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Eight Years of Picking Up The Pieces And Taking Them to Court


ERT graphicRiyadh bombings...9/11 terrorist attacks...U.S.S. Cole bombing...African embassy bombings...Anthrax attacks...Kosovo evidence recovery...Oklahoma City bombing. These are just a very few of the thousands of crime scenes sifted by the FBI's Evidence Response Teams, or ERTs, to bring criminals and terrorists to justice.

Sherlock Holmes may have popularized the idea of using hard evidence to prove a criminal's guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt, but the FBI has truly made a science and specialized practice of it. Why? Because we live in an age of massive or extremely complex crime scenes, of cases that involve more than one crime scene, and of cases that cover more than one jurisdiction. While FBI investigators are interviewing witnesses and beginning to build a case, ERTs are focusing on the crime scene itself.

It was FBI field offices who originally came up with the idea, then the FBI Lab helped develop the ERT concept in 1993: to create a specialized unit to focus exclusively on recovering physical evidence and executing search warrants for major field investigations. Then, on August 11, 1995, it expanded the concept by creating a team of these specialists in each of the FBI's 56 field offices. Today 135 teams of some 1,080 Agents and forensic specialists are in place, ready to respond at a moment's notice to a major case anywhere in the world. In Fiscal Year 2002, these 8-person teams responded to over 2,000 calls--including the protracted operation at Freshkills landfill, Staten Island, where 52 teams--over 400 ERT members--worked solidly for 9 months on evidence recovery from the Twin Towers following the 9/11 attacks.

Who's an ERT member?

Both Agents and support employees. They all have forensic specialties...and they bring other specialists on board as needed: photographers, sketch artists, evidence collectors/processors, bomb technicians, computer specialists, engineers, surveyors, forensic anthropologists, botanists, odontologists, entomologists, medical specialists, arson investigators, you name it. A specialized "Technology" ERT uses thermal imaging and fiber scopes; it uses underground-penetrating radar to locate evidence underground; and it uses side-scan sonar to locate evidence underwater. This year, two new Underwater Search and Evidence Response Teams have been formed to support the longstanding New York team of scuba divers--the team that performed so intrepidly in freezing Long Island waters after the 1997 crash of TWA Flight 800.

Training to be a team member is rigorous: a basic 80-hour training block followed by required special courses. What kinds of courses? Bullet (Ballistic) Trajectory Analysis, Blood Stain Pattern Analysis, Advanced Latent Fingerprints, Post Blast Investigations, Advanced Sketching, Digital Diagramming, Arson Investigations, and Forensic Anthropology.

What's the ERT procedure?

It can vary, but basically it's a 10-step program with the watchwords: "take time to do a thorough job" and "document everything."
1. Approach the scene safely.
2. Secure and protect the scene.
3. Start a preliminary survey.
4. Evaluate all the physical evidence and decide the order of collecting it.
5. Make a narrative descripition--written, audio, video, or all three.
6. Exhaustively photograph the area.
7. Draw diagrams and sketches of the scene that puts the evidence in a specific perimeter.
8. Now you can collect the evidence! This is the heart of the operation and it is delicate, time consuming, precise, and rigorous.
9. Conduct a final survey.
10. Release the crime scene.

It's all about teamwork...and caring

The men and women of the FBI's Evidence Response Teams feel a special calling for their job--and they take pride in the convictions their work has secured. It's not just acts of terrorism or mass disasters, though. Their work also brings closure to people who have lost loved ones and suffered losses that have ruined their lives: ERT members are there in cases of major child abductions and homicides, air disasters, even war crimes.

Consider the 65 ERT members who went as part of a forensic team to Kosovo in 1999 to examine suspected massacre sites as part of the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. They worked 11 sites, recovering evidence, exhuming bodies, and performing autopsies--then returning the bodies they could in Muslim coffins for proper burial. A woman there who received back the bodies of her husband, father, and two uncles said this: "This country has suffered so much that it is easy to overlook the personal tragedy. The American FBI has helped us show the world what happened, so it won't forget. They also face us our husbands and fathers and brothers so we can bury them in marked graves and remember. For that we are very thankful."