Science Helps Solve Crimes in Surprising Ways
There’s a new forensic tool that’s being developed that’s going to knock your socks off!
Investigative Science Professor, Glen P. Jackson, from West Virginia University, spoke with me recently about his advances in crime fighting, and while it’s all kind of “science-y”, I think you’ll agree it is fascinating.
Professor Jackson and his research team work with an apparatus called an isotope ratio mass spectrometer. It measure the ratios of particular isotopes that are found in different samples of material. Specifically, human material like bones, fingernails, teeth and, hair. The donor of can be dead or alive, it doesn’t matter. A person’s individual isotopes – made up of atoms with the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons — speak volumes.
Unlike DNA or fingerprints that must be matched to a known sample the isotope procedure can squeeze way more information out of a human sample than other laboratory processes.
Jackson’s team has been focused on what the human hair can reveal. Hair analysis isn’t new, of course but the professor says the method he’s working on gives up intimate details. It can tell if the donor is male or female, obese or slim, is diabetic, on particular medication(s) and his or her age group.
But his team deduces even more. By studying the isotopes in a length of hair they can determine where a person has been in the world and — when they were there.
Here’s my layman’s translation: the hair soaks up and stores everything a person eats and drinks and that leaves an isotopic signature in the hair shaft. Oxygen isotopes and rainfall composition vary from region to region and so does the composition of edible plants and cattle. Since the hair is always absorbing, and growing at a predictable rate, science is able to match hair isotope ratios to the region in which the donor ingested their food and drink.
At one time the professor used himself as a guinea pig. For nine months he collected his own beard hair every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, capturing it in a dry electric razor. He continued to do so even when he travelled from his home in Ohio to Utah for a conference.
Jackson says his diet didn’t change during the trip. He’s a meat eater wherever he is. But his team found significantly different isotope ratios in his hair, specifically carbon changes, after his trip to Utah.
“The difference was that in Utah, a lot of the beef is free-range rather than corn fed,” he told me. When corn grows it takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and, in a slightly different way than other plants, turns it into sugar. By switching from corn-fed beef to Utah’s free-range beef for a week Jackson’s hair registered the change.
“Anything or anyone that comes along and eats the corn, or the corn syrup … or the corn husks — which is the cows– they all then ingest those carbon atoms with that signature,” Jackson said.
Imagine how this geographic identification could help track the travel histories of terrorism suspects. Or those involved in cases of human-trafficking or drug smuggling. The suspect could swear they had never been in a specific region but their hair could prove them liars.
Worldwide, the isotope ratio mass spectrometer has already provided law enforcement with important clues to help identify the unknown dead. In London, analysis of isotopes in human bones ultimately helped identify “Adam” a decapitated child whose torso was found in the River Thames. The isotope ratios led investigators to Nigeria where they discovered the 6-year old had been smuggled out of the country and victimized in a human sacrifice ritual.
In Utah, the remains of a woman dubbed, “Saltair Sally” were found near the Great Salt Lake. With no way to identify her it remained a cold case for years. Finally, a dogged detective learned of isotope ratio analysis and submitted her hair for testing. Her strands acted “like a filmstrip,” of her life and by following its geographic clues the detective ultimately identified her as Nikole Bakoles, 20, from Tacoma, Washington.
In Ireland, isotope ratios found in the hair, nails and bones of a dismembered body found in Dublin’s Royal Canal helped investigators identify a man who had come from the Horn of Africa. Scientists also determined he had spent seven months before his death in Ireland. This led detectives to arrest the grown daughters of the man’s lover. They were dubbed the “Scissor Sisters” for the murder weapon they used to kill him.
The National Institute of Justice has been contributing funds to research like Professor Jackson’s for about five years but Jackson thinks at the current pace it might be another decade before the science is advanced enough to make its way into a crime lab near you.
Crime fighting can be an expensive endeavor. Funding more forensic research like this, helping to create an isotopic map of the world so donor comparisons could be done faster and more reliably, seems like a no-brainer.