In Memoriam: Frank Samuel Baechtel

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 April 2010 - Volume 12 - Number 2

 

Short Communication

In Memoriam: Frank Samuel Baechtel

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Frank Samuel Baechtel
January 1, 1943–October 3, 2009

The FBI Laboratory and the forensic science community recently lost a pioneer—a man who was a valued employee, scientist, mentor, teacher, and friend.

On October 3, 2009, Frank Samuel Baechtel ("Sam") passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. Sam had the distinction of being the first baby born in 1943 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, just one of a number of firsts for him.

Sam graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, Virginia, with a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He spent 12 years teaching and conducting cancer research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.

In 1982, Sam started his long, illustrious career with the FBI Laboratory when he entered on duty at the Forensic Science Research and Training Center in Quantico, Virginia. In the early years, he developed new serological methods to identify body fluids, including key assays that the FBI Laboratory continues to use to examine biological evidence. In addition, Sam established the importance of serology to forensics and defined its fundamentals, spelling them out in what would become an influential and frequently cited work, "The Identification and Individualization of Semen Stains," in volume 2 of Richard Saferstein’s Forensic Science Handbook.

As DNA technology came to the forefront of forensic evidence identification in the late 1980s, Sam’s expertise in research, validation, and implementation allowed the FBI Laboratory to fulfill its mandate to develop a DNA program. Sam was part of a very small group of FBI Laboratory scientists who researched new DNA-typing techniques, initially restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) typing, followed by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methodology and PCR application to the D1S80 genetic locus. Sam’s role in validating short tandem repeat (STR) analysis enhanced the Laboratory’s capability to acquire previously unobtainable DNA results. In addition, he helped to conceive the basic framework for the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the software program that allows the exchange of DNA profiles and helps law enforcement solve cases, sometimes years after they occur.

Sam recognized the overwhelming need to educate the forensic science community on these novel typing methods. He developed the curriculum for the FBI's first DNA school, "Forensic and Laboratory Applications of DNA Typing Methods." The four-week course, accredited through the University of Virginia, included lectures and hands-on laboratory exercises. Hundreds of U.S. and international students have attended this course at the FBI Academy.

Recognizing the need to train DNA analysts in the legal issues associated with DNA technology, Sam developed a second course, "Advanced Aspects of Forensic DNA Analysis." This course included report writing, courtroom training, and expert testimony. Because of his work in DNA analysis training and teaching, Sam was presented the 1992 Director’s Award for Information Management or Technical Advancement, one of the highest awards presented to employees of the FBI. As was his way, Sam was among the first group of recipients of this prestigious award. The Director’s Award was only one of many awards and accolades Sam received during his long career with the FBI.

When an opportunity presented itself in 1995, Sam chose to become an Examiner in the DNA Analysis Unit I of the FBI Laboratory. As an Examiner, Sam was able to apply the science he helped to develop and work with those he had taught. He took pride in his role within the criminal justice community, providing resolution for victims and their families and exonerating the innocent. He managed and analyzed thousands of evidence submissions to the Laboratory and testified in hundreds of cases.

As an Examiner, Sam continued his role as an instructor, mentoring veteran colleagues and new employees. He wrote and published articles in professional publications and peer-reviewed the work of his contemporaries. He was an invaluable resource and a dedicated public servant, always helping others, no matter what the time or cost. He had an uncanny knack for explaining concepts in laypersons' terms and managed to reflect his brilliance onto those he served, rather than himself. He always made others not only look good but also feel good about themselves.

Sam retired from the FBI in 2008 but couldn’t stay away from the work that he loved. He returned as a contractor and continued to work, even as his health began to decline. He worked both at home and in the office until he was hospitalized with pneumonia. He entered hospice care at his home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and passed away in the early-morning hours of October 3, 2009.

Survivors include his wife of 41 years, Rebecca H. Baechtel; his son, Matthew S. Baechtel; Matthew’s wife, Adrian; and their children, Mark, Ryan, and Jordan.

We will miss Sam tremendously. He was a great scientist and a great man. The forensic science community is richer because of his life. Quoting the lyrics that Sam chose for his memorial service,"It’s Time to Say Goodbye."

Acknowledgment

The Managing Editor thanks Jill Smerick, Tamyra Moretti, Anthony Onorato, and Leah Willis for their contributions to this memoriam, much of which was previously written in a tribute book given to Sam after he first disclosed his illness in 2007. The few paragraphs written here only scratch the surface of Sam’s life and career and hardly do justice to the man so many described as a compass to gauge their decisions and actions.