No Stone Unturned As Geologists Fight Crime
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Armed only with microscopes, crime-fighting geologists have helped convict a kidnapper, locate a stolen Cadillac and send a killer to death row, and they say their rock-solid methods should be used by more police.
Many departments don’t make use of ″forensic geology″ to solve crimes, which is a pity because ″there are cases that could benefit from it if law enforcement knew it was an option,″ says geologist John S. Rapp, who detailed such cases in July’s issue of California Geology magazine.
″I don’t think geological evidence will play a role in many cases, but when it does, it’s highly convincing,″ said Ruth Saavedra, a deputy California attorney general fighting the appeal of twice-convicted murderer Gerald Frank Stanley.
Stanley, now 42, had served four years in prison for the 1975 second-degree murder of his second wife and was suspected in the still-unsolved disappearance of his third wife when he was convicted of the Aug. 11, 1980, first-degree murder of his fourth wife in Lake County, northwest of Sacramento.
During the penalty phase of that trial, Rapp testified microscopic examination of pebbles found on the floor of Stanley’s car showed they matched gravel used to bury another murder victim, 19-year-old Renee Wright, near an oil well in neighboring Colusa County.
While Stanley never was charged with Wright’s slaying, Saavedra said, ″The tie-in with the murder of Renee Wright, which was in great part attributable to the geological evidence, put the lock on the box.″
″It was the most ‘Perry Mason’ evidence I’ve ever seen in a case of this importance,″ she added.
Stanley is now on San Quentin’s death row for murdering his fourth wife.
Rapp, a senior geologist and publications officer for California’s Division of Mines and Geology, discussed other cases described in the article in a recent telephone interview from Sacramento.
After the 1967 kidnapping of 10-year-old Kenneth Young, the son of a Los Angeles savings and loan president, diatomaceous soil was found in the kidnapper’s abandoned car.
The soil is made of skeletal remains of microorganisms called diatoms, and state geologists determined the diatomaceous soil in the car contained an odd mix of freshwater and saltwater diatoms.
The discovery helped convict Ronald Lee Miller by linking him to a quarry where the boy had been held captive and where the same odd mix was found, Rapp said.
The geologist also cited the 1958 case of the Cadillac stolen in Burlingame by two youths who drove to Monterey, got lost on mountain roads, ran out of gas, abandoned the car, then hitchhiked home to Burlingame, where police picked them up.
The youths couldn’t remember where they left the Cadillac, but said they hitched a ride with a miner who held claims for chromite, mercury and benitoite, the state gem.
″Out of desperation, the police contacted Division of Mines and Geology for assistance,″ Rapp wrote. Staff geologist Salem Rice ″was able to tell the Burlingame police the exact location of the car ... (because) there is only one area in the state where chromite, mercury and benitoite occur together.″
In Stanley’s case, Rapp linked the wife-killer and the Wright killing by showing the gravel from Stanley’s car and the oil well didn’t occur naturally in Colusa County but came from Bakersfield, and the only load ever hauled north of Sacramento was put around the oil well.
″It was pretty fortuitous (for prosecutors) that this gravel only seemed to be in one section of the northern part of the state,″ said Bolinas lawyer Michael Satris, who is handling Stanley’s appeal, which is unrelated to geological evidence.
In another case, a would-be killer in Yuba County made his intended victim dig a grave, then shot him, but the victim escaped. During his attempted murder trial, the defendant argued he was simply checking his mining claim, not forcing the victim to dig a grave, Rapp said.
″I went up there and examined the property to determine if this could be a mining claim,″ he said. ″There was no question it was not. He went to prison.″
Geologists also cleared a policeman of intentionally killing a rioter by showing a speck of limestone embedded in the fatal bullet meant the bullet first hit a rock, then deflected into the victim, Rapp said.
Rapp said he doesn’t feel like a hero for his occasional crime-fighting role.
″The challenge is solving a mystery,″ he said. ″It’s fun. That’s what scientists do all the time.″