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Learn to Read Product DNA

A discarded cigarette butt, soda can, or music CD left behind at a crime scene can speak volumes.

March 01, 2005  |  by Ramesh Nyberg

Every crime scene, like every picture, tells a story. We move through the three-dimensional picture carefully, hoping that we find all the crucial pieces of evidence and that they speak to us and tell us their roles in the mystery.

There are times, though, when an obvious piece of evidence, complete with its own documented history, stares us right in the face, and we pass it by. What do you do with the Coke can found near the body or the empty potato chip bag found in the victim’s car? Latent process itC9maybe. Nowadays, you’re hopefully trying to get DNA from the lip of the can. But what else can that can tell us?

Plenty. Mass-produced items, from toys and books to soda cans and packages of chewing gum, are now documented and tracked from the moment of their creation to the time they are put on the shelves for us to buy.

Nearly every manufactured item contains a printed code, much the same way every car has a VIN number. Everything that a person carries out of a retail establishment bears sets of alphanumeric phrases and codes that can track the item back to that particular retail entity and even further back in its “life” as a manufactured item. In essence, manufactured items have their own DNA.

Product Identification Coding (PIC) offers a veritable universe of information, rich with potential leads for the investigator who doesn’t overlook the possibilities. Take for example something as simple as a receipt from a grocery store. Look at everything on the receipt. It will not only list the items purchased, but it will tell you the specific store, the date and time of purchase, and which cashier the customer went through to make the purchase. That type of detail cuts through a lot of time when you need to show a cashier a lineup.

Pick up the nearest mass-produced item. It might be a soda can, a pack of cigarettes, or a CD. Somewhere on that item is at least one set of alphanumeric codes. When it comes to items like beer and soda, which are sold in cases or six packs, the numbers on the can contain volumes of information and, with a little persistence, an investigator can find out when that can was made, packaged, shipped, and delivered, and to what store.

Now-retired Miami-Dade Police Department investigator William Sampson did so much research into product tracing while working some leads for homicide detectives that he wrote a textbook on the subject called “Developing Investigative Leads Through Product Identification and Coding.” Although published in 1995, his work is even more applicable today than it was 10 years ago.

“What PIC can do,” Sampson says, “is help the investigator generate leads by matching up dates and times, corroborating testimony, and even identifying movement of the victim and suspect. In law enforcement, we’re used to processing paper products for fingerprints and then discarding them or storing them without any further inspection. We’re often missing a wealth of information.”

The amount of information on printed matter can be significant. Credit card receipts helped investigators track Ted Bundy across the country. A Winn Dixie grocery store receipt helped destroy the alibi of a subject charged with killing a Dade County parole officer in 1982. He stated he had been shopping at the store at the time of the murder. A search of his garbage turned up the receipt, which had the time of his purchase—four hours before the time of the murder.

In another Dade County murder, the purchase of a shovel had to be hand searched by investigators. The subject had told them in his confession that he had purchased the shovel after the victim’s death, when he decided to bury the body. But when the receipt was finally located, it was revealed that the shovel was purchased before the murder. If you’re attempting to prove premeditation, that type of detail is priceless.

Quantity Control

For cops to understand the value of product DNA, we have to put ourselves into the mindset of the manufacturing industry. In law enforcement, especially in investigations, we don’t have a “work product” that can be counted each particular day. We might solve a crime in three hours, in one week, or in two years. At a bottling plant, however, there are people in charge of knowing just exactly how many units were produced per plant, per day, per shift, and per hour. In addition, it becomes necessary for such companies to keep close track of what leaves their plant, on what trucks, and where it is going.

Such control can be achieved because every item produced at a particular plant bears a code that identifies it as coming from that particular facility. That code can speak volumes if you know how to read it.

Consider this information provided by a customer service rep at Pepsi. “Our freshness date can give you a starting point for tracking a bottle. First, there are a series of digits (Oct. 9, 2004, would read ‘10094’) and under that is the exact time in military time that the product was made that day. A lot of people know that. What many people don’t know is that next to that military time is a two-letter code telling us what plant the bottle came from.”

From that two-letter plant designation, the rep explained, we can contact the plant itself and obtain specific shipping information, which delivery truck took the bottle, on what day, and to which distribution locations.

Food and beverages are most often shipped in “lots,” and the lot number is usually found somewhere in the product encoding. That means that an investigator can take a single can or bottle and match it to existing cans in the cooler or shelf of a convenience store, if he or she knows what to look for.

When you don’t know how to read the information, find someone who does. The plant manager or production line supervisor is the person you want. He or she is your “decoder.” It is well worth the time on the phone or whatever red tape you have to go through to get this person’s ear.

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