The Dead Zone

Thanks to TV, crime scene investigating is the new hot profession, but Max Courtney knows it's more science than art

If there were a show called CSI: Grandview, this is how one episode would have unfolded.

An urgent phone call early Sunday morning wakes Max Courtney, veteran crime scene investigator and forensic scientist. He hurriedly travels south to Johnson County, where the sheriff's office had made a gruesome discovery.

In an apartment in the rural community of Grandview, two young women--19-year-old Jennifer Weston and 18-year-old Sandi Marbut--lay dead in ink-black pools of blood. One had been stabbed 69 times, the other 39.

Top: Max Courtney and colleague Candace Horney work the scene of a double murder in Mansfield. Middle: Horney videotapes the entrance to the apartment. Bottom: Courtney at work in his lab in Fort Worth.
Mark Graham
Top: Max Courtney and colleague Candace Horney work the scene of a double murder in Mansfield. Middle: Horney videotapes the entrance to the apartment. Bottom: Courtney at work in his lab in Fort Worth.
Top: Courtney fires a gun into a device that allows him to save spent bullets for ballistics tests. Middle: Jason Allison, a forensic examiner, hands the spent bullet to Courtney. Bottom: The bullet is subjected to ballistics tests.
Mark Graham
Top: Courtney fires a gun into a device that allows him to save spent bullets for ballistics tests. Middle: Jason Allison, a forensic examiner, hands the spent bullet to Courtney. Bottom: The bullet is subjected to ballistics tests.

For several days, Courtney, a 33-year crime scene investigator, methodically pieces together the nightmarish details. Relying on bloodstains, prints, the physical appearance of the apartment and many hours of scientific examination, he develops a horrifying story:

The killer, Courtney determines, had first overpowered and murdered Marbut in the downstairs area of the apartment. Roommate Weston, apparently wakened by the assault, had come downstairs and was attacked by the intruder. She had somehow managed to get away and run toward her bedroom when her assailant caught her at the top of the stairs. There he stabbed and killed her.

The killer then stepped over her body and walked into a nearby bathroom where he washed blood from his hands, leaving stains on the floor and in the lavatory. Next, he went into Weston's bedroom, searching her closet and her purse. He stepped over her body again and went downstairs. Finally, he opened the front door to be sure no one was out front and fled. According to the coroner, it would be approximately 18 hours until the young women's bodies were discovered.

At first blush, it does sound very much like the opening scene of CBS's top 10-rated drama, CSI. Today, crime scene investigators are fast emerging as law enforcement's new celebrities, scientists seeking crime-solving clues with a Star Wars array of gadgetry. Almost magically, they turn a minuscule piece of evidence--a single strand of hair, a drop of blood invisible to the naked eye, shards of a bullet, a fiber, fingerprint or tooth mark--into names and faces of serial killers, rapists, arsonists and drug dealers. It has made investigators seem like modern-day superhero crime-fighters, like Batman, if Batman were a scientist. Oh, wait. Batman was a scientist. OK, exactly like Batman.

The national fascination with a profession once viewed as dark and ghoulish, most pop-culture observers agree, began in the bloody glove-Bruno Magli-footprint-Bronco-chase days of the celebrated O.J. Simpson trial in the mid-'90s. For real-life crime scene investigator Courtney, however, it has been a lifelong passion.

The 1993 Grandview case is but one of numerous stories that mark the celebrated career of the man many list among the country's premier crime scene investigators. There was the high-profile murder of Fort Worth socialite Karen Koslow after which local authorities had initially suspected her husband. Summoned to the crime scene just hours after the body was found, Courtney and his staff soon offered the opinion that the crime had, in fact, been committed by intruders known to the family. In time it was proved that the murder of Mrs. Koslow had been carried out by two youths hired by the Koslows' teen-age daughter, Kristi. Also, in the aftermath of the nationally publicized murder of Mansfield teen-ager Adrianne Jones by Naval Academy midshipman Diane Zamora and Air Force Academy cadet David Graham, Courtney located and identified small but critical bloodstains in the car where the assault had begun.

Yet he has usually worked behind the scenes, of interest only to those who depended on his work to solve crimes. That was until his highly specialized craft enjoyed star status. Before his forensics lab in Fort Worth became so popular with detectives and interns who want to learn the tedious day-to-day science behind the glamour. Before the entertainment world got wind of the drama and dedication associated with the art of forensic investigation and bumped its practitioners above world-weary detectives and two-fisted private eyes onto the prime-time marquee.

"I love what I do," Courtney says. "I like the idea of coming to work every day, never knowing what it will bring. There's a need for what I do and, frankly, I feel I'm good at it. That said, I'm still learning."


Channel surf on any evening and you'll find them in fiction and fact, not just on CSI but on other dramas like Crossing Jordan and cable docudramas such as Forensic Files or The New Detectives. Check the best-seller list and there's novelist Patricia Cornwell's medical examiner protagonist, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, solving yet another crime that baffles the police.

Forensic investigation and those involved in its often grisly practice have so fascinated today's society that the American Academy of Forensic Scientists is being flooded with queries from those interested in entering the profession. "There is no question that TV has romanticized forensics," Phoenix's Susan Narveson, president of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, recently told Time. Currently, there is a waiting list for the 60-student University of Texas at Arlington class on the subject taught by Tarrant County pathologist Patricia Eddings each semester.

In fact, on university campuses nationwide, a growing number of students are leaning toward the crime-fighting science. At the University of Central Florida, near where the spin-off hit CSI: Miami is filmed, 650 students are enrolled in the school's forensic science program.

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