The Dead Zone

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.

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.

Dr. Barry Fookes, who oversees the forensics department at Central Florida, estimates as many as 7,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students are now enrolled in forensic science studies nationwide, double the number of five years ago. "Recently," he says, "I've had calls from the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, expressing interest in beginning forensic programs." Already, Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth has added forensic science to its curriculum.

"There's no question," Fookes says, "that there has been a new interest generated by the successful television programs. Which is fine. On the other hand, we make our students aware that what they'll be dealing with here is a hard-nosed science, not glamorous fantasy.

"At the same time, I want them to know it is a fascinating pursuit. I tell them that it is a little like going to the library, finding a good murder mystery and reading only the last page. What their job as a forensic scientist becomes is to determine what the plot was."

While it was once primarily Florida residents working toward bachelor's degrees in forensic science or a master's in DNA analysis at Central Florida, students are now arriving in large numbers from out of state, Dr. Fookes notes. "Eighty-five percent of our graduates are currently working in the forensic profession," he adds.

One, he points out, is Emily Dawson, a drug analyst who did her internship in Max Courtney's lab. Now working for the National Forensic Science Technical Center in Largo, Florida, Dawson applied to Courtney's lab in 2000 because of its reputation. "I learned a great deal while I was there," she says. "The most remarkable thing about Max is the fact he is so well-versed in virtually all of the forensic disciplines.

"When I first decided this was a career I wanted to pursue, the field wasn't really that big," she says. "Here in Florida, at least, it has really grown."

Indeed. The Orlando Sentinel recently reported that a half-dozen high schools in Orange County, Florida, have added forensic study to their curriculums. At West Orange High in Winter Garden, Florida, 65 students now attend two forensic science classes, and a third will be added next year to meet the growing interest.

In Texas, at Arlington's The Oakridge School, science instructor Lori Lane has included forensic science for the 65 students enrolled in her middle school biology classes for the past six years. And last year she began a popular crime scene course in the prep school's summer enrichment program.

"The kids love it," Lane says. And, she adds, the recent flood of TV shows has created a new level of enthusiasm and a steady stream of questions from her students. "I've made it clear to them that crimes aren't generally solved so quickly and by so few people," she says. "What I've tried to give them is a real-world look at what forensic investigation is about. We deal with everything from latent fingerprint analysis to grid-searching a crime scene to identifying the race and sex of skeletal remains. What I'm trying to do is help to improve their skills at critical thinking and problem solving."

An intern under Eddings at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office for two years, Lane found the work fascinating but the openings for certified, full-time positions scarce. "Another thing I point out is that it is a difficult field to break into," she says.

Still, applications for internships offered by Max Courtney's lab, the Fort Worth-based Forensic Consultant Services, have increased dramatically. "The first thing I tell them," says owner and lab director Courtney, "is that it isn't like what they've seen on TV." In real life, he insists, the work he and his team of experienced scientists do is more tedium than thrill.

There is nothing on the exterior of the long-abandoned old brick mortuary located in Fort Worth's Hospital District that suggests the manner of work that goes on inside. Only the steady stream of law enforcement officers who appear at the always-locked front door, bringing with them bags of evidence to be analyzed or picking up reports needed to make their cases, provides a sign that it is the headquarters of the biggest privately owned forensic laboratory in the state.

Inside, Courtney, 57, is puffing on his ever-present pipe as he begins another day of gathering and interpreting evidence that will ultimately help determine the guilt or innocence of those accused of crimes ranging from murder to drunken driving--without cameras rolling or scripts to follow. Only on those days when he is scheduled to appear in court as an expert witness does he bother with a suit and tie.

He and his staff work amid a montage of microscopes and computers, ballistic testing equipment, scales, high-tech cameras and bulging filing cabinets. Currently, Forensic Consultant Services does lab work, aids in crime scene investigations and conducts teaching seminars for dozens of neighboring police departments (Arlington, Grand Prairie, Burleson, Mansfield, Cleburne, Hurst, North Richland Hills, etc.). As its reputation has grown, calls have come from as far away as Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado and California.

When the Fort Worth Police Department's drug lab was recently shut down for a three-month renovation, the investigation process didn't skip a beat. It simply contracted FCS to do the testing.

Yet here, solutions are not neatly reached in a quick, one-hour crime-to-capture story line. Sitting beneath a framed quotation from Edgar Allan Poe's The Murder in the Rue Morgue--"It is not our part, as reasoners, to reject it on account of apparent impossibilities. It is only left for us to prove that these apparent 'impossibilities' are, in reality, not such..."--Courtney explains the philosophy that drives his profession.

"Our client," he says, "is not the prosecutor or the defense attorney, not the accused or the victim. Our client is science and the truth it provides.

"'Guilty' is a word invented by lawyers, and I've never seen it as my job to help sway a judge or jury. My mother always told me there were two sides to every story, and as a scientist I'm duty-bound to examine all the evidence brought to my attention and evaluate it as honestly as I can." It is, he says, the philosophy of FCS since it began in a small building in his back yard in winter 1984. If his findings prove damaging to a scenario an attorney--for the state or defense--is hoping to present, so be it.

"I've seen him talk himself out of a lot of jobs," says criminalist co-worker Frank Shiller. "Max is a no-nonsense, call-it-as-he-sees-it kind of scientist. It is that approach which has, over the years, established his credibility and integrity."

"That he will sometimes appear as a defense witness and sometimes for the prosecution is a clear indication of his professionalism and reputation," says noted Fort Worth attorney Jack Strickland. "Not only is he respected as a superb forensic expert but one who is trusted by both sides."

In fact, for the usually easygoing Courtney, the abuse of forensic science--particularly by those he refers to as "40-hour wonders"--is one of the few things that will prompt a climb onto the soapbox.

"A few years ago," he recalls, "I was in a courtroom and watched a police officer who had taken a few courses in ballistics and crime scene investigation testify that because of the angle of an entry wound to the victim, the fatal shot had to have come from someone who was 5 feet, 9 and one-quarter inches tall."

Not surprisingly, the accused had earlier been measured at that exact height. "Now, that's TV-type stuff," he adds, "absolutely ludicrous." Courtney's toleration of fools, false witnesses or forensic guns-for-hire is nonexistent.

His disdain for shortcuts and speculation, legal mumbo jumbo and courtroom theatrics has, over the years, become well-known. "People describe me as a criminalist, a forensic expert, a crime lab director," he says, "but in my own mind I'm simply a scientist. That's my job and I work hard not to forget it."

No TV show or mystery novel directed Max Courtney toward his profession. The choice came almost by accident.

Certainly it is a giant leap from his teen-age days of high school football stardom and oil field roughnecking in West Texas. Once a talented end for legendary schoolboy powerhouse Odessa Permian High, he earned an athletic scholarship to what was then called West Texas State University in the Panhandle community of Canyon. There he suffered a career-ending knee injury his freshman season. In that one painful moment, he went from dedicated jock to full-time scholar, ultimately earning a bachelor's, then a master's, in chemistry. Then it was off to Texas Christian University to begin work on his doctorate.

"Finally," he says, "I reached a point where I was tired of being in school and decided it was time to start looking for a job." It was while checking the Fort Worth Star-Telegram classified ads in 1970 that he learned the Fort Worth Police Department was in the market for a chemist. Leaving academic pursuits to the future, he scheduled an appointment with Rolland Tullis, director of the FWPD crime lab--with no clue what the job he'd applied for entailed.

During the next decade, Courtney found comfort in the solitude of the laboratory where he analyzed drugs, blood, hair fibers, fingerprints and ballistics.

In 1980 he moved to the University of Texas at Arlington where he taught aspiring criminal justice students. He still found time to consult, however.

"Joe Watson, the police chief in Hurst, was among those constantly complaining about the length of time it took to get evidence processed," Courtney recalls. Like most small agencies with neither budgets nor manpower to conduct their own evidence processing, the Hurst Police Department was relegated to the frustrating take-a-number-and-wait process that was common at the only forensic labs available to them--the Fort Worth Police Department and the Department of Public Safety lab in Garland. "One day Joe offhandedly suggested that I open my own lab." Which he did.

"For the first year," Courtney says, "we really struggled. I did a little consulting here, some testing there, but it took awhile for word to get around that we could be of real benefit to the smaller law enforcement agencies that didn't have the luxury of their own crime labs.

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.

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.

"They made a call to the card company and learned that someone had tried to use it in Vicksburg, Mississippi. We were still gathering evidence when the killer was arrested and the murder weapon was found in his car."

Though keenly aware of the anguish that attaches itself to criminal behavior, destroying lives both literally and figuratively, Courtney has learned over the years to detach himself from the residue of the violence he is summoned to investigate. It is a lesson he has learned to live by. Most of the time.

It was in the early '90s when the decomposing bodies of a Haltom City woman and her 5-year-old daughter, beaten to death during the Christmas holidays, were found in a closet that had been nailed shut. In truth, it would not be a difficult crime to solve since the husband and father had left a note, admitting to the murders.

"But I know that one really got to Max," says his wife, Ginger, who serves as business manager of FCS. "The cases that involve children and young people always do."

"What Max Courtney tells you," says Cleburne-based Texas Ranger George Turner, "you can take to the bank. I've yet to meet anyone in law enforcement who doesn't trust him completely. He played a very important role in solving that Grandview case back in '93."

Ah, yes, the Grandview case. Courtney had determined that the intruder who entered that apartment had worn boots. Using the chemical Luminol, he and an assistant had discovered a well-defined, unusually patterned print on the floor of the apartment.

Of all the evidence gathered from the crime scene, it would be that single bloody boot print that ultimately led to a 1994 conviction of a 20-year-old New Mexico native named Bobby Ray Hopkins. That and what the self-effacing Courtney describes as an investigator's most valued tools: a generous amount of patience, good fortune and help from others.

When he had shown a photograph of the boot print to Grandview police Chief Doug Allen, the officer's eyes had widened. "My God," he'd said, "we've got that boot over at the sheriff's office."

Turns out that Texas Ranger Turner was returning home on the Saturday evening when the bodies were found and had stopped at the scene. As the local authorities worked inside, Turner mingled among the growing crowd outside the apartment and heard talk that Hopkins had recently argued with one of the young women. Locating him at a residence on the opposite end of town, Turner immediately noticed what appeared to be bloodstains on one of the man's boots. He drove him to the sheriff's office for questioning and, despite not having enough evidence to jail him, the Ranger suggested that local authorities keep Hopkins' boots so that blood tests might be done.

Ultimately, it would be in Courtney's Fort Worth laboratory that three types of blood were detected on the boots: that of the killer Hopkins, and his victims, Marbut and Weston.

It is a fact not lost on Melody Smith, the mother of Grandview victim Jennifer Weston. "There's no way I'll ever be able to repay him for all the work he did on the case," she says. "I remember him coming up to me during the trial and introducing himself, telling me that he knew it was hard for me but that things were going to get better, to be strong.

"Listening to him testify about what had happened to my daughter and Sandi was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do," she says, "but at the same time I appreciated every word he said because I knew that he was telling the jury what it needed to know."

Now, almost 10 years after those trying days in the courtroom, it is not the gruesome details of the testimony that stick in Smith's memory. Rather, it is an exchange between Courtney and the attorney defending the man who had murdered her daughter. "He [the defense lawyer] was asking Mr. Courtney how many hours he had put in on the case and how much he had been paid by the prosecution.

"The amount of time he'd spent on the case was incredible, hundreds of hours. But he said that he would not be charging the county for the full amount of time he'd spent on the case. The defense attorney seemed taken aback and asked why.

"Mr. Courtney told him that he didn't think Johnson County could afford such a bill. Then he said, 'A lot of what I've done is simply because those girls and their families deserve it.'"

"I called him recently," Smith says, "just to let him again know how much I appreciate what he did for Jennifer. I know he's busy, and I felt a little guilty for taking his time. But he said he was glad I had called.

"He told me it helped to remind him of the reason he does what he does."

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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