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.)
The IABPA's president-elect, Wolson is also the man responsible for this year's conference, a curious odyssey into the underbelly of forensic medicine. It is he who presides over the gory slide shows, the technical niggling that greets each corpse. To the casual observer, the exercise might seem perverse, like a dissection of snuff films. But to Wolson and his colleagues, there are vital judgments to be made in the aftermath of violence, ones they regard as professional duty.
"Take a look at this pattern right here," says Norm Reeves. With a red beam of light, he circles a small blotch of blood on the pair of green sweat pants projected on the screen. "Doesn't look like much, does it? Watch what happens." Reeves clicks to the next slide. "See it now? How's that for a claw hammer?"
A murmur of admiration rises from the fellow bloodstain analysts clustered at a dozen tables in the Atlantis Room. A slight and sardonic New Jerseyite, Reeves is showing off the computer technology he uses to improve the quality of poor crime-scene photos. "The idea is not to alter evidence, but to enhance," he stresses.
The next slide shows a figure that hardly appears capable of alteration. "I call this guy my Mr. Tool Time," Reeves announces. "He was worked over with a sledgehammer, a Skil saw, and a one-and-half-inch drill bit, on reverse." At this last detail, Reeves cannot resist emitting a giggle. "Anyways, when I got the call on this guy, I figured it was going to be like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But you can see, he's pretty much intact." By increasing the contrast on certain photos, and electronically embossing others, Reeves explains via subsequent slides, he was able to catalogue the source of the victim's abundant injuries, and, more important, to identify a bloody footprint at the scene.
"Guy actually died as a result of blood loss," Reeves notes absently.
He clicks again. "Just to show you folks how obsessed some of us become: This is my license tag." The appellation BLOODY1 flashes on-screen. Reeves exits to spirited applause, Tic Tacs rattling in his pocket.
Toby Wolson bounds to the podium.
"Time for a door-prize drawing! Get your tickets out, folks, because we're giving away the autographed Miami Dolphins pennant!"
Wolson's spunk is understandable. Some 65 IABPA members have shown up this year, nearly triple the turnout in 1993, when the conference was held on a cruise ship out of Los Angeles. Most are middle-age white guys with glasses (like Wolson), though the congregation includes a smattering of women and minorities. By afternoon of day one, the group has begun to subdivide. Burly Canadians at one table, wisecrackers at another, computer nerds at a third, and so on. MacDonell, the source of periodic critiques and bad puns, sits in back.
David Redsicker, an insurance investigator from Endicott, New York, opens the session with a dry history of forensic photography before seguing to a demonstration of compact-disc photo technology.
A patch of shattered safety glass appears on the screen. "We got this from the scene of an accident," Redsicker says. "An obese woman flew through this windshield. Well, most of her flew through the windshield. Take a look what happens when I enlarge the photo. See? See! That's blood there, and some tissue to the left, and those are eyebrow hairs.
"The best thing about CD photos," Redsicker concludes, "is that they're virtually indestructible." To illustrate the point, he whips a shiny disc across the room. It comes within inches of hitting an elderly bloodstain analyst in the head.
Next up is Stuart James, one of MacDonell's disciples. A tense, balding forensic consultant from Fort Lauderdale, he opens with a solid domestic tragedy. A ten-year-old boy, shot while asleep; his young mother found dead in the bunk bed beneath him, a gun in her hand.
"The problem is how to explain those bloodstains at the mother's feet," James notes. "This is low-velocity spatter. The directionality of the droplets is downward. But the lab tests show the blood is the kid's. So we're wondering, did someone shoot the victims and try to make it look like a suicide? Then we take a closer look. Turns out blood was dripping from the kid's head wound, hitting the bed railing, and producing satellite spatter on the wall. Yep. Mom had just learned she had brain cancer."
James takes a deep breath. "Now, this next case is one that troubles me quite a bit."
On-screen, a woman slumps in the passenger seat of a car, her white outfit stippled in red. "Many of you may be familiar with this case. It involves a German couple who were vacationing in Miami. The boyfriend says they went out to have a good time and got lost on the way back to their hotel. They stopped to get directions from a man on the street, who allegedly shot the woman at close range. But police believed the boyfriend did it."
A small commotion erupts in back. Two men get up from their seats, and storm out of the room, past the table laden with coffee and Danish.
"I know others here have investigated this case," James calls after them. "But I still have questions." He goes on to enumerate his doubts about the murder, for which the boyfriend was convicted in 1988: Unreliable blood tests. A spatterless suspect. Inconsistent bloodstain analysis.
"Take a look at those dollar bills in the victim's hand," James urges. "You see how the bills are spattered. But no spatter underneath. Meaning what? She had those bills out at the time she was shot, right? And what did her boyfriend tell police? That she got money out to pay the nice man who was helping them with directions. That was never even brought up at trial! And the defendant in this case has been on Death Row for five years."
James, whose voice by now has elevated to a shout, glances at his watch self-consciously. "This is the kind of case that makes me very confused about what we're doing in this field," he says quietly.
The furor is immediate. By questioning the work of the Metro-Dade police who worked the crime scene, James has violated an unspoken tenet: You don't assail another bloodstain analyst, at least not to his face. James's faux pas also cuts to the bone of an emerging fissure in the IABPA ranks -- between police experts, who are allied with prosecutors, and private consultants who are increasingly being hired by defense lawyers.
An hour later, as day one draws to a close, the room is still buzzing. "I really created some shit today," James remarks, sucking on a cigarette. "Did you see those guys storm out of here? They had their mouths hanging open."
Across the room, Toby Wolson grits his teeth. "That was an ambush," he mutters. "Stu never told us he was going to present that case. The executive board is going to have to take this up."
Day two opens with a bang. The speaker is Todd Reeves (no relation to Norm), the Dade County Medical Examiner's designated trauma photographer and a man whose comic sensibilities extend beyond gallows humor to a realm fairly characterized as trauma shtick.
While Reeves is supposedly lecturing the group about the technical aspects of photographing trauma, it is obvious from the start that he is equally eager to showcase the fruits of his labor, spatter or no.
Exhibit A: The naked man pictured lying on his stomach. A massive metal pipe traverses the photo, though the relationship between the man and the pipe is not immediately clear .
"This guy was one of my most interesting cases," Reeves says. "He was a fireman working cleanup after Hurricane Andrew who fell onto a volleyball pole. As you can see, the shaft went through his buttocks, then up and out his stomach. The amazing thing is no major organs or arteries were hit. And the guy's alive and well. He was a great sport. Talked the whole time I was taking photos. He still has the pipe, I think."
Reeves runs through three slide trays in the next 90 minutes, the portfolio ranging from blood-smeared crack houses to opulent Coconut Grove manses, from garden-variety beatings to sadistic rapes. He chases each ghoulish image with a cheery photo tip. ("A dual light source gives you better emphasis on bruising," he says. "For diffuse spatter, try a flash.") On the heels of one especially messy shotgun suicide, Reeves gets smacked with The Question.
The Question, of course, regards AIDS. Isn't it a tad foolhardy to snap photos with all that blood around?
Like many bloodstain analysts, however, Reeves is surprisingly blase about the subject. "You've got some of these places where they make you wear scuba equipment just to do autopsies. I think they're going a little overboard, precautionwise. Most of this blood has been sitting around for hours." He hand-waves dismissively.
Anticipating The Other Question, Reeves adds, "They give me a beeper, so I can always be reached if something worth shooting comes in. A few weeks ago, for instance, a Cuban refugee down at Guantanamo Naval Base jumped the fence and stepped on a land mine. Blew his foot clean off. Great opportunity! Now, some people may be saying, 'How can you call that a great opportunity?' But the thing is, we hardly ever get to see land-mine trauma up here."
He gazes into the darkened room. "It's hard to beat Miami for death and destruction." He exits to spirited applause, after receiving his complimentary IABPA coffee mug from Wolson.
To outsiders, such bravado and joshing lends bloodstain analysts the appearance of callous geeks, or perhaps all-out sickos. But the levity they throw at mangled bodies is more often a defense mechanism employed to fend off the brutality of their science.
"Others may only glance at these things on the TV news, but we must figure out how they happen," observes Franaois Julien, the Canadian whose videotaped suicide caused such a stir. "We would prefer that they don't happen. But in our world they do. This tape of the young man killing himself, for instance. There are police who will tell you that it is impossible for a man to shoot himself with a shotgun and to maintain his grip. But you can see, in this case he kept hold of the gun. This is something we have learned. To learn we must look."
Dan Christman, a chunky, red-haired medical investigator from Seattle, shifts the focus to fire. His presentation, "Burning Down the House: Fire and Its Effects on Bloodstain Pattern Evidence," features a video of a room going up in flames, and half a dozen variously charred corpses.
His research, which consisted of setting controlled fires and watching blood burn, yields intriguing results:
Damage to bloodstains hinges on fire temperature and length of exposure
Soot buildup sometimes preserves bloodstains
Blood does not boil
About this last, Christman elaborates: "The human head is a closed system. At least it should be. When subjected to fire, the fluids surrounding the brain begin to boil. If the pressure becomes sufficient, the cranial cavity explodes. Boom! Now you're saying, 'Dan, what's all this got to do with blood spatter?' Well, if you go to a fire scene and find an exploded head with blood spatter on one side of the room, you should realize it isn't necessarily due to an injury sustained before the fire."
Christman goes on to describe two especially poignant forms of internal bloodstain: "grape-jelly hemorrhages," the result of massive blunt trauma to the head, and "chocolate-pudding hemorrhages," the product of a grape-jelly hemorrhage subjected to fire.
Before Christman can reach his seat, Herb MacDonell rises to offer his dose of criticism. "Dan, you can in fact boil blood. At 63,000 feet."
To commence the afternoon session, a Canadian professor demonstrates a bloodstain-analysis computer program, and a police captain from California sings the praises of computer-generated re-enactments. Everyone listens dutifully and claps when appropriate. But they are plainly awaiting the final speaker, Rafael Martinez, a Santeria expert who works for the Metro-Dade Police Department and the county medical examiner.
The interest in Santeria, however, is not limited to its status as a source of animal-blood spatter. A growing number of police agencies, it turns out, are reporting crimes that appear related to ritualistic religions.
Martinez does not disappoint. A short, intense man possessed of breakneck eloquence and a vowel-thickening accent, he quickly outlines the basics of Santeria: a polytheistic synthesis of Catholic and African faiths, favored by dope dealers. "You got a lot of cops skeptical of Santeria," he reports. "Until they find a beef tongue with a spike through it and their business card underneath."
On-screen, images of ritual sacrifices tumble past. A priest draped in beads hacks at the jugular veins of goats, chickens, and lambs. He drips the blood onto elaborate icons, along with salt, pepper, and honey, the results bearing a striking similarity to a child's earliest culinary efforts. "Years ago, when I started studying Santeria, I could never film a ritual like this. Now the priests call me to bring my video camera, because they want a tape," Martinez boasts.
"How long before Cuban immigrants grow out of this stuff?" asks one especially dense Midwesterner.
Martinez winces. "Santeria is not something you grow out of. It is a belief system for dealing with the world, a social network. The high priest you're looking at right now, for instance, has 3000 'godchildren.' Of course, he was just arrested for dealing dope."
Having said this, however, Martinez quickly adds, "More than a million people practice Santeria, and it isn't just dopers. We had a case a few years ago where a couple of kids killed a man. One went to his santero for a cleansing and the old man turned him in for the cash reward. Also, you should know that all those animals you saw were cooked and eaten."
Freestyle case presentations are up next.
Herb MacDonell steps forward with a summary of some ancient experiments he uncovered in the nether regions of a Hungarian library, concerning the drip patterns of blood, India ink, mercury, and mucus.
Dan Christman shows slides of tests he conducted, which involved shooting bloody bags with guns of various calibers. (This gives rise to a round of jokes deriving from the phrase Dan shot his wad.)
A slightly dithering consultant named Ed discusses a case in which police have accused his client of shooting herself through the stomach to fake a self-defense claim against her husband, whom she shot during a quarrel. He shows a lengthy video of police finding the dead husband. "Don't worry, we're going to get something to eat real soon," one of the cops on the video notes repeatedly. The crowd issues a chuckle of recognition.
"That'll do it for today," Toby Wolson announces finally. "Remember, we've got the banquet at 6:30. The ritual sacrificing of the animals starts at 5:30."
How do bloodstain analysts, freed from the daily grind of drip dispersal and serology tests, cut loose? The answer, at this year's meeting anyway, is a bit of a letdown. They tend to clump into small groups and discuss drip dispersal and serology tests. They are also apt to watch snippets of the O.J. Simpson hearing and gab about the prominent role blood spatter plays in the case.
Few leave the Holiday Inn. This is thanks to the general aura of tourist paranoia in Miami, a fear magnified by the smorgasbord of local mayhem displayed at the conference. Apparently the safety tips offered in the IABPA orientation kit (Avoid displaying large amounts of cash; don't wear your convention badge when going out at night) offer little comfort. This goes double for those who have folded the conference into a family vacation. The wife and kids tend to stick close to the pool.
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.
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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.
"God, that's beautiful," MacDonell whispers.
Soon the bloodstain analysts will trot off to lunch. Then they will hold their annual business meeting and offer a last round of morbid jokes. Finally, they will pack up their official IABPA binders and the business cards hidden in their shirt pockets and fly back home, where new corpses await.
For the moment, though, they are bound by images of procreation -- transfixed by the sight of spatter coming to life.