Renowned Homicide Expert Gives Seminar

By Jay King
Hometown News
September 2007

When Vernon Geberth speaks, it is with a voice and accent that even Tibetan yak herders would recognize as coming from the Bronx in New York City. But accent aside, Geberth is one of the most widely recognized experts on homicide investigations, and last week he led a three-day seminar on the subject that was attended by more than 50 investigators from across the state and surrounding region.

Professionals within the law enforcement community generally consider Geberth's seminar, Practical Homicide Investigations, the most comprehensive and influential method of investigating homicides developed in the last 30 years. His book about the subject bears the same title and is now in its fourth edition and considered the "bible" of homicide investigations.

Geberth's seminars are always well attended, but when the opportunity came up to host one in Spartanburg, organizers jumped at the chance. Spartanburg County's Forensic Coordinator, Rusty Clevenger, was the man responsible for organizing the seminar and spent untold hours in the past few weeks to make sure everything was in place.

As the county's forensic coordinator, Clevenger works for 7th Circuit Solicitor Trey Gowdy, but received much of his training through Sheriff Chuck Wright. Part of that training included attending one of Geberth's seminars a few years ago in which he recognized the tremendous value of using the P.H.I. approach to investigating homicides.

Like many who have studied the P.H.I. method, Clevenger said that Geberth's more than 40 years of experience in law enforcement and his extensive involvement with the investigations of more than 8,000 homicides make him a living encyclopedia on the subject with a fund of knowledge and practical experience virtually without equal in the country.

"It has been exciting to bring Vernon's seminar here to Spartanburg," Clevenger said. "There's no one who knows more about homicide investigations than him."

But one of the things that has made Geberth's coming to Spartanburg so meaningful was his close involvement with the decade-long investigation into the murder of Dana Satterfield in Roebuck. Geberth featured the case at his seminars when it was an open, unsolved homicide, and over the course of the investigation this produced several leads that contributed to moving the case forward and eventually led to the conviction of Jonathan Vick last November for the crime.

"I do have an affinity for Spartanburg because of this case," Geberth said. "When they told me in 2005 that this case was solved I was like a little kid." Geberth's use of ongoing cases is one of the major draws for his seminars because investigators are stimulated to share information and ideas - one of the principal investigative techniques Geberth teaches.

Investigators Grover Goodrich and Steve Johnson of the Russell County (Alabama) Sheriff's Department attended last week's seminar, in part to continue their learning about homicide investigations, but also because Geberth affirms the worth and service that all homicide investigators give to their communities.

Like many in law enforcement, Goodrich and Johnson view their profession as a calling. This is one reason they identify so well with Geberth's trademark mantra: "Remember, We work for God." Goodrich said that the methods taught in P.H.I. seminars have been embraced by his department and are centered on Geberth's principal that homicide investigations should be done right the first time from the start.

In fact, the P.H.I. model stresses being thorough and methodical from the onset of an investigation and highlights the necessity that everyone involved with a case know the process and share information.

"Vernon teaches you and gives you things to think about," Goodrich said. "He gives you his 40 years of practical experience."

Geberth said that many things have changed over the years as he's taught the seminars but the methods and approach to homicide investigations remain the same because solving cases comes down to solid police work. One thing that has become a factor, at least when dealing with juries and in the public's mind, is what Geberth calls the "CSI Effect."

Goodrich and Johnson added that this idea that technology is able to conclusively solve cases is particularly problematic when dealing with juries because they expect a mountain of iron-clad evidence that leaves no room for doubt.

"Technology alone will never solve a case," Johnson said. "A lot of times the physical evidence ends up as confirmation of your basic investigation."

The Satterfield case illustrates this point, Geberth said. For 10 years investigators could not put the pieces of the puzzle together despite having some tantalizing leads. It took the fresh eye of investigator Tom Smith to begin pulling the various strands together

Smith was brought in by the then newly elected Sheriff Chuck Wright to head cold-case investigations. Smith reviewed the file and eventually began to focus on Vick. Eventually, Smith and other investigators were able to match Vick's DNA to a sample found on Satterfield's body a decade before, and Geberth pointed out that the jury took less than 30 minutes to return a guilty verdict during Vick's trial last year.

While advances in DNA testing made the positive identification of Vick possible, the bulk of the case rested on solid investigative techniques, Geberth said. This is one of the main reasons he enjoys his work so much.

"It's a fulfilling job for me," Geberth said. "It allows me to hang out with real cops and also gives me a chance to re-instill the values of God and country.

"It's all about the men and women who do the job," he added.

Clevenger said that even though the Satterfield case has been brought to a successful conclusion, he hopes to be able to bring Geberth back in the future to bring his training to a new crop of investigators.

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