- Accuracy in Media - https://www.aim.org -

Curiouser And Curiouser

AIM’s recent column, A Shaggy Dog Story, challenged a Newsweek story that revealed the use of bloodhounds in the investigation of Dr. Steven Hatfill as a “person of interest”in last fall’s unsolved anthrax killings. The FBI told AIM that the column was incorrect, but refused to say how or why. So what did we get wrong?

AIM has confirmed that the FBI did use a vacuum machine to collect scent from an envelope containing an anthrax-tainted letter. The scent was supposedly vacuumed onto a gauze pad and then used to cue the bloodhounds at Hatfill’s apartment and two other locations. AIM reported that Larry Harris, a co-inventor of the vacuum, and his dogs were flown in the from the West Coast for the search. Harris denied this, saying, “That was not Larry Harris.” When asked if his dogs were used, Harris clammed up saying that he “was not at liberty to discuss the details of the case.” He referred AIM to the FBI in Washington, but spokesmen there cited the “on-going investigation” to decline comment.

AIM stands corrected. The bloodhounds were most likely flown in from three local police or sheriff’s departments in Southern California. Harris is based in Orange County, but AIM has not been able to learn if the dogs were raised or trained by him. The FBI recently told a Baton Rouge reporter that these were the only “scent discrimination” dogs in the country used by the Bureau. In mid-September, the FBI flew three dogs to Louisiana to assist local authorities in the hunt for a serial killer. Naturally, the FBI gave a press conference and demonstrated a “specialized mini-vacuum cleaner device that sucks the scent from the object onto gauze pads,” according to Melissa Moore, a reporter at Baton Rouge’s The Advocate. Moore told AIM that the killer is still at large. Her impression: this was a last ditch effort to demonstrate to the public that law enforcement was desperately trying to find the killer. Sort of like the anthrax case.

And there are still unanswered questions about the scent supposedly collected from the envelope. A 1999 article in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin defined scent as “the bacterial, cellular, and vaporous debris enshrouding the individual.” This combination is believed to be unique to an individual, which the article says accounts for the “singularity of human scent.” The FBI says that scent is to be collected by investigators or evidence technicians from “anything a suspect has touched, worn, or eliminated, but articles of clothing worn close to the skin work best.” AIM learned that scent may also be collected from car seats, spent bullet casings, and it may be transferred to sterile gauze pads for storage and later use. This may be done either by the vacuum device or by direct contact between the scent article and the gauze. The gauze pads may be preserved over time in an evidence freezer and be used months later. Experts say that the earlier the scent is collected the better, but the FBI claims that usable scent has been collected from evidence three years old.

Neither the National Police Bloodhound Association nor the Law Enforcement Bloodhound Association has endorsed the vacuum device used to collect the scent in this case. Officials from these organizations say the vacuum itself may contaminate the scent and cite studies showing that temperatures of 650 degrees F are required to completely erase scent from the materials used in the “scent chamber.” They say that they have witnessed users swabbing out the scent chamber with alcohol, which for them raises basic contamination issues. The Bureau knows about these disputes, but attributes them to personalities and factionalism within the community of police dog handlers.

However, the Associated Press has reported that forensics examination of the anthrax letters turned up no fingerprints and no saliva residue. The use of envelopes with pre-affixed stamps indicates that the perpetrator took great care to leave no traces. A police detective said that the perp likely donned protective gear to prevent direct contact and infection. So how then could scent have been transferred onto the letters or envelopes? One FBI source, who acknowledged a lack of expertise in these matters, insisted that it was possible to collect scent from the envelopes.

A Maryland state policeman with long bloodhound experience thought that it was theoretically possible that some minimal amount of scent might have survived decontamination of the envelopes. And that scent might have transferred if the perp “leaned over the envelope.” But this source says that’s “a lot of variables,” and expressed deep skepticism about the FBI’s claims.