Almost every crime involves a tool. Shovels move dirt when evidence is buried, crowbars are handy for breaking into door frames and safes, screwdrivers sometimes force open windows, pliers help make bombs, and bolt cutters clip through fence. The tools used in executing crimes make scars, scrapes, dents, chips, and grooves, and these marks can be traced back to the source just like striation marks on bullets or the ridges found on fingertips.
Police look for objects bearing toolmarks, photograph them, and, if movable, submit it to the lab. It’s not uncommon for investigators to saw off pieces of door frame, turn in small safes and locked drawers, or bring in bits of metal which may have come from the tip of a knife or the claw-side end of a hammer.
Then when a suspect is identified, they get a search warrant for his home or car and try to match up any found tool with its marks, because every tool is unique. No matter how well a tool is forged and polished, under microscopic scrutiny, one can see minute defects or marks on its strike- or cutting-surface. Plus, slight chips or faults as the result of hard employment are produced each time the tool is used. In Florida, a firearms examiner with the Metro Dade Crime Lab in Miami identified a knife used to make a stab wound. He compared the striations left by the knife blade on bone and cartilage on the victim’s sternum.
To compare toolmarks, the examiner reproduces test marks in a manner similar to “the unknown” crime-scene marks, and then he compares the characteristics of each, looking for a match. In essence then, the marks are duplicated and carefully compared.
Tools can also be a source of trace evidence, carrying on them tiny bits of hair, fiber, paint, and soil. And for its last evidentiary significance, toolmark examiners are qualified to make fracture matches—evidence that puts together a small broken fragment in a match to its whole.
For example, a series of bank robberies on night-deposit boxes was committed using hammers, crowbars, and screwdrivers. The method of removing the boxes was pretty clear, but that was all detectives had and nothing much happened. One night though, an investigator found a tiny piece of broken metal which police held onto as a clue. Later when several suspects were identified, a search warrant was obtained, and police collected broken screwdrivers among the suspects’ tools. The broken metal tip saved from the crime scene earlier, perfectly matched one of the broken screwdrivers found in their possession, and the toolmark evidence was enough to put that gang away.
Explosives, Bombs, and Fire
Evidence collection after a bombing or fire is chaotic, dangerous and difficult. Sometimes K-9 units may be used to sniff out explosives. Certain retrieval robotic units may be employed where the danger of future detonation is possible. Fire evidence is generally collected and put into clean, unused paint cans. Even the most seemingly insignificant fragments may prove helpful. Investigators look for blast-cap fragments, fuses, detonating wire, duct tape, cotton, steel fragments, samples of unexploded materials, and even fertilizer. An important clue to an airplane crash over Locherbie, Scotland, was a small fragment, no bigger than a fingernail, but it was evidence of a detonating device.
Laboratory findings in bombings can include:
• Where the explosion or fire took place.
• Identification of triggering device.
In Utah in 1985, a man killed two people with bombs and a third went off in his own car. After thinking the man might have been a victim, soon the trail of evidence led back to him. A workshop in his house proved to be the location where the bombs were constructed—items were matched to crime scene evidence—and sales people remembered selling him some of the supplies that later became parts for the bombs.
Detailed technical information regarding explosive devices is collected, plugged into the computer, and distributed via national databases. This helps authorities identify serial bombers, the sophistication of the explosive devices being used, and the need for a uniform procedure. The FBI has a Data Bomb Center and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms houses an Arson and Explosives National Repository.*