- Associated Press - Sunday, November 20, 2016

STANARDSVILLE, Va. (AP) - Investigating crime scenes is almost always a finicky job, but when a case leads police into the water, searching for evidence and preserving biological material can suddenly seem impossible. That’s when one Greene County deputy straps on his flippers and oxygen tank, and enters a new world.

Greene sheriff’s Investigator Scott Murphy is one of an elite few who can process an underwater crime scene and preserve any forensic evidence that might still be in the watery scene. Last month, after an intense four-day class, Murphy, 43, was certified in Underwater Crime Scene Investigations, putting the Sheriff’s Office on a list of just eight agencies in Virginia with the certification, according to Sheriff Steve Smith.

“You never know when we could use it here,” Smith said. “He will also be available to other agencies. It’s not something that a lot of other departments have, so I figured it was a good investment.”

“This is providing a service that’s probably not going to be needed very often, but when it is, it’s great to have it,” he said.

Not just any diver can take the UCI course, though, said Murphy. It is limited to seasoned divers who have other advanced certifications, and as a former deep-sea diver for the Navy, Murphy was a perfect candidate.

“From the second I started diving, I loved it,” Murphy said. “I’ve assisted other agencies with body recovery. And I love being an investigator - there’s no better job in the world. I love doing what I do, so when I got the chance to incorporate the two things I love doing, I jumped at the chance.”

“He’s a good investigator; he always does a good job,” Smith said. “If deputies want to get into other fields of expertise, we encourage that. It helps build morale and helps make their job a lot more fun. We’re all for that.”

The UCI course was created 25 years ago by Mike Berry, an experienced public-safety diving instructor who is coordinator of the Virginia State Police Search and Rescue Dive Team. There are just four UCI instructors in the world - two in Virginia, one in Louisiana and one in California.

In their training, UCI investigators first begin their searches at the water’s edge by interviewing other investigators, witnesses and suspects. They also look for scratch marks, shoe or tire marks and drag marks near the source of water. When they finally enter the water, UCI divers use search patterns to look for anything as large as a car to items as small as a half-inch-long shell casing, Murphy said.

“We can cover 99 percent of an area,” Murphy said. “It takes time and it’s a rigorous process, but we can find them.”

“But along with recovering evidence, such as a gun or knife, or a body, we train in how to preserve the evidence, so that we can still draw forensic information from it, such as hair follicles or fingerprints,” he said.

According to Murphy, testing done by the FBI has shown that an item can be underwater for as long as 75 days and still be able to produce fingerprints.

“In the past, when people have gone in the water and looked around, they might find a knife and they bring it up,” Murphy said. “Once you take it out of the water, you’ve taken it out of its crime scene state. By touching it, you can be destroying evidence, like fingerprints or blood.”

“When we do recover items from water, they are recovered in the water they were found in,” he said. “We use special evidence-collection containers so that, if we find a gun, that gun is stored in evidence submerged in the water it was found in. That water can have forensic information that can help us solve the crime.”

While DNA typically deteriorates fairly quickly in water, it is still possible to collect hair follicles and fingerprints from items that have been underwater, Murphy said. Biological material can make the difference in criminal cases, and Murphy said UCI investigators can help solve cases that might once have gone unsolved.

“Our goal for searches is to be very detailed, to notice if there’s ever a dead spot that we haven’t looked in,” Murphy said. “It’s very important that we’re detailed so we can articulate in court to a judge or jury exactly what we did - that we have everything documented.”

“So many crimes have gone unsolved because investigations have led to the water and they haven’t had the proper training on how to handle that crime scene.”

For Murphy’s training, he went to a four-day class in Fredericksburg, held at a deep, dark quarry. After a day in the classroom covering topics such as safety and crime scene procedures, Murphy spent three days underwater, learning how to “see” with his hands.

“If I went into Green Mountain Lake looking for an item with my eyes, I would never find it,” Murphy said. “So, in the class, they put you in cold water with three feet of silt at the bottom and black out your mask so you can’t see anything. Everything is done by feel.”

“You’d be surprised,” he said. “We did searches throughout the class where we were in 2-foot deep silt and you can find a little pocket knife or shell casing. We’d do that over and over and over.”

Before joining the Greene County Sheriff’s Office three years ago, Murphy spent seven years at the Staunton Sheriff’s Office. When he came to Greene and was offered the opportunity to become an investigator, Murphy said, he was excited for the chance to spend his days figuring out puzzles.

“Police work in general is just something I’m passionate about,” Murphy said. “I like serving the community and helping people. A lot of investigation is thinking - thinking about how somebody did this, what I would have done in that situation - which allows you to really use your head to figure things out.”

“In the investigations department, you have that time and ability and resources to do that,” he said. “There’s no better job in the world.”

While the Sheriff’s Office paid for the training, Murphy said he uses all of his own diving equipment - which is just fine with him, he said, because he knows who takes care of it. Being able to mix his passions for investigating and diving was an opportunity he just could not pass up.

“A lot of places have dive teams, but they don’t have UCI-certified investigators,” Murphy said. “A diver can go in the water and do what you tell him to do, but a UCI investigator can go underwater and work a crime scene. There’s a big difference.”

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Information from: The Daily Progress, https://www.dailyprogress.com

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