What It Takes To Be Part Of The FBI’s Evidence Response Teams

November 24, 2021

By Deepti Govind

April 3, 2021 marked 25 years since the capture of the notorious domestic terror actor, Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski was active for nearly two decades, but managed to evade arrest because he was meticulous about leaving no evidence behind. The Unabomber’s aspiration was to be the “perfect, anonymous killer.” He built untraceable bombs and delivered them to random targets. He was also infamous for leaving false clues to throw off authorities, and lived like a recluse in a cabin in the mountains of Montana. Most of us will remember that when authorities finally caught him, it was due to a rather uncommon trail: his idiosyncratic writing style.

The UNABOM Task Force (code-named for the UNiversity and Airline BOMbing targets involved) was led by Terry Turchie, who recalled one of his creative writing teachers saying “No two people write alike.” That proved to be spot on in solving the Unabomber case. When the Unabomber’s manifesto was published in the Washington Post in the hope that a reader could identify the author, David Kaczynski came forward and suggested that it could be his troubled brother, Ted. He provided the investigators with letters and documents written by his brother. And then the FBI’s linguistic analysts determined that the authors were almost certainly the same.

Every crime, and every crime scene, is unique. Clues and evidence can be found in the most unassuming of places, and every inch of a crime scene needs to be properly combed and the evidence collected and documented. Although the initial trail that led to the capture of the Unabomber started elsewhere, his cabin in Montana contained a trove of evidence that helped prosecutors build a case against him. It’s this kind of evidence collection work that the FBI’s Evidence Response Teams (ERTs) are in charge of, and its a critical link in the criminal justice system. As the FBI says on its website: “The skill, knowledge, care, and precision of an evidence team can make or break a case.”

In this piece, the second in our mini series on crime scene evidence collection, we delve further into the working of the FBI’s ERTs by examining what the Bureau looks for in potential candidates.

Video Source: FBI’s YouTube channel

Is There An Ideal ERT Candidate?

In our previous piece in this mini series, we established that ERTs are, effectively, a link between the crime scene and the investigating laboratory. They’re the “eyes and ears” of a case, according to Supervisory Special Agent Heather Thew according to an episode of the Bureau’s Inside the FBI podcast series. We also saw why ERTs are necessary: The FBI Laboratory — with facilities in Huntsville, Alabama, and Quantico, Virginia — employs some of the world’s foremost forensic science experts, per the Bureau. But it’s logically impossible to send them to every single crime scene the Bureau investigates. And that’s where ERTs come in.

The job of the ERTs, in a nutshell, is to collect evidence and get it to the Lab in the best condition possible. That sounds simple enough, but in reality, it is by no means an easy job. Technically, any FBI employee can apply to be a part of an ERT. It takes more than a strong resume to get picked, though.

“We’re not looking for a particular person. Normally, it’s a person that’s gonna gravitate toward long hours, getting called on a Friday at 5:00 for a crime scene that they need to drop everything and go handle it, or the weekends or whatever. Someone who’s willing to do that and has a passion,” Supervisory Special Agent Tom Duffy, a U.S. Army veteran who has led training efforts at the Evidence Response Team Unit said on the FBI podcast.

Some of the intangible requirements of the job include tenacity, passion, and attention to detail, the Bureau says. The job, like many other law enforcement jobs, also requires immense mental strength.

The Unabomber’s cabin, for instance, was described by Turchie as a dark, gloomy place with only one window that let in but a few rays of sunlight. Shelves of the cabin were filled with bottles and jars, and cartons that mostly contained compounds used to make bombs. Agents who were part of the search and evidence collection had to make an urgent and sudden pause 24 hours after the process began, though. They discovered a bomb wrapped under a bed.

“Scenes are awful. They’re long and they’re tiring and they’re sometimes the most horrific things you can see. These scenes of violence against other people and the scenes against children—those are the worst. So, you want somebody who is willing to put that aside and work hard,” Supervisory Special Agent Gene Lanzillo said on the podcast. What do agents do when they encounter scenes that are horrific? Justyna Sliwinski, a forensic accountant with the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office and member of its Evidence Response Team says compartmentalizing is key to getting the job done. She adds that the workaround would be to just think about the process and your training and not the actual scene.

It’s also why the Evidence Response Team Unit’s (ERTU) basic course includes resiliency training to teach students how to avoid physical, mental, and emotional burnout; dispel the stigma surrounding asking for help; and ensure they know about the support resources available to them. Still, at the end of the day, the ERT may not be ideal for everyone. That’s why many field offices allow interested employees to shadow their ERT on a response or two. That way the ERT can decide if potential candidates are a good fit or not, while the latter can see they have the fortitude for it.

Video Source: FBI’s YouTube channel

For example, when ERT applicants are trained on forensics, they go through days of training at what employees of the Bureau call the Body Farm. That’s as macabre as it sounds, and yet it’s another crucial aspect of ERT training. The Body Farm is the Bureau’s Forensic Anthropology Center in Knoxville, Tennessee where ERT members are provided training each year on human remains recovery. It trains ERTs how to recognize graves, excavate graves and surface remains, and make sure that they get all of the evidence and document all of the evidence.

In March 2019, the Bureau published a video marking 20 years of training at the Body Farm. “These are what we call challenge crime scenes, because you might not be able to recognize all of the evidence as bone. Some of it looks like rock. Until you know bone very well, which is what they learn here, it might not be really recognizable. And so the risk is that they might miss something that’s really important,” Dawnie Steadman, director, Forensic Anthropology Center says in that video.

As part of the basic course, the ERTU teaches its members to adopt a 12-step process while approaching any crime scene. ERT members need to learn skills that regular agents may not require. For example, as part of the course, they learn how to use photography combined with sketches to document every aspect of a crime scene. Piecing together everything they’ve discovered has been described by some members as an odd sort of treasure hunt. In other instances, ERT members may need to tap into their imagination to try and deduce what part of the crime scene needs more attention.

Finally, it’s a job that comes with the added “big picture” challenge that anything done in the process of collecting evidence, rather anything that’s mishandled or left out, could have a significant impact on justice being served. “Rush into a crime scene and you may destroy the tread marks the suspect left in the dirt. Handle a glass carelessly and you can mar the fingerprints left on it,” the Bureau says in a post about how it trains its ERTs. “If you mishandle a piece of evidence, it’s someone’s life. It is justice served or not served,” Kari Shorr, an instructional systems design specialist for the ERT training unit says in the post.

Despite all the challenges, it’s a job that can bring immense satisfaction to those who are dedicated to the cause. It’s the satisfaction of knowing that your job helped bring justice to, say, a case of a child who was abandoned and found dead. The ERT can be a place where people whose “desire to serve outweighs the heaviness of the assignment” find that everything clicks. According to the Bureau, the beauty of the ERT, though, lies in its diversity.

As Lanzillo puts it on the podcast: “So, we’ve got the creative, you’ve got the detailed oriented, we’ve got the former scientists. We’ve got the former police. We’ve got people that don’t fit any of those categories that get there and say, “You know what? This is pretty cool.” And I think you will find if you go to any field office and you ask the executive management about the type of people that are ERT, they’re going to tell you, it’s their best agents, it’s their best employees.”

This is the second part of our mini series on crime scene evidence collection. Biometrica plans to explore other aspects of this in future pieces, including the FBI’s underwater ERTs and hazardous material ERTs.