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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

Truth from a Bottle

The following is a case study of how a homicide detective used product information to crack a case.

A passing motorist reported a grass fire along an interstate highway in Florida. The responding fire units extinguished the flames and discovered a man’s body, partially wrapped in plastic.

The firefighters, of course, called the cops. Investigators were sent to the crime scene, and a matchbook from a Circle K convenience store, a partially melted plastic 2-liter soda bottle, and a beer bottle from a major manufacturer were found in the charred grass next to the victim.

“John Doe” was identified through his fingerprints, but little about how he met his demise could be determined during the initial investigation. That left the physical evidence: the matchbook, the melted soda bottle, and the beer bottle.

The matchbook could not be traced to a particular store. It was a generic Circle K matchbook, and there were 38 Circle K stores in the two nearest counties. The plastic bottle was so melted that no identifying numbers or PIC information could be recovered.

So the investigator looked at the beer bottle. And fortunately, it was a much better source of information than either the plastic bottle or the matchbook. By contacting the beer manufacturer and working with someone in their production plant, the detective learned that there were two distributors in his county. The bottle was found to have been distributed in the north end of the county (where the victim and a nearby Circle K were located).

The matchbook and the information that he gained from the bottle’s PIC information led the detective to play a hunch. He bypassed checking the distributor to see what store the bottle went to, though that could have been done. Instead, he decided to check the Circle K store closest to the victim’s home address.

Within 12 hours of clearing the scene, the investigator took the bottle to the Circle K and compared the code on the bottle to several bottles in the store’s cooler. Indeed, the other bottles of that brand bore the same lot number in their codes.

The PIC information on the bottle had led him to the right Circle K. He asked for the store’s surveillance tapes. Lo and behold, the victim was seen clearly on the tape talking to another male.

Leads were piling up. The cash register journal tape was checked for the time frame indicated on the video and a beer purchase was discovered in the journal. The store clerk recognized the other male, a frequent customer, and gave some good background on him.

So the detective paid him a visit. There, he discovered plastic sheeting identical to that found wrapped around the victim in the bed of the suspect’s pickup truck. In addition to the plastic sheeting, two more beer bottles were found in the truck, with the same coding as the bottle found at the crime scene.

The subject later confessed, saying that he had been drinking beer with the victim and they had gotten into an argument. He shot the victim, wrapped him in plastic to avoid getting blood in his truck, and then dumped him.

This is an excellent example of how good interviews, logical investigation, and circumstantial evidence can be integrated to create successful results. In this case, the PIC evidence led the investigator to the store where the beer was purchased and sound police work did the rest.

Product codes by themselves won’t magically solve crimes, just as a fingerprint or even a DNA hit won’t get you a conviction by itself. Consider using product codes as a new dimension in the framework of your investigations. They can open doors to new leads, to establishing times, dates, and locations for people and items. When you see a piece of printed matter or manufactured item, you hopefully will see it not as a piece of trash, but as a the tip of an iceberg with a vast store of information “underneath.”

This is an area of criminal investigation that has long been overlooked, and it can help us bring many aspects of our cases into focus. Coupled with sound investigative techniques and skillful interviews, understanding and using product identification codes can be an invaluable tool for investigators.

Ramesh Nyberg is a 24-year police veteran with the Miami-Dade (Fla.) Police Department. He has written freelance articles about law enforcement issues for the past 15 years.

Ask the Experts

Today, the Internet provides an outstanding way to quickly get in contact with a company’s production/distribution personnel. If you need information about a specific product, go to the company’s Website and look for the “Contact Us” link.

You can also perform a Web search for “product tracking codes” or “product identification codes.” Believe me, you’ll be amazed at what comes up. Many companies have their Product Identification Coding information right on their Websites.

You’ll also find customer service toll-free numbers on most packaging, and a customer service rep can route you to a plant manager or some other person who can help you with your product code.

But remember that the people you are talking to are not law enforcement, and they don’t think in investigative terms. It is likely that they might say something like, “We can’t help you.” Don’t let that deter you.

The fact is, they really don’t know that they can help you because they probably don’t have a complete understanding of what lead development means in an investigation. Politely press on and tell them that you are interested in finding out just exactly what data can be obtained from their PIC and that you’ll be grateful for any information from them, whether it sounds helpful at first glance or not.

In most cases, they’ll be kind of curious about law enforcement calling them. It doesn’t happen too often, and it might be the most exciting thing that’s happened to them at work all month. They will likely be willing to guide you through their process and teach you all about their production and shipping process.

But when dealing with these individuals, assure them that the information you want is not for public consumption, nor will it be shared with anyone other than to further a criminal investigation. Some companies are not comfortable with their plant production information being so readily shared.

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