CrimeCon 2017 Reflections

CrimeCon opening June 9, 2017The inaugural CrimeCon took place in Indianapolis, Indiana June 9-11, 2017. Starting something new is always a risk. Not just for organizers but also for the speakers who invest time and money in preparations and travel.

I was a little afraid that the crime elements would be overpowering with graphic images, sensationalized headlines, and “entertaining” speakers. I am happy to report that I was wrong.

CrimeCon opened with respect for the victims and their family members. This did not change throughout the conference. My talk at the end of CrimeCon also ensured we remember the victims.

There were demonstrations, case discussions, forensics, crime scene reconstructions with the Indianapolis Police Department, podcasting, and more. A murder mystery had us running through the hotel for clues.

I tried to go to as many sessions as possible. The packed schedule had multiple sessions at the same time. I chose sessions that would help me be a better cold case blogger. Some sessions were just too good not to attend e.g. rescue dogs. Below are just a few highlights from the sessions I did attend. The full schedule is still online, click here.

Sheryl McCollum from the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute, Atlanta (GA)

In 2004, Sheryl McCollum founded the CCIRI. It is now a nationwide network with more than 600 forensic professionals and 5,000 student volunteers. Each year, the Institute selects new cold cases to research. So far they checked the cases from the 1946 slaying of four Georgia sharecroppers, the Boston Strangler, Chandra Levy, the 1996 assassination of Tupac Shakur, and the 1989 unsolved death of Kaitlyn Arquette. ​

This session gave me the opportunity to see what Sheryl highlights in a cold case. Everyone approaches cases differently so my goal was to see what order she used. The presentation followed the case developments in chronological order. In between the case developments she highlighted what did not make sense to her.

car mary littleWe discussed the 1965 Atlanta, Georgia case of Mary Shotwell Little. Mary went missing Oct 16, 1965. Someone most likely killed her. All her files are missing. From the remaining crime scene photography we know this. A tightly wrapped wad sticks out between the driver and passenger seat. Check the picture. It is Mary’s underwear wrapped tightly in her pantyhose. Who did this to her?

In a different session with Sheryl, we pondered the cold case of Ryan Singleton. In July 2013, he left Atlanta to become a Hollywood actor. He went missing. Months later, he was found face down in the desert (California). His organs were gone. According to authorities:”no eyes, there was no heart, there were no lungs, there was no liver, there were no kidneys.” This is a case to watch.

FBI Diving Team with Bobby Chacon

Special Agent Bobby Chacon, retired FBI Agent, spoke about the preparations before a dive, the security, and the limitations for divers. This was a session I immediately checked on my list when the schedule came out.

I was hoping to learn a lot about evidence gathering underwater, setting perimeters, difficulties gathering evidence in moving water, and methods of preserving evidence in salt, fresh, and brackish water. Did you know you can lift a viable finger print from a gun that was found submerged in still water?

There was a lot to cover as the session followed Chacon’s career highlights. He also touched on mental health care. Every time human remains are found the entire team goes through a mental health care session. All of them, no exceptions.

The presentation had lots of pictures and was good to follow. I wish we learned more about underwater photography and evidence gathering but there just was not enough time.

AdS and LP at CrimeCon 500

With Laura Pettler at CrimeCon

Crime Scene Reconstruction and Blood Spatter Analysis with Dr. Laura Pettler

Laura is my AISOCC colleague. Her specialties are topics that interest me. Aside from that, I love to learn from someone who has and the theoretical background and practical experience.

Laura’s specialty is in staged crime scenes in domestic violence homicide cases. She is also an expert in serial homicide, sexual homicide, bloodstain pattern and shooting reconstruction.

She invented the kaleidoscope system used to find the bullet trajectory. It visualizes where the shooter was standing and shows the area where the bullet is.

We spoke about staging crime scenes. Staging is about the victim-offender relationship. Most staged suicides in domestic violence cases involve a gun shot to the head. Police usually find the woman in the bedroom.

Laura discussed how 911 calls in those cases were “alibi” setters instead of a call for help. “I was at work but then decided to go home and then...” versus “Help, my girlfriend is hurt. Send an ambulance!

Laura explained how blood tells a story. Assailants like to fling it, sling it, and stick it under water. All leave their own telltale signs. She demonstrated blood spatter by dripping blood on various surfaces such as glass, cardboard, wood, jeans, and paper.

This session was by far one of my favourites as it explained deeply academic theoretical issues in plain English. Laura also demonstrated the kaleidoscope.

The Wisconsin Innocence Project

If you blog about wrongful convictions you cannot miss this session. In 1998, Professors Keith Findley and John Pray founded the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP). They aim to exonerate the innocent, educate students, and reform the criminal justice system by identifying and remedying the causes of wrongful convictions.

Since its founding, WIP has successfully freed 22 wrongfully convicted persons. WIP accepts cases with potential DNA evidence or other types of newly discovered evidence that support a claim of actual innocence.

We looked at the Texas case of David Leonard Wood a.k.a. the desert serial killer. His case is from 1978. It is about six missing women. Their bodies were buried in shallow graves. Wood did have a prior record but in the case of these six women several people warned that a trial would be unwise.

There was no evidence and a very weak probably cause. Too weak for an indictment and even then it would not lead to a guilty verdict. The prosecution then added jailhouse testimony. This type of testimony is always tainted as the informant usually gets something in return e.g. a lower sentence. Testifying for the prosecution it give the jury an illusion of trust. Why else would the prosecution bring them to court?

The jailhouse informant made crucial mistakes:

  • the modus operandi he spoke about didn’t match the evidence
  • Wood was under police surveillance when two women went missing
  • DNA on a piece of clothing shows a mixed partial profile of two men but Wood isn’t one of them.

This too is a case to watch.

We went very quickly over causes of wrongful convictions, how many applications they get yearly, common causes of wrongful convictions such as mistaken eye-witness identification and of course, corruption. I wish this session had a round-table discussion or a workshop to dig deeper into the legal issues involved.

search and rescue dogs crimecon 2 500The Midwest Search & Rescue Dogs

This session was on my list immediately when the schedule came out. Don’t ever expect me to miss a K9 session!

The Midwest Search Dogs from Central Indiana operates with volunteers. They train highly qualified K9s for Search & Rescue of lost or missing people.

The organization offer several search disciplines free of charge to Law Enforcement, Fire Departments, EMA, and Government Agencies. Several dogs were in the conference center. All dogs were eager to show their skills. Hands down, they were the stars at CrimeCon.

Citizen Detectives

CrimeCon 2017 CD panel 500My panel was the last one before the conference closed. Moderated by Devin, Joe, and Steve from Thinking Sideways, we discussed what role citizens can play without hindering the authorities.

Together with Tricia Griffith from Websleuths and author Cathy Scott we explored ethics, limitations, privacy, how to build up momentum, and when to pull back with information sharing. As explained on CrimeCon’s blog, the armchair detective has been retired.

I wish we had more time because none of the speakers were able to show how they make a difference in cold cases. The 45min structure also left no time for the highly anticipated Q&A sessions.

Organizing CrimeCon was a tremendous organization. However, it is a success that is here to stay. Next year, CrimeCon will be on May 4-6, Gaylord Opryland Hotel, Nashville, Tennessee.

Hope to see you there!

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