Officers Brush Up on
Homicide Analysis 101:
Author of the investigation 'bible' imparts his wisdom to area police
By Tony Gordon
Daily Herald Legal Affairs Writer
Daily Herald, June 24, 2001
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Vernon Geberth leaves no doubt about where he is from and whose side he is on.
His "New Yawk" accent booms through the conference room as he holds forth on what he considers the evils of the world - namely murderers, defense attorneys and police administrators.
"In this room we are going to talk cop," Geberth says to his class. "We don't have time for politically-correct niceties because we are talking about murder and the deviant individuals who do it."
Regarded by many as the best in the business of educating police in the art of investigation, Geberth taught his "Practical Homicide Investigation" course to 108 officers this week at the Ramada Inn in Waukegan. A retired police lieutenant commander from New York City, Geberth learned his trade investigating homicides in the South Bronx during the 1970s and 1980s when the area was a model of what was wrong with urban society.
His course, which costs police departments $395 per attending officer, blends techniques in refinement since Cain squared off against Abel with the latest advances in forensic science.
"We contracted with Vernon because his program has the best reputation," said Lou Tessmann, commander of the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force, which sponsored the seminar. "Some of our officers have already taken the course and have nothing but praise for it."
Unlike other instructors, Geberth does not rely on his own impressive resume alone but brings examples from throughout the country.
"This course is not for everybody, just as not everybody should be a cop and not every cop should be a homicide detective," Geberth said. "We will look at dozens of cases and what the detectives did to solve them, and you will learn skills to apply to your own cases."
A woman in Flint, Mich., is murdered by gang members because she reported them selling dope out of a house next to hers, and detectives crack the case by turning one member of the gang against the others.
A mob hit in a New York restaurant is solved because the shooter stepped in sugar that spilled from the victim's table and an investigator collected what was left for a match.
A detective in Arlington, Va., is rebuffed by his counterparts in a city 50 miles away when he suggests there is a pattern in a series of rape murders in both cities but persists in pursuing the leads and eventually sends the killer to the electric chair.
A veteran of 5,000 homicide investigations who has consulted on 3,000 other cases, Geberth insists there are five qualities present in every good investigator. "Three skills are external - you must master the arts of teamwork, documentation and preservation of the crime scene," he said. "You will also need common sense and mental flexibility because an investigation will take 180-degree turns in midstream and you can not go into a case with an agenda."
Geberth mastered the science of investigation while working as the investigative consultant for Lifecodes Laboratory in New York, one of the first facilities in the country to do DNA testing for criminal cases.
His course includes an extensive study on collection and presentation of DNA evidence and a preview of a coming scientific breakthrough.
The American Academy of Sciences announced this year that they have developed a way to quantify the release of peptides into the human system which will eventually be used to demonstrate in court how much a person suffered before his or her death. "The information presented about peptides was the most fascinating part of the entire course," Libertyville police detective Dennis Meserve said. "If we get to a point where we can go into court and say we have proof of how much pain a victim was in before his death, criminals will be going away forever."
Geberth wrote his first textbook bearing the same name as his course in 1982 as a response to what he perceived as a "brain drain" in his own department's investigation units brought on by administrative fiat. "Some chucklehead in command decided that rotation was the key to the future," Geberth said. You had experienced investigators going back to the patrol division and know-nothings trying to catch murderers just because it was their turn."
The just-completed third edition of his textbook is a $65, 960-page publication and is accompanied by a more compact field guide.
Geberth says that his legend was born through the O.J. Simpson trial. Both Simpson's defense team and the prosecutors on the case attempted to hire him as a consultant on the case, Geberth said, and both met with similar results.
"I told the defense liars (his term of endearment for anyone involved in criminal defense work) that I wouldn't work for them because I believed O.J. did it," Geberth said. "I told the prosecution I wasn't interested because I saw their case unraveling before it ever got to trial."
Instead, he worked as a technical adviser to Inside Edition and Fox News during the trial, and watched as his textbook was referred to as the "bible" of investigation by both sides.
He urges his class members to remember why they chose to go into police work and why the investigation of a homicide is the craft's highest calling.
"I used to tape a life picture of the victim inside the front cover of the file on every case I worked," Geberth said. "I never wanted to forget that every victim of every murder was a living, loving human being at one time and I was after the person who took that away from them."
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