The Dead Zone

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

Among the first to sign up Courtney and his FCS was Mansfield police Chief Steve Noonkester. "Max had trained me in crime scene investigation when I was with the Fort Worth Police Department," he says, "and I knew that his work was flawless. I was 100 percent confident in his abilities, and it made a great deal of sense to me to be able to call on him with whatever forensic needs we might have."

Admitting that the last television cop show he watched was the sitcom Barney Miller, Noonkester suggests that you'll find no Hollywood glitz attached to the manner in which Courtney arrives at his results. "He has the knowledge, the skills and the equipment necessary to find the truth. That's all he's interested in. And he goes about his work so methodically that it drives you crazy."

But, Noonkester quickly adds, the relationship has paid off on numerous occasions. And not only on crime scene investigations and drug testing.

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.

It was in 1994 that a Mansfield officer-in-training witnessed an automobile accident and became involved in a high-speed pursuit of the fleeing perpetrator. Ultimately, the driver stopped, jumped from his car and squared off in a defensive stance that caused the young officer to shoot and wound the man. In time, a civil lawsuit was filed against the city and police department.

"There was no doubt in my mind or that of our city officials that the response of our officer had been justified," Noonkester says, "so we made preparations for a trial." Courtney was hired to do a detailed re-creation of the shooting. "He even went so far as to locate the man's car, which had been junked and the motor removed and sold, and had it rebuilt. He used every skill and every piece of equipment he had." By the time the case went to trial, Courtney and his staff had prepared a presentation that described the event in second-by-second detail.

The trial, Noonkester recalls, went on for months, yet it took the jury only 16 minutes to return a no-fault verdict. Courtney's examination of the case, he notes, is now used as a teaching tool in forensic classes throughout the nation.


Today, it seems, no case, criminal or civil, is resolved without benefit of some form of scientific evidence and expert testimony. Forensics, once a foreign word to the mainstream, is now an ingrained part of the judicial mix. Which is one of the reasons Courtney and his eclectic staff of fellow scientists now have their hands full.

Among the four full-time criminalists working alongside the lab director/owner are his former FWPD crime lab boss Shiller and Tom Ekis, a one-time Baptist missionary who developed a fascination for forensics, particularly fingerprint examination, while a UTA student of Courtney's. The combined crime lab experience of his staff, Courtney brags, adds up to well over a century. "Everyone we have," he says, "is a generalist, qualified to do everything from crime scene investigation to drug testing, classroom instruction to trace evidence examination."

Although drug analysis fills the majority of the FCS hours--the lab now averages almost 4,000 tests annually--it is those times when Courtney and his staff are called into the field, to search homicide scenes for hair and fiber evidence, finger- or footprints or tire tracks, or read the secrets hidden by blood patterns, that cause the adrenaline to flow. And add to a collection of war stories that rival the best efforts of today's novelists and screenwriters.

"I probably shouldn't say it," he says, "but there are times, after we've been working on drug cases day after day, when I find myself hoping the phone will ring and we'll be called to the scene of a homicide." It is there, he admits, that the real challenge awaits.

Such calls have come at an average of 40 times a year. The response to each suspected homicide investigation follows the same carefully rehearsed pattern. Courtney asks the location of the scene--whether it is indoors or out--and if it has been determined whether the murder was the result of a gunshot, stabbing or some still unknown manner. It is such information that will determine whether he needs trajectory lasers (to determine the angle of a bullet entry), Luminol (for detecting blood), strobe lights (to illuminate an outdoor crime scene), etc. Additionally there will be such standard equipment as cameras and fingerprinting kits.

On arriving, he talks with detectives, clears a path to the body and searches for evidence. Then comes the tedious fingerprint and Luminol process. That's when each case begins to take on its own life, so to speak. Courtney has completed crime scene investigations in as little as two to three hours; some have taken as long as two days. Sometimes the criminal goes out of his way to help, like the time he found part of a body in a box that had been lined with newspapers from the killer's hometown.

All the while, he keeps in contact with the detectives. He recalls one occasion when such communication resulted in an arrest of the murderer even before the processing of the crime scene was completed. "While we were working," he recalls, "a call came from a credit-card company to the victim's answering machine, asking about a questionable charge that had been attempted. We began looking around, found the card number in some of his papers and passed it along to the investigating officers.

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