Just as Austin’s skyline has changed over the past 15 years so has the way Austin homicide detectives use technology to catch a killer. KXAN’s Sally Hernandez was given rare access to see how the Austin Police Department solves murder mysteries with technology and from the perspective of its most seasoned homicide detective.
Detective David Fugitt has been with APD since he graduated from the academy nearly two decades ago. For 15 years, Fugitt has worked some of Austin’s most horrific crimes as head of APD’s Homicide Unit. He has assisted with 300 homicide investigations and has been the lead detective in 43 of those cases.
“This affects every aspect of our lives. We live murder and mayhem day in and day out,” he says. His job is a delicate mixture of compassion for the victim’s family and passion to find the killer.
Time is not always on our side.
“It’s not easy to do. When I approach a crime scene and I look at that body, I look at it as a body of evidence. I determine what can I glean from that potentially? Is it going to be DNA, is there trace evidence that will help me identify that perpetrator?’ I try not to envision that person as someone who was eating, breathing, talking mere minutes beforehand. By taking that approach it helps me stay on track and focus on what I need to do.”
It’s a race against time to find the perpetrator. He says it is common for detectives to spend up to 18 hours combing through a murder scene looking for clues.
“Time is not always on our side. We are out there processing the crime scene and in the meantime that assailant, if they escaped, they are getting rid of evidence, they are establishing alibis, they are fleeing.”
Turning to Tech
As criminals evolve so does the technology used to catch them. Fugitt says investigators are using cutting-edge technology to solve crimes faster, more effectively and efficiently.
When Fugitt started, there weren’t smartphones, there were barely any cellphones. And getting access to the latest and greatest items on the market wasn’t easy.
“We had a number of Polaroid spectra cameras that were still assigned to the homicide unit in 2003. They were commercially available in 1986 but we still used them!” joked Fugitt.
“I didn’t have the ability either if I’m at the crime scene and I needed to show a picture of a weapon or the victim to the homicide detectives back at the unit, I couldn’t snap a photo and send it as I could today.”
Fugitt says one of the most significant advancements in technology in the past decade has been in DNA processing. It’s called Snapshot. Parabon Nanolabs developed software that uses even the smallest amount of DNA found at a crime scene to predict the facial features of a suspect.
“They can give us info on a person’s ancestry, eye color, hair color, whether the person has freckles, skin tone even the shape of a person’s face,” says Fugitt.
Another tool Fugitt is turning to is 3D scanners. 3D scanners have been used for years by engineers and land surveyors but now detectives are finding it useful in other ways.
“We are just getting into that field where we can take a 3D scanner into a crime scene and this scanner can map millions of points in a matter of minutes,” says Fugitt. 3D laser scanning also allows forensic scientist to revisit the scene digitally as many times as they wish.
CEO of 3-D Forensics Jason Fries says their product is changing how a crime scene is processed.
“With sub-inch accuracy and millions of data point it allows the forensic team to analyze every inch of a crime scene with computer level of precision,” explains Fries. “3D laser scanning allows for complex analysis of the bullet trajectory, blood splatter, property destruction and criminal vehicle matters.”
This spring, when a serial bomber detonated packages across Austin, APD used a 3D scanner to survey one of the sites.
“When I assisted with the bombing investigation on Galindo Drive we actually used one of the 3D mapping scanners and we basically placed it at the seat of the explosion and map that scene in hours and capture all those points at that scene. We can now, weeks later, go and look at those diagrams and figure out the trajectory and where the individual was standing when the bomb went off.”
APD is also looking into how drones can help speed up investigations. When Fugitt recently toured the Forensic Anthropology Research Center in San Marcos, a 26-acre outdoor human decomposition laboratory at Texas State’s Freeman Ranch, where he found out they were using drones to locate bodies.
“For searching, we are currently working on determining the best spectra (infrared, NIR, visual, etc.) and signature to locate bodies depending on how long they have been dead,” says Daniel Westcott, the lab’s director.
Fugitt wishes he had today’s drone technology a few years ago.
“Back in 2014, I had a case when a lab retriever got out of his owner’s backyard and returned the following morning with a human skull. We spent two exhausting days searching this large field trying to find the other remains. Just to think if we had had the technology with the drones and the infrared lights, that would have saved so much time than going out there and covering that massive amount of area in hours whereas it took us days.”
Over the years even with all the changes in technology, one resource remains the same: Fugitt’s relentless passion.
“As morbid as it sounds, I really enjoy what I do and I’m dedicated to it,” said Fugitt, who is committed to the families who depend on him and technology at their darkest hour.
“I let the families know that I am with them from day one. That they are not going to go through this process alone… because their family, in essence, becomes part of my family.”