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Engineer-Sleuth Loves Challenge of Unraveling Deep Mysteries : . . . My research assistant, Harry Spring . . . stands in exactly the same spot as the victim, wearing approximately the same clothes. : -- John Fiske Brown : Forensic engineer

September 23, 1985|WENDY HASKETT

SOLANA BEACH — From the road it looks like an ordinary house--large, well-kept, surrounded by trees and the lush shrubbery typical of the Solana Beach hillsides.

A stranger driving past it would have no way of knowing that, in a patio behind the stucco walls, there's an object that looks exactly like a guillotine. (It was built to smash coffee pots.) Or that the garage is crammed with things not normally found in suburban garages. Or that, somewhere inside, the householder, John Fiske Brown, is likely to be working on reconstructing an accident, hunting for clues as to why it happened.

Not only Brown works here. So does his team--another engineer, a secretary, a research assistant, a bookkeeper, a draftsman, an office assistant and a carpenter.

"I don't think I could stand going to work in a regular office now," said Lynda Laws, Brown's secretary for four years. "Something different happens every day here. Also, none of us have to dress up. I can come to work wearing my purple socks if I feel like it."

Brown is a forensic engineer. He's 57, a soft-spoken, clever man with a habit of pausing to consider what he's saying before he says it. Picture a Sherlock Holmes with a master's degree in mechanical engineering and you'll be close to picturing Brown.

Bashing and Smashing

Hired by insurance companies and attorneys to provide them with facts instead of conjecture, he spends countless hours crawling around smashed cars with a magnifying glass. In the interest of research, he has set nightgowns on fire, crushed light bulbs in the patio guillotine, and spent part of a recent week at Del Mar Fairgrounds' parking lot battering car seats with a chain hoist.

"To see how much force they can take," he said. "We get a lot of auto seat failure cases."

They also get a lot of glass coffee pot cases. Cases in which the coffee pot bottom has dropped out, scalding whoever happened to be unlucky enough to be within range. They've had so many of these, in fact, that Brown and his engineer, Ken Obenski, recently researched the reasons glass coffee pots break, smashing pot after pot, and unnerving the woman who came in to clean by insisting she leave untouched the table piled high with broken glass.

"We told her, 'We need that broken glass!' " Obenski said.

The research showed that once a coffee pot has boiled dry, it becomes vulnerable to breaking and really isn't safe to use.

Many of their cases can't be done entirely at the house, but require trekking out to the scene of the accident. They've traveled to such assorted locations as Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Phoenix.

"But Los Angeles accounts for nearly half of our cases," Brown said. "If I'm doing a visibility test--for a case in which a car struck a pedestrian--my research assistant, Harry Spring, goes along. He stands in exactly the same spot as the victim, wearing approximately the same clothes." (Laws says that while she's transcribing his field tapes they're dotted with sounds of whizzing traffic and cries of "Watch out, Harry!")

Whole Little World

Brown, who is president of the San Diego Forensic Consultants Assn., called forensic consulting "a whole little world." There are forensic firemen, forensic psychologists and forensic accountants (for embezzlement cases). Forensic engineers, though, are still a fairly rare breed, he says.

"I know of only eight of us in San Diego County," he said. "About 50 in the Los Angeles area."

Their hourly fee ranges from $60 to $125. "And hundreds of hours on a case isn't unusual," said Brown, who once spent two years--"on and off, of course"--uncovering a carburetor defect.

For this reason, forensic engineers tend to be hired only for cases involving serious injuries and huge sums of money.

But not always.

"A few months ago someone hit a black cow on a rural road in Warner Springs, in the middle of the night," Brown said.

It had been a moonlit night. The insurance company of the rancher who owned the animal decided it wanted an expert to figure out just how visible that cow had been.

So Brown went down to a firm in National City--"They treat cow hides and send them to Japan for camera manufacturing," he said--and borrowed a black hide. He constructed a wooden frame exactly the same size as the cow. At exactly the same time of the month, he lugged his "cow" over to Warner Springs and set it up in the middle of the lonely road.

Could the cow really be seen?

It certainly could be, he said: "Actually, it stood out against the background."

Brown didn't start his career as a forensic engineer. He was on sabbatical from a post as associate professor of engineering at Canada's Acadia University when, in 1976, he free-lanced several cases for a big Los Angeles firm.

Cotton-Picking Start

"They asked me if I'd like to investigate a fire on a cotton picker," he said. "There was $70,000 worth of damage to it."

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