Guns, DNA and oh… don’t forget the dead body

Posted Oct 18 2010, 1:16 am

Saturday, I had the honor of touring a local crime lab with the Long Island Romance Writers and I can sum it up in one word – WOW.  In one afternoon, I learned everything you ever wanted to know about analyzing a crime scene. And even some stuff you never wanted to know. (Trust me.)

Our tour began with a lecture delivered by a senior crime scene investigator with some thirty years’ experience. “Bob” walked us through the typical crime scene investigatory process, using the same shooting that had temporarily locked down my son’s school a few days prior.  He explained how a crime scene is processed, how long it typically takes, and described the qualifications needed in the people who do this work.

Next, it was time to tour the lab. In my town, the lab serves county police, the sheriff’s department, various incorporated towns’ needs and federal agencies, when needed. This lab can analyze trace evidence, DNA, firearms and drugs.  The facilities were old and smelled funky but were outfitted with some expensive high-tech gadgetry. Electron microscopes, stereo microscopes, and something called a ‘gas chromatography mass selective detector’ for analyzing drug composition.  We learned about emerging trends in putting the bad guys behind bars – like ‘touch DNA’. We also learned the firearms pros are um… well, some seriously disturbed individuals.

But, aside from the various quotes, photos, and newspaper clippings adorning the lab, the Firearms Lab was by far, the coolest place in the facility.  There was a room the size of my living room lined floor to ceiling with guns. They were sorted by caliber. One whole wall was devoted to rifles, shotguns and yes, even machine guns. Another wall was devoted to the smallest of the small guns – guns tiny enough to hang on a keychain. Then, there was a section for the obscure and odd gun, like pen guns and even a gun hidden in a cane. James Bond’s Q would have salivated.

As we walked from section to section, Bob continued his riveting lecture on what gets processed there and how it’s processed. As a technical writer, I was drawn to all the expensive computer units, which spoke to my inner geek.  But the bagged pieces of evidence, like the bloody saw blade, appealed to the story teller in me and I was not alone in that! Throughout the tour, members of our group asked questions intended to iron out a plot wrinkle or add authenticity to a setting. At one point, the lovely Pam Burford put up her hand and shouted, “This one’s mine!”

It was a fun and extremely enlightening tour.

Right up until the end.


That’s when we walked past the autopsy being performed.  Bizarrely, I couldn’t look away.   It was a real live -er, dead guy, not some Hollywood effect. I learned waaaaay more than I ever wanted to know about the human body.

If anybody has a way of erasing that image from my brain, do share.



10 responses to “Guns, DNA and oh… don’t forget the dead body”

  1. What a great opportunity! Hopefully you can use it all in your writing – even the dead body!

  2. Linda G. says:

    Wow! That’s fantastic. Well, except for the autopsy part–I probably would’ve lost the contents of my stomach at that. ;)

  3. Kelly B says:

    Okay a real autopsy. I am officially no longer jealous that I missed the tour. No, really I promise. I can’t even watch the fake ones on NCIS so a real one would have had me gagging for sure.

  4. Patty says:

    Laura, I haven’t written crime fiction but this makes me want to try it! It was ‘real’ science fiction, if that makes sense.

    Linda and Kelly, I was too stunned to react. I tried not to look and found I couldn’t. It actually looked fake. What bothered me more than what I was seeing was WHO I was seeing. Couldn’t have been past his 20’s. That got me thinking he was somebody’s son. In other words, the gore factor was nothing compared to the loss…

  5. abby mumford says:

    OMG. you saw a real autopsy??? ick. you had me going “yeah, so cool, i wish i could have seen all that” until the autopsy part.

    you are brave.

    • Patty says:

      Oh, yeah. Patty Blount: super-hero. Jeannie will tell you I was green around the gills, looking for the exit.

      • Jeannie says:

        She was a little green, but not nearly as much as a few others who never made our post tour meeting—at the local diner.

        I totally agree with you Patty, the gore of the autopsy paled next to the human factor. The subject/victim was so young and that was terribly sad.

  6. Donna Coe-Velleman says:

    I liked the quarkiness of the workers, the personal touches at most of the stations or in the rooms where they worked. I found that most enlightening and touching.

    I couldn’t look away either, Patty. I don’t even like the sight of blood and here I am having trouble turning away. I didn’t have my distance glasses on so things weren’t very sharp but like you said it didn’t look real. Yet my mind is telling me yes it is. It was both surreal and sad.

    • lola sharp says:

      Oh COOL!! I would have been okay for the autopsy…as long as it didn’t smell. (did it? Could you smell the dreaded ‘decamp’ smell?) THAT would have me barfing. Bad smells mess me up. I can take sounds, sights, even stuff ON me (touch/feel), but a gnarly smell and I’m out.

      What an excellent opportunity, and I’m glad you enjoyed (most of) it. :)


  7. Patty says:

    I agree, Donna. He was somebody’s son – so sad.

    Lola, I have problems with formaldehyde – it brings back horrid memories of my nursing school dissections. I did not finish nursing school so feared that odor would set me off.

    Surprisingly, no – I did not detect anything funkier beyond the musty smell the entire building had, perhaps due to its age. Quite honestly, if we’d just walked right past the open door without first being told of the autopsy in progress, I might not have noticed at all.