for hours among the dirt and weeds. The hyoid bone, a small, fragile bone found in the throat, was gone.
“A lot of times, the smaller bones are carried away by scavengers,” Yao said.
All of the bones he could find went into the comforter and were taken to the morgue in Tallahassee for closer examination.
The next day, Yao returned to the scene and began to dig. He dug 2-3 inches down, around where the remains had been found. Small bones and other items of evidence sometimes work their way into the dirt.
Yao was most interested in finding the hyoid. It often can reveal whether a victim was killed by strangulation. No luck, though. An animal likely had taken it. However, four pieces of evidence from the scene did confirm who the victim had been.
The red hair weave matched Washington’s. The comforter matched the sheet set in her old apartment. A lamp finial found in the pocket of the pants matched a lamp in the apartment. And the teeth matched Washington’s dental records.
The young woman no longer was missing.
On “CSI,” a high-tech laser scan of the comforter might have turned up a single fingerprint that instantly could lead to a suspect.
Not so in reality.
Yao had gone through the Honda again, looking for any additional clues. The only two items of interest were a parking stub from a lot in Atlanta and a crumpled piece of paper with a phone number on it.
Detectives doubted that Washington had gone to Atlanta. They began tracking the phone number.
Drzewiecki had little else to go on, other than a deepening suspicion of Jones and the Frances brothers. He interviewed them again, this time getting conflicting stories about when and where the three last had seen Washington.
“We were always looking at these people,” Drzewiecki said. “But we didn’t have blood, we didn’t have fibers, we didn’t have a weapon.”
His suspicions were cemented when it turned out that the phone number from the car belonged to a woman who said she had given it to Tamika Jones – while Jones and Elvis Francis were out driving in the car. The woman couldn’t remember the date, but Drzewiecki believed it was after Washington’s death.
Before he could make any more progress, the Frances brothers left town. Drzewiecki had no idea where they had gone, and Jones wasn’t talking.
He pushed her harder – too hard. The two got into a shouting match when Drzewiecki accused her of being a liar. She refused to talk to him any more.
FDLE Special Agent Mike Devaney had been helping with the investigation and stepped in to deal with Jones. He had managed to develop a rapport with her, and continued over the next several months to get her to talk about Washington’s death.
The investigators figured her for the weak link, and wanted Jones to flip on the Frances brothers.
Finally, in the spring of 2001, she dropped a bomb on Drzewiecki and Devaney.
The brothers already were in jail in Orlando, charged with murdering a mother and daughter there about a month after Washington’s body was found.
Drzewiecki calls it the “‘CSI’ effect” – a tendency among jurors to expect hair, blood, fiber and fingerprints linking suspects to the deed in every crime. They see those things on TV shows and believe police always are able to recover reams of scientific evidence.
Assistant State Attorney Jack Campbell says those expectations have become so prevalent, they are a frequent topic at prosecutors’ meetings across the country. That’s why he makes a point at the beginning of every trial to tell jurors there’s a big difference between “CSI” and actual police work.
“I have to educate juries all the time,” he said.
The analogy he uses is that comparing “CSI” with what jurors will witness in the courtroom is like comparing the space shuttle program to “Star Trek.”
“Not all crime scenes are conducive to leaving forensic evidence,” Campbell said.
And defense attorneys know about these expectations, too. If jurors believe police have the capability to do all sorts of molecular tests on evidence, they will want to know why such tests weren’t done, or why no particular evidence turned up. Lawyers can use that to convince jurors the police did a sloppy investigation, or that the lack of “CSI”-style evidence is a sign of innocence.
“Jurors are now thinking you can prove every single detail,” said John Kenney, a prominent Tallahassee criminal lawyer. “It only helps the defense.”
The family members of victims also expect more than science can deliver. One early episode of “CSI” showed analysts pouring silicone into a knife wound to get a perfect cast of the blade. It was purely fictional, since the liquid actually would have seeped into all of the crevices along the wound channel, said Yao, the FDLE crime-scene analyst.
But the mother of a man who had been shot and killed called Yao after the episode. She wanted him to do the same thing with her son, to get an impression of the bullet that killed him.
Even investigators can start thinking that all the whiz-bang things they see on television are possible.
Yao said he sometimes watches “CSI,” because he knows that police will be asking him to perform the same feats as the actors at his next crime scene. And FDLE analysts keep a framed paper on the wall at the state crime lab, showing an investigator’s request for assistance with a case. The investigator asked that a piece of evidence be examined “like they do on ‘CSI.’”
One of Yao’s favorite laughable parts of “CSI” is the way evidence is processed so quickly.
“I love the way DNA tests take only five minutes,” he said.
It just doesn’t work that way, though. Neither do the fingerprint checks that techs on TV can do almost instantly.
The biggest reason: resources. A TV network has a multimillion-dollar budget to create science that doesn’t exist, or that not all law enforcement agencies can afford, Drzewiecki says.
And the script never gives the crime-scene techs more work than they can do, which is why a recent rerun of “CSI: Miami” had five of them working on a single case – a rarity in most agencies.
In reality, the volume of DNA tests requested through state crime labs is so high that results can take months to come back. The same goes for fingerprint scans, especially when a print needs to be checked against databases in other states.
Campbell, the prosecutor, put it this way: “‘CSI’ isn’t bound by practical limitations. If you want us to start testing every little piece of evidence, get ready to spend some money.”
So, despite the TV-generated perceptions, a murder investigation often rests on the same thing as the Monique Washington murder case – the testimony of those involved.
The story that Tamika Jones told Drzewiecki and Devaney was an ugly one.
Washington had gone to see Jones and the Frances brothers to get some help moving. Jones and Elvis Frances agreed and went with her to the Ocala Road apartment.
There, Elvis Frances told Jones that he planned to kill Washington. He and his brother wanted her car, he said.
While Washington went out to open the trunk, he hid behind the apartment’s front door. When she came back, he jumped out and grabbed her by the neck, forcing her down so he could wrap a cord from the VCR around her throat.
Jones simply stood and watched as Elvis Frances choked her girlfriend to death.
When it was over, they went home to get David Frances so he could help them dispose of Washington’s body.
Jones later pawned the VCR. By the time she confessed to police, the murder weapon had been sold to an unsuspecting customer.
There wasn’t much in the way of physical evidence, but what investigators had came in handy.
The Frances brothers apparently had a thing for the party scene in Atlanta. They were on their way back from there when Georgia police stopped them in a stolen car – one that belonged to the murdered Orlando woman.
That explained the parking stub in Washington’s car. Jones said the two had driven the car to Atlanta. Together with the phone number on the slip of paper, it helped put the suspects in the car after Washington’s death.
Elvis Frances denied he had been the one who killed Washington. He told Drzewiecki that Jones herself had done it, using the cord from Washington’s alarm clock.
The detective turned to his crime-scene investigators. When Washington first had been reported missing, they processed her entire apartment for evidence. That included photos of everything they found.
One of the photos showed the alarm clock sitting on the nightstand, still plugged in, next to a cup that showed no signs of having been moved.
“This is one of those cases where you say, ‘Man, how easy would it have been to not take a picture of the alarm clock,’” Drzewiecki said.
The confession and the few bits and pieces of physical evidence – jury expectations aside – were enough for convictions on all three.
Elvis and David Frances both received 15 years in prison. Jones was sentenced to 12. The brothers also were convicted in the Orlando case. Elvis Frances now is doing life, and David Frances is on Death Row.
Real evidence, real sentences, real prisons. And not a single magic fiber in the entire case.
Leon County Sheriff’s Office
Name: Crime Scene Unit. Jurisdiction: All of Leon County. Supervisor: Sgt. Barry Blackburn. Number of analysts: 5. Number of cases annually: 300 crime scenes, 450 additional cases. Requirements: Must be a sworn deputy, possess a two-year degree and have crime-scene training in photography and fingerprinting.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement
Name: Crime Scene Section, Tallahassee Regional Operations Center. Jurisdiction: Leon and 11 surrounding counties. Supervisor: Ward Schoob. Number of analysts: 3. Number of cases annually: 100. Requirements: Must have a four-year degree in natural science – preferably biology, chemistry or physics – followed by one to two years of internal training. FDLE also operates a crime lab in Tallahassee that conducts tests on firearms, drugs, DNA, computers and fingerprints, as well as a toxicology lab. The lab received more than 11,000 requests for assistance last year.
Tallahassee Police Department
Name: Forensics Unit. Jurisdiction: City of Tallahassee. Supervisor: JoAnne Maltese. Number of analysts: 8. Number of cases annually: 1,356 crime scenes; 37,608 total items processed. Requirements: Must have a minimum of three years of experience without a degree; one year of experience with a two-year degree; or no experience with a four-year degree. A degree in natural science is preferable but not required.