Friday, October 23, 2009

Pounding the Pavement

by Kathryn Casey

We spend so much time talking about forensic science these days because it's hard to overemphasize how much it has changed police work. Rarely do I go to a trial where someone doesn't bring up DNA, trace evidence and the like. It's talked about in hushed tones, like the Holy Grail of justice. And it should be. Good forensic science can free the innocent and bring the guilty to punishment.

But we often forget how much of police work remains logic and legwork, covering the bases, putting in the time, thinking the cases through and coming up with ideas. Case in point: Yesterday's sad discovery of the body of seven-year-old Somer Thompson, the Orange Park, FL, girl who disappeared while walking home from school two days earlier. That's Somer pictured above. As many of you may already know, her remains were found in a Georgia landfill, legs sticking out of a mound of garbage. An autopsy is underway, but authorities have already labeled the manner of death as homicide.

Why were the police in that landfill? Did forensic evidence suggest Somer was somehow connected to the landfill? No. In this case, as in so many others, it was a good investigator thinking through the case and making a suggestion that led to a crucial discovery. Sheriff Rick Beseler credits one of his detectives with suggesting that the landfill should be checked. Orange Park's garbage is routinely hauled to this Georgia dump site. Based on that detective's reasoning, that the body might be among the refuse, Breseler told detectives to go through the debris as the trucks brought it in.

"Had we not done that, tons of garbage would have been distributed over the top of the body, and it likely would have never been found," said Beseler.

This isn't an anomaly. Lots of cases come together because of good old-fashioned police work. One comes to mind: the Piper Rountree case, the subject of my 2007 book, Die, My Love. In that case, prosecutors insisted police didn't have a solid case until they produced witnesses who could place Rountree, a Houston attorney, in Richmond, VA, where her ex-husband was ambushed and gunned down in his driveway there. No forensic evidence, no phone leads, nothing suggested how they might find those crucial witnesses. Instead, gumshoeing, walking the streets and asking questions, led investigators to folks who could point at Rountree in a courtroom and say, "That's her. I saw her in Richmond."

Now that little Somer's body has been found, of course, the forensic folks have moved in, combing the landfill for clues leading to her killer. I'm not suggesting that their role is any less important. But they wouldn't be there if not for the good idea of one cop who thought the case through and made a crucial suggestion.

Let's hope the forensic folks and the detectives working the Thompson case get every break they need to find the scumbag responsible for little Somer's death. Anyone who'd murder a child and throw her body in the trash needs to be found quickly and dealt with severely.


Jeannine said...

Kathyrn, I am sure the police love you! As for your final comment, I don't really think it matters where a body is found. Murderers all need to be found quickly and brought to justice. Once they've done the act, the finale is just a matter of whether or not they feel remorse. Hiding a body is a way of saying they are ashamed of themselves. Sweep it under the rug, hope nobody finds out what a horrible person they are. If "mommy" doesn't know it won't hurt her. "I am really not a bad boy [girl]," if "I am not caught." That sort of thing which is really all about forensic psychology, another huge part of homocide.

Kathryn Casey said...

You're right that they all need to be found and punished, Jeannine, but there's something even more upsetting about throwing a murdered child's body in a Dumpster, like yesterday's trash. Really ticks me off. Horrible.

As to the murderer's decision to throw the child's remains away signifying remorse: in some cases that's true. In this case, I haven't heard anything indicating that. It seems as likely that he/she disposed of the body in a Dumpster somewhere which was later hauled to the dump. Why a Dumpster? Perhaps it was simply to hide the evidence, to make it harder for police to pursue the case and find him/her. No body, no evidence found on the body, nothing to link him/her to the murder.

Kathryn Casey said...

P.S.: I actually wrote a book about a bad cop, A WARRANT TO KILL, so not all the police like me. I believe in applauding what law enforcement does right and pointing out when they've made a mistake.

Rose said...

this case breaks my heart, i really hope that police have more than they are saying.

Kathryn Casey said...

Mine, too, Rose.

FleaStiff said...

Exotic computational programs or exotic forensic tests may have great appeal but good ol' gumshoe work is still needed. The body was not necessarily going to be put into a dumpster but its easier to follow the garbage trucks than to try to excavate the town dump later.
In one Oregon case, the FBI brought in computer experts who sent FBI agents off to contact far away modeling agencies, but the local teenage girls kept telling the cops: the creepy guy who lives near the bus stop and stares at our breasts each morning.
Distant modeling agencies and emails may sound exotic but the cops should have done the legwork suggested by the local teenage girls.