Forensic scientist relates `curious adventures'

New book recounts experiences of crime scene investigator

February 27, 2007|By Nick Shields | Nick Shields,sun reporter

Dana Kollmann writes about the hot summer day she went to a squalid rowhouse to collect evidence of a drug overdose. She describes how she photographed a man dead in the bathroom, a syringe still in his arm.

In another room of the rowhouse, she recalls, the dead man's brother sat at the kitchen table -- and gnawed at a drumstick and played along with a TV game show. It was Wheel of Fortune and, according to Kollmann, the brother called out an answer: "Fun in the sun."

"You just don't see this stuff on CSI," said Kollmann, a former real-life crime scene investigator for the Baltimore County police and author of a new book that chronicles her adventures. "You can laugh, or you can cry."

Kollmann, who left the county Police Department in 2004 and now teaches forensic science at Towson University, wrote the book after her friends and relatives told her that her stories were too good not to share. The result is Never Suck a Dead Man's Hand: Curious Adventures of a CSI, which was released last month.

In it, she describes the dark humor that is used to break the tension behind the crime scene tape. She also shows that the job probably isn't for the faint of heart.

For instance, the title comes from a story that involves a dead man, his hand and her attempts to get fingerprints on a freezing cold day.

Heidi Kunert, a crime scene technician for the Maryland State Police, called the book an "excellent undertaking." She said she doesn't watch much television but receives plenty of feedback from people who enjoy shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

She said the biggest misconception people have is that crime scenes are quickly processed.

"When I'm at a crime scene, I might be there 12 hours later working on one thing," she said. "It's nice if her book sets the record straight."

Kollmann, 38, traces her passion for forensics to her childhood in Harford County. She sought fun during the summer searching for animal bones. She said she tucked them between her mattress and box spring -- until her father tracked down the source of the foul smell in her bedroom.

Once, she said, a childhood friend killed a snake and left it to decay on a road. "All the other girls played with Barbies, and I'd watch the snake decompose," she said.

In 1990, Kollmann's received a bachelor's degree in anthropology from Towson University. About four years later she graduated from George Washington University with a master's degree in forensic science.

After a working for about a year at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as an archaeologist, she applied for a forensic technician position at the Baltimore County Police Department. About 1995, Kollmann became one of the first civilians hired by the department for the job.

She said that her time in the profession has shaped her views about life and death.

"I tell you, the way some people look, I don't think St. Peter wants you to look like that knocking on the pearly gates," she said. "I definitely want to be cremated."

Kollmann said that being at the scene of so many crimes has made her less afraid for her personal safety, in part because "more bad things happen to people who live high-risk lifestyles, and that's not me." But, she added, "Car accidents petrify me, because that is something that is completely unexpected."

Kollmann said that she doesn't watch shows like CSI because the inaccuracies cause her to "just yell at the TV." But she said the show's popularity probably helped her get published.

She said she was prepared for the rejection that new authors often face -- but she signed a deal within months. "I think forensics is such a hot topic right now," she said.

The book is published by Citadel Press, an imprint of Kensington Publishing Corp.

"It's not a book for everybody," Kollmann said. "I hope people can find humor in life's darkest moments."

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