By R. Scott Decker
I began my FBI agent career in 1990 chasing bank robbers through the streets of Boston—the quintessential work of Mr. Hoover’s Bureau. As a new agent with pre-bureau training in science, forensics found me a willing student.
Lead composition analysis—only the FBI offered it—was on the forensic menu. Comparing spent rounds with unfired slugs intrigued me. A match would provide compelling evidence, ensuring prison time for the guilty party. Working the streets of Boston, coming up against its most violent, being lied to, wondering if my newest informant was setting me up, the FBI Laboratory had my back, irrefutable science when I went to court.
One afternoon all hands responded to a bank robbery with shots fired on the South Shore. The bank manager had taken a bullet in the abdomen—he faced months of complicated surgeries. Next in line for a case, it was mine to solve. I put out the word and soon my telephone rang. Sean Dryer and Brian McNelley* had done the heist—Dryer was the shooter—a career criminal known for violence. Within hours I had outlined a search warrant and presented it to the US Attorney.
Our search turned up little, but we did find .38 caliber ammunition; surgeons had recovered a .38 caliber slug from the bank manager and I had dug a second from the bank lobby wall. I wrote a request to the FBI lab for a lead composition comparison and sent my evidence to Washington, D.C. While I waited, more information came in about Dryer. He was suspected in the robbery and fatal shooting of a money courier north of Boston. I retrieved the autopsy slugs and shipped them to the lab—more chances for a positive match.
While I waited for the answer, I scanned each day’s Boston Globe. There in the national section was an article about the FBI laboratory and a statement from its Assistant Director. He had ordered a forensic technique discontinued, a technique only his lab offered. An attempt at revalidation showed flaws; results could not be reproduced. From today forward, the FBI Lab was discontinuing its use of lead composition comparisons.
I glanced at the newspaper’s date—the first week of April, beginning with—All Fools Day! At first I thought the article was a joke, but the gag was on me. My infallible FBI Laboratory, the nation’s leader in forensics, had fooled us. Each case using lead composition analysis would be re-examined, the guilty requesting release from prison, new trials ordered. And I was back to square one, embarrassed for believing in a technique that had never been fully validated, knowing that as I read, Dryer and McNelley were undoubtedly planning their next caper.
*Dreyer and NcNelley are pseudonyms.
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My book, Recounting the Anthrax Attacks released from Amazon today (but pre-orders were beginning to ship ten days ago).
Scott Decker, PhD, began as an FBI Special Agent on the streets of Boston, pursuing bank and armored car robbers. Following September 11, 2001 he transferred to counterterrorism, and investigated the country’s first lethal bioterrorism attack. In 2009, he was awarded the FBI Director’s Award for Outstanding Scientific Advancement. His first non-fiction book, Recounting the Anthrax Attacks: Terror, the Amerithrax Task Force, and the Evolution of Forensics in the FBI, won first place for non-fiction book in the Public Safety Writers Association’s writing competition.