Monday, September 14, 2009


Note from CJ: Please welcome Lisa Black, forensic scientist and author of EVIDENCE OF MURDER, this week as our Criminal Minds Grand Master!  She'll be answering our forensic questions and yours too, if you add them into the comment section.   Enjoy!!!

What was your most memorable (unique, scary, funny--you choose) crime scene experience? How did working that scene change your life--professionally and also as a writer?

I can’t say I’ve really had a crime or crime scene that changed my life. Probably the closest thing would be when I had been working at the coroner’s office for about a week, it was shortly before Christmas, and they brought in a family of five dead of carbon monoxide poisoning because a bird’s nest or some such thing had caused a blockage in their furnace exhaust. On the way home from work that day I stopped and bought two carbon monoxide detectors, one for my house and one for my parents. So this is what I’ve learned on the job: It’s easy to die, and nothing’s more important than your family.

I think one of the saddest cases I’ve ever worked was a 12 year old girl of Oriental parents, who lived in a rather nice suburb of Cleveland. An acquaintance of the girl’s older brother, a 21-year-old man, became obsessed with her. Her parents did everything they should have done--they told him to stay away from their daughter, they called the police, they got a restraining order, they did everything they could short of locking the kid in a closet. But he walked up to her as she was walking to school with two girlfriends, and shot her point blank in the chest. Her terrified little friends ran into the first storefront they saw, which happened to be a coffee shop where two cops were having breakfast. They found the young man standing over the body. When I examined her clothing, she had one of those small glass ‘bluebird of happiness’ statues in her pocket, apparently just because that’s the sort of things little girls carry around in their pocket. My mother-in-law had given me one in congratulations when I got the job at the coroner’s office, because I was so happy about it.

A really unique day occurred when a guy dragged his girlfriend out of his house, shoved her in the car, and drove away. He returned alone, got nervous that his neighbors might call the cops, so he went to the Cleveland police department to turn himself in for domestic violence. They asked where he lived, then said, no, you live in East Cleveland, you’ll have to go there to make a report. So he went to East Cleveland. They said no, you’re one street off, you live in Cleveland. So he goes back, makes a report, goes home. He’s still nervous, so he goes out and “finds” the body. Calls the police again, and this time they keep him.

In a completely unrelated event, when I went to the impound lot to examine the car, there was a fingerprint analyst processing a car from a separate homicide a few bays up. Knowing we were from the coroner’s office, he suddenly called out “Hey! Do you want this brain?” The driver in his case had taken a shot to the head, which cleaved the top half of the brain off and thrust it into the back seat, where it went unnoticed as the body had been collected. This sounds really gross but wasn’t—it just sat there all neat and pink and convoluted.

One time I really had to laugh was when, in the middle of the night, I had to go to a nearby restaurant because someone had broken a window and tried to steal the flat screen TVs over the bar. For some reason burglars always think those things are going to pop right off the wall like a painting. They don’t realize how heavy they are and how securely they have to be attached to the bracket. The police officers told me about this and said, also, there’s there a frozen fish filet out back in the grass—we don’t know if it has anything to do with anything, but it’s not even covered with ants yet so it can’t have been there very long. So I started to photograph the outside of the building, and walked to the grass behind the building. It’s very dark out, so I see this shape in the grass, and I realize that a stray cat has already discovered the fish. So I said hey, cat, figuring it would run away.

This cat gave me the coldest look I have ever seen on an animal.I couldn’t invent swear words bad enough to describe what this cat was obviously thinking.

He didn’t bolt, merely picked up the filet and trotted off. I could only picture myself on the witness stand trying to explain to a defense attorney how a cat ran off with my evidence.

Just one more day on the job.

Lisa Black spent the happiest five years of her life in a morgue. Strange, perhaps, but true. In her job as a forensic scientist she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s as a latent print examiner and CSI working with fingerprints and crime scenes. She has been published in Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Japan.


♥Jen♥ said...

Hi Lisa! Long time, no see! Glad to see you (again) here at 7 Criminal Minds. These are funny anecdotes. I'm sure they aren't funny at the time they're happening, but I definitely got a chuckle out of them this morning.

So, I didn't think to ask you last you find any distinct differences between working in Ohio and working in Florida? Things that seem to be unique to the specific environments or is most everything about the same in either place?

Hope you have a great week here!

--Jen Forbus

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks for joining us! Wow, what wonderful real life stories-don't be surprised if some of them start showing up in novels!

And I know that look the cat gave you--mine does the same.

Thanks again for sharing!

Sophie Littlefield said...

Lisa - that was a *fascinating* way to kick off your week! Needless to say, I was riveted. I love the brain in the back seat story...

Kelli Stanley said...

Wow, Lisa, what fascinating tales from the "real" CSI! :) Thanks so much for being our first Grand Master on Criminal Minds, and sharing your incredible expertise and writing talent!

That cat story is one for the ages!! ;)


Pop Culture Nerd said...


I love how you're a real-life, crime-fighting badass. Thank you for sharing these stories; I look forward to more. The one about the 12-year-old was already tragic but your mention of her bluebird made it heartbreaking.

Shane Gericke said...

The Brain in the Back Seat ... hey, there's the title for your second novel, Lisa :-) Thanks so much for joining us this week. We've met at a couple of book thingies, and I'm looking forward to seeing you at Thrillerfest next year if you're attending. Are you coming to Bouchercon in October?

Shane Gericke said...

Cleveland DOES rock. I read your website in anticipation of this week and see you're a Cleveland native. Cool! My wife and I and another couple took a road trip last summer to see a baseball game in the new stadium, check out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and wander the streets. Long story short, fabulous city. We were very impressed. You've got some great architecture, a number of abandoned but beautiful buildings I'd kill to get a peek inside, good food, and walkable neighborhoods. Being on the lake, it reminds me of Chicago, just more compact. I hope the city's renaissance keeps going, because all the Clevelanders (Clevelandites?) we met that weekend were (a) very proud of their city, and (b) exceptionally nice to us visitors.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks for stopping by! It is those little details that break your heart or make you laugh, isn't it. I,for one, hope to never hear the phrase "do you want the brain in the back seat?"

I almost died from carbon monoxide poisoning myself. Coal furnace in Colorado. Have had CO2 monitors ever since (except here where we don't even HAVE a heater).

Can't wait for the answers to my sperm questions tomorrow.

Kelli Stanley said...

"Can't wait for the answers to my sperm questions tomorrow."??

Becks, I'm not gonna touch that one with an, er, ten foot pole. ;)



Rebecca Cantrell said...

There you go, Kelli, exagerrating the size of your pole...
I expected that from one of the guy criminal minds, but apparently they are too refined to go there.

It's not the pole or the sperm I have questions about. It is the harvesting.

Kelli Stanley said...

"It is the harvesting."

Is THAT what they call it now? ;)



♥Jen♥ said...

Hey Shane, I'm from the Cleveland area, too! Lisa and I were talking last week about where we both hail from.

Sperm, really? O.k. I'll have to come back and check out the "harvesting" question. I wonder if that requires a pole? ;)

Lisa Black said...

Thanks, all! I'm glad you liked it.

1.) Yes, Cleveland totally rocks!

2.) Yes, I'll be at Bouchercon.

3.) Differences between Florida and Ohio...the environment would affect how a body decomposes, I'm sure. However, most of our homicides in Cape Coral are discovered promptly so this really hasn't come into play for me. The bigger difference has been working for a police department instead of a coroner's office--nothing major, just trying to get a handle on the whole rank structure. And that, completely contrary to what you would expect, not that many cops in this hot climate drink coffee. It's actually hard to find a cup of coffee in our building. Go figure.

Shane Gericke said...

I didn't comment on "10-foot pole" cause that does no justice to my throbbing caber of . . . of . . . wait . . . can't breathe . . . laughing too much . . .

P.S. All of a sudden my Blogger login doesn't work. Anyone else having that problem?

Rebecca Cantrell said...


My login works.

Maybe you should use a smaller pole. (I couldn't resist).

♥Jen♥ said...

Geez Rebecca, I just spit tea! LOL...I'd hate to see what Google searches this post shows up on! LOL