The state’s criminal investigation team is branching out by going underwater. Ohio Public Radio’s Karen Kasler went out for an afternoon with a group of crime scene investigators hoping to bring their skills to counties that need them.
The Bureau of Criminal Investigation responds to requests from any county for help with crime scene investigation – and dispatches trucks with agents and the latest high-tech equipment. But the bureau’s newest tool is pretty old school. Attorney General Mike Dewine says the state’s crime solving agency is launching its first-ever forensic dive team.
Dewine: Now we will be able to complement what we do for the normal crime scene to extend that if there’s something underwater, or we think there might be something underwater – which is many times the situation. You just don’t know, but the trail may lead you and you think, we need to check this river out or we need to check this pond out.
The team can help find evidence, weapons and human remains – and DeWine expects to be called in by smaller police and county sheriff’s departments that don’t have dive teams of their own. In many cases will be able to conduct tests on the scene rather than having to take what they find back to the local or state crime lab. The eight-member dive team was created from people already employed at BCI, includes three crime scene agents and an electronics expert – and it includes an EPA inspector. Ohio EPA director Scott Nally is a diver himself, and says this team will help find illegal dumpers and polluters who put all sorts of things in waterways.
Nally: Tires, barrels - empty barrels, contaminated barrels, barrels with some solvent in it that might be leaking – a point source. Oftentimes a lot of our historical infrastructure, the pipe is out into the water, so unless you actually drain it, you can’t find it.
The team can explore water of all depths – from small tributaries and little ponds to Lake Erie and the Ohio River. The idea for the team came from former Clark County prosecutor Stephen Schumaker, who’s now a deputy attorney general – and also a diver.
Schumaker: Much of the water we will be diving in will be what we refer to as black water. In other words, we won’t be able to see a thing. This will not be recreational diving. This will be rather blind, current driven, hazard diving in many situations.
The team spent its first afternoon at a quarry in Circleville south of Columbus, testing a piece of equipment to help in those circumstances – a $50,000 sonar unit that can be lowered into water to search before divers jump in. BCI agents hid some weapons in the quarry, and members of the team went out on a small boat and into the water, while sales rep Karl Luttrell stayed on land and watched the return from the sonar scanner on two computer screens.
Luttrell: That’s about a three and a half foot object right there. Could that be a long gun?
Luttrell then translates what he sees on the screen to an agent with a radio, who then communicates with the team members on the boat….
“Ok, we need – the diver needs to go directly north approximately 8-10 feet.”
The team didn’t find a gun this time, but Luttrell says one fire department in Ohio that uses this unit found six drowning victims when its dive teams were unable to find them. And Dewine stresses this team is not a rescue team – it was created specifically to find evidence that criminals thought would be washed away.