While writing my mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, I enlisted the help of several experts who could teach me about dead bodies, guns, autopsies, and murder investigations. In all my years of living in Monmouth, Illinois (pop. 10,000), I’ve only talked once, briefly, with a police chief. For my murder mystery, I screwed up my courage and made an appointment to see the current Monmouth Chief of Police. I didn’t want to waste his time or come across as an idiot when asking questions. So I prepared in advance with facts I specifically needed to know for my book. In this post, I will leave out a few of those facts. No spoilers.
Because I was interviewing experts, I needed to know they were, indeed, experts. Police Chief Bill Feithen has been the head man at the Monmouth Police Department since February, 2012.Chief Feithen not only has academic degrees in his chosen field, but he also has in-depth, applicable experience. He holds an Associate Degree in Law Enforcement from Kishwaukee College; a BA in Sociology and Criminology from Northern Illinois University; and a Masters in Public Administration, also from NIU. Prior to coming to Monmouth, he worked his way up from patrolman to sergeant to lieutenant and, finally, chief of police in the Dekalb Police Department. He held these various positions from 1975 to 2012. Feithen has had experience in patrol, investigations, and administration. The Police Chief has been heavily involved in community activities, and he belongs to so many professional organizations that I’d have to write another post just to list them all.
When I interviewed Chief Feithen in August, 2012, I was half done with my book, but I needed to find out information I didn’t know and verify details I’d already written. I asked for his expert advice in four areas: cold case files and evidence, identification of bodies, gun identification, and police procedure. Here is an abbreviated version of some of those questions and his answers.
What is the diference between case files from the past and case files from today?
(It was important for me to know this because of plot details in my book.) Chief Feithen said evidence today is better preserved than it used to be. Evidence bags in the past were often paper, while
today police use both paper and plastic. Sometimes evidence has to “breathe;” hence, plastic. Today, blood evidence is dried before packaging. Since DNA is now a tool for law enforcement, envelopes with flaps someone has licked are put in an evidence bag. Today, handwritten notes are bagged so they can be checked for fingerprints and the contents examined. Sometimes handwritten notes are “fumed” to bring out the fingerprints. Older cold case files have black and white photos, and some might have Polaroids that have deteriorated over time. Lab tests would be included both today and in the past, but today’s tests are, of course, much more sophisticated.
I had done some online research before I asked him about the old cold case files in my novel. I had included the medical examiner’s report, witness interviews, task force meeting notes, detective notes, newspaper articles, photographs, lab reports, and objects from the scene.He verified those contents and added a few additional items. He also added that cold case files would have to be preserved well.Maybe they were in a basement and got damaged in a flood, or they were in an office and somehow got misplaced, perhaps during a move to a new office. Back in earlier decades, evidence wasn’t always well preserved, especially in smaller town police departments.
Years ago police departments were not required to keep evidence beyond a certain point, and they routinely purged
when a case was done. They didn’t have as much guidance from the courts as departments have today. In Illinois, today, the evidence in certain cases, expecially in major crimes, is kept forever. This is always true of Class X or higher cases. But once the statue of limitations has ended for more minor cases or all appeals are over, evidence is routinely purged. The courts, as well as the State’s Attorney’s office, give guidance today on the status of cases and when to throw out evidence. In my book, my cold case file was kept because of the nature of the crime.
How are bodies identified?
Today it’s much easier because we have DNA and fingerprint databases and a huge
amount of material at our fingertips. But decades ago, they didn’t have DNA, and they had fingerprints on hard copy cards. Often there were no dental records. The police would have gone to the relatives of a victim and asked them for doctors’ names or operations the victim had in hospitals. Often broken bones, scars, or deformities would be markers for identification.
How do you identify gun owners?
Today the police trace gun ownership from the manufacturer to the retailer to the customer. Current retailers are required to keep records for ten years on
gun purchases. Even private sellers must keep a record of buyers. If a gun is used in a crime, the police can often trace the serial number. The number is on different parts of the gun, depending on the gun maker. And what if a criminal tries to destroy the identification number of a gun? Labs can sometimes raise numbers if a criminal tries to grind them down.
Police Procedure: In a homicide, who would be called in to assist?
Usually a state evidence team and additional detectives from the state police, Galesburg, and Macomb. Also a CSI team would be called. They would form a homicide task force or major case squad. If a bomb is involved, the ATF, or another federal agency, might be called in. Chief Feithen was police chief in Dekalb, Illinois, during the multiple shootings at NIU which killed five students and injured twenty-one more on February 14, 2008. He said that crime involved a student from the University of Illinois. The Dekalb Police Department was assisted by the Champaign police as Dekalb detectives spoke to individuals in the Champaign area whom they wanted to interview about the suspect.
[I have a feeling being Police Chief in Monmouth is a bit less stressful than being Chief in Dekalb.]
Then I asked him…well, no, I can’t tell you that because you might figure out whodunit in my book. You’ll have to wait until it comes out in November.
Chief Feithen is an intelligent, experienced person, and he answered my questions about murder with a directness and frankness that would do my fictional Endurance Police Chief proud. I think the Monmouth community is fortunate to have him in this office, and I look forward to asking him more questions down the road. This is one of the great advantages to living in a small town, writing a small town murder mystery, and having helpful experts just a few blocks or a phone call away.