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Firearms Forensics

Ballistic evidence can help solve a homicide case, even if you never find the murder weapon.

February 11, 2010  |  by David Spraggs

Evidence from the bullet casings found at a 2006 murder crime scene in boulder, Colo., were instrumental in convicting the killer.

In January 2009 residents of an upscale Boulder, Colo., neighborhood heard three loud explosions shattering the otherwise still, quiet night. A few of the residents looked out their windows and saw a light-colored sedan speeding away from the area. A few seconds later an unsuspecting passerby found a grisly scene. Officers and detectives responded and quickly discovered the victim had been shot three times at close range with a 12-gauge shotgun.

Three spent shell casings were scattered near the victim's bloody body. Crime scene reconstruction would later show that the first two shots, both striking the victim's chest, were most likely delivered as the victim was still seated in the car. One of these shots was fatal; the other wasn't. The victim was dragged out of the car until he was lying on his back on the cold, icy street. As the shotgun muzzle was placed between the victim's eyes, the suspect pulled the trigger for the third and final time.

Joseph Carlos Abeyta was arrested a few days later. He was charged with, and later found guilty of, the first-degree murder of his one-time friend William D. Andrews. In the days and weeks and months following the shooting, Boulder PD detectives like myself continued to search for the murder weapon. By this time we knew we were looking for a sawed-off, pump-action 12-gauge shotgun with a pistol grip. We never found the shotgun used in the murder.

I was reflecting on this fact as I sat as advisory witness through Abeyta's three-week murder trial. I realized that even without the murder weapon, the prosecution still had an immense amount of significant ballistic physical evidence linking Abeyta to the murder. And thanks to good forensic work and the invaluable NIBIN database that tracks images of ballistics evidence, it was enough to convict him.

Closing the Case

Colorado Bureau of Investigation Laboratory Agent Dale Higashi testified that all three spent 12-gauge shells found at the scene of Andrews' murder had been fired from the same weapon. Higashi also testified that a fired 12-gauge shell recovered from another location was fired from the same weapon as the three shells that killed William Andrews. This is significant because eye witness testimony puts the shotgun in Abeyta's hands about an hour before the murder. Abeyta illegally discharged the shotgun at this location, leaving behind the fired casing that was later recovered by police.

To aid the criminalists completing the crime scene reconstruction, Higashi test fired the same kind of ammunition from shotgun barrels of different lengths. His tests provided useful information regarding the approximate distances between the victim and the shotgun muzzle at the time the shots were fired.

The ballistic data from this firearm was also entered into a federal ballistics database called NIBIN, the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. If the rifle had been used in another crime, this would be the way to find out. And although we didn't get a match in this case, adding information that could help future cases in any jurisdiction is helpful.

Working with Higashi on this case got me thinking about what most cops know (or maybe don't know) about firearms and ballistics examinations. Hopefully this article can shed some more light on firearms examinations and NIBIN-both important parts of any criminal investigation involving firearms.

CONTINUED: Firearms Forensics «   Page 1 of 3   »

Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

HARRY @ 2/8/2012 4:42 AM

it is good to start the case on the crime scene tha the ivestigating officers bringing the exhbits without the picture of the scene. That was a very good job.

gon lon @ 10/30/2017 7:55 PM

If he picked up the shells he would've been free

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