Type O Personalities

The world's foremost bloodstain-pattern analysts convene at a local Holiday Inn to trade gore stories and chatter about spatter

Spatter: The process of the forceful projection of blood.
Had this been a convention of insurance salesmen, or podiatrists, or even Shriners, the scene that unfolded in the Atlantis Room might have been avoided. But this being the annual conclave of the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts, the unpleasantness seemed inevitable.

It came near the end of day two of the convention, which was held in mid-October at the Holiday Inn in Sunny Isles. While most of the bloodstain analysts had retired to change for the grand banquet, a few lingered at the front of the room. They surrounded Franaois Julien, a small, bearded crime-scene specialist from Quebec who held a videotape in his hands and spoke in a soft French accent. "It goes in this like so, yes?" The VCR swallowed his tape.

A young man flickered onto the large projection screen. He sat in bed, with what looked like a stick lying across his white boxer shorts and bare belly. Muscular and movie-star handsome, he stared ahead, oblivious to the camera mounted at the foot of the bed, stage left. His words, spoken in French, were hard to make out, but marked by the woozy, disembodied inflection of the depressed. In the lower right-hand frame of the picture, the time and date of the recording A August 3, 1993, 1:03 a.m. A were printed in white letters.

As the video rolled, hotel staffers began dribbling into the darkened meeting room through a side door. They huddled together, black and white like penguins, waiting for the lights to come on so they could begin preparations for the banquet. The man on-screen continued to mumble in French. He was about the same age as the staffers, but nowhere near so perky.

Suddenly his posture changed. He sat up slightly and stiffened, the words squeezing out of his throat. Then the stick rose from his stomach, one end coming to rest against his right temple.

It is difficult to describe what happened next, because it all took place rather quickly.

The stick, by virtue of having a trigger and two barrels, revealed itself to be a twelve-gauge shotgun. A loud explosion rang out. The staffers swiveled toward the screen.

"Jesus Christ," remarked the one in charge. "Jesus fucking Christ."
"Dude, tell me we didn't just see that," his lieutenant said. "This is too harsh for reality."

The two women in the group quivered. "Oh...my...God," one shuddered. "I-am-going-to-be-nauseous." With this, she turned and staggered out of the room.

Julien rewound the tape, the victim's twisted version of a suicide note. He pressed play a second time, and again the screen lit up.

"How's that for high-velocity impact spatter?" marveled a serologist from Kansas. "Remarkable."

"Thank you," added a police captain from Oregon, gazing fondly down at Julien.

The second female staffer, her face now emptied of color, collapsed into a chair.

At the back of the room stood Herb MacDonell, the godfather of bloodstain analysis. A learned egotist, notorious punster, and noisy advocate of the obscure discipline he has championed for two decades, MacDonell surveyed the scene before him with something not unlike paternal pride.

"That's enough to open your mind, isn't it," he said, stroking at his white and grinning beard.

The first recorded case of bloodstain analysis came at the expense of an English prisoner found hanged in 1514, an apparent suicide. Prison guards noted a bloody trail leading away from the victim. (They also noticed that the perpetrators had neglected to place a stool beneath the dead man, rendering it physically impossible for him to have hanged himself.)

Forensic research has been spotty since. In 1895 Polish professor Eduard Piotrowski undertook the first in-depth analysis of bloodstains. His methodology consisted in part of blowing the heads off rabbits and recording the results. Parisian Victor Balthazard further bled the topic with his epic 1939 tome Research on Blood Spatter.

As criminal justice grew more sophisticated and the burdens of proof more onerous, the field blossomed and spawned its own cottage industry. Much of the credit belongs to Herb MacDonell. In 1969 the U.S. Department of Justice awarded him a $5000 grant to study bloodstains. The resulting treatise, "Flight Characteristics and Stain Patterns of Human Blood" (subsequently revised twice and renamed "Bloodstain Patterns"), remains the bible of modern bloodstain analysis.

MacDonell, who is fond of handing out business cards speckled with fake blood, taught seminars throughout the Seventies at his forensic lab in Corning, New York. In 1983 he proposed forming a professional association. A decade later the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts (IABPA) boasts 380 members. Most are police crime-scene specialists or medical examiners, but a growing number are private consultants. Many appear in court as expert witnesses.

One of the association's rising stars is Toby Wolson, a genial, curly-haired forensic serologist who works in the Metro-Dade Police Department's crime lab. Locally Wolson is best known for his damning testimony against the Miami police officers accused of beating to death Wynwood drug dealer Leonardo Mercado. The cops claimed they'd beaten Mercado in self-defense. Based on the ample bloodstain patterns at the scene, Wolson determined that Mercado was, in fact, face-down on a bed during the assault. (Nonetheless, the police were acquitted of virtually all the charges stemming from the incident.)

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