Helping to crack cases

`Nutshells': Miniature replicas of crime scenes from the 1930s and 1940s are used in forensics training.

February 24, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

They look like dollhouses of death.

At the state medical examiner's office in downtown Baltimore, 18 glass cases hold tiny replicas of crime scenes from the 1930s and 1940s -- clues from the past that are helping investigators of the present learn how to be more effective crime fighters.

"It's like a 1930s version of 1990s computer animation. It's fascinating," said Lt. Edward Hopkins, president of the Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS), a national organization dedicated to the advancement of forensic science that uses the replicas as a training exercise.

The nutshells, as they are called, were designed by a wealthy socialite with an interest in forensics and created from actual cases in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

The miniature murder scenes are carefully crafted to mirror what happened.

Tiny pieces of trash are scattered near the doll-size replica of the body of Frank Harris, a dockworker found sprawled in front of a bar Nov. 11, 1944. In a store window display near him, magazines slightly larger than a thumbnail hang alongside an even smaller container of lollipops.

In another glass box, a woman found dead in her small, messy bedroom by her landlord appears to be peacefully sleeping. But pulling a string on the box lifts the eraser-sized pillow to reveal a red lipstick stain, evidence that she could have been smothered.

"It's amazing when you realize how much work went into reconstructing these scenes," said Jerry Dziecichowicz, chief administrator for the examiner's office. "It's like truth in a nutshell."

The replicas, known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, will take center stage this summer at an annual forensic science convention to be held in Aberdeen. Hopkins, the organization's president, is also the spokesman for the Harford County Sheriff's Office.

HAPS was created more than 50 years ago by Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy Chicago socialite with a keen interest in crime. By 1946, Lee's contributions had provided Harvard University a $500,000 endowment to create a medical legal foundation that trained pathologists to properly identify causes of death.

Lee, who died in 1962 at age 83, expanded the foundation to include law enforcement officers. She was dubbed an honorary officer, and known as "Captain," by New Hampshire State Police.

"She was fascinated with forensic sciences," Hopkins said. "She was concerned that murders were not being properly investigated and that homicides were going unchecked."

Lee knew that a large part of investigative work includes combing the scene for clues. Over a decade, she painstakingly developed the miniatures to ensure everything matched the actual crime scenes -- down to details including wallpaper and newspaper headlines such as "Yank Force Bombs Reich" on a tiny copy of the Boston Herald.

Everything is on a 1 foot to 1 inch scale, so a 6-foot murder victim would be represented with a 6-inch doll. A placard outside each glass case provides details about the scene.

The most haunting nutshell is called "The 3-Room Dwelling." In it, blood-splattered patterns speak for the Judson family, which fell silent Nov. 1, 1937.

Robert Judson, a foreman in a shoe factory, was shot to death in his bedroom not far from the body of his wife, Kate. In a second bedroom, their infant daughter Linda Mae lies bloodied in her crib.

Investigators must piece together clues in the Judson home -- bloody footprints, the gun in the kitchen, pools of blood throughout the house.

The case studies also are used as part of the Frances Glessner Lee Homicide School, a division of HAPS that conducts seminars in Baltimore twice a year. HAPS has about 650 members across the nation and in Australia and Canada.

"Whether you do this as a profession or as hobby, we are all amateur detectives at heart," said Lt. Sam S. Bowerman, a criminal profiler with the Baltimore County Police Department who is a past president of HAPS.

"We all like to figure out who done it and how. That's what makes the nutshells so interesting and such a valuable teaching tool."

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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