Scientific crime-fighters speak to Bexley students

Messenger photo by John Matuszak

Franklin County Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Fickenworth, an expert in crash scene reconstruction, points out how a child seat saved the life of an infant after a semi truck hit a mini-van. Fickenworth spoke to classes May 15 at Bexley High as part of the Scientist in Residence program, and the day before police crime scene investigators Sylvia Acton and Dennis Graul discussed DNA profiling and other techniques.

Beware, bad guys everywhere – from fleeing felons to dangerous drivers. There is a fearless crime-fighter on your trail wearing a big "S."

It’s not Superman – it’s science, Bexley High School students learned as expert Crime Scene Investigators spoke about their professions as part of the Bexley Education Foundation’s Scientist in Residence program.

"This is not a profession for the squeamish, the easily intimidated, or the dishonest," Sylvia Acton, a Bexley veteran and a veteran investigator with the Columbus Division of Police, told the students May 14. "You have to tell the truth… Science is a search for the truth. If you have dishonest people searching for the truth, you’re never going to find it."

She was joined by Dennis Graul, also a Bexley resident and a Columbus police detective with extensive investigative experience, particularly in matching DNA samples found at crime scenes.

The next day, Franklin County Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Fickenworth, an expert in accident scene reconstruction, met with students.

Catching the bad guys

To underscore the seriousness of his work, Graul played a harrowing recording of a 911 emergency call from a girl whose mother was being raped inside their home.

The mother was killed but the girl was unharmed. The suspect was later caught, convicted and incarcerated, due to the discovery of the genetic material he left behind.

"If not for DNA, he would still be free," Graul said.

DNA sampling for criminals began in Great Britain, and the United States has had a data base since 1989.

The genetic make-up for every individual is as unique as a fingerprint, according to Graul, and matches have a one in a trillion level of certainty.

At first only convicted murderers and sex offenders were profiled. Now every felon has a DNA sample collected and stored. California is experimenting with gathering DNA within family members with criminal records that can be matched when a crime is committed.

When the profiling began, samples as large as quarter were needed. Today, DNA can be extracted from a blood spot as small as a pinpoint.

And the labs are getting much more proficient at pulling samples from guns, shell casings and other pieces of evidence that might not have yielded DNA a few years ago, the detective added.

One of the most successful and dramatic uses of DNA to get a serial criminal off the streets occurred in the case of Robert Patton, the so-called Linden rapist, a suspect in 21 assaults in and around the Columbus neighborhood from 1992 to 2002.

He was once stopped by police in Bexley after ringing a doorbell at a residence and claiming his car had run out of gas.

Patton was identified using DNA from blood and skin he left behind while breaking in to an apartment in Pomona, Calif.

After being arrested in Columbus, he confessed to 37 rapes, and probably committed as many as 60, Graul said.

Again, without the DNA to link him to the crimes, the rapist could still be at large.

Graul worked at the crime lab with Acton, who worked for 25 years as a forensic scientist.

Acton is sometimes amused by television programs such as CSI, which show investigators studying evidence in the dark.

"At a crime scene, you want light," she explained.

The investigators on TV also get their test results back quicker than their real-life counterparts, she noted, although the turn-around time has improved over the years.

It used to take six to eight weeks to get results back from a DNA sample, and now it takes one week.

Acton was interested in science at an early age, and a teacher steered her toward a career in medical technology, which prepared her in subjects of biology and bacteriology that prepared her for crime lab work.

She is the mother of Bexley teacher Eric Acton.

Discussion of her work was a regular topic of conversation around the house.

The first time Eric accompanied her to the lab, technicians brought in clothes still dripping with blood.

His reaction? "Oh, neat."

Having DNA evidence in court is extremely valuable, Graul said. "You can’t beat physical evidence."

But you still need witnesses, as well, he added. "You need that human element."

Crash course

Acton compared her job to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Deputy Fickenworth used the same analogy for his profession. And his puzzle has a lot of pieces, sometimes as many as 300 scattered around a crash scene.

He’s called out on fatal accidents and ones in which there is a question about who is at fault.

"I’m on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," Fickenworth said.

His allies in the investigation are "math, science and physics. Everything I need to know in the crash scene, every bit of evidence is contained in the laws of nature."

If two cars hit each other, or if a car part (or a body) is ejected, Fickenworth can tell the speed and angle of the impact from where it landed, using the laws of physics.

Skid marks are also tell-tale signs. He calls them the "Oh, God" moment when the driver realizes they are no longer in control and "Isaac Newton is driving."

"Crashes are a unique animal. It’s like a big pool game," he explained.

It’s a lucrative field. Private investigators can command up to $1,500 for a crash scene reconstruction from lawyers looking for reliable court testimony.

"There are a lot of people trained in reconstruction," noted Fickenworth, a 29-year veteran who obtained his schooling at four universities. "A few are good at it. A few have the confidence of attorneys. They have to trust you to hire you."

Fickenworth likes to have such an airtight case when he shows up in court that the defense attorney won’t even put him on the stand, opting for a plea deal.

While his job is often to collar the guilty, Fickenworth’s work can sometimes exonerate the accused.

He recalled one case in which a driver struck and killed a girl crossing the street after mailing a letter.

It was almost "a perfect crash scene" and the evidence showed that the driver, who said she did not see the victim, had not been speeding.

Fickenworth discovered through enlargements of photos that the girl’s red coat had blended with a red "house for sale" sign behind her just before being hit.

Fickenworth will take scientific evidence over accounts of those involved, who sometimes can’t even tell how many vehicles were involved. "I would rather not even talk to eyewitnesses."

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