Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Expert Interviews: Police Chief Bill Feithen

While writing my mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, I enlisted the help of several experts who could teach me about dead bodies, guns, autopsies, and murder investigations. In all my years of living in Monmouth, Illinois (pop. 10,000), I've only talked once, briefly, with a police chief. For my murder mystery, I screwed up my courage and made an appointment to see the current Monmouth Chief of Police. I didn't want to waste his time or come across as an idiot when asking questions. So I prepared in advance with facts I specifically needed to know for my book. In this post, I will leave out a few of those facts. No spoilers.

Because I was interviewing experts, I needed to know they were, indeed, experts. Police Chief Bill Feithen has been the head man at the Monmouth Police Department since February, 2012.Chief Feithen not only has academic degrees in his chosen field, but he also has in-depth, applicable experience. He holds an Associate Degree in Law Enforcement from Kishwaukee College; a BA in Sociology and Criminology from Northern Illinois University; and a Masters in Public Administration, also from NIU. Prior to coming to Monmouth, he worked his way up from patrolman to sergeant to lieutenant and, finally, chief of police in the Dekalb Police Department. He held these various positions from 1975 to 2012. Feithen has had experience in patrol, investigations, and administration. The Police Chief has been heavily involved in community activities, and he belongs to so many professional organizations that I'd have to write another post just to list them all.

When I interviewed Chief Feithen in August, 2012, I was half done with my book, but I needed to find out information I didn't know and verify details I'd already written. I asked for his expert advice in four areas: cold case files and evidence, identification of bodies, gun identification, and police procedure. Here is an abbreviated version of some of those questions and his answers.

What is the diference between case files from the past and case files from today?
     (It was important for me to know this because of plot details in my book.) Chief Feithen said evidence today is better preserved than it used to be. Evidence bags in the past were often paper, while
today police use both paper and plastic. Sometimes evidence has to "breathe;" hence, plastic. Today, blood evidence is dried before packaging. Since DNA is now a tool for law enforcement, envelopes with flaps someone has licked are put in an evidence bag. Today, handwritten notes are bagged so they can be checked for fingerprints and the contents examined. Sometimes handwritten notes are "fumed" to bring out the fingerprints. Older cold case files have black and white photos, and some might have Polaroids that have deteriorated over time. Lab tests would be included both today and in the past, but today's tests are, of course, much more sophisticated.

I had done some online research before I asked him about the old cold case files in my novel. I had included the medical examiner's report, witness interviews, task force meeting notes, detective notes, newspaper articles, photographs, lab reports, and objects from the scene.He verified those contents and added a few additional items. He also added that cold case files would have to be preserved well.Maybe they were in a basement and got damaged in a flood, or they were in an office and somehow got misplaced, perhaps during a move to a new office. Back in earlier decades, evidence wasn't always well preserved, especially in smaller town police departments.

Years ago police departments were not required to keep evidence beyond a certain point, and they routinely purged
when a case was done. They didn't have as much guidance from the courts as departments have today. In Illinois, today, the evidence in certain cases, expecially in major crimes, is kept forever. This is always true of Class X or higher cases. But once the statue of limitations has ended for more minor cases or all appeals are over, evidence is routinely purged. The courts, as well as the State's Attorney's office, give guidance today on the status of cases and when to throw out evidence. In my book, my cold case file was kept because of the nature of the crime.

How are bodies identified?
Today it's much easier because we have DNA and fingerprint databases and a huge
amount of material at our fingertips. But decades ago, they didn't have DNA, and they had fingerprints on hard copy cards. Often there were no dental records. The police would have gone to the relatives of a victim and asked them for doctors' names or operations the victim had in hospitals. Often broken bones, scars, or deformities would be markers for identification. 

How do you identify gun owners? 
Today the police trace gun ownership from the manufacturer to the retailer to the customer. Current retailers are required to keep records for ten years on
gun purchases. Even private sellers must keep a record of buyers. If a gun is used in a crime, the police can often trace the serial number. The number is on different parts of the gun, depending on the gun maker. And what if a criminal tries to destroy the identification number of a gun? Labs can sometimes raise numbers if a criminal tries to grind them down.

Police Procedure: In a homicide, who would be called in to assist?
Usually a state evidence team and additional detectives from the state police, Galesburg, and Macomb. Also a CSI team would be called. They would form a homicide task force or major case squad. If a bomb is involved, the ATF, or another federal agency, might be called in. Chief Feithen was police chief in Dekalb, Illinois, during the multiple shootings at NIU which killed five students and injured twenty-one more on February 14, 2008. He said that crime involved a student from the University of Illinois. The Dekalb Police Department was assisted by the Champaign police as Dekalb detectives spoke to individuals in the Champaign area whom they wanted to interview about the suspect.

[I have a feeling being Police Chief in Monmouth is a bit less stressful than being Chief in Dekalb.]

Then I asked him...well, no, I can't tell you that because you might figure out whodunit in my book. You'll have to wait until it comes out in November. 

Chief Feithen is an intelligent, experienced person, and he answered my questions about murder with a directness and frankness that would do my fictional Endurance Police Chief proud. I think the Monmouth community is fortunate to have him in this office, and I look forward to asking him more questions down the road. This is one of the great advantages to living in a small town, writing a small town murder mystery, and having helpful experts just a few blocks or a phone call away.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Do You Want to Use a Lifeline and Call an Expert? Here's How

My first mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, is coming out this November from Five Star Publishing. Notice the word "first" in that sentence. Over the past two years, I have had many "firsts" in writing this mystery. One of those was getting up my nerve to call and make an appointment to talk with experts whose professions involve crime, dead bodies, and fires. After all, I really didn't have a mystery published yet. At the time I needed their help, I was a retired English teacher dabbling in the world of crime. What did I know? 

I'm lucky to live in a small town of 10,000 in west central Illinois, and my book takes place in just such a town. Talking with experts who deal with small town crime is much more helpful than speaking with someone, say, who works in urban areas. This made it a little less scary to call for that appointment. However, if you're a "big city" person, the same interview basics apply.

If you are contemplating expert inteviews, just keep in mind that the worst these experts can say is "no." However, none of mine did. People seem to love talking about their work, and it is always flattering when someone asks you for advice. So, screw up your courage and call or email. Then, once they've said "yes" and your legs have stopped shaking, start thinking about the interview. Perhaps my thoughts can help you with this process.

Preparation. In preparing for the interview, I try to remember I am a writer interviewing experts. So first I need to act in a professional manner. I do my homework by choosing the professionals I need and researching their credentials for experience and expertise.

Do I interview the expert while I am writing my novel or before the area where I need expert help? I've done both, and sometimes after I've written a scene, I take it to the interview and ask the expert if it is realistic. This was true, for example, when I wrote a scene about being in a fire. Fortunately, I've never been there, but the Fire Chief said I imagined it quite realistically.

I call early or email, and set the date, time, and place that will work for both of us. In the case of the Police Chief and Fire Chief, I met them at their offices. My coroner and I met at a local coffee shop (love living in a small town!) My police detective and I email, and we continue to do so every time I have a question. Also, I make sure to leave a contact number in case the designated interview falls through. After all, with these kinds of experts an emergency might develop quickly.

It's very important to go to the interview
with questions I want to ask so I won't waste their time or mine. Let's consider the Police Chief. First, I want to ask general questions. For example, I asked about cold case files. What might be in them? Would the contents be different in the 1960's compared to today? I also ask very specific questions about weapons, procedures, or criminal thinking. I asked about destroying the number on a gun. My questions might also verify plot points I've written or am thinking about. I asked my coroner about post mortem lab tests. Who orders them? Is there always an inquest? How has the law changed regarding inquests? I can also ask my expert if a particular plot twist or fact is possible or realistic. Often they have amazing stores of their own that are true but sound stranger than fiction.

The day of the interview, I arrive early. Believe me, you can cut down on anxiety if you plan to arrive early, covering all possibilities including traffic. I bring my questions with plenty of room to take
notes. I also like to take a small recorder, but I always ask the person being interviewed if he is fine with being recorded. Usually, he appreciates the fact that I am trying to be very accurate. I like recording an interview because if I'm writing down answers I'm not thinking as quickly about follow-up questions. I write down something I want to go back to or information I need to emphasize. I take brief notes but mostly I listen and think. Often my source will give me other resources--people I can interview that might be helpful. My coroner also loaned me books that explained crime scenes, procedures, and the condition of the victims' bodies in various kinds of deaths. Made for great, late-night reading.

Listen carefully during interviews. Many of the answers will lead you in new directions. Don't be afraid to throw in a question you hadn't intended to ask.

The last thing in the interview is an
exchange of business cards. I always ask the expert if I may call or email if another question comes up. Often I need to clarify one of his answers or my understanding of it. This works quite successfully.

After the interview, I type the information, along with my thoughts and reactions. I do this immediately while the ideas are fresh in my mind. I also generally write a "thank you" note or email to thank the expert for his time and help. If he has given me a great deal of help, I acknowledge him in my book.

Coming up next: A discussion of my interview with our local Police Chief, Bill Feithen.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Expert Sources: The Often Unsung Heroes of Mysteries

It's hard to believe that three weeks ago I was sitting in The Sugar Bowl in Old Town Scottsdale having lunch with Annette Mahon, enjoying the blue Arizona skies, and loving the mid-seventies temperatures. Annette is the author of five quilting mysteries about the St. Rose Quilting Bee group. Now, in early March, I'm looking out my living room window at the snow blanketing my Illinois yard and contemplating the zero temperatures.

At least the sky is blue. Today.

It always stirs my thoughts when I talk with other writers. Something Annette said caused me to consider the expert sources I use for my mysteries. She explained that the Scottsdale Police Department has a public relations person whom writers can call for answers to their police procedure questions. That thought stayed in my head for several days. The entire Phoenix/Scottsdale area is so huge that comparing it to my little town is ludicrous. I don't think we have a specific public relations person designated as "the one most likely to return calls to authors."

Annette and I are members of the Sisters in Crime Scottsdale chapter called Desert Sleuths, and at a recent meeting we heard a Phoenix police detective discuss the procedures used for arresting people in the metro area. The scenarios were quite different from those used in our little town. Needless to say, the severity
of the crimes differs considerably between Phoenix (pop. 4.3 million) and Monmouth, Illinois (pop. 10,000 on a good day.) One trip walking past the waiting room of a Mesa, Arizona emergency room told me that. Gun shots, stabbings, and domestic violence aside, those scenes are rare here in our little hamlet.

I remember thinking, "Gosh, I have such great experts I can call and have a sit-down, face-to-face, interview. It might cost me a cup of coffee, but I come away with amazing information that finds its way into my mysteries. While most of my experts have worked earlier in more populated places, they now deal with small town crime and police procedures. That's what I'm writing about, so I'm really fortunate to have these resources at my fingertips." Every expert I've interviewed in the past year has been pleasant, funny, professional, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable.

I also have secret weapons. Over my many high school teaching years, I came into contact with some 4,000 students. Many of them are now in positions where they have information I need. A quick
phone call: ("Really? You got a 'D' on that Moby Dick paper twenty-five years ago? What can I say? I was young and inexperienced. On the other hand, can you tell me...") The internet has made it speedier to contact these former students when their areas of expertise collide with information I need to know. Believe me, I'm not beneath calling in a few favors, just like my protagonist, retired teacher Grace Kimball.

Back in our town I must admit that as a first time mystery novelist I was a little worried about calling these "expert" people. What if they didn't want to talk to me? After all, I don't really have a murder mystery published yet. I'm just writing it and maybe I won't find a publisher. Then I had one of "those talks."

"What's the worst thing they can say?"
"So, they say 'no.' That just means you go to Plan B, right?"
"Right. And Plan B is?"

As it turned out, I discovered that people are very pleased, enthusiastic, and flattered to talk about their work. Here I
am, a novelist who used to be an English teacher, and who knows nothing about bullets, dead bodies, or arrest warrants, but I'm learning fast. Yes, I've done my research from books on these topics, but the real expert is so much more informative. Believe me, people who are police officers or coroners are happy to fill me in on those details--especially the grizzly ones--and I'm happy to give them credit for doing so. Readers today call authors out when they see errors in crime procedures so it pays to be accurate. So far no expert has turned me down, and each has been amazing at clarifying answers to my questions and making suggestions that I might not have considered.

These unsung heroes are going to be the subjects of several blog posts over the next few weeks. I plan to begin with a post about how an author might go about preparing and doing an interview when working with expert sources. Then I'll follow up with descriptions of the experts I used and the kinds of information I gained from talking with them. I'll discuss "my" police chief, fire chief, coroner, and police detective. I know it doesn't have quite the lilt or alliteration of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it works for me.