Frenzy surrounds missing baby investigation

Oct 7 2011 - 8:17am

KANSAS CITY, Mo.-- In the search for little Lisa Irwin, crime investigators say, every minute counts. Time is passing.

It has been three days since Jeremy Irwin and Deborah Bradley reported that their 10-month-old baby had been snatched from her crib in their Northland home.

About 300 investigators representing local police, sheriff's departments, the FBI and others have been working the scene and beyond, gathering evidence and following leads they hope will reveal Lisa's location.

"That is the whole point of it," forensic scientist Lawrence Kobilinsky said. "You try not to draw any conclusions until you have assembled all of the data and see where it points you. The problem is that every minute that goes by allows the kidnapper to get away while the child's safety is at risk."

Kobilinsky, the chairman of the department of science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the seemingly chaotic flurry of activity that has surrounded the modest home belies a coordinated team approach.

It is one, he and other crime scene experts said, that includes methods that range from the shoe-leather ordinary to the high-tech extraordinary. And always, they're working against the clock.

"In a kidnapping, you have to work fast, because you potentially have someone's life in danger," said Jeff Lanza, a retired FBI agent in Kansas City who has worked previous area child abductions. "The first thing they do is determine what's happened. You have a crime scene that needs to be secured. No one goes in who can potentially destroy evidence, even inadvertently."

As the crime scene is sealed off, a command post is established. An Amber Alert goes out, with the child's description, to get the public searching.

Other law enforcement agencies volunteer their help.

"Manpower is the critical issue, because time is the enemy in a missing-child case," said Craig Hill, a retired deputy chief with the Leawood Police Department who is now a law enforcement trainer for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"What would normally take place is, once all these agencies are in there, to coordinate manpower. Some agencies are conducting underwater searches, if needed. Some agencies are mounted. Some have canines. Some coordinate the grid search. Others do door-to-door canvassing."

If the missing person is in what law enforcement call his or her "tender years," age 16 or younger, the FBI is called in. If the victim is transported across state lines and culprits are caught, the case could be prosecuted in federal courts. Typically, the crime scene analysis and investigation are coordinated by local police.

Every investigator is handed a distinct task. Some check cell phone records, computer records, credit card charges. Others check timelines and family's stories, while still others conduct interviews. Who was in the house recently? Any suspicious people come to the door recently? Any strangers in the neighborhood? Where did you go with the baby recently? Stores? Markets? Schools? Buses? Hospital?

Depending on circumstances, the surveillance tapes of stores, banks, gas stations or traffic lights might be checked.

Meantime, inside and outside the home, investigators are searching for fingerprints, footprints, hair samples, flakes of skin, tire tracks, cups or glasses that might contain DNA. Others scour nearby properties.

"They may be looking for articles of clothing. It's not beyond kidnappers to change a piece of clothes," Lanza said. "As tragic as it sounds, they might be looking for a body."

At the purported crime scene, Kobilinsky said, investigators will wear white disposable Tyvek coveralls, masks and gloves. They will use vacuums to suck up hair and fibers. In some cases they have equipment that can capture odors on clothing or fabrics that can be stored and used for months to help specially trained dogs track a suspect or victim's whereabouts.

"One of the first things you do," Kobilinsky said, "is look at the point of entry and the point of egress. We are assuming now that the person left the same way he or she came in. That point is critical.

"The first question is whether the window was jimmied open. Was glass broken? Was there some way the person might even have cut himself or herself? In burglaries, you often find people who cut themselves when they break glass. Or they might have left prints on the window. Or upon coming in, there might be stuff that they leave behind."

Beyond dusting for prints, investigators also use high-energy light beams that cast different wavelengths. When used and viewed with glasses with red or orange filtering lenses, "sometimes you can see things that you cannot see with the naked eye," Kobilinsky said.

Hill said it was of prime importance never to "stereotype a situation or go in with blinders on."

"Always go in with a very open mind," Hill said.

Certain assumptions come into play.

In general, baby abductors don't tend to be burglars who happen upon a baby and decide to take it. Odds are, a person who abducts a baby knows the child is there, knows which room it is in, knows when the parents might be home or asleep.

Lanza said the use of media and public involvement can be crucial.

In 1998, Lanza helped investigate the abduction of an infant, Carlie Shockey, from the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kan. When Lanza arrived, the agent at the scene said they had no leads other than a hospital surveillance tape that showed two people walking in the parking garage, showing only their backs to the camera. Lanza released the tape to the media.

"So they put it out," he recalled. "We got a call from North Kansas City Hospital. They saw the two people in the video, and they said, 'You know, we had two people in our maternity ward recently acting very suspicious."'

From the North Kansas City Hospital video, the FBI captured an image of the couple. Within 24 hours, they were captured in High Ridge, Mo., where they were passing the infant off as their own.

"If someone, a stranger, took that baby," Lanza said of Lisa Irwin, "they are not living by themselves in a vacuum, completely closed up in a house not talking to somebody. Eventually someone is going to say, 'Where did you get that baby from?"'

(c)2011 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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