Things aren’t always what they seem when police show up at a crime scene. And the people running away aren’t always the bad guys.
A room full of Community College of Philadelphia students learned that lesson and many more on Feb. 27 as Officer Terry Lewis of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Crime Scene Unit delivered an often gruesome glimpse of what he and his colleagues deal with every day on the job. The college hosted the presentation in conjunction with its 15th annual Law and Society Week.
Lewis played a couple of old 911 tapes to illustrate his point. A private security company placed the first call to the police radio room to report that someone had pushed the panic button at a mobile telephone shop on North Broad Street, thereby triggering a silent alarm. The caller provided police with the name of the business and address.
A short time later, the police radio room took a frenzied 911 call from a man who reported that a guy with a gun was about to enter the shop and he looked like he was going to rob the place, or worse. The frantic caller gave the 911 operator a brief description of the intruder. Then he apparently put the phone down. With the line still open, the 911 operator heard shouting, screaming and gunshots.
Patrol cops arrived at the scene moments later and spotted a man fleeing the store who fit the radio description. They captured him a block or so from the store, only to learn that he wasn’t the shooter. In fact, he was a victim. Fortunately, witnesses pointed out the real gunman. Officers captured him after a short foot chase.
Inside the store, police found two bloodied corpses riddled with gunshot wounds. Then they discovered the real story. It wasn’t a robbery at all, but rather a vendetta by a disgruntled former employee.
The ex-worker had been laid off from the shop weeks earlier, but remained friendly with the other clerks there. On the day of the shooting, he showed up and asked to use the bathroom. The clerks allowed him into the rear of the store. That’s when the gunman secretly pushed the panic button. Then he called 911 and invented the story about the imminent robbery. He described the clothing of one of the employees to further the deception. Then he pulled out a gun and began shooting people.
There were four other people inside the shop at the time. One man and one woman were able to flee to safety. But the shooter cornered the other two. He later claimed insanity, but was convicted of the murders, largely due to the ability of investigators to deconstruct the scene and harvest hard evidence. Typically, such investigations can take many hours, sometimes days.
“We only have one chance to get it right. You have to have patience in this kind of work,” Lewis said.
About 50 students and guests attended Lewis’ multimedia lecture, which included many graphic images of murder victims and other grisly sights. According to professor Mark Jones of CCP’s Justice program, many of the students are interested in pursuing law enforcement.
Jones knows all about that career. He retired from the Philadelphia police force in 2000 after serving as inspector of the department’s defunct Scientific Services Division, which included the Crime Scene Unit and the Crime Lab. Today, those units are part of the Forensic Science Bureau.
Lewis is one of about 30 crime scene technicians in the Philadelphia Police Department. He and his colleagues assist in all sorts of investigations, teaming with detectives, medical examiners and forensic scientists. The types of crimes run the gamut from murders to graffiti.
Unlike the television crime dramas, Philly’s forensic scientists mostly stay in the lab, Lewis said. Meanwhile, the technicians seek to determine if a crime has been committed, the location and size of the scene and who may have been involved (including perpetrators, victims and witnesses). They also must find and recover evidence to help the district attorney prosecute the case.
While there are a handful of civilian technicians who work in the unit, police departments don’t hire technicians straight out of college, according to Lewis. They prefer candidates with previous practical experience in crime investigation.
“The better route for civilians is to look for a job in the lab,” Lewis said.
Folks with uneasy stomachs should probably avoid the Crime Scene Unit, too. Often, technicians end up in the city morgue. One time, Lewis had to go there to take fingerprints from an unidentified corpse that had been pulled from a river.
Unfortunately, the body had been submersed for so long that the flesh of the man’s hands literally fell from the bones.
Like a savvy investigator, Lewis got an idea. He put on some rubber gloves and inserted his own fingers inside the dead man’s disembodied digits. Problem solved. ••