Busting crime with a smile behind the death mask

THEY have seen more death and destruction than anyone outside a war zone.

They are filmed and photographed at every major crime scene and yet no one remembers their faces.

They work in an environment where minutes count, yet they have to remind themselves to take their time.

They are the men and women of Victoria's Major Crime Scene Unit - the real-life CSI (minus the designer sunglasses).

Sights that would give us nightmares only make them curious - and there is a trick to their clinical objectivity. But more of that later.

They were there in the aftermath of Black Saturday, the Bali bombing, the Christchurch earthquake and in Thailand after the tsunami.

In Bali, Senior Sergeant Steven Deveson worked for weeks identifying victims in Third World conditions. ''That's what the TV shows can't show you - that awful smell,'' he says.

Not that he is complaining. He has been with the division since 1981. ''I love it.''

It is a sentiment shared across the team. Sergeant Peter Cox has been there for 12 years and expects to stay until retirement.

In fact, 90 per cent of staff tend to prop - and for good reason. ''We encourage people to stay. It is expensive to train a crime scene examiner and if they leave after five years then it is a waste of money,'' Deveson says.

Recently four relatively new appointments asked for transfers, finding dealing with death just too confronting. Now would-be applicants are sent straight to the morgue for a heebie-jeebies test. If they are spooked out then it is not for them.

We ask one veteran how he copes with so many terrible sights and his response is as dry as a martini. ''Alcohol,'' he deadpans.

It is typical of the black humour shared by workers who have to deal with death. Treat it seriously and it can consume you. Make a joke and you can survive with sanity intact.

''That's why we wear masks,'' says one. ''So no one can see us smiling.''

The trick - it would seem - is to divorce yourself from the victim. To them a crime scene is a treasure trove of potential evidence, not a family home forever destroyed by an act of violence.

What a crime scene examiner hates is to meet or even see the family of a victim. Then the illusion is destroyed and it is no longer an exercise in science.

An examiner who loses objectivity is a liability. They are trained to resist pressure to hurry, cut corners or jump to conclusions. More than 30 years on, the Lindy Chamberlain case still resonates.

''We have a commitment to the deceased. To do that we have to concentrate on doing our jobs and not become emotionally involved,'' Deveson says.

In work most of us get a second chance but once an examiner declares the area clear it is no longer theirs to control. ''The majority of times we only get one go at it,'' he says.

The team took a lead role in disaster victim identification in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday fires.

Of the 173 victims, 164 were identified through the DVI process and those were recovered within six days.

During one frustrating search through still smouldering ruins, a policeman drafted in to help broke the unit's unspoken code. ''He started to refer to the victim by name,'' says Deveson. ''They could have throttled him.''

The sprawling forensic complex in Macleod is part laboratory, part James Bond film set and part police station.

Hidden in the rear is an old weatherboard house used for training, a secure firearms destruction strongroom and a clinical drying area to preserve exhibits.

In the garage sits a stolen sedan being checked for clues connected to a series of armed robberies. A thin strip of trim, which could be linked to one of the street robberies, has been removed for examination.

In the backlot is a showroom-standard 1970s Ford the owner wants registered as a rare and extremely valuable GTHO. Sadly, the petroleum pedants at forensic say it is just a tricked-up Falcon.

It is a Friday and staff can choose to pay $2 to charity for the privilege of wearing jeans. No matter - if they are called to a job they will only don their freshly laundered overalls at the scene to minimise chances of contamination.

Behind individual desks in a communal office are signs of life away from the science of death.

There are pictures of smiling kids and spouses, fishermen posing with their catches and, for reasons staff can no longer recall, a 40-year-old framed portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth, a newer solar-powered model of her waving, plus figurines of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes a tiny clue takes months to examine. Other times it can be quicker, such as when a family member returned to the house claiming he had been shopping. The blood on his boots suggested otherwise.

There are 320 general duties police trained as crime scene officers who attend about 60,000 scenes a year. But at Macleod are the 38 specialist examiners who may be sent to a raided bikie gang headquarters, a house where an occupant has gone missing, or a body in the bush.

The days of a copper rolling up to a crime in a grey dustcoat to throw fingerprint dust around like wedding confetti are long gone.

A crime scene examiner is part scientist and part sleuth. Miss a clue and a case goes unsolved; make a mistake and a court case collapses.

In pre-DNA days, crime scenes were more relaxed. We can recall a detective pinching an unfashionably loud tie from the wardrobe of a drug dealer to present to a crime reporter notorious for bad taste.

The crook was locked up - as should have been the reporter.

Another detective arrived at a suspicious death coolly sucking on what appeared to be a strawberry Big M. It was, in reality, the remnants of several bottles of claret consumed at a squad luncheon that had been rudely interrupted.

Now, crime scenes are invitation only. Even the assistant director of the division, Detective Superintendent Doug O'Loughlin, won't walk in for a stickybeak - no matter how interesting the crime.

Their work will become even more complex when a new national DNA standard is introduced - a quantum leap in profiling sensitivity, which can find matches on exhibits previously found to be inconclusive.

''Put it this way,'' says Forensic Services Department Director Karl Kent. ''If the data of the present system could be kept on a credit card the new one would stretch from Earth to Pluto.''

But Kent says investigators, not science, solve crime. ''DNA can be critical to linking people to crime scenes, but it is just another tool.''

The examiners have in-house access to specialists in 16 different disciplines - a mixture of civilian scientists and police experts.

To the outsider it seems a little like splitting hairs, which is why they have human trace element experts to do just that. Likewise, blood-splatter experts can see a story in a stain, while a firearms specialist knows a spent bullet is as valuable as a fingerprint.

Recently the Melbourne team was asked to examine a crowbar found buried with a woman's body. They found a fingerprint that was a match to her husband.

When a man was shot dead in the doorway of his country home a crime scene examiner checked more than 600 metres of the perimeter fence until he found one blood spot left on a single wire barb. The blood spot was eventually matched to the killer, who had nicked his hand climbing into the property.

A missing persons case became a murder when a tiny blood spot was found on the door frame of a recently cleaned factory. The killers weren't taking any chances, so they burnt the body, shoved what was left into acid and then pounded the bones into powder before dumping the ashes into the ocean at Angelsea.

Following a tip-off, examiners found two bone fragments the size of tiny fingernails on the beach.

It was vital confirmation that led to a conviction. While it wasn't a needle in a haystack, it was darn close - and a hell of a lot more valuable.

In another case, a suspect denied driving a stolen Mercedes involved in a hit-run until a piece of paper no larger than a thumbnail was found under the accelerator, linking him to the car.

Often the key scientific evidence becomes more than a plank in the prosecution case. It is the catalyst for a confession. One suspect dropped his alibi story when told that a DNA swab linked a murder victim to the boot of his car.

Victoria's crime scene examiners work closely with the Coroner and nearly all the serious crime squads. Certainly homicide detectives know their worth, which is why they enthusiastically host an annual liaison function where we can report with relief that the only items kept on ice are the stubbies.

This story Busting crime with a smile behind the death mask first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.