Showing posts with label FBI. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FBI. Show all posts

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Special Agents and the FBI: Info for Writers with Dana Ridenour

ThrillWriting welcomes special agent, retired, Dana Ridenour.

Fiona - 
Would you tell us about how you found yourself in the role of special agent for the FBI?

Dana - 
It all started on a band trip when I was a sophomore in high school. Our band went to Washington, DC for a competition and part of our trip included a tour of the FBI Headquarters. I left the tour and told everyone that I was going to be an FBI agent. I was 15 years old. 

As far as my background, I was born in Louisville, Kentucky. After graduating from Meade County High School in 1984, I attended the University of Kentucky. After two years at the University of Kentucky, I changed my major to Police Administration and transferred to Eastern Kentucky University where I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1989. I wanted to become an FBI agent more than anything, but at the time the FBI was primarily only hiring lawyers and accountants. So, after college, I attended Chase College of Law and earned my Juris Doctor in 1992. 

The federal job hiring freeze hit in 1992 and lasted until 1995. I took and passed the SC Bar Exam and practiced law at a small law firm in Georgetown, SC. I was hired as a special agent for the FBI in November of 1995.

Fiona - 
Can you tell us the basic qualifications for serving as a special agent?

Dana - 
To be considered for an FBI Special Agent position, a candidate must have a four year college degree, be between the ages of 23-37, and have some work experience. 

The average age of the agents in the FBI Academy is about 29, so the Bureau rarely hires people right out of college. 

A candidate must fall into one of the five FBI Special Agent Entry Programs to be eligible for employment: 
  • Language 
  • Law
  • Accounting
  • Computer Science/Information Technology
  • Diversified.

Fiona -
Have you read books or watched movies and thought - "No that isn't right at all!"? What are the biggest mistakes you've seen and how should we fix them?

Dana - 

The FBI is hardly ever portrayed factually in novels, television, or movies. I think the biggest mistake is making the FBI look like it has all of this outstanding technology. 

The FBI is always behind on technology. I remember when I arrived at my first office from the FBI Academy and took one look at the antiquated Dell computer sitting on my desk, I thought to myself, Is this a joke? This can't really be my computer. 

The other HUGE mistake that the movies and television make is having the FBI swoop in take over their local cases. That simply does not happen. The FBI stays busy with federal cases, so the Bureau does not take over homicide cases like portrayed on TV. If a case is found to fall into federal jurisdiction, then the FBI does take over the case as in cases of terrorism both domestic and international. Police departments will sometime ask for FBI assistance with cases, but the FBI does not take their case when that happens. The FBI assists with whatever the local or state department needs, then allows that department to prosecute the case however they chose.

As far as fixing the problem, they should hire me as a consultant!

Fiona - 
Yes they should! 

ThrillWriting is a big proponent of hands-on experience to write it right, but sometimes that's just impossible.

Dana -
In all seriousness, they should hire more retired agents as consultants to give the shows more authenticity. I think most people would get bored watching FBI agents sitting at a desk doing paperwork which is reality.

And talking to an expert is the best way around this.

Fiona - 
Dana, how much of the time were you in the field and when you were in the field can you talk about your clothing choices? Did you ever try to run down a bad guy in strappy heels and a Greek-draped dress?

Dana - LOL

I consider myself extremely lucky because I spent my entire twenty years working on the criminal side of the house. During my twenty years on the job I was assigned to four different FBI Field Divisions and had the opportunity to work a wide variety of cases to include multi faceted narcotics investigations, domestic sex trafficking of minors, and violent crime. 

Working primarily on drug and violent crime squads, I almost always dressed in jeans and baggy shirts that I could conceal my weapon under. I had to be ready to run at a moments notice, so I avoided stilettos. On the rare occasions that I did dress up for court appearances and such, I had a change of clothes in my Bureau car. I never went anywhere without a change of clothes. 

My first office was Mobile, Alabama, so you never knew when you might be chasing someone through the swamps and get all wet and dirty. One of the first things that I did when I retired was get rid of all my oversized shirts. I had Columbia shirts in every color and I was happy to donate every one of them to Goodwill.

Fiona -
What equipment was part of your EDC (every day carry)? Which piece of EDC did you use the most/find most helpful?

Dana - 
I never walked out the door without my FBI credentials, badge, gun, and handcuffs. 

There is a joke in the Bureau that when you leave the house you do the law enforcement pat down on yourself. You check your pockets and waist for your badge, gun, creds, and Bureau car keys. 

Although I never had to shoot anyone, working mostly drug matters, the gun was my most helpful piece of equipment. I probably used a small flashlight more than any other piece of equipment that I owned. A pocket-sized flashlight is a great piece of equipment. 

I spent about half of my career as an undercover agent which is a whole different ballgame. When I was working undercover, I didn't carry my gun, badge or credentials. In fact, I didn't carry any kind of identification that had my real name on it. I dressed for whatever my role deemed necessary. During the days when I worked undercover infiltrating the animal rights extremists, I was vegan which meant that I didn't wear any leather products. I wore a lot of hemp and canvas in those days.

Fiona - 
Tell me about being a woman in the bureau - did you get to do interesting assignments that your colleagues didn't because of your gender? Twenty years to now - what do you see as changing (if anything) for women in the field?

Dana - 
I get asked the female question a lot. I can honestly say that I was never treated any differently because I was a woman. I was lucky to land on squads with fantastic people. Most of the time I was the only female on my squad. I'm not easily offended which made me able be blend with my squad-mates and be "one of the guys". 

I think some women have trouble with this concept, but for me it was easy. I didn't want special treatment because I was a female. I think my male squad-mates appreciated the fact that I tried hard to fit in and not be judgmental. 

My first undercover role came about because I was a woman. I was the only female on a drug squad and DEA needed a female undercover. They didn't have a female in their office, so they asked to borrow one from FBI. I had never done any kind of undercover work, but the case was fairly short term and only required a few meets. The case targeted a medical doctor who was trading prescriptions for sex. The case was a success and I became addicted to undercover work. That was the case that made me want to apply for the FBI undercover program. 

The number of women in the FBI is growing steadily. I was fortunate to be able to return to the FBI Academy at the end of my career and take two different classes through the training program acting as their class counselor. The counselor position required me to live in the dorm with my class and be with them from the first day of class to their graduation day, a five month program. I did this two different times in the last year of my career and it was so rewarding. I had a chance to get to know the future of the FBI both men and women. I can testify that we are in good hands. 

The future of the FBI is bright. The young men and women who make up the new Bureau are bright, talented, and dedicated. I think we will see more women in FBI management in the future. I'm looking forward to the day when we have a female FBI director. I wonder if it will be one of the talented women who I mentored in the Academy.

Fiona - 
Here on ThrillWriting, we always ask about the story behind your favorite scar; would you indulge us?

Dana - 
Of course...

This might sound a little strange but my favorite scar comes from an eyebrow piercing that I had done when I was working undercover. I was preparing for my first long term, deep cover case and my alias was actually ten years younger than my true age. 

Most of the people in the group that I was trying to infiltrate were young and covered with tattoos and piercings. When I finished the investigation I had my right eyebrow pierced, my bellybutton pierced each ear pierced three times. Toward the end of the investigation an asshole SAC (I’m retired so I no longer play nice) saw my eyebrow piercing at a mandatory all agents conference. Even though he knew that I was a full time undercover agent, he insisted that I remove the eyebrow jewelry that basically left a hole in my forehead for a couple of weeks. I can cover the scar with make-up but my right eyebrow droops just a little because of having the piercing. I was probably too old to have my eyebrow pierced to in the first place. 

On my second long term, deep cover case I ended up getting a couple tattoos to better blend in with my targets. I wouldn’t classify them as scars, but they are pretty permanent. All in the name of undercover work.

I wouldn't trade any of the scars because working undercover was the highlight of my twenty year career.

Fiona - 
Getting tattooed for the job is pretty strong method acting! It shows an incredible dedication to your job.

Earlier, we talked about writing FBI characters/plotting correctly. To that end, I wanted to bring up your new book.

Amazon Link

Can you talk a bit about your novel?

Dana - 
You build relationships to betray relationships. That is the motto for the FBI’s undercover program, and special agent Lexie Montgomery is just beginning to understand what that means. 

Lexie’s first assignment is infiltrating a radical cell of the Animal Liberation Front. Underground and operating in splinter groups throughout Los Angeles, the only way in is through Savannah Riley, a new recruit. Savannah left the safety of her small southern town for the bright lights of the city. Pulled into the animal rights movement by her college roommate and a gorgeous anarchist, she sinks deeper and deeper into the dark, paranoid world of ALF extremists. As the actions of her cell escalate beyond simple demonstrations and graffiti, Savannah turns to Lexie to keep her grounded. But as the two women grow closer and the FBI’s case builds, Lexie is forced to decide what betrayal really means.

Fiona - 
Does this come from the animal rights undercover you spoke of earlier?

Dana - 
I didn’t want to write a run of the mill FBI novel. I wanted to use my personal experiences as an undercover agent to capture the psychological toll that underwork has on an agent. When an agent works long term, deep cover investigations, he or she is changed at the end of the case. You lose a little piece of yourself with every long term case.

I spent most of my career as an FBI agent working undercover. I spent several years infiltrating domestic terrorism cells, many like the ones portrayed in the novel. The novel is based loosely on real cases and real people. My mother encouraged me to keep a journal when I became an FBI Agent. I started keeping a journal when I began working undercover. I kept the journal hidden in the ceiling panels of my undercover apartment. As I worked, I documented feelings and experiences along the way. These journals were a big part of formulating my Lexie character.

Fiona - 
So this novel would be excellent background research if you're writing FBI characters.

Writers - if you have brief questions about the FBI, Dana says you can contact her. She likes to support her fellow writers.  Here are some ways you can stay in touch with her:

Thank you so much Dana!
As always, a big thank you ThrillWriters and readers for stopping by. Thank you, too, for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you 
helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Terrorism 101: Information for Writers with Corporal Allen Norton

DISCLAIMER - This is a non-political site that is geared to help writers write it right. I am presenting information to help develop fictional characters and fictional scenes. In no way am I advocating any position or personal decision.

This article is the first article in a planned series on terrorism with ThrillWriting's guest, Corporal Allen Norton. I was so excited to have met the very knowledgeable and entertaining Cpl. Norton at a lecture on terrorism. He had the room transfixed. 

Fiona - 
Corporal Allen Norton

Corporal Allen, thank you so much for sharing your information with us. Can we start with an introduction of your background? How did you come to be an anti-terrorism instructor?

Cpl. Norton - 
In 2007, I graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell with a certification in Homeland Security and also graduated from Columbia Southern University with a degree in Criminal Justice. I've attended the National Center for Bio-medical Research and Training through Louisiana State University and recently graduated from the University of St. Andrews, where I obtained a Global Certification as a Terrorism Specialist. In addition, I am a recognized Certified Homeland Protection Professional (C.H.P.P.) I obtained this certification through the National Sheriffs Association and the National Domestic Preparedness Coalition.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has employed me for 11 years. In my time with the Commonwealth, I served as a Task Force Officer for the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) for 2 years.  I currently teach an Evolution of Terrorism program, other various terrorism classes, that includes Sovereign Citizens, and History of Islam class, at the local and regional police academies. I personally designed all of the classes. In addition, I own GDSI Intelligence and Training.

GDSI Intelligence and Training - website link
and on Facebook - click here

Fiona - 
You had a very personal brush with terror.

Cpl. Norton - 
I was supposed to be in the World Trade Center on 9/11 for a meeting. At the time, I served as Director of Security for three resorts in the Poconos. Fortunately, I overslept that morning.

Fiona - 
Very fortunate!

We met at a lecture, and the very first thing that you pointed out was that every government agency has their own definition of terrorism. Is there a reason that we do not have a national definition? How does this pose problems in working across agencies? 

Cpl. Norton - 
I cannot give a 100% definite reason as to why each agency and state has their own definition. My guess would be that each government agency wants to be the one to determine what it is. Like the rivalry between police and fire, each wants to be in control of the scene. 

The major issue is that working for an agency, you have to be able to enforce the laws of that agency. It is hard for individuals that serve on different task forces. They have to be very mindful of the capacity that they are serving in, and enforce that agencies definition. 

Fiona - 
Can you sift the definition down to one so that we can get a basic understanding as it applies to the U.S.?

Cpl. Norton - 
My personal favorite is the one offered by the Department of Defense, which states: 
Terrorism is the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against individuals or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives. 
This definition is my favorite because it lists religious, something that most of the others fail to list. The significance is that in this day and age, there is probably a 5:1 ratio of religious groups to political groups. 

Amazingly, there is only one definition for domestic terrorism, which is:
Extreme force and violence perpetrated by residents of a country, within that country, for the purpose of coercing its government and population into modifying its behavior.

How do they decide who has control over the case? Who maintains jurisdiction?

Cpl. Norton - 
The problem with most terrorist activities here in the U.S. we list the activities as criminal acts. Only once we've established a link between an event and a terrorist organization, are the FBI usually involved. In all terrorism cases here in the U.S., the FBI gets the lead. All terrorism cases that affect U.S. interests overseas the CIA gets the lead. 

Another issue that makes it difficult to determine who has jurisdiction is that we see gangs using terrorist tactics, and terrorists using gang tactics. The FBI, however, does do a good job serving as a go-to resource to help determine what agencies have jurisdiction.

Fiona - 
I was fascinated to learn that terrorism runs on a business plan and provides benefits. I am not talking about the virgins-in-the-sky kind of benefits either, I am talking about vacation pay. Can you talk about terrorism - both domestic and foreign as a business model?

Cpl. Norton -
One of the definitions of business is "an occupation, profession or trade." For most terrorist organizations what they are trying to accomplish, whether it be religious or political, they see as an occupation for God or the people. They are doing their work. Therefore, they are working for them. Domestic terrorism is less of a business than the international terrorist groups. Practically all of the domestic terrorists have regular jobs that they do.

Al-Qaeda, for example, does operate as a business. They, as well as other organizations, still promise 72 virgins, the chance to live in the lands of milk and honey, and they get to touch the face of God. 

These perks are only for males though; women get family redemption.

Fiona - 
Family redemption? I mean that is a nice gesture and everything... but there are other things that might entice me a bit more.

Cpl. Norton - 
Understand that family redemption for women is very important in the Islamic religion. 

Most of these women are raped into the organizations, therefore, making them impure. The only way they can purify themselves, and be right for God, is to do His bidding (as they are told).

There are many ways to entice women, but the most popular are:
* They are raped-in 
* They want family redemption 
* They have lost family to the enemy and want revenge 
* Or in many cases, they want to prove that they can fight and die
    just as well as a man can. 
* Some women are romantically involved with members of the
    organization, and it is just natural that they join.

Fiona - 
Let's do a little myth-busting. 

Cpl. Norton - 
Myths of Terrorism -

1. Terrorism is a new tactic.
    Terrorism can be traced to biblical times, but the first time it was
     used in the context we use it today was 1792 during the French
     Revolution. A British scholar said, "What is
     happening in France is terroristic."

2. One person’s terrorist is another person’s liberator. 
    That statement is in the eye of the beholder. If you ask a terrorist
     group if they are terrorists 9 out of 10 times they will say no.
     They will call themselves Freedom Fighters or Liberators. 
     Therefore the term is very political loaded. 

    Terrorism itself is part of a strategy. No one goes out and says, "I
    am going to terrorize people." It is a tactic that is used to reach
    one's goals.
3. Historically, terrorism has been assumed to be a left
    wing/revolutionary phenomena
    Right wing wants a return to a previous time.
    Left wing wants to  create a new reality.
    The reality is that there is a 5:1 Right wing to left wing terrorist
    ratio right now  

4. Terrorism is highly effective 
     No, it is part of a strategy. It is also important to realize that
     when terrorists receive what they are asking for, they will not
     stop and be happy. They will continue to do what they do, but
     next time ask for more. 

5. Terrorists are idealistic – 
    Terrorists use their ideology to gain power.

6. Humane behavior is sacrificed for revolutionary goals.
    The goal is power. 

7. Terrorism is for the poor.
    In reality, the people with high status within and organization
    come from very wealthy families.

Fiona -     
You have a list of the planning stage steps that all terror acts follow. 

Cpl. Norton - 
Yes, every terrorist organization uses this planning cycle:

Planning cycle  

• Broad target selection 
• Intelligence and surveillance 
• Specific target selection 
• Pre-attack surveillance and planning 
• Attack rehearsal  
• Actions on the objective 
• Escape and exploitation

Fiona - 
What is the point of no return? Where do the good guys usually catch the cell's planning?

Cpl. Norton - 
Catching a terrorist event before it happens is the ultimate goal. However, for the good guys to completely disrupt the event, it has to be caught before the attack rehearsal. Once the terrorists have all of the information, it's almost impossible to stop,  If we are able to disrupt the attack during the rehearsal stage, the terrorists already have all the information they need. If we arrest a group, then the terrorist organization simply finds others to train. Anytime you can foil it before then; they have to start all over. They have to be lucky once, we have to be lucky always.

Fiona - 
Can we talk about ideology and how they get the message out to possible followers?

Cpl. Norton -
Ideology is at the heart of all major decisions and choices the terrorist group makes. The avenues terrorist use to spread their ideology are: 
* Mass media
* Internet 
* Political fronts
* Literature dissemination 
One of the biggest recruiting tools is Social Media. Moreover, there are no laws against that.

Fiona - 
What are the usual tactics that terrorists use? Also, who are the targets? 

Cpl. Norton - 

The 6 Traditional Tactics: 

* Arson 
* Assault 
* Bombing 
* Hijacking 
* Hostage taking 
* Kidnapping 

Newer Tactics: 

* Threat-Hoax 
* Raid or Ambush 
* Seizure 
* Assassination 
* Weapons of Mass Destruction


* Governments 
* People 
* Other countries and their people

Fiona - 
Thank you so much, Cpl. Norton. I am so looking forward to learning more in this series. 

Also, thanks to you writers who do their research here on ThrillWriting. Hopefully, this has given you some plotting points for your WIP. While this article is only the first in a series, if you have a question or comment, please leave it below. The comments are moderated to block SPAM, so it will go up ASAP. In the meantime, if you find this resource to be helpful, I would appreciate your spreading the word. I've placed some handy-dandy social media buttons below.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Forensic Trace Evidence: Hair and Fur - Info for Writers

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia
So your investigator arrived on the scene.
(Crime Scene 101 for writers article)

They've photographed and collected all of the macro-evidence. 

Now they need the trace evidence (that which isn't easily seen with the naked eye) collected and processed. This trace evidence might include hair. 
* Hair is one of the most collected forms of trace evidence.
* Hair is particularly useful because it is stable over time.
* Because hair is produced around blood vessels it is a long term
   record of toxins
   ` Illicit drugs such as THC in marijuana
   ` Poisonings such as arsonic
   ` Heavy metal exposure such as lead.
   ` Medications
* Hair grows at a fairly predictable rate of about .5 inches per
   month. So scientists can even calculate when the exposure to
   the toxin began - depending on the length of the hair.

Investigators will use three basic means of collecting hair and other trace evidence.

1. Hunt and peck
2. Tape
3. Vacuum
Video Quick Study (9:50) Prt 1 
Video Quick Study (1:54) Prt 2 Teacher explaining collection
                     methods of finding trace evidence including hair. 

Humans have various hair all over their bodies including body hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows. But only head hair and pubic hair have forensic use.

So let's say we have a rape victim. They find hair on her clothes. 
1. They will have to collect hair from the victim - this is a known or
    K sample
2. The laboratory will compare the victim K sample to the 
    Q sample - the sample in question.
    a. First, they will figure out if the Q sample is a human hair.
    b. Second, They will determine if the K and Q samples have
        the same general characteristics.

Let's say that the victim K sample excludes the Q sample that is they could not come from the same person. But our investigators have their eye on a bad-guy. They ask him for hair samples. He can 
a. Agree and submit to testing
b. Refuse - if he refuses then the courts can order him to submit.

The suspect K sample is collected.
1. It is suggested by the FBI that 100 full, intact strands, including
    the follicle are harvested from the suspects head from various
    regions as even hair from an individual person can differ
    from region to region on their heads.
2. It is suggested that at least 20 intact strands of pubic hair are

*If the laboratory says that the suspect K sample and the Q sample
  do not share similar qualities, this excludes the suspect. 
*If the lab says that there are similarities in the K and Q samples,
  this DOES NOT mean that you found your villain. 
* Hair is class evidence - it can be used to exclude but not to prove
   someone is culpable.
* If there are similarities, the sample is sent for DNA testing.
  (DNA 101)
* By doing lab analysis first, it saves a great deal of time and money
   over going right to DNA analysis

Let's do a little biology 101 - I know you're excited!

hair follicle
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

* The root of the hair is
   anchored into the dermis of
   the skin
* Follicles are surrounded by
   epidermal cells
* Blood vessels at the roots
   deliver nutrients

Looking at the hair itself

* Hair is mostly made
   from keratin
Haarstrukturen im Vergleich
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
* The outside of the hair is 
   called the cuticle
* In humans, the cuticle
   gives very little information. 
* Mammals have various
   patterns in their cuticles and
   the labs can compare the
   various patterns to tell
   that's a bat, or a rabbit, or a

* Inside of the cuticle is the cortex.
* The cortex is the thickest layer of the hair strand.
* This is where pigment from the melanin can be found, giving hair
    its color.
   ` Hair colorant can coat the surface or penetrate to the cortex.
   `In bleached hair pigmentation is lost from the cortex
   `Only the hair that is treated will show a change in color, so at the
     root the true color will be visible. There will be a line of 
     demarcation between the two

* When people change the color of their hair, or their hair changes
    naturally as the subject ages, this can create issues in finding 
    similarities in the K and Q samples. 
   A fingerprint cannot be altered, but your villain can thwart an
   investigator by dying their hair, committing a crime,
   and then dying their hair a different color. So even if the police
   take K samples from their hairbrush they will not show as similar
   in the lab. And when they take them from hair that's been altered
   it too will not show as the same.

Photomicrograph of Pubic Hair Medulla
Pubic Hair Medulla (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Medulla
* The medulla is at the core of the hair sample
* It is the hollow region at the center.
* A data bases of medulla patterns have been developed to
   identify various animals and differentiate human from other
   animal hair.
* Finding animal hair can be very helpful. It can link transferred
   hair from a suspect at a crime scene. For example, Blade Slayer
   goes in and attacks your heroine. Trace evidence hair is found.
   It's a black rabbit, and Blade Slayer happens to have a black
   rabbit named Cuddles. It's circumstantial, but it can be helpful.
* Animal hair forensics can also be used in crimes like poaching
   and illegal animal importation (Wildlife Forensics Blog Post)

Three Phases of Hair Growth

Anagen Phase
* 2-7 yrs for scalp hair 
* Growth phase where cells are formed at the root which pushes the
   hair out of the scalp making the hair longer.
* This hair will only fall out if it is yanked out.
* When hair from this phase is
Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...
Animation of the structure of a section of DNA. The bases lie horizontally between the two spiraling strands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
   found at the crime scene it has a
   follicle attached. 
* The follicle contains DNA that
   will identify an individual
Catagen Phase
* The hair is in transition
* The hair no longer grows, the
   cuticle pulls away
Telegen Phase
* The final phase where hair falls
* In the catagen and telegen
   phases the follicle is no longer
   attached to the hair. Nuclear
   DNA cannot be found. The
   investigators will try to test for
   mitochondrial DNA in the hair
   shaft. Mitochondrial DNA is not
   conclusive as everyone in the
   matriarchal line will have the
   same DNA (DNA 101 for Writers)
* Telogen hairs are those typically found at crime scenes.
* Because hair is easily transferred from one place to another, it is
   circumstantial evidence.

What else can an investigator tell from a hair strand?

* Pubic hairs have shaft differences along the length and a
   continuous medulla
* Male facial hair is usually more triangular in shape
* Hair that's been cut or shaved will have a blunt end
* Hair that is allowed to grow naturally such as arm hair will have a
   naturally tapered end
* Head hair - not recently cut- will show a frayed or split end
* Age cannot be discerned.
* Sex cannot be determined.
* Ethnicity - is difficult. The person would have to have a very
   clean background as Caucasian, African, or Asian ancestry.
   And then, there are variables that can point the investigators
   in a direction. It is not conclusive.

So what can an investigator say about a hair sample?

* Is it human, or animal (or vampire)?
* Is it a useful sample, either head or pubic hair?
* Is it head or is it pubic hair?
* Is the Q sample consistent with the K sample?
   `If yes, further investigation - suspect stays in the pool.
   `If no, suspect is removed from possibilities; they look for another
   `If yes AND no that is there are similarities AND differences,
    then no conclusion can be drawn.

Video Quick Study (4:16) Hair testimony at Casey Anthony trial
Video Quick Study (4:27) Britain CSI school

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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Monday, September 30, 2013

Walking Through Forensic DNA Basics: Information for Writers


Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This week I had the opportunity to go down to Richmond to visit the FBI headquarters. A handful of Sisters in Crime Members were being hosted by the FBI Evidence Response Team. I want to thank the team for sharing their expertise. (Names and images are withheld for security purposes)

That night I learned a lot about processing the scene of a crime, collecting everything from foot prints BLOG LINK - Footwear Evidence to  fingerprints BLOG LINK to Fingerprint Evidence to fibers.

But the gold star belongs to DNA. DNA has risen to be THE  best available evidence because the laboratory results are statistically linked to a single person and exclude all others.

Did you know that with the improvements in science, they can now trap enough DNA in a fingerprint to create DNA profile?

If you are writing a story that involves a crime, it's likely that your investigation team will be looking for DNA to collect and use to solve the case.

Processing Blood Samples, FBI
Forensic analysis of DNA can be confusing so let's walk through this together.

STEP ONE - What Is DNA? 

First the bilology basics. I know. I know. It's the spinach on your plate. But it's important, so I'll try to make this as quick and as painless as possible.

DNA - Deoxyribonucleic Acid -
* All cells have DNA (except red blood cells)
* DNA is the genetic material making up our chromosomes
* Gene – the basic unit of heredity; a sequence of DNA nucleotides
   on a chromosome.
* Genome – the sum total of an organism’s genetic material.
* DNA encodes the instructions for when and how to make
   proteins. These proteins tell the cell how it will
   function - is it a brain cell? a liver cell?
* It looks like a twisted ladder. The uprights are made out of
   phosphates and sugars. rungs are pairs of
   smaller particles called nucleotides.

You're doing great! Hang in there!

English: DNA replication or DNA synthesis is t...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
* All DNA is made up of a combination of four letters
  G - Guanine
  C - Cytosine
  A - Adonine
  T - Thymine
* G and C got together A and T go together
Happy Valentines Day - Relationship Mitosis
Mitosis (Photo credit: id-iom)

Mitosis -
* DNA replication
* A cell splits by dividing like a zipper
* The new cells contain an identical set
   of cells as were present at conception
* This only changes when there is a
    random mutation
* All cells in the whole body contain the
   exact same DNA

Video Quick Study of Mitosis (1:29)
VIDEO QUICK STUDY (8:03) basic info on DNA and Mitosis - might be more information than you need, but the presentation is thorough and easily understood.

STEP TWO - There Are Two Kinds of DNA
Prokaryotes are primitive cells, without a nuc...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nuclear DNA-
* It is found inside the nucleus packed
   into chromosomes
* It is inherited from both parents
   50% from our mom and 50% from
   our dad.
* Each parent contributes 23
   chromosomes for a total of 46.
* The dominant and recessive qualities
   gives us our traits
* A DNA profiles belongs to an
   individual and ONLY that
   individual and no one else in the world    UNLESS we have an
   identical twin. Plot twist!
* The closer we are in genetic
   relationship to someone else, the
   closer the DNA configuration.
* Each cell has one copy of nuclear DNA

Mitochondrial DNA-
* Is found in mitochondria
* 100% of mitochondrial DNA is inherited from mom.
* The mitochondrial DNA is the same in our brothers and sisters
    regardless of who fathered each child.
* All mitochondrial DNA came from your mom which came from 
   your mom's mom which came from your
   mom's mom's mom etc. How cool is that?
* Is not housed in a a set of chromosomes
* This DNA is smaller than Nuclear DNA
* This DNA is present in larger numbers than Nuclear DNA
   (nuclear DNA has just one copy per cell)
* This DNA tends to be more stable than Nuclear DNA over time.

VIDEO QUICK STUDY (1:58) Two Minute Science Lesson: How DNA Testing Works

STEP THREE - Collecting DNA Evidence

Maryland V. King Police can collect DNA without a warrant Video Quick Study (1:55)

Biological evidence is perishable
* DNA will fragment
* The best shot at getting useful DNA is in a fresh sample
* Fresh tissue has more nuclear DNA and an older sample has less

Things that cause DNA to degrade

* UV light
* Acid
* Bleach
* Hydrogen Peroxide
* High humidity
* Heat and Fire
* Anything that oxidizes biological molecules

Handle with Care:
Video Quick Study (2:16) Mentions the changes in technology and the importance of properly preserving the sample.

* If the evidence that is being collected is wet it should be air dried.
* The evidence should be stored in a PAPER BAG that can release
* Store in low temperatures (this prevents bacterial or fungal
   growth that has its own DNA)
*  Avoid as much as possible environmental contamination.

Crime Scene Techs:
* Need to understand that they can be contaminated by the crime
   scene (pick up bacteria etc.)
* Can contaminate a crime scene with their own saliva, dander, hair
* The FBI Processing unit that I visited this week uses full Tyvek
   suits to prevent contamination of the scene.
* People who were on the scene will often be asked to give a DNA
   sample called an "ELIMINATION SAMPLE"
* Most often reference samples are taken from a buccal swab. A
   square piece cotton is swabbed over the
   inner cheek. This is placed in an envelope. Why not a vial?
   Because a closed container encourages the
   growth of other life forms. 
   VIDEO QUICK STUDY (3:07) How to collect a buccal sample.
* DNA elimination samples are collected from victims and
   witnesses etc.

English: A forensic scientist at the U.S. Army...
. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PLEASE NOTE this elimination sample does NOT get run through the system. It is merely there for the scientists to compare with the sample they are analyzing. Your character will NOT be located and charged with a previous crime. There are all kinds of privacy laws that prevent this from happening, according to the FBI agents we were interviewing.

Death Investigators: What if you have a body to identify?
If the investigators have an idea who this might have been they can get a swab from a blood relative and try to find markers that they share. If no relative is available, then they could go to the person's home and try to collect DNA there from a toothbrush or razor, etc.

What if the house burned down and DNA from that location is not available? Well, investigators could try to find stored DNA samples, for example a woman's pap smear might be stored or perhaps your character had given blood to the Red Cross.

Here's a VIDEO QUICK STUDY (6:09) that gives a simplified description - good overview. 
STEP FOUR - Extracting and Processing DNA

Extracting DNA isn't hard you can do it right now in your own kitchen. Don't believe me?
Video Quick Experiment for You to Try (2:46)
Video Quick Study - Separating DNA from Blood (6:37)

In extracting DNA from Crime Scene or reference samples, the goal is to find the 1% that differs from everyone else. This gives an individuals DNA Fingerprint or DNA Profile.

99.9% of our DNA is the same in all humans. Only .1% differentiates us

* DNA is stiff and brittle. In order to avoid damaging it, a

   technique is employed that breaks down the cell around it.
* In a crime scene laboratory being meticulous is paramount.
VIDEO QUICK STUDY - (6:19 - but go right to 3:00 mark) this
   process is better explained through this video than writing the
   steps because of the equipment


RFLP Analysis - Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism not widely used since the mid-90s
* A large sample is required
* Results are not compatible with major DNA databases
* The proces uses molecular scissors to cut where a TA next to a
   CG combos. Since everyone has different DNA profile's the
   material created will be of different lengths. (15-35 repeating
   base pairs)
* This is then processed with Gel Electrophoresis
   Video Quick Study (5:18) Frankly this is the quickest, easiest
   way of understanding the process

To correct the problem of sample size, scientists developed PCR - Polymerase Chain Reaction
* This was developed in 1983 as a method for replicating DNA
VIDEO QUICK STUDY (3:32) sorry this has no audio, but it is
   the best quick study I could find
* PCR takes advantage  of the DNAs double strand and its simple
* Uses a thermocycler to double the amount of DNA with every
* Only one strand of DNA can make a billion copies in four hours


STR - Short Tandem Repeat
* It still uses PCR to make copies
* STR focuses on the smaller repeating units in DNA
* STR uses only about 3-7 repeating base pairs (where RFLP
   needed 15-35)
* Can be used on much smaller samples than RFLP
* Can be used on more degraded samples than RFLP
* Only 18 cells are needed to get a DNA profile - this is why they
   can pick up DNA from a fingerprint, according to our FBI
* Uses Capillary Electropheresis -  done in a column (not in a flat
   gel as in electrophoresis)

THERE ARE 13 DIFFERENT CORE LOCATIONS WITHIN DNA that captures most of humans variability in STR

CODIS FBI Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

* Each core location has its own
   established probability of being
   found in the larger population.
* When all 13 different probabilities
   are added together the statistical
   probability are in the quadrillions.
* These can be put into the CODIS
 (Combined DNA Index System)
  developed by the FBI in the late
  90s. Pay attention to this date if
  your story happens before this time

Recently they've developed a way to tell if the DNA comes from a man or a woman by looking at the sex chromosomes. (XX or XY) They do this by looking at the amelogenin gene on the sex chromosome. It is longer in a man than woman but this is enough to tell the difference. This is important because sometimes there is a mixed sample of DNA, for example if they do a vaginal swab for sperm.

STEP FIVE - Is It a Match?

Reading the computer output is outside of the scope of this article - though I will address this in the near future.

CODIS 13 point profile
CODIS 13 point profile (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The information gathered is analyzed and a statistic is assigned.
Population Genetics gives us
    statistics about the likelihood of this
    profile occurring in a population. It is
    a PROBABILITY that the same
    profile is replicated in the population
    and not coincidence.
* The more stretches of DNA that are
   compared between two people the
   statistics possibility of error narrows.
   It can become so narrow that it
   EXCLUDES everyone
   else from the pool of possibilities
   EXCEPT an identical twin.

Okay how was that? Not bad right? We made it to the end of the DNA pathway. Now as you sit on the bench to catch your breath, let's review some points at which a plot twist could mess everything up:

* Has the prosecution kept tight control of its chain of who has
   custody from collection to end result?
* Was the biological material from which the DNA was extracted
   identified? For example, in a rape case was it semen that is being
* Is the testing laboratory accredited?
* Has the testing laboratory  been audited by an outside agency?
* Has the testing laboratory  undergone a proficiency test - and was
   it a blind test?
* Did the laboratory run the required control samples?
* Was there examiner bias? Did the tech talk directly to the
   investigator or was it blind?
* How large was the DNA sample? Was it from a pool of blood?
   Or was it from a fingerprint?
* What if your character -- either victim or accused -- has a relative
    involved in the research (or an ex-wife eek!)?
* Was more than one DNA profile mixed in the sample?

So many ways to play with DNA evidence! 

See how this article influenced my plot lines in my novella MINE and my novel CHAOS IS COME AGAIN.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.