The Telltale Corpse

Ed Whittaker, Dade's leading criminalist, finds a lively story in every dead body

But one of the crime lab's most notable successes came in the area of fingerprint identification. Television and movie viewers know that crime scene investigators can dust gun barrels, safes, and other hard surfaces for latent prints. But Whittaker's crime lab became the first in the world to successfully retrieve a murderer's fingerprint from the skin of the victim's body.

For many years, Whittaker explains, crime scene technicians had tried to develop a method to develop latent fingerprints from human skin. Finally, during the Seventies, Eddie Stone, a crime scene investigator who has since died, successfully developed a technique for this purpose. He was assisted by crime scene investigators Jerry Reichardt, Dave Gilbert, and Jim Carr (now county crime lab supervisor, the position Whittaker once held).

Stone's process involved pressing a piece of high-gloss paper called Kromekote against the skin, then dusting the paper with standard fingerprint powder to develop the latent impression. Because the paper is flimsy, it must be backed with numerous other sheets to form a sort of card. A specific amount of pressure must be applied to the card when it is pressed to the skin, and great care is also required to avoid smearing it and the print when it is pulled away. The technician must be sure to get just the right amount of dusting powder on the fingerprint brush and to brush at the correct speed.

"It was a real horrible case," recalls Reichardt. "A woman was murdered by some friends who were trying to extort money from her parents through her. She couldn't come up with the money, so they tortured her, whipped her with a chain, raped her with a chair leg, and even made her swallow her own tampon." The woman died, the body was discovered, and the crime scene investigations team was called in to collect evidence.

Stone used his Kromekote technique to develop a fingerprint from the woman's body. Unfortunately the print didn't match those of any of the suspects, who had been picked up on the basis of other information. "We didn't know if the scene had been contaminated by the medical examiner, the people who transfer the bodies, or even if the paper had a print already on it when it came from the plant," Reichardt recalls.

But Stone was successful on a case that soon followed. One of the co-owners of a health spa located on 163rd Street killed his partner for what was at the time considered to be a large insurance payoff. "It was maybe $150,000 or $250,000," says Whittaker. "The co-owner came into the club after hours, shot and killed his partner, and then also killed a cleaning woman and her assistant, a sixteen-year-old girl, who were on the premises at the time.

"To cloud the case up and make it look like a rape, he pulled up the top of the young girl's blouse so that her breasts were exposed, pulled down her shorts and panties, and grabbed her legs by the ankles and spread them," Whittaker says with a shiver. "He probably messed with her vagina, too."

The co-owner was questioned about the killings. He reported finding the bodies but said he had never seen the young girl before. This statement proved to be his downfall; Stone was able to secure a reliable fingerprint from one of the girl's ankles. The fingerprint matched the co-owner's and was used to convict him of murder.

Ironically Stone was unable to develop the print using his vaunted Kromekote technique. "Eddie got something suspicious that looked like a fingerprint, but it just wasn't there," says Reichardt. "So he applied [fingerprint] powder directly to her ankle, and the fingerprint was developed right there on the skin. The medical examiner took a photograph, and it proved to be an identification fingerprint, something that had never been done before."

"It was an absolutely incredible achievement," adds Whittaker, a big smile on his face. "News of it rocketed around the world."

In another crime lab case, a girl of about seven was walking home from school with friends along a roadway in the northwest section of the county. A driver of a gray sedan plowed into her, throwing her up over the hood of the car and killing her instantly. The driver fled the scene. A police alert was quickly dispatched for all units to be on the lookout for the vehicle.

"Some sharp police officers saw a gray sedan parked kind of crooked at a duplex and decided to investigate," says Whittaker. There was no apparent damage to the vehicle, and the owner agreed to let the police examine it. "We couldn't find any blood or fibers, but one of our crime scene guys took fingerprint powder and processed the hood of the car.

"Well, you never saw a better likeness in your life," he remembers. "It showed the side of the girl's face, along with her jawbone, her ear, her nose, her eyebrow, and even the tip of her left eye. It was like a fine charcoal sketch of the side of the girl's face. And some few inches down from this could be seen the woven pigtail of her hair, a totally shocking profile." The owner of the vehicle was arrested and the haunting evidence of the girl's face on the hood of his car was used to help convict him of manslaughter.

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