October 21, 2009

Dial M for Mineral

Cracking cases by tracking down the dirt on criminals—literally—is par for the course for forensic geologists

By Helene Ragovin

In 1908, a woman named Margarethe Filbert was found murdered in Bavaria, Germany. A pair of shoes, encrusted with layers of goose droppings, red sandstone, coal and brick dust, helped finger her killer.

“I believe every square meter of soil is different,” says Raymond Murray, A51.

In 1960, Adolph Coors III, the 44-year-old heir to a brewing fortune, was kidnapped and murdered outside Denver, Colo. Dirt found under the fender of a burned-out yellow Mercury helped convict his killer.

In 1985, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, an agent of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, was abducted, tortured and murdered while on assignment in Mexico. Mexican police recovered his body in the state of Michoacán —but an examination of the soil and volcanic rock on the body eventually revealed that Camarena had first been buried near Guadalajara and then moved to Michoacán as part of a government cover-up.

These cases are but three examples of forensic geology at work. While most people are familiar with the use of physical evidence such as fingerprints, blood stains or DNA samples to solve crimes or convict criminals, there is another category of less well-known—but equally vital—evidence that includes soil, rocks, minerals, gemstones and fossils.

Clues unearthed by geologist-sleuths have been helping crime-fighters for more than a century. Bits of soil, pieces of rock or other debris—even mere dust—can easily give away a criminal if a savvy investigator knows what to look for.

“If I wanted to stick my neck out, I’d say I believe every square meter of soil is different,” says Raymond Murray, A51, a former researcher, professor and university vice president who, since 1973, has also been assisting law enforcement agencies as a forensic geologist. Murray offered a peek at the world of courts and quartz during a recent talk before the Tufts geology department.

The Proof Is in the Dirt

The first practitioner of forensic geology, at least in the virtual sense, was Sherlock Holmes. In A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle describes his detective as being able to tell where someone has been based on the mud on his shoes and dust on his clothes.

In real life, the field got its start in late 19th-century Austria, when the author of a handbook for magistrates similarly suggested that examining the dirt on a suspect’s shoes was an accurate way of finding out where he or she had been, Murray said. That idea was used by German chemist George Popp, who helped solve the Filbert murder and established forensic geology as a viable tool for law enforcement.

In the Filbert case, the suspect said he had been walking in his fields at the time of the murder. However, layers of debris on his shoes documented a journey from his home to the spot where the body was discovered and then to the site where the murder weapon was found. Equally telling, the suspect’s fields—where he claimed to have been—were covered with basalt, but there were no traces of basalt on his shoes, thus throwing his alibi into question.

In his talk, Murray detailed some dozen cases, mostly murders, rapes and other violent crimes, where geologic evidence helped break the case. Most times, it was because of details the criminals had likely never considered: the Colorado newlywed who killed her husband, betrayed by the gray bentonite clay on her boots; the Russian rapist whose clothing bore traces of the rare mineral vivianite.

But forensic geology is also used to tackle a wide range of crimes, including art, gem and securities fraud. In an unusual case in California, opponents of a proposed housing subdivision were found to have intentionally introduced an endangered plant species to the area in an attempt to stymie the builders’ plans; the soil around the plants’ roots revealed the scheme. Forensic geology has also become a tool of the intelligence community. On his website, Murray tells how a geologist was able to help identify the area where Osama bin Laden taped the video that was released by al Qaeda after 9/11.

“The field has really changed since the dark day when that ATF agent walked through my door,” Murray recalled. He was referring to the time in 1973, when he was a professor of geology at Rutgers University, and an agent from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms entered his office holding a bag of soil and looking for assistance.

Since then, Murray has consulted for law enforcement agencies around the country and abroad. He has published numerous articles and, with John Tedrow, is the author of Forensic Geology (Prentice Hall, revised, 1991), considered a classic in the field; his most recent book, designed for those both inside and outside the discipline, is Evidence from the Earth (Mountain Press, 2004).

Real Life vs. TV

Murray was a consultant for an episode of the cable TV show Forensic Files, dealing with the Coors kidnapping and murder case. While lauding that particular show, Murray bemoaned what has become known as the “CSI Effect”: unrealistic expectations, particularly by jurors, of the abilities of forensic science, spurred by the popular television series about crime scene investigators.

CSI is fiction,” he said. “If you watch CSI, the people at the microscope all of a sudden jump up and go out into the desert. They mix the role of investigator and lab person, and that casts doubt on the integrity and reliability of the lab.” Not only that, he said, “another effect is everyone who watches CSI believes all crimes are solved in 50 minutes.”

Murray said he gets about three e-mails a week from aspiring forensic geologists, seeking advice about how to break into the field. His advice: get a bachelor’s in geology and a master’s in forensic science, which offers greater opportunities for employment. Few crime labs hire full-time specialists in forensic geology, he says.

“Although we in this room are convinced that soils are the wave of the future,” he told the crowd of geologists and geology majors, “there are a lot of people out there [whose crime lab work] is limited to controlled substances and DNA.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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