Monday, March 23, 2009

Interview: John Towler

Some of you may already recognize my first guest to Powder Burns & Bullets. For those who don’t, John Towler (J.C. Towler) writes suspense, horror, science fiction, and police-drama novels. He is also a gifted short story writer. He notes that he is “…delighted to write about other people going into scary places and getting eaten; not so keen on that adventure himself.” His works have appeared in e-zines, and his short story “Scales” is featured in Permuted Press' 2009 Monstrous: 20 Tales of Giant Creature Terror (available through this link to Amazon). His crime story “Lottery Winner” will be appearing in L&L Dreamspell’s “Your Darkest Dreamspell” anthology in 2009. Since John also works in law enforcement, I asked if he would be interested in a short Q&A for the new blog, and he has graciously offered his time. Below is an excerpt of that interview. The full interview can be accessed using the “Interviews” link in the sidebar.

PBB: When a murder has been reported, who (departments and function) is called out to the scene?

JCT: I'm afraid a lot of my answers are going to start with "it depends" but that's the most honest answer. With a small department, like the one I work for, it's going to be the detective assigned to the case and whoever is available help him. Uniformed patrol officers might be tapped to help with jobs like canvassing the neighborhood or searching for evidence if there is a large crime scene. More than likely, assistance will be requested from the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to process the crime scene.

PBB: After the SBI processes the scene, who maintains custody of the evidence? Does SBI keep it until needed by the local department, or does SBI send it back to the local department immediately?

JCT: The SBI also runs the state crime lab, so they keep it. After it is processed, it is returned to the local agency unless the SBI has taken over the case.

PBB: Of those called out, is there a general order of who processes the scene?

JCT: The larger agency will have crime scene technicians who process the scene for physical evidence. With the smaller agency, it will fall to whoever is best at whatever needs to be done. If you've got a guy who is a wiz at lifting prints, he'll fill that role. If the SBI is called out, the crime scene will be preserved for the arrival of their experts. The Medical Examiner will need to approve moving/touching the body prior to anyone handling that vital bit of "evidence."

PBB: How does the department decide what is and is not dusted for prints? Is there a general set of givens for prints? (e.g., doors, door knobs, trim work)

JCT: It's not really a departmental policy on what gets processed for fingerprints. It mostly depends on what, in the investigator's determination, needs to be processed. Did the intruder come through a window? Well that window, the sill and anything that he might have used to lever himself through is going to be processed. Will the rest of the windows in the house be checked? Not unless there is some compelling reason to do so. One new and interesting twist on fingerprints: DNA evidence can be obtained from fingerprints. Even a smeared print that would otherwise be useless can be processed to obtain DNA. At this time, if you dust a print to obtain a lift, then you've probably contaminated the DNA and can't use it for that purpose.

PBB: Are you talking about fingerprints mainly on glass, where the detective can see them and knows not to dust? Or does the detective secure the window sill and surrounding areas (in your example) to keep all potential prints from contamination?

JCT: Right now, there isn't really a whole lot of DNA collecting from fingerprints going on. Aside from the difficulty of obtaining a good DNA sample, the fact is the fingerprint database (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System--IAFIS) is much more extensive than the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). You can't have your cake and ice cream too: either your process the print with fingerprint powder or you swab and collect it for DNA. Given the percentages, dusting is usually the prefered choice.

PBB: As a detective, what are your first priorities (duties?) once at the scene? Generally, what do you do in order?

JCT: Assuming we don't have an active shooter or HAZMAT situation: If the scene has not been secured, that's the first order of business. Crime scenes tend to attract their share of "crime scene tourists". These are usually firefighters, EMTs, uniformed officers, neighbors and roommates who innocently hang around but don't realize they could be compromising vital evidence. If there is a suspect identified, that person will be moved to a secure location and either interviewed by myself or another investigator. Identify and isolate any witnesses and get their statements. Once people who have seen the same thing get together and start talking about it, their stories can become contaminated. Document the scene with video and photos. You'd do this before putting down any markers or measuring instruments. Part of that documentation would include making notes and sketches. From there you process the scene based on the priorities of the situation. Is there evidence outdoors and rain is threatening? Is there evidence that might degrade if not collected and preserved? Generally you start with the least disruptive/intrusive processes and work methodically toward the heart of the scene.

PBB: Thank you, John.


  1. Nice interview Stephen. It's nice to get some details for unraveling a crime scene from an actual officer and not one who plays one on tv.

    Good job to the both of you.


  2. Nice interview - I learned a lot. I thought John played a cop on TV? Seriously, it's great to be able to apply the day job effectively to the night one. Great questions, Stephen - looking forward to more interviews. Peace, Linda