Cars can’t talk, but they can tell a story if you pay attention to the right details, says senior scene of crime officer Colin Melville, pictured.
We are at a secret location in central Auckland where the Police tow operator takes recovered vehicles to be scrutinised by the scene of crime officers (SOCOs).
Today, Colin is examining a stolen Honda used the night before in the burglary of a liquor store.
Somewhere, the owner will be missing their slightly battered white wagon with a pile of clothes in the boot and a child’s car seat in the front.
Colin points out the signs of forced entry on the doors and the dismantled ignition. His main focus, however, is on much smaller and less obvious aspects.
SOCOs follow the forensics mantra of Locard’s exchange principle that “every contact leaves a trace”. Or, as Colin puts it, “Let’s see if we can outsmart these buggers!”
With his expert eye – honed after 13 years in the job and the benefit of several high-level qualifications – he applies a fine layer of fingerprint powder to the car with a small brush. His SOCO toolkit also contains gloves and masks, a torch, a magnifying glass and, importantly, a rag to clean up.
It takes about 45 minutes to dust the car for prints. “You have to follow the process. There are no shortcuts and you have only one chance to do it right.”
If he finds a good print, which he did on the white Honda, it’s preserved on an acetate backing sheet, labelled and sent to the fingerprint lab. There, it is enlarged on a computer screen and, hopefully, may register a hit in the database.
Colin’s fastidious attention to detail has already produced 170 “idents” in the past year – “the highest in the office!” Being “part of the solution” gives Colin a buzz.
It feels good to have outsmarted a criminal, he says. “And to know that if it was not for the work we do, a criminal might not have been caught.”
At a crime scene, the SOCOs have to, figuratively, put themselves in the offender’s shoes, imagining a scenario about where the person might have moved and what they might have touched, reconstructing the events and establishing, for example, the orientation of the fingerprints – was the person coming in or out the room?
More often than not, there will be a link between a victim, an offender and a location.
Colin’s next job is at a commercial premises in Mt Wellington, burgled for the second time in two weeks, obviously with the same MO, but this time, rather dangerously, pulling out the wiring in a circuit box to cut the alarm.
The frustrated owner is glad to see Colin – again.
“When we get to a crime scene, people are usually really pleased to see us,” says Colin. “They know we’re there to help.”
It looks like the intruders in this case were pretty careful. As Colin notes, many crims are “forensically aware” and will wear gloves and be careful about what they leave behind. But, maybe not careful enough…
Colin eventually spots a print on the circuit box, invisible to anyone else. Bingo! That’s another one off to the lab.
His work days, and those of the other SOCOs, are taken up with visiting crime scenes throughout Auckland City.
Colin previously worked for the Fire Service, so, naturally enough, arson is a specialist area for him, but he does his fair share of the armed hold-ups, stabbings, sexual assaults and fatal car accidents that appear in the in-tray each day.
“The people we deal with are all victims of crime and all deserve the same level of service.”
He recalls one of the bloodiest scenes of his career. Two stabbings at a retirement village, in two separate scenes. “It was a bloodbath and I spent 11 hours there, all the time trying to avoid cross-contamination.”
Another bloody scene was a robbery at a Grey Lynn superette where the victim had been repeatedly stabbed in the chest. “There was blood everywhere, but also a blood trail leading away from the scene, which police were able to follow and ultimately arrest the suspect.”
Not for the squeamish
Blood, bones, bodily fluids and the other minutiae of life and death are the stock in trade of the SOCO team.
It’s not a job for the squeamish, but it seems it may be a job for women.
The Auckland City SOCO team of 25, based in Newmarket, is the biggest in the country and made up almost entirely of Police employees (only two members are sworn), 14 of whom are women, including forensics manager Andrea Scott. There are 67 SOCOs Auckland-wide and about 120 nationally.
Around the year 2000, to help cover a high volume of burglary callouts, Police created the non-sworn role of crime scene assistant (CSA) within the Auckland City team. The CSAs had the same basic training as the SOCOs and were involved in the same work, apart from serious crime scenes.
When Andrea joined in 2011 as manager, she spotted a problem straight away. “It was almost impossible for a CSA to progress to being a SOCO. There was a glass ceiling in the way. It was perceived as a job for sworn staff, even though SOCOs and CSAs were working together at crime scenes, and there was very low turnover in the SOCO roles. There were only four full SOCOs and everyone else was a CSA with no incentive for progression.”
By 2013, Andrea had managed to get the district commander and the Police College to agree to replace the CSA designation with an assistant SOCO role.
Since the career path has improved, more women have moved into the role. Only half-joking, Andrea says it’s because they are “naturally nosey”, but also like attention to detail and collecting evidence. “This job is about observation, method and common sense.”
One of the team, forensic supervisor Rachel Nickerson, is a former teacher who has a master’s degree in forensic science. “I got bored with teaching and wanted a bit more excitement in my career.”
Many other staff have backgrounds in chemistry, anthropology and forensic science.
There are advantages to having nonsworn members in the squad, Andrea says. “They have a dedicated role doing forensic examinations, unlike their sworn colleagues who may be required to do other policing duties.”
Burglary and volume crime make up the bulk of the workload and it’s there that the eye for detail is so important – the subtle clues left by footwear or glove marks, for example. Then, taking a methodical approach to interpreting what they see to determine what they think has happened.
They also look at fibres, glass, paint and pollen, if necessary. “We make an informed decision about what we need to collect based on what we’re trying to prove,” Andrea says.
For example, in a domestic assault, fingerprints at the scene where all the parties reside aren’t necessarily going to prove a case unless they are on a weapon used in that assault.
As SOCOs in New Zealand continue to upskill, Andrea says she is keen to forge even stronger connections between police and scientific experts in criminal investigations, particularly in the development of forensic archaeology and anthropology.
Andrea Scott’s role as forensics manager generally keeps her in the office, but she brings to the job world-class, hands-on expertise as a forensic archaeologist.
In fact, she’s the go-to person in New Zealand if you come across skeletons or bones of unknown origin.
Originally trained as an archaeologist, Andrea, who is English, spent 13 years working on sites from Hadrian’s Wall to large excavations in Britain and Egypt. Her interest in forensics arose after doing a watching brief at a disused churchyard where skulls and a Victorian vault had been discovered and she was able to confirm that the human remains were historic.
“SOCOs had been called to the scene, which is common when bodies are uncovered. There are similarities between archaeology and forensics – methodically sifting through the physical evidence in front of you to determine what has happened. Only the timeframe is different – one is a few hours versus several centuries.”
After completing an archaeological forensics course, Andrea began working for Greater Manchester Police (GMP) as a crime scene investigator. After 10 years, she became a crime scene manager, coordinating the forensic examinations of various complex operations, large-scale drug warrants, counter-terrorist searches and more than 25 homicide scenes.
One of the cases she worked on was the 40-year-old mystery of the woman in the carpet. In 2010, a digger excavating a car park in preparation for building work unearthed a skeleton and remnants of clothing.
The digger had scattered the bones, but by combining her archaeological and forensic skills, Andrea was able to determine the cause of death, which turned out to be murder, and the timeframe (late 1970s, early 1980s) based on fragments found with the body – scraps of carpet and clothing, a pair of stiletto shoes and a Guinness advertising sign.
Forensically, it was a complex case, which, unfortunately, remains open and the young woman’s identity is still unknown.
Then there was the case of the woman in the cellar. Andrea found the body almost by accident when she commented that the stone paving tiles in one part of the cellar “didn’t look right”. Sure enough, as soon as they were removed and she started dusting away the dirt, she found something – a foot. The poor woman, who had been reported missing over many years, had been murdered and buried there. Her killer was soon brought to justice as evidence against him accumulated.
Andrea was there, too, when GMP worked on what they called their biggest case in a decade – collecting evidence against a Filipino nurse at Greater Manchester Hospital who was convicted of murdering two patients and poisoning 20 others by injecting insulin into patients’ saline fluid drip bags.