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THE HUBER MURDER CASE : Science Can Bring a Murder Scene Back to Life

July 22, 1994|TRACY WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Armed with new gee-whiz technology, crime scene investigators can often re-create who was at a murder scene, what they were wearing, whether sex of some sort took place--even choreograph a struggle--long after a killer has fled.

"I've been involved in some cases where there's been an identification (of a victim) years after the crime has been committed," said Dr. Cyril Wecht of Pittsburgh, one of the country's leading forensic pathologists.

Such techniques may assist investigators as they try to determine what happened in a Laguna Hills storage bin under investigation as the possible murder site of Denise Huber.

Using argon lasers and a chemical spray called Luminol, investigators can make clues invisible to the eye in daylight glow in the darkness like tiny beacons, criminalists said.

Argon lasers, the most common laser used at crime scenes, emit a stream of amplified light waves that cause physiological fluids and trace evidence--such as semen, fibers from clothing, car upholstery and rugs, and the chemicals left behind by fingerprints--to fluoresce in various colors, forensic scientists said.

Maggie Black, supervisor of the identification bureau of the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner's Office, said she has used lasers to identify fingerprints six years after a crime occurred. But, she said, "the older it is, the less likely it is to glow."

Blood, which does not react to the laser, appears velvety black, forensic scientists said.

Investigators, usually working in the dead of night, use Luminol to find bloodstains invisible to the naked eye, said Donald J. Johnson, senior criminalist with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Scientific Services Bureau. The chemical in Luminol reacts with the hemoglobin component in blood and causes bloodstains to change color and emit a faint glow, he said.

In one murder case in Washington, D.C., in 1992, Luminol showed where a woman's bloodied fingers were dragged off the edge of a bed before her death. Before the Luminol test, there had been no visible sign of the struggle.

Investigators who have spent recent nights probing a Laguna Hills storage locker where murder suspect John J. Famalaro was staying at the time of Huber's disappearance are thought to be using both lasers and Luminol.

Margaret Quo, assistant director of forensic science services for the coroner's office, declined to discuss the Huber case. But she said the department frequently uses both techniques. Once the blood and bodily fluid samples are identified and collected, investigators can identify both the victims and perpetrators using the DNA in semen and blood.

With new technology, it is possible to identify a victim years after a crime occurred just from a tiny splotch of dried blood, Johnson said.

"It depends on the quality of the blood, " he said. "For the most discriminating DNA test, we need no more than a bloodstain the size of a quarter."

But Johnson and other forensic scientists emphasized that exposure to other chemicals or the sun can affect whether a sample can be used.

"Sometimes it's not the age of the blood that matters; sometimes it's the chemical it comes in contact with," Quo said.

Once a blood sample is retrieved, the tiny fragments of DNA in the sample can be replicated over and over into a much larger sample through a process called PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, Johnson said. The sample is then matched with the DNA in the tissue or hair from a victim, he said.

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