Participants at the Houston Police Department’s Kingwood Positive Interaction Program (PIP) were provided a thorough presentation about the role of the FBI’s Evidence Response Teams (ERTs) Sept. 18. These are the teams of experts that find and collect evidence needed to capture and convict criminals and terrorists or find evidence at disaster sites needed to determine how and why the disaster happened. The teams are sent to any location in the U.S. or the world where Americans are involved and where a thorough collection of critical evidence about the crime or disaster is needed. Following a brief business meeting, FBI Agent Mike Sutton who is now retired and living in the area. The famous investigations in which Sutton played a critical role including the 1993 Oklahoma City bombing; the grisly1998 truck dragging murder in Jasper; the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster; the Aug. 7 bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the terrorist attacks Sept.11, 2001. Sutton provided a riveting presentation with on-site photos and vivid descriptions about how the ERT managed the collection and processing of evidence based on his personal experience at those locations. Those in attendance were fascinated to learn how the whole evidence handling process works. Sutton provided a clear explanation of the critical role that the ERT plays in gathering most evidence used in the major investigations. Having moved from drug enforcement into Crime Scene Investigations (CSI) in the mid-1990s, he said, “What the police do in real life has absolutely nothing in common with what you see on TV.” He contrasted the fast and efficient TV versions of investigations with the real thing. “It doesn’t work that way in real life. It is a slow and meticulous process,” said Sutton. He then proceeded to explain the process using photographs and his own experiences on the ERTs. Sutton explained how an ERT is structured for each specific investigation to include various specialties. He noted that a typical team includes trained experts in body recovery, post blast investigation, hazardous materials, crime scene photography and other specialties, as needed, for the specific investigation. It might include experts in blood spatter, bullet trajectory, fingerprints, entomology, digital forensics and the forensics of any other science, as needed. Sutton further explained that these specially trained team members are “on call” while working at their normal assignments throughout the FBI. They keep packed travel bags with them and are ready to go anytime, anywhere on a moment’s notice. He noted that when he was called to go to Kenya he was working in the Houston Office and left immediately. However, in the case of the Sept. 11, ERT members on the East Coast were able to go to New York City immediately by ground transport but many others, including Sutton, were delayed by the grounding of all aviation in the United States. Once a team is activated, Sutton pointed out that it systematically works the scene of the crime or disaster to its conclusion in terms of gathering, identifying, recording and turning over all evidence to appropriate authorities. The length of time spent on the physical crime scene varies from a few days to many months as in the case of the Sept. 11 disaster. Sutton closed the presentation with a summary of how complex and challenging the work is while at the same time being more repetitive and routine than exciting. As an example of the complexity involved, Sutton described how Timothy McVeigh was finally proven to be on the scene of the explosion and responsible for the truck that exploded with its full load of explosives in Oklahoma City. Even though everything associated with the truck initially seemed beyond recognition, (per Sutton: “… it was literally blown to bits.”) the ERT found the truck’s rear axle several blocks away from the explosion, having been thrown that far by the force of the explosion. On the axel was a serial number which matched the serial number of a truck rented by McVeigh and which was never returned to the rental company. It was this evidence which made the case strong enough to proceed with the prosecution and eventual execution of McVeigh for his act of terrorism and mass murder. To Sutton, that was something really amazing … and satisfying. Photo: Mike Sutton recounts FBI experience to Kingwood’s PIP Sept. 18. Photo by Bruce Olson

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