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CASE OF THE CODED CLUES
Stories From the FBI Laboratory

09/13/06

Joseph Smith's coded letter and the cipher used to decode it
In jail awaiting trial for the abduction and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia in 2004, Joseph P. Smith wrote an enciphered message to his brother. In it, Smith replaced letters of the alphabet with a series of one- or two-character combinations of numbers and symbols. He also wrote the message from right to left, starting at the bottom of the page and working his way up.

The letter was sent to the FBI Laboratory, where cryptanalysts quickly deciphered the code, which held incriminating references to hiding evidence and moving the girl’s body. It also contained an admonition to keep quiet: “DESTROY THIS AFTER DECIPHERING IT AND SHUT UP.” Smith was convicted in 2005 and received the death penalty for his crimes.

The case was one of the many investigations last year by the Laboratory’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit. And it’s one of scores of investigations and success stories contained in the Laboratory’s 2005 Report, a 56-page window into the science of criminal and intelligence investigations at the FBI Lab in Quantico, Virginia.

Here’s a small sample of the Lab’s contributions in 2005:

  • The Hazardous Materials Response Unit, which provides technical and scientific assessments of threats involving hazardous materials, deployed on 75 missions in the U.S. and overseas and completed 220 scientific assessments.
  • An examiner in the Latent Print Operations Unit was able to corroborate blood pattern evidence in the case of a federal judge’s murdered husband and mother. The examiner matched fingerprints of a man who confessed to their murder in a suicide note with a print lifted from the window of the victims’ home.
  • Between February and April, the Laboratory’s Disaster Squad deployed three times to Phuket, Thailand to help identify tsunami victims. About 1,500 victims were printed. The Disaster Squad also deployed to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, where they helped identify 155 bodies.
  • The Explosives Unit assisted at more than 25 international bombing crime scenes and helped train more than 200 federal, state, and local investigators.

As one of the largest and most comprehensive forensic laboratories in the world, the FBI Lab provides forensic and technical services to law enforcement agencies at no expense to the agencies. A section of the 2005 Report highlights the work of Lab units whose missions depend on collaboration. For example, a Lab initiative in 2003 brought together law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies to coordinate investigating and preventing terrorist bombings. From that emerged the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, which centralizes and pools government assets to address the problem.

Still another section of the report focuses on innovation, including automation of nuclear DNA analysis and automated 3-D imaging of firearms toolmarks. Forty-eight visiting scientists from 37 academic institutions around the world applied their research at the Laboratory in 2005 and published 13 manuscripts.

The underlying message is this: The Lab approaches all cases with a desire to be the foremost forensic laboratory upon which FBI field offices, investigative and intelligence agencies, and the American public can always rely.

Links:
FBI Laboratory 2005 Report (pdf)
FBI Laboratory