Ever wonder what it’s like to be a real-life crime scene investigator or medical examiner tasked with solving deadly, sometimes gruesome crimes? We’ve all seen the TV versions of these investigators and forensic experts. Now, thanks to the Long Island Science Center, we have a chance to meet people who really do this intriguing and difficult work.
The science center is presenting a novel event Saturday evening called “Wine and Crime”— a panel of some of New York’s leading crime and forensics experts.
National Public Radio producer Maggie Freleng will moderate a panel discussion with Dr. Odette Hall, Suffolk’s deputy chief medical examiner, Dr. Kristen Hartnett-McCann, board-certified forensic anthropologist and Danielle Gruttadaurio, Suffolk County’s only forensic artist.
As medical examiner, Hall conducts autopsies on bodies or human remains to find the cause of death for people that die under unusual or suspicious circumstances. Postmortem examinations analyze tissue, organs and bodily fluids to determine how a person died. Medical examiners declare the cause of death and give an estimate of the time of death based on factors like stomach contents, body temperature and amount of rigor mortis present.
Anthropologist Hartnett-McCann works with the medical examiner to establish what is known as a biological profile. By examining and assessing skeletal remains, she can estimate the age of the person, their race, gender, ethnicity and stature (height) – of the person. She cleans the bones, if necessary, and examines them for any trauma. She says she has worked on more than 600 cases not including what she characterized as mass fatalities like airplane crashes or the World Trade Center attack. She worked on the cases of the bodies found at Gilgo Beach in 2010 and 2011 murdered by an unidentified serial killer. The job is evolving, she remarked, so that more of her caseload is electronic. She gets email or texts with photos and measurements of bones to identify if they are human or not. She says she loves her job, that it’s very exciting and that she sees a lot of weird and strange things.
“The more weird and the more strange, the more likely” it will be something she woulde be called on to investigate.
Gruttadaurio has worked for the Suffolk County Police Department for 11 years. She, too, says she is passionate about her job — but for a very different reason. She was sexually assaulted as a teenager and never told anyone about the rape. In fact, she felt that she would be the one who would be blamed for the attack since she was where she shouldn’t have been. For years she blamed herself for allowing herself to be a victim. Now, as an adult she knows better, she said.
Gruttadaurio feels that every time she helps a victim identify her attacker, it makes up a little for her silence early in life, which she regrets may have allowed her attacker to victimize other girls.
Suffolk County PD has sent her all over the country to learn from experts in her field, including Karen T. Taylor, the guru of forensic artistry. Taylor first came up with the idea of two-dimensional drawing of unknown individuals. Prior to her concept, remains were portrayed by clay models. Drawing, she said, is much faster and easier than sculpting a bust.
Her job also takes advantage of the advances in technology, as she is trained to use facial recognition software.
Gruttadaurio is also trained to do age progression drawings. They show, for example, what a younger adult may look like as he or she ages to midlife. She rarely does child age progression drawings as they are a specialty for which she is not trained. She does composite drawings – where a victim will look through mug shot books and choose individual facial features from various criminals and combine them into a portrait that looks like the perpetrator of the crime against the victim. She works with Hartnett-McCann to sketch postmortem drawings where there is no other way of identifying the skeletal remains – no fingerprints or usable DNA.
The Crime and Wine event is scheduled for Saturday, July 20 at 7 p.m. at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead. Following the panel discussion, guests will have an opportunity to meet and mingle with the panelists at a wine reception. Tickets are $65 per person.
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