Investigating Explosions And Chemical Threats

Apr 18, 2013
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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Three events this week have each prompted investigations: explosions at the Boston Marathon; possible ricin-laced letters intercepted en route to President Obama and Senator Roger Wicker; and most recently an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas.

In each investigation, authorities sift through the evidence, sometimes mountains of it, to determine what happened, how it happened and whether or not it was an act of terror. In a moment we'll speak with three experts about what they look for when they've investigated similar crimes, but first we'd like to hear from you.

If you work in forensics, tell us about a time when a piece of evidence moved your investigation forward. The number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation from our website. Just go to npr.org and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on in the program, Khaled Beydoun on the conversation among Muslim and Arab-Americans after events like the Boston bombing. But first, the methods and procedures used in investigating crimes. Don Borelli is the chief operating officer of The Soufan Group and a 25-year veteran of the FBI. He joins us now from studios at Carnegie Hall in New York. Welcome back. Nice to talk to you again, Don.

DON BORELLI: Thank you, nice to be back.

HEADLEE: So we have three really serious incidents this week - the explosions in Boston and then the possible - and in Texas and then the possible biochemical threat through the letters. Which is the most complicated? What is the most difficult investigation?

BORELLI: Well, we have to kind of take things one at a time. I mean, each one is unique, each one has its own set of unique circumstances and challenges to work through. As I understand it, starting with the ricin letter, obviously when you're dealing with something that toxic, you have the challenge of handling evidence that can be very harmful, harmful to the general public, harmful to the people that investigate it.

So, you know, obviously there's very specific procedures and equipment that have to be used. So this is a challenge, along with the laboratory work that needs to be done to verify it. In this particular case, as I understand it, the individual responsible was not somebody brand new. He's somebody that was known to the law enforcement community as a letter writer, you know.

I can't comment on his exact state of his mental capacity or what his motives are, but certainly he was on the radar. So somebody that's known is obviously easier to investigate than when you get a cold start. With regard to the plant explosion, I think the default position is, as I watch the news conference, and it was confirmed today, that they don't know what caused that explosion.

But the default position is we'll start with it was it a criminal act. And then once that is ruled out, then they'll, you know, figure out if it was an accident or what caused the accident. The challenge there, of course, is that you have this massive crime scene, this massive explosion, and so the investigators are going to have to, number one, wait until it's safe to go in and then start sifting through all that rubble to figure out exactly, you know, what initiated the explosion.

HEADLEE: We actually have just learned that the U.S. Senate sergeant at arms says the material in the letter sent to Senator Roger Wicker has been verified as ricin. In other words, the secondary tests, not just preliminary. So let me bring in Paul Keim now. Paul Keim is the Cowden Endowed Chair of Microbiology at Northern Arizona University, my alma mater in the interest of disclosure.

He's used forensic evidence to investigate bioterrorist attacks, including investigating strains of anthrax in 2001, and he joins us from member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona. Paul, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PAUL KEIM: Yes, thank you, and welcome back to Arizona, Celeste.

HEADLEE: Thank you very much. Well, let's talk about what Don was just discussing, which is the complications in an investigation that come when you're handling a very dangerous material. How does that slow you down?

KEIM: Well, you know, there are traditional forensic methods, such as DNA analysis and latent print analysis, and those experts and our capabilities to carry out those very powerful forensic approaches are made more difficult when you have to deal with, say, a biological agent or something that might explode on you.

And so in the past 10 years, the U.S. government, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, have gone to great lengths to try to create the ability to handle those in a common environment. In 2001, for example, when the anthrax letters were sent around, the FBI didn't have the capability to handle biological agents that were dangerous like this, and so it was difficult for them to do the latent print and DNA-type analysis that they were very expert at.

Since then there have been facilities stood up by the U.S. government that can actually handle those things. So there's that one approach, where you try to find a facility where you can get the experts into a biosafety situation, for example, that can still do the standard forensic analysis, or you try to separate the evidence out early on and send it to the experts that can handle it.

In the case of the anthrax letters, for example, very quickly live bacteria were pulled out of those letters and then were sent to my laboratory. I didn't have to worry about doing DNA fingerprint analysis - I'm sorry, doing latent print analysis on the letters. All I had to worry about was the bacterium, which we were very capable of handling.

HEADLEE: What about in a case like ricin? I mean, not everything has a specific fingerprint, chemical fingerprint, right? I remember all the discussion of anthrax and how you could trace it back to where it was made. But not every poison is that way.

KEIM: Well, in full disclosure, I'm actually a botanist as well as a microbiologist, and we spent a lot of time studying the genetics of castor bean. And we've done a study...

HEADLEE: Castor bean is what ricin is derived from.

KEIM: Yeah, excellent point, and let me take one step back. So ricin is a protein that's found in the seeds of castor bean. And so the castor bean is a very common ornamental plant around the United States and around the world. And so the plant that produces it, of course, has DNA. And typically these ricin preparations are rather crude, and they still - they aren't just pure protein. Rather, they have a lot of DNA in there too.

So it is possible, actually, to do DNA analysis on the toxin preparations, and it's possible, if it's important enough, to go back and do a DNA analysis to help track it back. So these biologicals can be tracked by DNA fingerprinting.

In this case obviously that wasn't necessary. It sounds like they were on top of this very quickly.

HEADLEE: That was Paul Keim, who is a Cowden Endowed Chair of Microbiology at Northern Arizona University, and Don Borelli is with us, a former FBI special agent. Let me bring one more voice into this discussion, Malcolm Brady, former assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives, and led the investigation after the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. Malcolm joins us now by phone from his home in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Malcolm, nice to have you.

MALCOLM BRADY: Thank you very much for having me again.

HEADLEE: And Don spoke briefly a little bit about the difficulties when you have an explosion, and things get fragmented, things get blown sometimes to a very - a pretty wide distance. And that seems to be the case in both Boston and in Texas as well. I mean, when you are spending days sifting through evidence, how - what do you pick up and what do you leave on the ground?

BRADY: It's a very meticulous process, and as I've said before, you start from the out and work in. And if it's - in this case the Boston explosion, it's probably blown materials up to probably 100 yards away. So you're literally on your hands and knees looking through every piece of trash, every piece of material that's on the ground, and you work your way into the blast scene.

So it's a very, very meticulous investigation, and it's kind of like putting a puzzle back together.

HEADLEE: Don, first of all, let me put out the call to our listeners again. If you work in forensics, we want to hear about a time when a piece of evidence moved your investigation forward. You can call us at 800-989-8255. But Don, can there be - I mean people talk all the time about a smoking gun, and yet my understanding is that you rarely get that kind of thing. How rare is the evidence that really turns an investigation?

BRADY: Well, I don't think you have - you - I'm sorry.

HEADLEE: Let me get Don first, Malcolm, and then I'll come to you. Go ahead, Don.

BORELLI: OK. You know, sure, you'd like to have that smoking gun in every investigation, but the reality of it is it's normally not any one thing that really turns an investigation. It's multiple things. It's a combination of some photographic evidence or some electronic surveillance coupled with some information obtained either from a confidential source or from the public, and then, you know, hopefully there's also - if you're lucky, you've collected some physical evidence, some fingerprints, some DNA.

So, you know, normally you just don't get that break where you get the one thing that's the - as you said, the smoking gun. It's not like "CSI" on TV. It's a lot of legwork. It's a lot of poring over many times even financial records and telephone records, and it can be very tedious, and there's a lot of analysis that needs to go into supporting the case that's ultimately going to be brought against the subjects of the crime.

HEADLEE: And Malcolm, you were saying?

BRADY: I would agree totally that all the investigations I've been involved with on explosives and arsons, it's a long-term process, and to be able to find that smoking gun is almost impossible because of the amount of destruction, the amount of materials that's involved in an explosive, particularly one of this nature, how big it is and the amount of people were there.

So it's a long process, and the technicians that are going to be working on it at the lab and some of the other people at the Bomb Data Center, they're all going to be intrinsic(ph) on how this comes out and who works it out. One of the most important things may in fact be confidential informants.

HEADLEE: Giving you inside information. And Don, real quickly, before we take a break, in this particular case, do you think that the eyewitnesses help you or hurt you, in the case of the Boston bombing, for example?

KEIM: Well, I think ultimately they're going to help. We saw yesterday and reported today about the kind of the media circus that ensued after the announcement that there was arrest, and then that was, you know, taken back, and now in the papers and on the Internet you're seeing all these, you know, images of people that are circled as possible, you know, suspects in the case.

And quite frankly, that can be a distraction for the investigators that are working it. But at the end of the day, you know, there was a call to the general public. Early in the case there was a call out to the general public that if you have photographs, if you have video, please, you know, let us have those, let us review those.

And so I think ultimately that's going to be helpful, but certainly kind of the events that unfolded yesterday were a distraction to the law enforcement, but hopefully just a short and minimal distraction.

HEADLEE: OK, gentlemen, please stay with us. And again, if you work in forensics, we want to hear from you. Tell us about a time when a critical piece of evidence moved your investigation forward. You can call 800-989-8255. You can also email us, talk@npr.org. More in just a minute. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Last night a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas - that's West, comma, Texas, exploded, killing as many as 15 people and injuring more than 160 others. Still more are missing, and the search-and-rescue mission continues. The blast leveled a four-block radius around the plant. It took out dozens of homes. Right now police say there's no immediate indication that the explosion was anything other than an industrial accident, but it will be worked as a crime scene until that can be conclusively determined.

So today we're talking about investigations like the one under way in West, the ones in Boston and then in Washington. If you work in forensics, do you remember a time when a piece of evidence moved your investigation forward? We want to hear your story, and the number is 800-989-8255. Or email us at talk@npr.org. Now on the line from Atlanta is Jim. Jim, you have a story about a piece of evidence that helped an investigation?

JIM: Yes, I had a homicide, and we had two shooters, each of which was claiming the other one fired the fatal shot and so forth. So we didn't know exactly who was responsible for the actual fatal shot. But the bullet, when it was recovered from the body, had hit a button, and I guess I would describe it as a metal button like you'd find on Levi's, and the button molded itself on to the bullet so that we could tie the fatal shot to the bullet, to the weapon, to the shooter, and that helped an awful lot.

HEADLEE: I mean, that's - I want to say that's lucky, though we're involving a shooting, so it wouldn't have been. Thank you so much. That's a call from Jim in Atlanta, Georgia. And let me take that to you, Don Borelli. How often do you get these kind of things where someone unintentionally, a perpetrator in this case, unintentionally identifies themselves?

BORELLI: Well, I guess when you were asking that question, the story that popped into my mind was in 2009, we of course were working the subway plot to - that Najibullah Zazi had tried to pull off in New York, where he was mixing - trying to make TATP, and then he was - he had a plot to bomb the subway. One of the items that we recovered when we did search warrants was a small little scale that he claimed was not his.

Ultimately it had his fingerprint on it, so, you know, that was very helpful to the investigation.

HEADLEE: That's Don Borelli, former FBI special agent. Also with us, microbiologist Paul Keim, and Malcolm Brady, former assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives, our guests talking about evidence right now. Paul Keim, a lot of people have been talking about how difficult it is to weaponize some - a poison like ricin. Why would someone use ricin? I mean I assume that someone would use ricin because it's easy - is it easy to make?

If it's so difficult to weaponize it, why use it?

KEIM: So as Don mentioned, ricin in its purified form is really one of the most toxic substances we know about. The reason why it gets - it's actually very commonly used for criminal activity, if you can believe it. This letter that occurred following on the Boston explosion is not that unusual. Law enforcement sees, you know, 10, 20 or 30 of these every year.

They don't get the publicity because in this case we had the heightened awareness after the Boston Marathon bombing, but castor bean, obviously, is very easy to obtain. We all see it almost on a daily basis. What typically happens is people make a very crude preparation of this and put it in a letter, and as soon as they do that, or as soon as they start thinking about it, in fact, it's a federal crime.

But on the other hand, this is not a particularly dangerous weapon in that form. And so it's the commonality of the bean that is the reason why people tend to use it, and the good news is, is most of the time they do it very poorly.

HEADLEE: Let's talk a little bit about how technology is changing investigations. And we have a call here from Vince(ph) in Iowa. Vince, what's your story of evidence that changed an investigation?

VINCE: Well, I've been an artist for quite a while. I've worked my way through college long ago as a medical artist. But anyway, that's another story. I was working at a supermarket when I was a youngster, and in the evening the supermarket was held up by a robber, and of course this was long before cell phone cameras and so on.

And I wasn't in the office when it was held up, but the lady who was there saw the robber very plainly, and after about two to three hours of her description saying yes, this looks like him, no this doesn't quite look - we wound up with just about what she thought he looked like.

The drawing was circulated among the highway patrol, and although they didn't catch him right away, they stopped a fellow on a traffic violation, and the partner of the driver, of the patrolman driver, looked at the picture and said this looks a little like this fellow. So they took him in, and lo and behold it was the robber.

So things like that have changed, and of course we have a huge advantage with being able to take actual pictures these days.

HEADLEE: Yeah, thank you so much, that's a great story from Vince in Iowa. Malcolm Brady, how do you think technology is helping investigations of this kind? What kind of evidence do you get with all this cell phone, video and surveillance camera stuff coming in?

BRADY: Well, let me go back to a couple of things you talked about, the single piece of evidence that was beneficial to finding out the (unintelligible). Both at the New York - at the first World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing, both of those was the single piece of evidence that led us to the person that committed the act, and that being the frame reel and the serial number.

Now, there was a lot of hard work and a lot of footwork went into finding those, and then after that processing all that information and finding the individuals responsible for it.

HEADLEE: So let me ask you then, Don. You're talking about distractions in terms of the media circus going on. But how does technology help or hinder you in terms of the amount of the multiplication of your work? I mean whereas before you may have been getting video or images from a single source, now these investigators in Boston are getting thousands upon thousands of images they have to sift through.

BORELLI: Yeah, I mean but overall I would say technology has been a help to law enforcement. I mean some of the advances with, for example, cell phone technology, where if somebody's standing in a particular area, like Boston, and you can take the - all the amount of information that's collected at that cell phone tower that's, you know, servicing that area, and that's a place to start to sift through, you know, all those cell phone numbers to try to narrow down who your, you know, possible suspects are.

You know, similarly with photography, all the - I live in New York City. I could walk five blocks down the street, and probably my whole stroll would be captured on, you know, multiple cameras. So this is helpful. In the case, though, of sifting through, you're right. With so many, you know, thousands of hours of, you know, video and still photographs and so forth, it's a lot to sift through. But I would still say that, you know, in this case it's better to have more information than not enough.

HEADLEE: We have a call now from Stu(ph) in Boyd County, Kentucky. Stu, your story of a piece of evidence in an investigation?

STU: I was a commonwealth (unintelligible) for this county. We had two men in a room, one dead of a gunshot wound to the head with a pistol (unintelligible). The other (unintelligible) shot himself. Kentucky state police detectives, however, pointed out that the pistol was a 1911 Colt, an automatic, and if the man had shot himself, the hammer would still be cocked because the pistol cycle was that way, whereas the pistol was uncocked, meaning the nephew had done it..

HEADLEE: OK, I'm going to - just because it's so very - it's difficult to understand what you're saying, Stu. Thank you very much for your call. I'm going to try to see if I can get what he was saying. He was talking about two guys in a room. I guess it was made to appear like one of them had committed suicide, but it was a Colt pistol, which would have still been cocked if the man had killed himself, letting the investigators know literally with a smoking gun that the other man had - that there had been murder involved.

Don, that - those kind of things like gun placement and the things that he's talking about, has that been changed much by technology, or is that kind of old-school techniques?

BORELLI: No, I think that kind of falls into the old school. I mean, you still, sometimes with all the technology we have available, it boils down to, you know, just good old-fashioned police work, and, you know, like that story, you know, using a little logic and intuition behind the investigation.

HEADLEE: Malcolm Brady, former assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives, you know, we have both the Boston Marathon and then in Texas, of course, we had explosions, and perhaps in Texas they still have to be concerned about whether it might be safe to go on the scene. How do you determine when a scene is safe when there's some kind of incendiary device or some sort of explosion that has occurred?

BRADY: Well, first and foremost you have to do a complete survey of the scene there, and you work your way in as close as you can, being very, very cautious as you go. And if in Texas and, as Don said earlier, you've got to first consider that to be a crime investigation. So they're working it as a criminal investigation and then you - after that, you may change modes, and you go into trying to explain how it happened and if it was in fact not a criminal act.

And also, one thing I should say is that we're learning as all of our guys come home from Afghanistan and Iraq and some of the other places, we have to do IEDs and all. We're getting great technologies and information from these guys. They're the people that have experience over there. And most of it is being incorporated into the investigative techniques of not only ATF but the FBI and all the other federal- and state-level law enforcement agencies in the country.

HEADLEE: Well, Don, how does it - how does an investigation change if it takes place abroad as opposed to something that happens here in the States?

BORELLI: Well, when you're operating abroad, you have to do it in concert with the host country. Obviously, you know, you're in their turf. You're operating under their laws. I've actually had experience with this. I was in Kampala, Uganda, when they had bombings - multiple bombings - people watching the final game of the World Cup soccer, and a number of people were killed. So we had an FBI team that went over there with full capabilities, with bomb technicians, with evidence technicians, support and everything you need.

Basically, it was a mobile FBI field office. But we worked with the local authorities in concert, you know, with them, and you trying to use their laws and put the crime scene together and interview the people and basically conduct a full investigation.

HEADLEE: That's Don Borelli, chief operating officer of The Soufan Group. He's a veteran of the FBI as a special agent. Before him, you heard Malcolm Brady, former assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives. And also on the line from Arizona, Paul Keim, the Cowden Endowed Chair of Microbiology at Northern Arizona University. And, you know, Paul, let me ask you: How many tests you end up having to run on something? If they send you a sample of what they think, suspect may be ricin or anthrax, as you investigated in 2001, how many tests do you end up running on that piece of material?

KEIM: Well, you don't do it blindly. You have information from the investigators already, knowing something about what the material is, and so you focus upon particular questions. So, for example, in the anthrax letter, the first thing we did was go look to see what type of anthrax it was. In these types of letters where you're looking for ricin, there's these tests that can be done on the site to see if there is in fact potential for ricin to be in there. And, you know, so they don't go out and look for something way out of left field.

There are very focused questions that are being addressed by the investigators and informed by them. But the repertoire of tests that we have that can be brought to bear is enormous. In the last decade, with genome technology, we've been able to come up with a test for just about anything. But, of course, you don't throw the book at it. You select.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let me send that same question to you then, Malcolm Brady. When you have an explosive device, how - and it gets to the lab, how many tests do you end up running on that, or do you, as Paul was explaining, begin with a specific set of questions and only test to answer those questions?

BRADY: Well, generally, you have some sort of an idea of what kind of - what explosive material that was used in there, and you can oftentimes tell that by asking questions of what kind of flash was it, what kind of color was the smoke that come off of it. So you have some information that will get you there, and that you pass that along to your laboratory people before they start to conducting their samplings and all. And generally, they have a very good idea of what, you know, they're looking for what we're looking for. So it will limit the amount of testing that they have to do on that particular material.

HEADLEE: Don Borelli, let me ask you, in the case of the bomb - the explosion - I should say - in West Texas, at the fertilizer plant which many authorities have said there's no reason to believe it was anything other than an accident. They just begin every investigation investigating as a crime. But hypothetically speaking, if you were going to determine that something had - was an act of terror, what tells you? Can't someone set something up to look like an accident? How do you know if something was not an accident, and when then does it really become a true crime investigation?

BORELLI: Well, this is where you rely on the experts and, you know, people like Malcolm was talking about that are, you know, going to go in there and process that scene. I won't use the word crime scene because it's undetermined but...


BORELLI: ...you know, certainly, the ATF and the FBI have individuals that are trained to look for forensic clues, and you rely on their expertise to tell you if this was a deliberate act or it was just an industrial accident.

HEADLEE: And do you invite - I mean, when you invite, I guess, input from the general public, as they have done in Boston, do you end up ever getting things from the public which is helpful, which is not cell phone video? I mean, does somebody ever come to the FBI and say, look, I found this, is this connected?

BORELLI: All the time. I mean, we really - as, you know, as much as technology is helpful and all of the other investigative techniques that that I have described, in many cases, it's a concerned citizen or the general public or, as Malcolm even mentioned before, a human source, a human being with knowledge that want - that comes forward and is helpful to the investigation. And in many cases, this is your best investigative technique is that human-derived intelligence.

HEADLEE: Malcolm, would you echo the same sentiment from Don that oftentimes the people who are near the scene or may have seen something or picked something up can be your best input?

BRADY: Absolutely. I concur with him, and I'll give you one example of it. I worked a major arson investigation in Sacramento one time, and we went back to the photos that the news had taken of the scene of the people that were there, and knowing who had been living in this particular building and all. We were able to come up and identify a man in the video that lived in that building. And then to be able to talk to a live person and talk to him about what they saw and what they did, we were able to come up with the identity of that person within a few days. A (unintelligible) the arson. So, the people that surround it, the people who were there, the people that see are extremely important, but sometimes you just have to channel what they see into facts, versus what they thought they saw.

HEADLEE: And that - there you go. That's, I guess, is the bottom line on evidence for the public. That's Malcolm Brady, former assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives, joined us from his home in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Malcolm, thank you so much for your time.

BRADY: Thank you.

HEADLEE: We also spoke with Don Borelli, chief operating officer of The Soufan Group, former FBI special agent who focused on terrorism investigations and joined us from studios at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Don, thanks so much again.

BORELLI: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: And Paul Keim, Cowden Endowed Chair of microbiology at Northern Arizona University joined us from member station KNAU in beautiful Flagstaff, Arizona. Paul, thank you so much.

KEIM: You're very welcome.

HEADLEE: Stay with us. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.