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Scientists take high-tech sleuthing to new depths

On TV and in movies, "psychic" criminal investigators routinely solve murders before the third commercial break.

Imagine the scene: Dark woods at night, where a bloodied body lies on the ground, illuminated by cops' flashlights. Up walks the TV star, someone like chisel-faced Lance Henriksen on "Millennium" or blonde-tressed Ally Walker on "Profiler" - who, without a moment's hesitation, announces: "I know who did this. He's a white male, 6-foot-1, who once dated the victim . . . " etc.Gee, it looks so easy. But their real-life counterparts have another opinion.

In reality, criminal investigation is hard work, one aided by high technology and deep digging, say experts at the annual meeting of the American Academy for Forensic Sciences, which runs through Saturday.

"We're not Dionne Warwick-like psychics," joked Michael J. Prodan, special agent supervisor for the state Department of Justice at its Violent Crime Profiling Unit in Rancho Cordova. "It's just basic analytical work."

That "basic analytical work" is no longer restricted to solving the kinds of killings most commonly depicted in made-for-TV movies: murders of glamorous rich people and slasher attacks on young, nubile women.

It's being used to track down the perpetrators of real-life genocides in Rwanda, Somalia, the Balkans, and other hellholes of the post-Cold War world. It is also being used to shed light on the countless so-called "disappeared" who were murdered years ago by police death squads in Latin America.

"Human rights archeology," as it's called, is increasingly used to locate the bodies of genocide victims. Investigative techniques in the field are to be discussed at Saturday's session by William D. Haglund, former chief medical investigator for King County, Wash.

Phony clues can delay investigations, Haglund said during a talk at a different session Tuesday. He showed a color slide of what he described as maggot-infested remains. The body, he joked, was big enough to have been Arnold Schwarzenegger's and was originally thought to have been human.

"It turns out to be a bear carcass," he said.

In that regard, forensic scientists are making inroads on environmental monitoring. Among the scheduled talks, one describes how to use "forensic entomology" - dead insects - to investigate illegal killings of black bears.

In return, nature sometimes lends forensic scientists a hand - especially in the American Southwest, where many killers bury their victims. "There are a lot of holes in the desert," the mobster portrayed by Joe Pesci remarks in Martin Scorsese's film "Casino."

Fortunately for crime fighters, wild animals often dig up the bodies of crime victims. That increases the chance they'll be spotted by hikers, campers and drivers of off-road vehicles.

Still, for investigators, reassembling the skulls, tibias, ribs and vertebrae may require long, hot days in the sun, said Gregory S. Golden, a specialist in forensic dentistry for San Bernardino County.

TV shows such as "Picket Fences" have depicted forensic scientists as possessing ghoulish senses of humor.

At this week's conference, some speakers are trying to live up to that reputation. The scheduled speeches include those titled: "Sewer Gasses - They Don't Just Smell Bad" and "They Left Their Brains in San Francisco." A few talks sound like rejects for a "Murder She Wrote" episode - for example, "Homicide by Sheet Music Stand."