The bag in my inbox was different than what I was used to seeing. It wasn’t flat and it wasn’t a small manila envelope with tape around it. This was a real piece of evidence in a bigger bag with red tape and marker over the tape to indicate tampering should it be opened. There was a barcode label as well; official, clean, intimidating.
As the new guy in the lab, there was still much that I needed to learn. I knew the basics but I could sense on a daily basis that there were things I needed to know but didn’t yet. It was unsettling but exciting at the same time. A life-long learner, I never get tired of finding out something new. Especially when I was interested in the subject from which that information flowed. But, I felt tentative whenever handling something I wasn’t quite sure I should be handling; no one ever said I wasn’t doing it wrong, so I just acted like what I was working on was exactly mine to work on. Fake it ’til you make it, right?
The paper bag (think lunch bag) with the red tape around it had someone’s initials, a date, and a number written across the tape so it overlapped the tape and extended onto the bag. If you pulled off the tape, there was no way it could be replaced without signs that it had been removed. So, it would remain there forever unless someone did try to remove it. Sometimes the tape felt like more of a formality than anything else, but that formality ensured Chain of Custody. It meant that everything had been done by the book and at any given moment, from the time the evidence was collected at the scene to the time it arrived in my hands, it’s location and those who handled it could be determined. There was a record, an unbroken chain, documenting the travels of this evidence between then and this moment.
There was a certain comfort in that. I never wanted to hear someone ask me “how did you come to possess this piece of evidence” and not have the answer. That was one thing I didn’t have to worry about here. But now my worry was doing the right thing with this particular piece of evidence. And so, I started in on it, feeling like I was faking it, but also feeling like this is what I was trained for. I knew what I was doing, I knew what needed to be done…I think I did anyway…maybe.
Grabbing a pair of scissors, I cut the end of the bag without the tape. I would later tape the cut closed with red tape and write my own initials, badge number, and the date across the tape. My having possession of the evidence forever attached to it and part of the record of its journey.
Inside the bag was a black module. It looked like one of those brick power supplies with a skinny cord that connects to a clock radio, or a piece of networking equipment, or one of those always-listening personal assistants that had become popular of late. There was no skinny cord attached to this one. Just the black box and the two prongs for plugging it into the wall. Everything was in a plastic sandwich bag and the black box was in two pieces, the screws that held it together loose in the bottom of the bag.
I put on bright blue nitrile gloves and reached into the bag. No sense adding my DNA to this thing if that mattered. I wasn’t sure, but my co-worker Courtney maintained that even if DNA didn’t matter, I might not want to touch whatever might be on the evidence that I was reaching in to retrieve. Finding out later what this thing did, I was almost certain I didn’t want to touch it with bare hands. You never know.
Contamination was a two-way street and it was always a consideration in the lab. My wife had reiterated the cautionary message about how you approach strange surfaces. As someone who had been in the medical field at one point, she had taken microbiology and apparently that was enough to cause people to run for the Phisohex at the slightest provocation. For anyone who’s taken microbiology, the world is a disgusting, germ-riddled place. And too, there was the issue of fentanyl. At 100 times the potency of morphine, fentanyl is a dangerous drug and it was out there. A little dab’ll do ya and if that dab got into your system, it could literally kill you. So I gloved up and reached into the bag to pull out the pieces.
Since this was evidence, and it was not intact, a thought occurred to me that I should photograph the item as I found it. It was in evidence already, but something told me the photographic documentation might be worth having. I wasn’t sure. That creeping uncertainty still lurking in the back of my mind because I felt so new, so out of the loop on all the specifics of procedure and what happens at what specific times. Walking into Courtney’s office, I asked her.
“Should I take pictures of this thing?” I wanted at least to understand the protocol when dealing with something that had already been booked. Images were always taken on scene and when evidence was “out in the wild”, but I was unclear on this.
“If you want to,” Courtney replied.
That was helpful. I noticed this about the lab in general. There didn’t seem to be any set procedure or well-defined protocols for a lot of the various activities that happened there. I found himself thinking that everyone else was so practiced at what they did, they knew, and it was all instinctual but they couldn’t articulate how they knew or what exactly triggered what process. So, it was up to me to figure it out or ask and ask and ask. That was hard and I often felt off-balance when trying to decide the next step in the chain of activity. It’s hard being new.
I’d hoped to get a more definitive answer than that, but Courtney was the type of person that didn’t like to tell people what to do. She let them do as they would and she did as she did and the world was best that way for her. I returned to the bench and collected all the pieces of the black module, taking them to the photo station. A camera was attached to a rig that kept it steady while pointing down at a white platform. I arranged the pieces, placed a measurement scale, and snapped an image. Then I turned them ensuring that an image was taken of each side of the module, all pieces, a full documenting of how it had come out of the bag.
The module was a video recording device of some kind and the secretive nature of plugging it into the wall as if it were a power supply meant it was likely recording someone who didn’t want to be recorded and certainly didn’t know it was happening. Simply put, it was a spy cam and I kind of groaned inside. A hidden video camera. Who was recording what?
My purpose was to extract whatever video might be on the small memory card that was inserted into the module. A simple enough task. Once extracted, it would be burned to a CD to make a permanent record of it. A CD in another bag with red tape, my initials, and a barcode. Again, I am connected to evidence.
Having finished my photo documentation, I plugged the memory card into the write-protected reader. What came up were about a thousand files; all relatively the same size. They were all video files. The file sizes were relatively small making it a possibility there were only about 10 seconds of video for each file but “hundreds” times 10 seconds could amount to a lot of video. It is acceptable to scan through video if there is clearly no content on it and if one wasn’t scanning through so fast that something could be missed. I had seen video where scanning would have missed a small detail so I am always careful not to overdo it. It was logical to assume that it would be a person or people caught on tape. I’d see soon enough. I started reviewing the files one by one.
What was on them was very little it turned out. File after file showed a room with a couch. The camera appeared to be plugged in below a desk or table of some sort so only part of the windows could be seen and no door to the room. The place looked a mess with clothes all over the floor and not very much on the walls. I thought it looked like a typical room in a typical young person’s apartment or house. I remembered when I didn’t have much on the walls but maybe a painting, found leaning next to a dumpster one day. Something to put on the walls, but it really didn’t matter what it was. Just to break up the monotony. It wasn’t until later in my life that the actual decor of a place I was living in actually mattered to me and that usually came from who I was with, not myself. As J Peterman said in Seinfeld, they had always been “just a place to flop”.
Video after video showed the same thing, if I sped up the video enough, I could see the track of the sunlight as it moved across and then down the wall. A really boring time lapse. Someone would walk into the room and turn on the floor lamp on the far side of the couch from the camera. But they’d immediately leave and everything would become still again.
At one point I paused and rewound. I’d seen something but couldn’t make out what it was. I went back about 20 minutes and played the video at normal speed. There it was, movement off the to the right, but it was low to the floor and behind an ottoman. Then the cat jumped up onto the ottoman and revealed himself. He too didn’t know he was being watched but even if he did, he’d still do the same thing. Cats didn’t care. They were cats.
At one point a woman came in in a towel, it was clearly morning based on the position of the sun. This was on the second day of what appeared to be about four days of video. Time skipped which meant the module had some kind of motion activated feature to it. The woman walked in, picked up some clothes from the floor and walked back out. The sun resumed its track along the wall.
I was on the third day now; the sun had long set and the room was dark. Two people came in and a light turned on. They took up positions on the couch, Some sort of drinks in their hands. I sped on. The time jumped again due to their stillness and then I realized the woman was kneeling, facing the window, naked, holding on to the back of the couch. I couldn’t see the man, but as I slowed the video, and based on the way she was moving I could pretty much guess what was going on. I felt the flush of embarrassment crawl up my face. The actual crime was invasion of privacy and I would later find out harassment would be added to the list. It got weirder, or if being politically correct, more complex. Speaking to the detective after he’d processed the video, I was told the two people in the video were friends with benefits. The boyfriend of the female had apparently been OK with it, but something had changed and he wasn’t OK with it anymore. Or he just got thrills watching the two of them, or something else. I didn’t really want to know. The boyfriend had placed this spy cam where he knew it would record them in flagrante. And that it did. I sped up the video to determine the end point of the evidentiary part of the video. I didn’t want to watch this. I caught glimpses though. They were adventurous, and it all worked out for them in the end. But they didn’t know, and I did, and I didn’t like that…at all. I was embarrassed and disgusted with this person who would want to spy on supposed friends.
It was not the worst I’d seen, at least it was two people having a good time as opposed to two people beating the shit out of each other. But I didn’t want to look into their private relationship, I didn’t need to know their preference for position, what she liked, what he liked. That was none of my business and once I got to the end, I was more than happy to record the times, and burn the files to permanent media, and be finished with it. I thought about the cat. I’d like to pet the cat because although the color was washed out in the video, he looked like a big fluffy orange tabby. It’s always nice to pet a cat. Especially if it’s a fluffy one with dense fur. Smooth and nice. Watching naked people is sometimes nice. But its not always nice. Not always.
Photo by Quin Stevenson