In modern law enforcement, forensic scientists are a crucial component in a criminal investigation. In addition to conducting routine analysis on a myriad of non-violent cases, they are vital in assisting police solve murders. And, more to the point, forensic investigators are often the prosecutor’s key ally in locking up cold-blooded killers.
Whether these investigators specialize in botany, accident reconstruction or anthropology, one thing is for sure—these scientists cobble together unusual pieces of evidence with the goal of connecting killers to their crimes.
Here are two cases in which forensic scientists gathered somewhat unusual evidence that led police to the killer.
Maple Tree Solves a Murder
In the farmlands of Indiana, a gruesome murder occurred in the summer of 1981. Charlotte and Fred Grabbe had been married for a tumultuous 23 years. Then, one day, their dismal marriage came to a tragic end when Fred strangled Charlotte to death in their barn.
After choking the life out of Charlotte, Fred ditched his wife’s car in a remote location and then dumped her body into a 55 gallon steel drum. After dousing his wife’s corpse with fuel, he set the body ablaze underneath a maple tree on the banks of a nearby river.
Charlotte’s disappearance was reported to the police, but her body was never found.
Despite never recovering Charlotte’s remains, Fred was convicted for the murder of Charlotte. That conviction, however, was overturned. So, in order to ensure Fred never saw the light of day, the local police—using a tip from Fred’s mistress—began to investigate a new evidence lead, which was the maple tree where Charlotte’s body was allegedly torched.
That’s when the expertise of two forensic scientists came into play. Combining the talents of a plant pathologist and an organic chemist, the prosecution was able to determine that—years prior (1981, to be exact) – a petroleum product had damaged the maple tree.
The evidence further revealed that this oil-based product traumatized the roots, leading to the stunting of the maple tree’s growth. Fred’s mistress revealed which side of the tree that the killer had set-up the drum. Amazingly, her testimony was corroborated by the scientists, who proved that only the branches on one side of the tree had been damaged. Specifically, the side of the tree where the victim’s body was incinerated.
All of this new evidence combined with prior witness testimony was a bittersweet victory for the prosecution.
Years after killing his wife, Fred Grabbe was finally sentenced to life in prison.
Bike Paint Helps Lock-Up Child Killer
In September 1984, tragedy struck a small Arizona town after the kidnapping and murder of an 8-year old little girl named Vicki Lynne Hoskinson. On that horrific day, young Vicki left her house on a bike in order to mail a birthday card to her aunt. And she never returned.
Upon finding Vicki’s bike on the side of the road just a few blocks from home, Vicki’s family contacted the police. The best lead received by law enforcement came from a coach at the nearby elementary school. He revealed witnessing a suspicious man parked in a car—on the day of Vicki’s disappearance in the alley next to the school. The witness was so suspicious of the man, that he memorized the car’s license plate number.
That license plate led to Frank Jarvis Atwood, a 28-year old man from Los Angeles who was out on parole after serving time for kidnapping and child molestation.
The police knew they had their guy. But the problem was—no body had been recovered, and there was no physical evidence linking Atwood to Vicki. This is when the forensics team worked their magic.
After conducting a thorough analysis and testing of Atwood’s car and the area where Vicki’s bike was found, the forensics team made some startling discoveries. A trace amount of pink paint on Atwood’s bumper was an exact match of the paint on Vicki’s bike, and the small damage on one of Vicki’s pedals matched with some damage to the car’s gravel pan.
Also, some nickel from the car’s bumper was matched to some nickel found on her bike. The investigators also determined that after hitting Vicki’s bike with his car, Atwood also drove into the mailbox. And the pattern of the damage on the mailbox matched damage found on Atwood’s car.
About a year and a half after her murder, Vicki’s skeletal remains were found scattered in a nearby desert.
Atwood was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
These true crime stories prove that with the right team of detectives and forensic investigators, any crime can be solved. And that even the smallest – or most unusual – piece of evidence can be effectively used to lock up killers. Do you know of any recent high-profile murders solved with the aid of trace evidence?
SCENE OF THE CRIME
A Chip Palmer Forensic Mystery
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