Students get a lesson from city’s Crime Scene Unit

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. ••

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