The Dead Zone

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"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.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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