Type O Personalities

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

Some of the friskier members do gather at night in a hospitality suite to loosen their tongues with alcohol. They tell ribald stories. About luminescent semen tests. About the guy who claimed he got spatter on his shirt by performing cunnilingus on his menstruating girlfriend.

Mostly, though, they talk shop. Mike Smilko, an Indianapolis crime-scene specialist, recounts the time he helped crack a case by conducting tests in which he spit up his own blood. Canadian Dan Rahn recalls how he visited a murder scene in Manitoba that was so cold the blood spatter froze in midair and blew away. Peter Cropp, a timid scientist from New Zealand, narrates a queer-bashing slaying in which a single blood drop helped unravel the case.

Listen long enough and the rhythm of storytellers emerges. The crafted fibbing and self-promotion. You just have to bear in mind that these tales do not end with a corpse. They begin with one, then move backward in time, like a camera in reverse. Rarely does a moral emerge.

That such anecdotes are now traded casually over drinks by conventioneers wearing suits and ties should be no more jarring than the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger or the media sharkfest over O.J. Simpson. All are merely symptoms of our culture's enduring fascination with the shedding of blood.

In Richard Engels's line of work, the fascination begins with the cleanup effort. A crime-scene detective with the Broward Sheriff's Office, Engels opens day three with a lecture about Luminol, a chemical that illuminates blood (and any cleaning compound used to eliminate traces of blood) when photographed in low light.

"This is one of my favorite cases," Engels says. "Seems there was a gay fellow named Floyd, and one night I guess he got too frisky with his roommate. We found his body in the Everglades, which is where everyone around here dumps bodies. So we head over to his apartment and we figure, why not spray some Luminol and make a little overtime? Sure enough, you can see where this guy was scrubbing away. He even tried vacuuming the blood." On the slide behind Engels, the murderer's frantic efforts, along with pools of blood, are commemorated by patches of glowing blue.

"Can't you just see the guy? 'Oh shit, I can't get all this blood up,'" Engels squeals, pumping his arm in imitation of the distraught murderer.

"Have you ever gotten a positive Luminol result on mosquito fecal pellets?" Herb MacDonell shouts out.

There is a ripple of laughter.
The mosquito fecal pellet question is left hanging, however, as Kelly Robbins, a serologist who works for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, takes the podium. "Contrary to what you all may believe, we do have crime in Kansas," she points out. "We don't have so many guns. But we've got bats and hatchets and hammers, which results in plenty of good bloodstains."

Robinson's role today is limited to demonstrating yet more bloodstain software. Specifically, a program that helps analysts pinpoint the location of a blood source, using a complex mathematical formula that calls for the implementation of many Greek letters and variables. The computer, Robbins assures her colleagues, does most of the work.

Before yielding the dais, she cannot resist scrawling her vanity license plate on the overhead projector: I-I-D-C-M-E-N. "That's just so Norm [Reeves] doesn't think he's the only one who's obsessed with his job. Do you get it? I ID semen. And I'm not talking about sailors," Robinson says.

"That's not what the sailors tell me!" a voice cries out.
(Another rim shot!)
The conference draws to a close with a cavalcade of Canadians, all members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Craig Tomash, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, adds to the group's wealth of knowledge about burned blood by citing results from experiments involving the incineration of bloodstains and mannequins. Edmonton's Dan Rahn reports news from the opposite extreme -- namely, that Luminol will pick up bloodstains in snow -- and gives a brief plug for a math and physics seminar geared to bloodstain analysts.

"Ah, there's nothing like being last," notes Bruce MacLean, a nervous professor whose necktie looks to be a couple of notches too tight. MacLean is not an eloquent speaker. Or a storyteller. But he does have a hook: a movie camera capable of recording 10,000 frames per second.

As MacLean explains it, the Canadian BBC purchased the device some years ago. When it broke and the TV folks didn't know how to fix it, he volunteered his repair services in exchange for temporary use.

And what else would any self-respecting bloodstain analyst do with such a contraption? Film blood spatter, of course.

With noon approaching, the crowd looks ragged from three days of lectures. Many seem ready to head outside and soak up the remaining weekend sun, maybe even take in the speedboat race set to commence just offshore from the Holiday Inn. But as MacLean dims the lights and flicks on the VCR, the Atlantis Room settles into a cathedral hush.

Oooohhhs and aaaahhhs greet the images on-screen. Drops of blood, slowed to a crawl, drop onto vistas of perfect white. The fluid bounces off the paper, pushing itself into halos of red, liquid crowns, and jellyfish. Satellite specks wobble across space like air bubbles through water. At the same exquisite pace, blood trickles onto angled paper, drawing teardrops that stretch into bold exclamation points. In a final test, a metal cylinder is dropped onto a small pool of blood, color sent outward in a ground-zero shock wave.

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