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Deep Detectives

Crime scenes in places like Florida can get awfully wet. Getting to the bottom of things takes a rare kind of training.

It takes up to seven months for human flesh submerged in the frigid water of a north Florida sinkhole to rot and fall off the bones. That was one grisly lesson Lamar English learned 30 years ago that he would never forget.

On a muggy August afternoon in 1977, English, 16 at the time, was diving for arrowheads in a Panhandle sinkhole when he caught a glimpse of some odd shapes. The objects were almost within reach, but at 40 feet down, the light was too dim to reveal anything but fuzzy outlines. English swam closer for a better look.

“I realized I was staring into the face of a human skull with a rag stuffed down the mouth,” English said.

Horrified, he did a quick survey, noting rib bones, vertebrae, decaying organs, and even more shocking evidence of foul play—five concrete blocks that anchored the skeletal remains to the sinkhole bottom.

The ensuing investigation revealed that the killers, seven months earlier, had been offloading tons of marijuana at an inlet called Sandy Creek just north of Panama City when two unsuspecting couples stumbled on the operation. The smugglers shot the intruders and dumped the bodies five counties away.

The gruesome case, now infamously known across the region as the Sandy Creek murders, was hardly the first and far from the last crime to end in water, especially in Florida. In fact, many Florida crime specialists figure that just about every body of water in the state, from its clear springs to swampy wetlands, has swallowed some kind of criminal clue. With 1,200 miles of coastline, 11,000 miles of rivers and streams and many more square miles of lakes and springs, that's a lot of secrets.

But with new techniques and technology, it turns out many of these secrets could be found instead of lost forever. To convert water from mute accomplice to witness, Gregg Stanton, former director of the Advanced Science Diving program, and criminology professor Thomas Kelley in 2001 started a program called Underwater Crime Scene Investigation on the FSU Panama City Campus. It seemed an unlikely union, but the need couldn't have been more pressing, says Dale Nute, a more than 20-year forensic science veteran of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and one of the first recruited instructors for the program.

Law enforcement, said Nute, had long ago segregated scientific thinking in the lab from the investigator in the field, an egregious mistake that may have cost prosecutors an untold number of cases. The split has resulted in a misguided focus in the field on protocols rather than principles.

“Technicians employ protocols,” Nute said. “Scientists use the results of protocols to solve problems. Obviously, underwater scientist—investigators are better able to solve the problems if they can conduct the protocols themselves rather than relying on the results by technicians.”

And when it comes to scrutinizing underwater scenes, some investigators don't even have proper protocols to follow.

The program's immediate goal is fill in the gaps, Nute said. Long term, he added, the group wants to transform the field and develop techniques that are unique to the underwater scene, all the while training both academic students and working law enforcement divers to do underwater investigation right.

Surprisingly even today, when precision in investigations can make or break a legal case, some underwater recovery operations still practice “snatch-and-grab,” an outdated, haphazard approach to recovering corpses and evidence from lakes, rivers, gulfs and oceans.

“Snatch-and-grab” is faster, cheaper, easier-and just plain wrong, Nute said. The practice effectively destroys any clues that might be gleaned from observing, photographing and mapping evidence underwater as any investigator would do on land.

At first glance, the Panama City program seems an odd match with academe. Indeed, some academics argue that underwater investigation classes belong in a police academy or private dive shop rather than a university. As a result, the program may very well be the only one of its kind at a four-year institution.

But to others, this type of training truly belongs at a university. Ken McDonald, a retired sergeant of the Leon County Sheriff's Office and FSU graduate in criminology, has been on both the academic, theoretical side of criminology and the practical side of on-the-street—and underwater—police work.

As a former dive team leader, McDonald eagerly joined the program's steering committee at its inception, frustrated by the paucity of information about underwater investigation. Even though recently retired, he continues an active relationship with the group.

“Until someone like FSU takes an interest, no one will collect data [on underwater investigation],” McDonald said. Nor, he added, will anyone help develop the technology that will improve the field.

Right now, the unknown factors far outnumber what's known, McDonald said. For example, investigators don't have a standard procedure for calculating how far a drowning victim's body might have drifted or how fast decay eats away a murder victim's corpse in brackish versus salt versus fresh water, information that would help investigators know what to look for and where.

“There is still a lot of guesswork involved…(and) a lot of physics and science involved, but the average person doing (law enforcement) diving doesn't have that kind of background,” McDonald said. “Putting divers in the water is the last thing you want.” He added that a solid, investigative strategy, which can take hours to days to devise, should be hammered out before anyone gets wet.

It also doesn't help that divers at the scene of an investigation don't yet have a way to test the water for pollutants and know whether it is safe. Most bad guys, McDonald added, throw things in the filthiest water they can find.

No agency collects national statistics on how many underwater calls dive teams make, he added. But what is certain is that calls are constant enough to maintain dive teams over the years. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2003 about half of the nation's sheriff's offices that serve at least 50,000 people reported underwater recovery as one of their special operation functions, a ratio that held steady in at least the previous four years.

But the list of what's missing from the budding discipline is extensive. For example, there has been no centralized effort to develop technology specific to underwater investigation. Sometimes, law enforcement divers don't even have proper, basic dive training, much less the skills necessary to do detective work in a challenging watery environment. In the past 12 years, various sources such as dive organizations have reported more than 400 deaths nationwide among underwater investigators, McDonald said. More than 90 percent of them were the result of inadequate training, he added.

“That's unforgivable in my opinion,” he said.

Even worse, no standard protocols for underwater investigation yet exist. Though underwater recovery teams formed decades ago throughout the country, it wasn't until the 1990s that members started questioning the “snatch-and-grab” approach, said Sgt. Blake Gilmore, a police diver in Massachusetts for more than 20 years. Even now, he said, many law enforcement dive teams, including his own, still don't have documented protocols to follow when searching for drowning victims or discarded weapons or remnants from a plane crash. This is why Gilmore, although a long way from Panama City, Florida, is keeping close tabs on what FSU is doing.

The program is the first to put a dent in many of these areas. Filling the void of standard protocols in their field, this summer the instructors published Underwater Crime Scene Investigation: A Guide for Law Enforcement (Best Publishing). It's an encyclopedia of underwater investigation protocols and tips, developed from scratch, tested and tweaked over the past five years. Jim Joiner, the publisher, said the manual is the first of its kind.

In addition, the instructors often act as guinea pigs to test new dive technology. One of the latest gadgets they are among the first to have access to is a mask-and-sonar system that essentially gives divers sight in zero visibility.

For working dive teams who take the Panama City classes, hands-on exposure to cutting-edge technology that they otherwise wouldn't have heard of is critical. After the first two-week course that Sgt. Rob Pinner of Putnam County, Florida, took at FSU-PC, he suggested his department order full face masks with an underwater communication system. Almost as soon as the new masks arrived in the mail, a small plane plummeted into the St. Johns River, and the Putnam divers snatched them to take to the scene. In the river's muddy current, having directions piped into the masks from investigators on land or in a boat likely shaved hours or even days off the search.

As for technical training, what courses many sheriff's, police and fire department dive teams do take are at private dive shops or police academies, and it often comes up short. These courses teach divers how to use their gear but not how to be flexible and creative in their thinking, said Michael Zinszer, the program's diving safety officer and former Navy experimental diver.

“Some of [the programs] are outstanding,” Zinszer said, “but the majority of them still need a lot of work.”

For all of its novelty, FSU's program isn't without precedent. Six years before it was first proposed, judge-turned-diver-and-teacher Ron Becker started an emergency responder class at Texas State University in 1995 in “black water” diving, that is, diving in zero visibility. But he said resources are hard to come by, so that single class never developed into a full-blown underwater investigation program.

“[FSU's] folks have taken it a long way past where we were,” said Becker, now teaching an underwater investigation class at Chaminade University in Hawaii.

FSU's program was first conceived when criminologist Thomas Kelley and then-director of FSU's Advanced Science Diving program Gregg Stanton put their heads together at a fish fry in 2001.

Why not unite in one program the methodical procedures of underwater science—such as mapping and artifact preservation—with crime scene investigation techniques?

“I'd always been aware we could do better in underwater investigation,” said Stanton, now a private, advanced-diving consultant. “No one (in law enforcement) was taking the underwater environment seriously.”

This lack of clout was true even in marine sciences, added Stanton, whose background is in biology, and it was true in criminology. He and Kelley wanted to reverse that dismissive attitude.

“We didn't want to teach just the how-to of investigation. We wanted to teach a way of thinking,” said Kelley, now director of the program.

As it turns out, the union of underwater science techniques and criminology at FSU's Panama City campus is a natural fit. The branch campus, which serves students who have completed two years of community college, already was home to a criminology program. The campus sits on the Gulf Coast where fake, but realistic crime scenes can easily be set up for aspiring investigators and divers already in law enforcement to get hands-on training. With the program's three boats docked in St. Andrews Bay at Sun Harbor Marina, just a mile from campus, students can practice their skills in the Gulf as well as in nearby rivers and springs.

To keep their own skills fresh, instructors consult regularly with law enforcement on active cases. They've assisted with investigations on bridge collapses, murders, disappearances and drowning accidents. For just about every one, students get to participate and truly understand exactly what it is they're preparing for.

None of this would be possible without hefty funding. Underwater investigation requires meticulous maintenance of dive equipment and boats, plus the funds to transport students and purchase new equipment. But FSU's program has become so popular among law enforcement that it receives regular funding from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which has allocated up to $500,000 annually to send law enforcement dive team members from around the state through short courses designed for working emergency responders. To date, more than 200 law enforcement, and fire and rescue personnel have been certified through the program. And by many trainees' accounts, it's well worth it.

“There's no substitute for the Panama City training,” said Pinner, the sergeant from Putnam County. “That is the best dive training I've ever had.”

On the academic side, padding undergraduate or graduate degrees with a certificate or minor in underwater investigation can mean a leg up for a student's future in a variety of careers, says Kelley.

Hardly restricted to investigating crimes, the well-rounded program doesn't focus solely on law enforcement and the technical aspects of diving. The academic students take five rigorous classes over three semesters in underwater investigation and forensic science—in addition to their major courses—sometimes dedicating entire Saturdays to shoehorn night diving into all too-short 16-hour days. The program also includes overviews in toxicology, biology and law. So not only do students learn to investigate scenes involving body or weapon recovery, but they also gain the skills to handle a much wider range of cases, from bridge collapses to boat-scuttling to chemical spills.

Graduates have gone on to work for the FBI, NASA, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, private boat insurance companies investigating claims, as well as other national and local agencies and companies, Kelley said, though many do find their niche in law enforcement.

Melissa Adams, who majored in criminology at FSU-PC in 2004, landed her first job after graduation on the dive team of the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Chipley, Florida. Within a year, the former daycare center owner with no previous experience in diving, much less in investigation, rose to the position of team leader, a rapid advancement she attributes to the hands-on and theoretical training she received from Kelley, Nute and the other instructors.

“Rather than just learning techniques and tools, [students] get the bigger picture and theory of a crime scene,” Adams said. “The support and knowledge I gained helped me become dive team leader.”

Student by student, the underwater investigation program aims to educate the best qualified law enforcement and forensic leaders who will make sure murky lakes, muddy rivers and ocean waters can no longer be a criminal's best friend.

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