A career in writing wrongs


January 20, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,Sun Staff

Writing with a pen and paper seems so old-fashioned in a world of e-mail and word processing. But with the approach of National Handwriting Day on Jan. 23 -- the birthday of Declaration of Independence signer John Hancock -- it is a good time to consider that there is more to our handwriting than meets the eye.

Just ask Katherine Mainolfi Koppenhaver of Joppa, a certified document examiner. Working with her husband, William, she has built an independent business identifying, and often testifying about, handwriting forgeries, document alterations and other shams.

Studying everything from the formation of handwritten letters to the texture of ink to the marks left behind by photocopiers, the 61-year-old writing expert has handled 1,400 cases since she started in the field in 1983.

Among them: Decades after Princess Theresa of Hawaii was accused of forging the will of Queen Liliuokalani in 1917, Koppenhaver helped Theresa's great-great-granddaughter clear her ancestor's name. She also helped an Eastern Shore hunter prove that his signature on the bottom of a goose decoy was forged, and found that a robber did indeed write a holdup note on the back of a job application he had filled out.

We spoke to Koppenhaver about her work as a document detective.

Tell us about being a document examiner.

It is our job to make the determination whether a document has been altered, falsified, counterfeited. Most of our cases do involve handwriting. We have to collect examples of other documents and do a side-by-side comparison. ... Sometimes we merely are eliminating a writer and sometimes we actually identify the person who did write it.

A document, in our terms, is any medium on which a message can be written. I've had chalk on a blackboard, I've had spray painting on a locker. There was one case where [we proved] an ex-husband wrote his wife's name and phone number and "for a good time call" on a telephone booth.

How did you get started in this field?

I had an interest in graphology, which is determining the personality of the writer by the handwriting, and I took some correspondence courses. I started teaching handwriting analysis at some of the local colleges, and people started coming to me and asking me if I could determine if a signature was not genuine. I joined the National Association of Document Examiners and started attending their conferences and learning from some of their more established members.

What kinds of things do you look for in a signature?

The obvious characteristics, of course, are letter forms. It's the easiest thing to see, but it's not the most important. When somebody is copying somebody else's handwriting, they are trying to make the letters look the same, but they may not use the same methods of construction [the way a pen is moved to form a letter].

Then you have the slant of the writing ... you have the spacing between letters and words and lines. You have proportions between upper-case and lower-case letters. There is] the area where the letters return to the bottom of the writing. We look for ticks and hooks too, where people subconsciously flick their wrist slightly when they're making certain letters. We look at ways letters are connected, we look at the ways letters are started and also ended.

What are the biggest mistakes people make when they are trying to forge handwriting?

One of the most obvious is to misspell the name. There is the slow-drawn writing, which causes a tremor. Also, people don't realize how difficult it is to suppress their own handwriting habits. I start at the end of the writing, because your attention is less on the document at the end.

How has new technology affected the field of document analysis?

People who commit the crimes have access to modern equipment, which makes it a little easier for them to do what they do. But we also have better equipment for catching them.

One of the things that has occurred more recently is that signatures are being scanned into the computer ... they are taken from genuine documents and placed on fraudulent documents and passed off as originals. I had a contract containing two signatures that were almost exact duplicates. When I see two identical signatures I know that they're not genuine. We looked at the document under magnification and I saw there was a row of little dots all along the edge [from the computer].

It sounds like you really enjoy your job.

We both love it. The most boring thing is going into a place where there is fraud suspected and nothing turns up. I mean, That's no fun. Luckily, it doesn't happen very often.

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