The FBI Laboratory: 75 Years of Forensic Science Service - October 2007
October 2007 - Volume 9 - Number 4
Research and Technology
The FBI Laboratory: 75 Years of Forensic Science Service
Forensic Science Communications
Introduction | Kidnappings | Counterintelligence Cases | Bombing/Terrorism Investigations | Research and Development | Fingerprints | More than Casework | Quality Matters | FBI Laboratory Personnel | A Foundation for the Future | Conclusion | Notes | Acknowledgments | References
In the 1920s, a young, newly appointed Bureau of Investigation Director named J. Edgar Hoover recognized the importance of scientific analysis in criminal matters. He encouraged the Bureau to remain abreast of scientific advancements and use them where appropriate. In 1930, the Bureau established a criminology library and began collecting and publishing uniformed crime statistics, a task previously assigned to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Bureau agents-in-training attended lectures on such subjects as fingerprint comparison, handwriting comparison, and ballistics (Federal Bureau of Investigation April 2003).
But at the time the Bureau did not have its own laboratory or scientific staff. Outside experts were hired on a case-by-case basis (Federal Bureau of Investigation 1974; Federal Bureau of Investigation April 2003). This approach was neither efficient nor cost-effective.
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1929, led to the establishment of the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory at Northwestern University in Chicago (Giannelli 2007; Whitehead 1956). Hoover encouraged Bureau Special Agents in Charge to subscribe to the laboratory’s American Journal of Police Science, and he contributed articles to the journal. Bureau agents also attended training at the Chicago crime laboratory. Special Agent Charles Appel, a staunch supporter of Hoover’s vision of fighting crime with science, attended training classes in a number of disciplines, including serology, toxicology, handwriting and typewriting analysis, and moulage (the making of impressions or casts for casework and courtroom testimony). While applying his new knowledge to Bureau casework, Appel continued to seek out additional training and educational opportunities. At the same time, he researched the development of a crime laboratory.
On July 7, 1932, in a memorandum to Hoover, Appel proposed a separate division within the Bureau to handle so-called crime prevention work and to oversee a criminological research laboratory (as cited in Federal Bureau of Investigation April 2003). In another memo two weeks later, Appel outlined his vision for the laboratory. He envisioned that the Bureau would play a central role in American law enforcement by serving as a source of information and criminological support (as cited in Federal Bureau of Investigation April 2003). Hoover shared and supported this vision, which has served as a cornerstone for the FBI’s work throughout its history.
Special Agent Charles Appel
In September 1932, the birth of this vision was realized when an ultraviolet light machine, a microscope, a moulage kit, a wiretapping kit, photographic supplies, chemicals, a drawing board, and other office equipment and supplies were moved into room 802 of the Old Southern Railway Building at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 1972; Federal Bureau of Investigation April 2003; Whitehead 1956). Initially named the Criminology Laboratory, its official birth date was established as November 24, 1932. In its first year of operation, the Laboratory performed 963 examinations (Federal Bureau of Investigation 1972).
The FBI’s new Criminology Laboratory occupied room 802 of the Southern Railway Building in Washington, D.C.
The Old Southern Railway Building, 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover shows actress Shirley Temple a comparison microscope in the Laboratory.
A Virginia State Police Officer delivers evidence to the Laboratory.
In June 1933, the Laboratory was renamed the Technical Laboratory, and in September 1934, it was relocated to the Department of Justice Building at 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (Federal Bureau of Investigation 1974). There the Laboratory occupied the seventh floor and attic. Public tours actually passed through the Laboratory’s workspace (FBI Laboratory December 2004).
The Laboratory became an official FBI division in December 1942 and was renamed the FBI Laboratory a short time later, in August 1943. It remained in the Justice Building until September 1975, when it was relocated to the J. Edgar Hoover Building, directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Justice Building. Nearly three decades passed before the Laboratory moved to a dedicated, state-of-the-art facility on the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, where it stands today.
From the early 1930s when gangsters flourished and law enforcement agencies were only just beginning to realize the value of science in solving crimes to the 21st century where technological advances, global events, and public perception have combined to transform investigative priorities and practices, the FBI Laboratory has remained committed not only to serving the needs of the FBI but also to assisting law enforcement agencies worldwide to solve crimes, bring criminals to justice, and protect the public. Although such a short article could never adequately pay homage to the dedicated men and women of the FBI and the Laboratory, the cases and facts highlighted here provide a glimpse into the Laboratory on the occasion of its 75th anniversary.
The Lindbergh Kidnapping
One of the first cases the FBI Laboratory worked was the kidnapping of the namesake of aviator Charles Lindbergh. On March 1, 1932, Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. was kidnapped from the nursery of his home in Hopewell, New Jersey. A handwritten ransom note was found on the windowsill. The infant’s partially decomposed body was found on May 12, 1932.
The Laboratory conducted 129 examinations on such evidence as currency, typewriting, and handwriting. Special Agent Appel compared the handwriting on the ransom notes (13 notes were received altogether) with reference samples from 300 suspects, an exhaustive but fruitless effort until police arrested a suspect, Bruno Richard Hauptmann (Federal Bureau of Investigation n.d. [Lindbergh Kidnapping]; Federal Bureau of Investigation November 1992; Federal Bureau of Investigation April 2003). Appel then was able to compare Hauptmann’s handwriting with the ransom notes and link him to the crime. The local police department also determined that the wood used to fashion the ladder the kidnapper had used to climb into the baby’s bedroom had come from Hauptmann’s attic (Kessler 1993). Hauptmann was convicted of the kidnapping and sentenced to death.
The successful resolution of the Lindbergh kidnapping and other early cases demonstrated the effect that scientific analysis could have in solving crimes. The case also led Congress to pass a federal kidnapping statute, which gave the FBI authority to investigate interstate kidnappings.
The Weinberger Kidnapping
The Weinberger kidnapping in 1956 also changed the kidnapping laws. On July 4, 1956, one-month-old Peter Weinberger was kidnapped from the patio of his home in Westbury, New York. Examiners from the Laboratory gave FBI and other federal agents a quick course in handwriting analysis (Federal Bureau of Investigation n.d. [Weinberger Kidnapping]). After examining nearly two million handwriting specimens—1,974,544 to be exact—the agents identified Angelo La Marca as the writer of the ransom notes (Federal Bureau of Investigation November 1992).
A Laboratory technician examines ink on questioned documents.
La Marca, a taxi dispatcher and truck driver with a wife and two children, was in financial trouble. He could not pay his bills and was being threatened by a loan shark. The Weinberger baby was a target of opportunity for him. He snatched the baby as a way to get the money he needed to pay his bills. On August 22, 1956, after being confronted with the evidence against him, La Marca confessed. Unfortunately, little Peter Weinberger was already dead. Agents found the baby’s remains on the side of the road where La Marca had abandoned him (Federal Bureau of Investigation n.d. [Weinberger Kidnapping]).
La Marca was prosecuted in state court and convicted. He was sentenced to death and executed at Sing Sing Prison on August 7, 1958 (Federal Bureau of Investigation n.d. [Weinberger Kidnapping]).
Following this case, President Eisenhower changed the waiting period for the FBI to assist in kidnapping cases from seven days to 24 hours. The law was changed again in 1990, mandating that all law enforcement agencies take action in missing-child cases without observing a waiting period (Federal Bureau of Investigation n.d. [Crimes Against Children]).
The Lisk-Silva Murders
Every day, local law enforcement officers work cases involving their neighbors, friends, and colleagues. In the mid-1990s, two cases involving young girls in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, not far from where the FBI Laboratory is located today, captured the attention and emotions of the law enforcement community as well as the public.
On September 9, 1996, 16-year-old Sofia Silva was kidnapped from her Spotsylvania County home after school. Her body, wrapped in a blanket, was found five weeks later in a creek in King George County, Virginia.
On May 1, 1997, sisters Kristin Lisk, 15, and Kati Lisk, 12, were abducted from their Spotsylvania County home, also after school. Their bodies were found five days later in the South Anna River in Hanover County, Virginia.
A task force comprising FBI agents and analysts, Virginia State Police Officers, and Spotsylvania and King George County sheriffs’ deputies investigated the case, following up on more than 12,000 leads. DNA from the crime scenes was compared with more than one million reference samples in the national DNA database in an attempt to find a match (FBI Laboratory 2003).
The cases remained unsolved until almost five years later.
Then, on June 24, 2002, in South Carolina, a 15-year-old girl was abducted and raped but managed to escape her captor. The suspect, Richard Marc Evonitz, fled to Florida. On June 27, when police caught up to him after a high-speed chase, he killed himself. The evidence against him including the details provided by his most recent victim, the fact that he had lived in Virginia at the same time as the murders of Sofia Silva and the Lisk sisters, and the evidence found in his South Carolina apartment and the trunk of his vehicle was compelling (FBI Laboratory 2003).
FBI Laboratory examiners completed more than 500 examinations in six weeks, for a total of more than 10,000 examinations of fingerprints, hair, fibers, and tire treads since the first kidnapping occurred in 1996. The Laboratory’s Latent Print Unit developed and identified two of Kristin Lisk’s fingerprints on the underside of the trunk lid of Evonitz’s 1992 Ford Taurus. She apparently had been locked inside the trunk. Hairs consistent with Evonitz’s were found on the clothing of both Kristin and Kati and on a rope used to bind Sofia’s body. Fibers on all three girls matched those found on items including blankets, carpeting, a pink bathroom rug, and dark-blue furry handcuffs recovered from Evonitz’s homes and vehicle. Handwritten notes about the Lisk sisters and where they lived, as well as news clippings about the cases, also were found in Evonitz’s apartment. At a news conference on August 13, 2002, authorities announced that they had conclusively linked Evonitz to the abduction and murders of Sofia Silva and Kristin and Kati Lisk (FBI Laboratory 2003).
Ten years have passed since these murders occurred, and the FBI Laboratory is located even closer to the crime scenes. When law enforcement personnel live and work so close to the site of such tragic events, perhaps even passing the victims homes or seeing their family members in the community, it has a profound, long-lasting effect. But that does not change the mission of the FBI, the FBI Laboratory, and the surrounding law enforcement and forensic science communities. These dedicated professionals continue to devote themselves to capturing and helping to convict the individuals in this world who would cause harm to helpless victims.
Since the first World War, the FBI has been investigating cases of sabotage, treason, and espionage.1 What causes seemingly loyal people to betray their country can be a mystery. By piecing together the evidence in these puzzling cases, the FBI Laboratory provides the clues needed to catch and convict traitors. Doing so may provide insight into their motives, while preventing others from following the same path. One of the first cases the Laboratory worked involved partners in both crime and marriage.
Atomic Secrets Revealed
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the United States began developing the atomic bomb and, by 1945, achieved its goal. When the Soviet Union announced in 1949 that it, too, had successfully detonated an atomic bomb, the U.S. government suspected espionage. In September 1949, the FBI began to investigate. The trail began with Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British scientist working at Los Alamos on the atomic bomb project. Although he admitted passing information to the Soviets, he did not know the identity of his contact in the United States. Additional investigation revealed Fuchs’ contact, Harry Gold, a chemist from Philadelphia. Gold had received half of a Jell-O box and was told that he would receive instructions from an individual in Albuquerque who would have the other half. Ruth Greenglass and her husband, David, matched their half to Gold’s and provided him with information on the atomic energy research being conducted at Los Alamos, which Gold passed on to Fuchs. David Greenglass contact was his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, and her husband, Julius. Morton Sobell, a radar engineer and former classmate of Julius Rosenberg, was also involved in the spy ring (Federal Bureau of Investigation November 1992).
The Laboratory examined evidence from the case, including handwriting, typewriting, ink, pencil, and fingerprints (Federal Bureau of Investigation November 1992). Based on this and other evidence submitted at the trial, the Rosenbergs were convicted and sentenced to death, Sobell to 20 years in prison, and David Greenglass to 15 years. In exchange for her husband’s testimony against the Rosenbergs, Ruth Greenglass received immunity from prosecution (Linder 2001). On June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed at Sing Sing Prison (Federal Bureau of Investigation November 1992).
Pay the Paperboy
On June 22, 1953, three days after the Rosenbergs were executed, a Brooklyn newspaper boy discovered that the nickel he had received as payment for delivering the Daily Eagle was a fake (Federal Bureau of Investigation n.d. [Hollow Nickel case]; Miers 1970). When he dropped the coin, it split in two, revealing a microphotograph with a series of numbers. Initially, the FBI Laboratory was unable to break the microphotograph’s code or identify the kind of typewriter used to prepare the message (Federal Bureau of Investigation November 1992). Because at the time, the Laboratory’s Typewriter Standards File contained every typewriter manufactured in the United States, examiners determined that the typewriter had been produced overseas (Federal Bureau of Investigation n.d. [Hollow Nickel case]).
Then, in 1957, a Soviet KGB officer defected to the United States and provided information on Soviet codes and cryptosystems. This vital information helped the Laboratory to break the code and led to the arrest and conviction of a Soviet spy known by the alias Rudolf Abel. Abel was eventually exchanged for American pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 (Federal Bureau of Investigation n.d. [Hollow Nickel case]; Federal Bureau of Investigation November 1992; Federal Bureau of Investigation February 2004).
An examiner in the Cryptanalysis Section uses alphabet strips to solve a clandestine cipher message.
Interestingly, Julius Rosenberg’s Soviet handler, Alexsandr Feklisov, came forward in 1997 and detailed his meetings with Rosenberg. Feklisov claimed that information Rosenberg had provided had allowed the Soviets to shoot down Powers U-2 (as cited in Linder 2001; Linder, personal communication, 2007).
Ferreting out the Moles
Over the years, the FBI has investigated numerous cases of espionage. The year 1985 was dubbed the Year of the Spy because of the number of high-profile arrests for espionage that occurred that year. Unfortunately, some cases have hit too close to home, as spies were uncovered in agencies once thought impenetrable, including the NSA, the CIA, and even the FBI.
Robert Philip Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the FBI, began spying for the KGB in 1979. For more than 20 years, including two inactive periods, he passed highly sensitive information to his Soviet and Russian handlers in exchange for large sums of cash and other compensation. The information he provided compromised FBI and U.S. intelligence operations, techniques, sources, and methods (FBI Laboratory 2002; Federal Bureau of Investigation 2001; U.S. Department of Justice 2003).
Hanssen’s training and experience in counterintelligence, as well as his ability to exploit gaps in FBI security, helped him escape detection for a long time. But once the FBI discovered his activities, nothing could save him. He was arrested on February 18, 2001, as he left a package at a dead drop site in a park in the suburbs of Northern Virginia.
The Laboratory played a large role in identifying Hanssen. In late 2000, Laboratory personnel received a bag containing several packages of documents, a tape recording, computer diskettes, and an envelope wrapped in plastic. These items revealed the identity of the spy in the FBI’s midst (FBI Laboratory 2002).2
Shortly after Hanssen’s arrest, the Forensic Audio, Video, and Image Analysis Unit (FAVIAU), then a part of the Laboratory but now part of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division, received a tape recording of two speakers, one of whom did not speak English. The FAVIAU examiner edited out the foreign speaker, enhanced the audio, and was able to tentatively identify the other voice as Hanssen’s.
As expected, the evidence against Hanssen included hundreds of documents. Personnel in the Laboratory’s Questioned Documents Unit (QDU) examined these documents for handwriting, indented writing, and other unusual features. Although the quality of some of the documents was too poor to lead to positive conclusions, the QDU did find common characteristics between Hanssen’s known handwriting and several of the questioned documents.
The plastic-wrapped package Hanssen had left for his handlers the day of his arrest contained a latent fingerprint that the Laboratory was able to identify as Hanssen’s. In addition, the end of the tape on the package matched the tape on a roll found in Hanssen’s car. The piece of medical tape Hanssen used to signal his handlers contained purple synthetic fibers that matched fibers on a roll of tape Hanssen dropped when he was arrested (FBI Laboratory 2002).
The full extent of the damage that Robert Hanssen did to the national security of the United States and its allies may never be fully known; however, the strong evidence against him helped put an end to his days as a spy. Hanssen was only two months from mandatory retirement at the time of his arrest (U.S. Department of Justice 2003). He now sits in solitary confinement at the Administrative Maximum federal prison in Florence, Colorado, the so-called supermax prison that holds such criminals as Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Shoebomber Richard Reid, and al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui (Eggen 2006).